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REEL BASEBALL

Hanging with the Crosscutters
Video Review by Tom Goldstein

Steven Patterson, producer and director. Hopes and Dreams. Sunbury, Penn.: Patterson-Brandt, Inc., 2001, 90 minutes, $19.95, videocassette.

 

If you hear enough stories about ballplayers over the years, you're bound to come away with some pretty negative images of today's professional breed: overpaid; pampered; arrogant; self-centered; womanizers; aloof. Oh sure, there are exceptions like Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, but by and large it seems that everybody's got a tale about the surly, prima-donna star who wouldn't acknowledge a compliment or refused to sign an autograph.

Thankfully, rude behavior isn't often witnessed in the low minors, a place where heroes still seem real and where some of baseball's jerks, before they discovered fame and fortune, probably weren't such bad guys. The ballparks are unpretentious, the games fun to watch, and the players approachable before and after the game. Hopes and Dreams captures the flavor of such an experience, documenting the 2000 short-season Williamsport Crosscutters, a Pittsburgh Pirates' affiliate playing in the Single A New York-Penn League. Although the "Cutters" (as they're known to locals) suffer through a mediocre season—finishing 2944 and last place in their division—the viewer is left with a feel-good experience, a reminder of how much fun the game of baseball can be.

The video succeeds in part because of the remarkable chemistry that seems apparent between the players, many of whom are no more than a year removed from high school. Although living three-to-an-apartment or sharing the downstairs of a house, the players seem to have a good time, laughing it up on the team bus, pulling pranks on the ball field, interacting with the local fans—kind of like summer camp. Manager Curtis Wilkerson, who enjoyed an eleven-year major league career, puts the players at ease with just the right firm-yet-low-key approach to his job, and he is ably assisted by hardworking coaches Eric Chavez (hitting) and Miguel Bonilla (pitching), who seem capable of turning any situation, including rain delays, into a teaching moment. Patterson, who did everything except film the video, demonstrates great skill in knowing what images to keep and where to aim the camera.

Like most minor league operations, the Cutters field a team at the pleasure of the parent major league club, with little or no say in personnel decisions. Thus, Wilkerson's main focus is on developing players' abilities so that they can move to the next level; winning is secondary. As a result, there is a heavy emphasis on mechanics and technique, a fact brought home when the Pirates roving minor league instructors visit. Bobby Meachem, the former Yankee shortstop now serving as the Pirates' fielding instructor, shows why the underhand flip (rather than the overhand toss) is instrumental in successfully turning two, while Joe Jones offers a wonderfully articulate explanation on the importance of mastering the rundown in practice; why it is "the most difficult fundamental play in baseball"; and how vital it is for the infielders not to let the batter or runner take an extra base during the play's execution—something that happens all too often in minor and major league play. (Pitching instructor Marty DeMerritt helps Cutter pitcher Michael Fortin improve his delivery by setting Fortin's cap on the mound where he doesn't want Fortin to plant his foot on follow-through, but DeMerritt seems rather insincere and apparently incapable of learning players' names, twice referring to different Cutter pitchers as "young man.") For those who appreciate the "inside game," this is interesting stuff.

Although this is a baseball video, there's not a lot of on-field footage, with Patterson focusing instead on the players' backgrounds, their living arrangements, their interaction with the fans, and in general, their hopes and dreams. These are good choices, as the viewer gets to experience the human side of the game rather than just watching a highlight reel.

While some of the players seem a bit like characters from the movie Bull Durham, for the most part they are poised, articulate, and surprisingly confident—even when talking about a bad outing on the mound or having to cope with a demotion back to rookie league. (At least this is the face they show the camera.) And the women featured help dispel the stereotyped image of wives and girlfriends as nothing more than gold digging groupies. Danielle Levesque, wife of Cutters pitcher Ben, shows a solid knowledge of the game and describes the tensions and worries of minor league life and whether she and their three-year-old son being in Williamsport is a distraction or not for her husband; Karren Brokke, girlfriend of infielder Cliff Riek, talks about the pressure he puts on himself and how, in spite of personal setbacks, he has matured as a player and a person during the season.

There are lots of heartwarming stories on the field as well, with catcher Ryan Doumit seen as a genuine big league prospect; undrafted third baseman Ray Navarrete emerging, in the eyes of manager Wilkerson, as the team's MVP; Levesque, described by Bonilla as "something special" with a live arm; lanky reliever Josh "Shaggy" Higgins, the team's lovable Mark Fidrych-like character and possessor of an excellent change-up; and Jose Nicolas, a second-round draft pick in 1997 battling injuries and still hoping to make The Show.

The video's not perfect, of course. What little action footage that one does see is somewhat amateurish at times, a result no doubt of a limited budget and the inability to offer several camera angles on each pitch. There are also no interviews with the team's Latino and black players, and thus no insight into their backgrounds and experiences (and whether they received the same hospitality and treatment in Williamsport as did their white teammates). These are hardly fatal flaws, but one might wonder if the wholesome images projected are too good to be true.

Nonetheless, one would have to be a cynical viewer indeed not to appreciate the joy of watching a city like Williamsport (population just over thirty thousand) with its genuine fondness for the ballplayers who make up its minor league club. And one can't help but appreciate the thrill it must be for fans to interact with these talented young men, wondering if any of them will go onto the majors like former Cutters Tino Martinez, Jeff Nelson, and Dave Burba have done. Hopes and Dreams is a chance to experience baseball on a human level; don't miss the opportunity.

—EFQ

TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly.

© 2002 Tom Goldstein

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