Way back in May, when the grass was green and every club had a chance to win the pennant, the Okie Gardener offered an excellent post on his relationship with the game of baseball; he improved it and re-released it recently: "The End of Another Regular Season." Back in the spring, the Gardener challenged me to name and defend my favorite baseball movie. I promised to step to the plate before the weather grew cold in Central Texas. It was 90 degrees yesterday, but a cold front moved in last night, and the boys of summer have given way to the Fall Classic. It is now or never.

Generally, I enjoy most movies about baseball, even bad ones; The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix and Major League (1989) are two of my favorites in the latter category.

But there are a host of classic well-made baseball movies, so let's concentrate on the great ones.

Some of my favorites (in alphabetical order):

Baseball: a [documentary] film by Ken Burns
Bull Durham
Eight Men Out
The Natural
Pride of the Yankees

My runner-up pick for best baseball picture is A League of Their Own. Penny Marshall perfectly orchestrated this 1992 classic sports tale of "girls playing baseball." Tom Hanks gives the ultimate (but seldom-offered) gift of a Hollywood leading man: the willingness to play a supporting role in order to make a film great; he is brilliant. Geena Davis, for her part, has no problem carrying the film; she swings a heavy bat with great aplomb as Dottie Hinson. Great storytelling. Great excitement. Great baseball.

Despite Jimmy Dugan's famous proclamation ("There is no crying in baseball"), my absolute favorite baseball film is an under-appreciated elegy for a terminally ill ballplayer, which also serves as a lament for a game so distant culturally as to be almost unrecognizable:

Bang the Drum Slowly.

Based on a 1950s Mark Harris novel, the 1973 film (set during the 1970s), tells the story of a mediocre big league catcher, Bruce Pearson, who is diagnosed with then-lethal Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and his relationship with a superstar pitcher, Henry "Author" Wiggen. Pearson and Wiggen are roommates and teammates on the New York Mammoths (think Yankees), but they are an unlikely pair.

Wiggen describes Pearson as "almost too dumb to rag." Expertly played by the very young and virtually unknown Robert De Niro, Pearson is never more than some poor sap who is dying. Happily (for us), he never emerges from his simple-minded fog for some epiphanic movie moment. Pearson wonders why he "got such a shit deal," but there is no facile moment of clarity in which he (or we) understand some greater purpose in the death of this very ordinary man. His friend Wiggen reaffirms the undertone of the film with his less-than-comforting (almost hostile) reply: "Don't ask me questions I can't answer."

The theme of capriciousness is reinforced through TEGWAR (the exciting game without any rules), which the guys play in hotel lobbies, roping in suckers (fans) who are willing to drop moderate sums of money to play cards with big-league ballplayers. Like gods throwing down thunder bolts from above the clouds, they argue with one another over non-existent rules, battling over which one of them will take the pot from the clueless pigeon. Of course, the stakes are penny-ante, and this is an era in which many of the fans still made more money than the ballplayers, allowing us to view our primary characters as charmingly mischievous but not sinister. Initially, the teammates deem the witless Pearson incapable of working the hustle, but Wiggen insists on his inclusion.

Played by Michael Moriarty, Wiggen is as sharp as Pearson is dull. In addition to his athletic talent, Wiggen is "Author" of an autobiographical baseball novel, and his voice drives the narrative as the morbid plot unfolds. In an era in which even stars worked off-season jobs, Wiggen sells insurance. Initially a preseason holdout for the quaint sum of $127,000 per year, Wiggen settles for securing the baseball fate of his friend. Accepting drastically less salary than the hard-nosed management negotiators are probably willing to give up, Wiggen demands that Pearson be attached to him for the remainder of the season. Pearson cannot be cut, and neither one can be traded without including the other in the deal.

Bang the Drum Slowly is a story about a team. "We were not pulling like a club," Wiggen bemoans in the voice over at one point, addressing an age-old dilemma of why so often a group of talented individuals fails to meet its collective potential. The manager, Dutch Schnell (Vincent Gardenia), a Casey-Stengel-like student of baseball and life, chastises the team for being like fingers on the hand feuding with one another over petty offenses and refusing to work together.

Convinced that the unexplained motives surrounding Wiggen's special clause protecting Pearson somehow holds the key to understanding the under-achieving club, Dutch sets out to crack the mystery of the relationship between the luminous pitcher and the "plumb-dumb" catcher. It is a fair question. Even knowing what Dutch does not, we still wonder why Wiggen reaches out to his roommate. But he does. Some of it is duty. Some of it is guilt. Some of it is noblesse oblige. But most of it is the inexplicable bond between members of an athletic team, even more acute for roommates on a professional squad.

When Dutch finally cracks the case and the truth comes out, the team responds to Pearson in a fashion similar to Wiggen's instinctual reaction. The impending mortality of one brings the men together as a team. They unite in protecting, caring and befriending him. Suddenly, Pearson is not too dumb to play TEGWAR; he is not too awkward to take part in their off-field endeavors, and he begins to realize his potential as a ballplayer. As a result of this shared mission, the club becomes a close-knit unit on the field as well as off, gaining confidence and winning ballgames. And Pearson enjoys the best season of his career.

When the illness catches up with Pearson, and he must leave the team, the club goes on to win the pennant without him--but not for him necessarily. The magic of the camaraderie is not permanent. In the winter, after the Mammoths have won the World Series, once again, Wiggen is alone among the erstwhile teammates, in a Georgia cemetery, helping to lower his fallen friend into the cold ground.

Why do I love this film? Virtuoso performances from an amazing cast of great character actors. Crisp, intelligent writing. The film is also funny (much funnier than I expressed in this essay). Like life, the film has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments in the midst of the tragic tale.

On the weightier side, the drama offers a serious examination of the razor-thin line between living and dying, winning and losing, laughing and crying, and success and failure; a difference that is almost always subtle and oftentimes random. The Okie Gardener said he loved baseball because, like life, the game is seasonal and extended and offered room for mistakes and redemption. Like life, baseball is also sometimes outrageously vagarious.

Henry "Author" Wiggen's final thoughts on Bruce Pearson:

"He was not a bad fellow, no worse than most and probably better than some, and not a bad ballplayer neither when they give him a chance, when they laid off him long enough. From here on in I rag nobody."