Judge Jeff Andreasen thinks this would have been a better...and funnier...production if they'd just reenacted the big game and had Bob Uecker call it.
Strike three! Yer OUT!
Adapting a 52-line poem into an almost-as-many-minutes television production is a dilemma I don't envy the creators of Casey at the Bat. Even padding the basic narrative with baseball's trademark drag, you couldn't possibly come away with more than a half-hour show…including commercial breaks. The solution? Come up with backstory and subplots, something to give the events of the poem more depth and thus more weight with the viewer. More drama.
The Mudville Hogs are among the few baseball teams in existence as the story opens in 1888. The game is in its infancy and is struggling to find popularity. The local mudgnate, Big Jim Undercrawl (Hamilton Camp, Bird, Dick Tracy) (Stop rolling your eyes, this is kids' fare!), loathes the game and wants to crush it before it can get a foothold with the popular imagination. He contrives to buy the only stadium in town from the Widow Bleacher and turn it into a dump for the toxic byproducts of his mud factory, thereby solving two vexing problems. Alas for Undercrawl, the pathetic Mudville Hogs have a savior in the form of the simpleminded Casey Frank (Elliot Gould, M*A*S*H, American History X), a perennial benchwarmer who manages to break into the starting lineup only when he tells the manager that he promised his sweetheart, Barbara (Carol Kane, The Princess Bride, Scrooged), that if he doesn't have a breakout game he'll quit the sport altogether and take up a job in the mud factory.
But Casey does have a breakout game. He crushes the ball and the Hogs have their first-ever victory. The crowd swells with every succeeding game, and the price that the Widow Bleacher quotes to Undercrawl grows with every game until it is too exorbitant even for such a wealthy miser as he to meet. Casey continues to power the team to victory after victory, along the way implementing all the bunting that comes with baseball as we know it today: the National Anthem; the organ tunes galvanizing the crowd to raucousness; holding the bat by the knobbed, narrow end instead of the broad club end; overpriced concessions, and chemical controversy.
Casey may make Barry Bonds look like Bob Uecker, and he's civil to the media and fans to boot, but, also like the misanthropic Bonds, Casey has his deep, dark secret: before every game, he smears a secret salve given him by Pop Gumm (Bill Macy, The Jerk, Analyze This), baseball's biggest booster, all over his bat. Presumably, this mystical potion will help his judgment, strength, and aim prevail over every pitch to bring glory to the team. And the proof is in the pudding. With the season drawing to its climax, mighty Casey and the Hogs are to face the Boston Beaneaters for the league championship. Emboldened by the luck of facing a baseball team from Boston in a championship, Mudville anticipates certain victory. But Undercrawl has deduced Casey's weakness, and hijacks Pop Gumm and his jolt juice, robbing Casey's bat of the vitality needed to bring home the bacon.
Undercrawl sinks his entire fortune into the outcome of the game, betting it all that the Beaneaters will win the game, but when Pop Gumm shows up with the power potion, he changes his mind and hangs his hat with the Hogs. But Boston is more game than anyone thought, and it all comes down to the famous ninth inning and a certain slugger's infamous at-bat.
Howard Cosell and the aforementioned Bob Uecker guest star as the latter (and former) day announcer and his color man. Cosell, as usual, fawns at the sound of his own voice, while Uecker may as well not even be there for all he brings to the presentation. Anyone expecting a performance echoing the hilarity of his Harry Doyle in Major League will be keenly disappointed.
Waitaminnit! Play-by-play announcers and color men? Toxic waste? Corporate malfeasance? Juicing to enhance performance? Responsible athletes sensitive to their influence on the public? This wasn't in the poem! Actually, just about none of this was in the poem. Filler, friends. Filler. Like the seventh-inning stretch. While the poem may remain a paean to baseball's majesty, this interpretation comes straight from Kidsville. The over-the-top performances, Children's Television Workshop props and sets, and dopey coincidences that become staples of the game are there to appeal to the very young viewer, as are the age-old morals of the story: hard work brings good fortune, and selfishness and evil serve only to crush it. And in our politically correct day and age, there are no winners and no losers.
Casey, of course, is a hero, and is vindicated of doping since the stuff he smeared on his bat before every game was only light beer. His big flop is even given positive spin: since the sinister Undercrawl bet everything on the Hogs to win, and since cashing in on the bet would certainly have meant baseball's ruin, the slugger's big whiff means that Undercrawl lost the bet and his fortune. Baseball will survive and flourish only because mighty Casey struck out. Awwww…
There are other subplots as well: Casey wooing his sweetheart Barbara, and Undercrawl's dark designs to woo the ball player away from the straight and narrow, but none of these are very satisfying. Casey is constantly interpreted as a lovable galoot with the brawn of Hercules but the brain of Patrick the Starfish. This is in contradiction to the haughty fellow portrayed by Ernest Lawrence Thayer in his 1888 verse. The poem suggests a man revered by the fans, much like, say, Reggie Jackson, and a man possessed of Jackson's pretentiousness and swagger. It also speaks to the disappointment inherent in the game itself, to the woe in man and fan alike when the hero can't deliver the goods.
Commentary on the deflation of the spirit when one's happiness is wrapped up in the vicarious thrill of another person's endeavors is not among the lessons preached in this production, however. It's for kids! But parents beware…some of the messages delivered by Casey at the Bat might not be messages you want your kids to receive.
Casey is portrayed as lacking the confidence he needs to succeed, finding it only in the potion he believes will give him the strength to excel. Isn't that the same argument made by pro athletes from the formerly alive Lyle Alzado to Mark "There's No Crying in Baseball" McGuire to the Amazingly Inflatable Jason Giambi? Casey had the chutzpah to swear to his girl that he could make it as a ballplayer and literally gambled his future on his ability to do it, yet doesn't have the guts to succeed or fail on his own merit? That's not a lack of confidence, that's a lack of consistent storytelling!
Further, Casey at the Bat could be construed as promoting "jockocracy." Casey is denigrated by everyone up to and including the moment he first steps up to the plate. When he starts walloping homers, everyone loves him. The only people in town who maintain their original assessment of the slugger are his sweetheart, Barbara; her father, who thought him a dope and continues to think him a dope, and Pop Gumm, who always had faith in the big lug's ability. But their opinions don't matter to Casey, not when he can ham it up to the crowd's delight. When he strikes out, he believes he is a failure, and the townspeople are only too happy to endorse that assessment…until Pop Gumm sagely points out that Casey saved baseball by failing. Are all our efforts meaningless and worthy of mockery only until we do something momentous on a playing field? These are turbid waters to be navigating with your young'uns, so have your answers…and your philosophy…ready when the questions come.
There's no questioning the DVD, though. You get the presentation in a dull stereo, and an Internet link to other Koch Vision products. There are no subtitles, no extras, and no commentaries. But who needs them? The kids won't care to watch anything like that and, frankly, this production doesn't rate the extra effort. Just sit back and enjoy a somewhat overly convoluted story with perky and quirky performances (and some hilarious insults from Hamilton Camp) that aims for the outfield wall.
Despite the curveball that modern sports and modern society has thrown this charming narrative, its heart is in the right place: good things happen to good people who try hard to do the right thing. There are worse morals to teach our youth.
And gambling is bad.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
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