By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; 12:00 AM
The crack of the bat. The smack of a fist pounding a leather mitt. The chatter of Washingtonians complaining about the Nationals.
Those are the sounds that tell us it's baseball season again. And what better way to get in the spirit -- aside from, you know, watching an actual game -- than by checking out a baseball-themed DVD? Of course, no matter how much you love line-drive classics like "Field of Dreams," "Pride of the Yankees," "The Natural" or, heck, even "Major League," you can only watch them so many times without craving something a little different.
With that in mind, here's a line-up of nine worthy but less frequently seen DVDs -- one for every inning of the game, and each one connected to the national pastime -- that will take you out to the ballgame without having to leave the living room.
"The Bad News Bears" (2005): Yes, the 1976 original starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal is the undisputed classic. But Richard Linklater's remake manages to do admirably rebellious justice to the story of a perpetually soused coach (Billy Bob Thornton) and his team of little leaguers with bad attitudes. Trust me, there is something oddly joyful about watching a bunch of middle-schoolers celebrate a well-earned victory by hanging out at Hooters, as Thornton leads them in a rousing version of Eric Clapton's "Cocaine."
Ken Burns's "Baseball": Got 18 hours to kill? Spend them with the 10-DVD set that captures the acclaimed documentarian's entire 1994 PBS series, still considered by many to be the definitive history of the game.
"Sugar": Released last fall on DVD, the portrait of a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic trying to play his way into the major leagues and adjust to life on American soil is beautifully photographed. Even better, it's a baseball story told with the kind of quiet grace and authenticity we rarely see from Hollywood fare. Salon.com proclaimed it "the best baseball movie ever"; see it and you might decide that isn't hyperbole.
"The Stratton Story": It doesn't get much better than watching one of the most beloved actors in American cinema, Jimmy Stewart, playing America's game. In this drama -- which won an Academy Award for its screenplay, based on real-life Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton -- Stewart stars as a major league star who loses a leg after a hunting accident and, with the support of his wife (June Allyson), eventually returns to the mound. A tad corny? Maybe. But effective and undeniably well-acted.
"The Naked Gun": The climactic final 20 minutes of this beyond broad 1988 slapstick mystery -- in which Detective Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) attempts to prevent Queen Elizabeth from being assassinated during a Calfornia Angels/Seattle Mariners match-up -- delivers some of the most ridiculous sporting event moments in comedy history. From Nielsen's complete annihilation of the National Anthem to genuinely absurd cameos from baseball greats like announcer Mel Allen, Reggie Jackson and former Baltimore Oriole Jim Palmer, "Gun" still kills more than two decades after its release. I mean, who can argue with a flick that ends by shoving an injured O.J. Simpson -- before he was O.J. Simpson -- down a steep set of stadium steps?
"A League of Their Own": Okay, so this is hardly an obscure baseball movie. But I had to include "League" because it's one of the few that shows us women can play the game, too. Other factors that make Penny Marshall's look at the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League worth seeing: it's one of the rare decent entries on Madonna's acting resume, and it boasts what has become one of the most quoted lines in sports-cinema history: "There's no crying in baseball."
"Homer at the Bat" episode of "The Simpsons": Plenty of TV shows have devoted episodes to the 'ol ball game. But this one -- found on "The Complete Third Season" DVD set, and featuring cameos by nine Major Leaguers who become ringers for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant's team -- may be the most brilliant. The tear that runs down an animated Darryl Strawberry's cheek as Bart tauntingly chants "Dar-ryl! Dar-ryl!" from the stands? Yeah, that still cracks me up.
"The Fantastic Mr. Fox": You could force your kids to sit through less-than-stellar family baseball fare like Matt LeBlanc's "Ed." Or you could all enjoy Wes Anderson's quirky stop-motion gem, recently released on DVD and Blu-ray, that introduces audiences to a potential new national pastime: whack-bat, a sport that vaguely resembles baseball but involves flaming pinecones, grabbers, taggers, and, obviously, knocking the cedar stick off the cross rock. The sport plays a pivotal role in the plot of this caper, and the DVD even devotes a short extra to it entitled, "A Beginner's Guide to Whack-Bat." Although I'm sure your child is already an expert.
The World Series Collector's Editions: Why watch this season's games when you can revisit the ones in which you already know your favorite team won? A&E Home Entertainment has issued DVD sets that capture every game in numerous memorable World Series match-ups. So reliving last year's Yankees victory or the Minnesota Twins' 1987 triumph is completely possible. Here's hoping it's also possible that one day, A&E will issue a set like this with the Washington Nationals' name on it.