RON SHELTON can recall the first time he watched Susan Sarandon's "Church of Baseball" monologue, the opening scene in Bull Durham, with a paying audience. It was June 15, 1988, the movie's opening night, and Shelton, a minor league second baseman turned writer-director, had tucked himself into the back of a theater at a Los Angeles multiplex. After the monologue finished, he headed to another theater across town. And another, until he was certain people were laughing in all the right places. These days, he says, "I just go to a bar on opening night. But back then I watched and listened, and I knew it was a hit."
Twenty years later Bull Durham is still drawing laughs. The film, which tells the story of immature fireballer Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), crusty catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) and the spunky groupie Annie Savoy (Sarandon) who can't choose between the two, consistently tops lists of the best sports movies. (It was No. 1 in SI's 2003 ranking.) Meanwhile, such lines as "Throw some ground balls—it's more democratic" and "A player on a streak has to respect the streak" have become dugout staples across the baseball world. In Durham, N.C., where Shelton drew inspiration from the real Triple A Bulls, the team still sells movie memorabilia at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which features a replica of the movie's HIT BULL WIN STEAK bovine sign in leftfield. Bulls attendance soared after the movie and continues to be robust.
Shelton had already written a sports movie (1986's The Best of Times) before Bull Durham, and in the ensuing years he has become Hollywood's celluloid-sports go-to guy, writing and/or directing White Men Can't Jump and Blue Chips (basketball); Tin Cup (golf); The Great White Hype and Play It to the Bone (boxing); and Cobb (baseball). He has two baseball movies in the works, including an HBO adaptation of the BALCO-themed book Game of Shadows—"think All the President's Men meets The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight with a little Traffic thrown in," he says. And that makes him think of 1988, too. Shelton was at Game 1 of the World Series that year and recalls Jose Canseco's second-inning grand slam for the A's. "Even then, Dodgers fans were chanting 'Steroids! Steroids!' while Jose made muscleman poses," says Shelton. "It took 20 years for people to catch on? Well, when people ask me why it took 20 years to make another good baseball movie, there's your answer."
HIT MAKER Shelton's latest project is an adaptation of the book Game of Shadows.