By Scott Pitoniak
Bobby Grich doesn’t remember where the bus was headed. Could have been chugging east along the New York State Thruway toward Syracuse, or maybe south to Louisville or Richmond or points beyond.
What Grich does remember is that while he and several of his Rochester Red Wings teammates were nursing some cold beers in the back of the Greyhound, Ron Shelton, the college guy, was sitting by himself near the front, scribbling furiously in his notebook again.
“I plopped myself down next to him and said, ‘Shelly, what are you doing, writing a book?’’’ Grich recalled. “And Shelly says, ‘Bobby, I’m gonna write a movie about our minor-league experiences, and I’m gonna invite you to the party when it debuts.’ Well, 16 years later, I get this envelope, and in it are two tickets for a screening in L.A. for a new movie by Ron Shelton, called “Bull Durham.” So I went and watched, and afterward I told Shelly, ‘You took damn good notes.’’’
When Grich’s anecdote was recounted many years later, Shelton chuckled. “Great story by Bobby,’’ he said. “But I honestly don’t recall it happening. Now, I’m not saying it didn’t occur. I’m just saying that memory plays tricks on all of us.”
Whether Grich’s story is apocryphal or true is subject for debate. What isn’t debatable is that Shelton’s reel life has been profoundly influenced by his real life, especially the two summers he spent playing Triple-A baseball for the Wings.
The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter never imagined his script unfolding the way it has. Instead of realizing a dream he had nurtured since he was knee-high to a Louisville Slugger and becoming a Major League Baseball player, Shelton’s narrative took him on a different, more rewarding journey – from Rochester’s old Silver Stadium to the silver screen.
Although Shelton appeared in just 66 games in 1971, batting .260 with a homer and nine RBI, he helped manager Joe Altobelli’s powerhouse club win both the Governors’ Cup and Junior World Series. And Shelton’s Rochester experiences provided plenty of fodder for his classic 1988 romantic comedy, “Bull Durham,” which Sports Illustrated labeled the best sports movie of all-time and which many credit for reviving fan interest in minor-league baseball.
“We had a fun-loving, close-knit team and there definitely are characters from my Rochester days that are in my movies,’’ said Shelton, who was inducted into the Red Wings Hall of Fame on July 7, 2017. “For the most part, they are composite characters, a combination of several guys. I’ll never name names, but I know that some of the fellas from that team have recognized some of themselves in those characters.”
Shelton’s Red Wings experiences clearly inspired two of the movie’s main characters – Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. Davis, the steady, career minor-league catcher played by Kevin Costner, was loosely modeled after Altobelli, while LaLoosh was influenced by Steve Dalkowski, a hard-partying, flame-thrower who pitched briefly with the Wings and became a baseball legend regarded by some as the fastest and wildest hurler of all time.
“Even though the Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh characters aren’t necessarily Joe and Steve, the dynamic inspired by Alto and Dalkowski certainly is a Red Wing-influenced part of the film,’’ Shelton said. “Alto managed me not only in Rochester, but also in the lower minors in the Baltimore Orioles organization, and he was always regaling us with stories about Dalkowski, who once threw a ball so hard he accidentally took a guy’s ear off. Joe said the Orioles were trying to get Steve to lay off the booze, so they decided to room him with a steadying influence like Alto. The experiment failed miserably. Alto joked that he spent most of his time rooming with Dalkowski’s suit cases because Steve was always out drinking.”
In reality, Crash Davis may be based on Shelton himself. Of all the characters the film-maker has created in his distinguished career, none strikes closer to home than Crash. Like Shelton, he was a career minor-leaguer, who never had quite the talent nor the luck to make it in the big leagues. Shelton never possessed Crash’s power, but he was a solid player, batting .253 with 10 homers, 133 runs batted in and 97 stolen bases in 512 minor league games.
He gave up on his big-league dreams following the 1971 season after Baltimore dealt him to Detroit and he was assigned to the Tigers Triple-A club. He was 26 at the time with a young wife and child. It was an agonizing decision, and for several years he stayed away from ballparks and kept the fact he had played professionally a secret. Shelton eventually wound up going back to college and earned a master’s degree as a sculptor.
To support his family, he worked a procession of menial jobs that included driving trucks, cleaning bars and digging ditches. At night, he would paint and write, and, although that provided a creative outlet, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. Occasionally, Shelton, the movie buff, would catch a matinee, just as he had so many times while playing for Rochester.
“It dawned on me a couple of years after that maybe I should try my hand at screenwriting,’’ he said. “I had always loved the visual aspects of films, and I had some stories I thought might be worth telling.”
Shelton took a match to the first two scripts he wrote, but didn’t allow the strikeouts to torch his new dream. Five years spent toiling in a sport where failures far out-number successes taught him to be persistent. In 1982, nearly nine years after he started, one of his scripts was filmed. The movie was called “Under Fire,” starring Nick Nolte. Shelton followed that with “The Best of Times.”
But it wasn’t until “Bull Durham” was released in 1988 that he became one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters. The film, starring Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins was a hilarious portrayal of life in the minor leagues. It became a box office smash, grossing more than $50 million, and earning Shelton numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. In addition to bringing him money and fame, “Bull Durham” enabled Shelton to come to grips with his baseball past.
“It was a catharsis for me,’’ he said. “It gave me a chance to affectionately treat a world I always loved, but had to leave.”
Shelton went on to win more critical acclaim for movies such as “White Men Can’t Jump,” an homage to trash-talking, hoop hustlers starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes; “Blaze,” which starred Paul Newman as Earl Long, the zany former governor of Louisiana who had an affair with a stripper; “Cobb,” a darkly disturbing tale about Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones, and “Tin Cup,” a romantic comedy starring Costner and Rene Russo about a washed-up golf pro whose reluctance to play it safe results in an epic meltdown on the final hole of the U.S. Open.
Through the years, Shelton has been approached about doing a sequel to “Bull Durham” and actually wrote an outline for it, but the deal fell through. And maybe that’s just as well.
“The characters became beloved, and you wonder if people really want to revisit them, or leave them be in the sweet memory of where we left them,’’ he said.
Crash, Nuke and Annie Savoy will, however, be reunited next autumn when “Bull Durham,” the musical, is scheduled to open on Broadway. Adapting his signature film to stage was as difficult as facing Clayton Kershaw with an oh-two count.
“It was challenging because my background is telling stories on film, where I can manipulate things until we get it perfect,’’ he said. “On stage, I can’t draw you close to an actor’s face the way I can with a camera. But I believe we’ve pulled it off.’’
Shelton, who turned 72 last September, also is juggling several other projects, including a film about a fictional NFL backup quarterback and another about the life of legendary New York Jets signal-caller, Broadway Joe Namath. In December, “Just Getting Started,” a comedy starring Jones and Morgan Freeman opened in movie theaters across the country.
Shelton thoroughly enjoyed his return to Rochester in August. He twinned it with a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown with his wife and son. It was his first time back in Upstate New York since attending a 25th-year reunion of the 1971 Red Wings’ Governors’ Cup team in Silver’s final season.
“I can’t really put into words what the induction into the Wings Hall means to me and I’m in the business of putting things into words,’’ he said. “Although I was only in Rochester for about a year and a half, my time there had a profound and lasting impact on me. It definitely influenced my films. This kid from Santa Barbara, California has a deep connection with Rochester.”
It was a place where one dream ended but another dream was launched.
Best-selling author and nationally honored sports columnist Scott Pitoniak is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.