The Natural was on last night. Like The King’s Speech in my previous post, it’s a movie that if stumbled upon compels me to watch it in its entirety – no matter how chopped up for commercials the version being aired might be. Every few years I revise my Top Ten Movies of All Time list – some drop off, some new entries sneak their way inside, but The Natural’s berth is secure. Online, you can find plenty of great reviews both amateur and professional of this classic Robert Redford movie about the mythic power of baseball; one that I read nailed it when it said that the movie feels like it was made decades before it actually was. (It was released in 1984.) The Natural depicts an idyllic 1939, untouched by depression or the fog of looming war, when the only thing that mattered was the game, and the larger-than-life heroes who played it. Men who were couch potatoes by today’s standards of athletics but still managed to inspire enduring legends. Babe Ruth. Ted Williams. Lou Gehrig. Jackie Robinson. Mickey Mantle. And The Natural’s Roy Hobbs. “The best there ever was in this game.”
My father and I bonded over baseball. He shared seasons’ tickets with a friend, and because he knew more about baseball than said friend, managed to score all the best games. In the summer you would find us on the cold metal seats of Exhibition Stadium, nine rows up from first base, a couple of times a week, bonding with our fellow fans as we cheered for Dave Stieb, George Bell, Damaso Garcia, Willie Upshaw and Jesse Barfield; as we screamed at umpires for bad calls, kept the score meticulously in the glossy $5 program, sang along to “OK Blue Jays” and did the ritual passing of the hot dogs and beer down the row to the guy ten seats in. My father was part of an amateur slow-pitch team, the Honda Hawks, and I was with him for every game, keeping score, managing the equipment and making sure the beers were cold. Discussion of statistics, standings, games back, trades, runs batted in and earned run averages was impenetrable to the other half of our family. Baseball was our thing, mine and his. I can recall how frustrated he was the night the two of us went out to see The Natural, and couldn’t find a theatre that carried it – we had to settle for Phar Lap. The Natural had to wait until its home video release a year later (back in the bad old days when it really was a year between theatre and tape). And it seems the perfect movie for a father and son to watch together, as we did, on our uppity Betamax VCR that spat the tape out seven times before giving in and playing it.
For all its reference to classical myth, at its heart The Natural is truly about fathers and sons, and the relationship that they forge with each other through the game of baseball. Roy Hobbs makes his famous bat Wonderboy from a tree on his farm that is split open by lightning the night his father dies. Throughout his life we see him in search of father figures – the scout who pits him against The Whammer, coach Red Blow, New York Knights manager Pop Fisher, even, in a dark and twisted way, the sinister figures of gambler Gus Sands and corrupt Knights owner The Judge. It is only at the end when Roy reconnects with childhood love Iris Gaines and discovers that her son is also his, that he finds the elusive father he has been searching for – in himself, leading to the triumphant, explosive home run at the finale that showers Knights Field with rain of pure light, accompanied by the famous Randy Newman fanfare that cannot fail to bring a tear to the eye of every grown man who ever played catch with his dad. As Roy rounds the bases after that final blast, I can sense my father’s proud arm around my shoulders, and the warmth of the smile coming from his face. He’s been gone over twenty years, but I can still feel a little part of his soul whenever I watch The Natural – perhaps even more than I do looking at his photograph. He loved baseball, he loved the movie, and his sharing it with me was a gift that I continue to treasure – and can live again whenever I happen across the incredible tale of Roy Hobbs. And like Roy, as I get older, I hope to come closer to finding, within myself, the part of my father that I miss the most.