Baseball is rarely used as the setting for dramatic TV, which seems wrong. It’s supposed to be America’s past time (if you don’t count football). Where’s baseball’s Friday Night Lights - following the sexy on-field and off-field shenanigans of a small-town high school ball team? I’d watch that.
Oh well. We still have the real thing. And while this week’s Major League All-Star Game ain’t exactly high-drama, there’s usually plenty of big guys hitting little balls long distances.
In honour of the big game, here’s a look back at TV’s best “pretend” baseball moments:
WKRP IN CINCINNATI (1979) – My favourite episode of a fave show found nerdy radioman Les Nessman organizing the motley WKRP staff for a slo-pitch game against their rival station WPIG. Everyone gets a little baseball moment in this – be it Johnny Fever in an on-field lawn chair, Mr. Carlson’s walking homer, and helmet-haired Jennifer (Loni Anderson) using her womanly charms to distract the rival players. Best was Les in right field – haunted by childhood memories of missing baseball for violin lessons. I once sat over the Red Sox dugout and heckled pitcher Jon Lester with taunts of ‘Lester! Time for your violin lessons!’. Nobody got it. What? No WKRP fans here? They’d get it in the 500 section. Sheesh:
61* (2001) – Billy Crystal’s TV movie love letter to the Yankees is nonetheless critical of baseball and the nature of fame. It’s the story of lovable, hard-drinking Mickey Mantle and less popular teammate Roger Maris as they pursued Babe Ruth’s home run record. Watched today, there’s a lot of irony in the ending in which the Maris family watches Mark McGwire break Roger’s record. Now there’s a record that truly deserved an asterisk:
THE SIMPSONS (1992) – The animated institution has gone the baseball route many times, but never more elaborately than when Mr. Burns assembled a dream team of then-all stars – names like Mattingly, Strawberry, Sax, Clemens – only to have them all meet terrible fates. It’s up to Homer to win the big game. The episode marked the first time The Simpsons outdrew The Cosby Show in the ratings:
EAST BOUND AND DOWN (2011) – Though it’s about washed-up pitcher Kenny Powers (Danny McBride channelling John Rocker), there’s not a lot about baseball in this outrageous comedy. Still, I quite enjoyed the look and feel of the second season in which the egotistical Kenny pursued a comeback in the Mexican leagues (actually shot in a real seedy-looking Puerto Rico):
(WARNING! THIS CLIP CONTAINS NAUGHTY LANGUAGE AND MAY BE FOUND OFFENSIVE)
BALL FOUR (1976) – Jim Bouton’s outrageous book about the major leagues ignited controversy when it was published. How dare he write about players drinking and having sex out of wedlock! Whatever. The book spawned a sitcom – in which Bouton also starred – that dealt with the drugs, womanizing and even had a gay ball player. But it aired in a family time slot, forcing the writers to use substitute swear words like ‘horsecrock’. It lasted only 5 episodes. Couldn’t find a clip of the show, but did find a rendition of the lame Harry Chapin theme song:
CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011) – Larry David has done a lot of funny things with baseball on this show (and Seinfeld). But his recent episode featuring beleaguered former Red Sox Bill Buckner – you know, the guy who missed that ball in THAT game – is priceless. Larry even offers up a redemption for Buckner in the dramatic conclusion. Don’t want to spoil it, so here’s an equally hilarious clip:
BAD NEWS BEARS (1979-1980) – While the original movie Bad News Bears was a funny, edgy look at little league baseball, this TV series spinoff was lame and family-friendly, with Jack Warden replacing Walter Matthau as the head coach. Watch for a very young Corey Feldman on second base. Here’s the Japanese promo for the show, complete with inane new theme song:
SEINFELD (1996) – Again, co-creator Larry David loves baseball, and Seinfeld reflects that. One funny stretch of episodes had George working for the Yankees (George Steinbrenner was voiced by David himself). In this clip, Costanza has given up sex, and it has an unusual effect on his ball-playing abilities. Watch for a young Derek Jeter and Bernie Williams doing comedy:
THE BASEBALL BUNCH (1980-1985) – This was a unique Saturday morning show – produced by Major League Baseball Productions – that taught kids the fundamentals of baseball through comedy. Catching great Johnny Bench hosted along with Tommy Lasorda and the San Diego Chicken. Things occasionally got pretty odd on the show – like in this silent movie parody in which the kids (plus Rick Dempsey playing George Brett!) recreate the infamous 1983 Pine Tar Incident. So strange: