At the end of summer in 2001, another baseball film was released with hopes of becoming a classic.
It had great bones. Based on one of the oldest amateur leagues in the game, Summer Catch begins as a story focused on a pitcher and his struggle against his own head to reach the top of his game.
As his brother puts it, “You’ve got a bag full of talent and a head full of crap.”
His team is part of The Cape Cod League which itself, is seeped in MLB history. Legendary in the baseball world for producing unbelievable talent, at the time the film was made, on average, the league was seeing1:6 players signed to an MLB contract. Alumni of the league include: Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell, 6-time All Star Nomar Garciaparra and sluggers Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn. In the 2016 World Series, 13 of the 50 roster players were former Cape Cod League players.
This film had the potential to help the league get great recognition and certainly to increase their gate. Of course, with it’s August release, it premiered at the wrong time of year for their then current season. This should have been our first clue this was a film made by folks who are definitely not in-the-know when it comes to baseball.
The writer’s did their work, and did it well. They made us believe it would be something special. They dropped reference to the hatred by some players of having to bat with wood. This was at a time when the wood bat rule had only recently become universal. Then, there were lines like this:
“This ain’t just about a paycheck. It’s about having pride in what you do.”
And it seemed too that the baseball community was behind its success. In addition to one of the most prestigious leagues in baseball history giving them use of their brand, there were cameos by MLB icons Hank Aaron and Ken Griffey Jr.
The all-star lineup of Hollywood talent added to the belief that this was going to be an outstanding film. You had Brittany Murphy in a supporting role and the dynamic duo of the day - Freddie Prince Jr. Matthew Lillard – teamed up once again to do what they excelled at on the silver screen - boys will be boys humor, plus legends like Brian Dennehy. Marc Blucas of Buffy fame, Wilmer Valderrama from That 70s Show and Jessica Biel – who was the it-girl of the time – out of 7th Heaven all made the movie relevant in the moment. Looking back on it now it is easy to see that the supporting cast was riddled with actors who have since ridden their own stars to fame including Christian Kane, Gabriel Mann and Jason Gedrick. They were merely along for the ride but their portrayals lent credence to the final product.
Aside from the truly lame beginning of the opening scene, where Murphy steps right into a stereotypical role she was already way to big in Hollywood to have been forced to pull off, the movie seems to get on track with being a serious baseball film.
Just when you’d settled into the notion of this being a film about male bonding and how that happens on, and off, the field of play, someone cued the girl and the film went off the rails. Every time it got back on track, she’d pop up again and jolt you right back into Hollywood’s attempt to appease both gender sterotypes in a single film.
In fact, there were plenty of great women in the film. The best role went to the savvy little sister, played by Snow Day’s Zena Grey, on her never-ending quest to embody the spirit of her hometown team by creating their ultimate mascot.
The supporting cast made this film shine. Lillard knows what a catcher’s role is on a team and he plays it like it is his second skin. They only times he pops out of character are when he’s forced into scenes portraying a caricature of what a person from California might be expected to do.
Dennehy and Gedrick play their respective parts in a very human way and Mann gives a surprising speech that lends the film serious bromance credentials.
Prince and Biel, both unable to pull off their respective roles individually, utilize their supporting cast members to their acting advantage. They also manage to team up well mid-film while she drops the act for a few scenes and lets her tomboy side shine through.
Ancillary roles played by the likes of Murphy, Beverly D’Angelo and Valderrama are well executed but misplaced in this script. They are all scenes we’ve seen played out, and better executed, in prior films. Other scenes, especially those involving Rhein and Pearsons, simply should have been left on the cutting room floor. They take away from any hopeful moments for original material.
In the end the film spent twice what it made in the US and the last five minutes of are largely the reason why. In spite of the bad, there were large periods of time where you were able to buy into the idea of the film. The directing and the writing had seemed to overpower the will of Hollywood and, by the end, you were back on the hook and completely engrossed in a no-no. If you watch all but the last five minutes it takes its sweet time getting there but, by then, the film has successfully managed to turn itself into a perfect baseball flick.
Because of the last 5 minutes though, Summer Catch is reduced to a teen romance that uses baseball to move the action along. Without giving the end away, let’s just say that it was so close but missed so big in the end. What happens simply would not happen and, by that I mean any of it. There are actually multiple never-gonna’s to choose from. You can start with the girl of a pitcher’s dreams still not knowing enough of about the game in the end to understand the term no-no. Move right along to the scout who wanted to sign him at the start, the one he blew off, offering him the ideal contract once everyone finally discovers him and move right on to the idea that, after walking out on the biggest game of his life, everyone would be able to meet up for the perfect end to each storyline on the airport tarmac.
This movie is one that, if Hollywood could have stepped out of its own way for more than 5 minutes and let the writers and the director have their way, could have been the stuff of legends in spite of the forced lead casting. Unfortunately the business of the industry lead this one right into the toilet.
This is a decent film if you go in knowing you’ll be cussing it out in the end but remembering that by the time you get there can be the challenge. Either way, you can’t say we didn’t warn you.