Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Baseball Week Countdown: #3 - 61*

Records and sports go hand in hand, and when there is the possibility of a legendary record being broken, eyes and ears tune in where they otherwise would not.  And baseball's largest records seem to draw more attention that others, generating excitement and nostalgic energy.  Think about any time a player inches closer to Joe DiMaggio's hit streak, or a player goes on a hot streak hitting the long ball, or when one of the legends of the game cross 600 homers and continues forward; baseball fans take notice.  And as the media has grown and swelled and expanded over the last few years, more and more people are allowed into the chase of whichever baseball record may fall.  Just imagine how the chase for 61 would have been carried out in 2012.

#3 - 61*

Babe Ruth's single-season homerun record was one of the most coveted records in the major leagues, and the most legendary record in all of sports.  And it stood for over thirty years.  But in one magical summer in 1961, two players made it clear early on they were here to challenge the Babe's record, two teammates who could not be more opposite of one another.  Two Yankees, of course, one embracing the superstardom, the other shying away, fought to reach 61 homeruns first, and in the process divided a fanbase.  Thus is the story of 61*, a solid historical sports drama with great performances and the love of Billy Crystal, a lifelong Yankees fan, behind the camera.

The two players involved in the homerun chase were Mickey Mantle, the hero of the City, a larger-than-life celebrity who had spent nearly a decade in the Yankees organization and had swelled into the biggest and brightest superstar in the Yankees' storied history, and Roger Maris, only a few years in the organization, and a mild-mannered everyman who shied from the media and interviews, distancing himself from the fans.  Mantle is played by Thomas Jane, who embodies the look and the stature of The Mick with fervent energy.  Roger Maris is played by Barry Pepper.  Mantle and Maris would become friends over the season as they both gunned for the record, despite the efforts of the media to create a hero and a villain through the personalities of the two men.  There was even a time during the season where Mantle spent some time living with Maris.  But Maris was not the one the fans were behind.

1961 marked the first year where the baseball season expanded from 154 games to 162, which still stands today.  So when the record was broken after 154 games, the asterisk was added to the record.  But that didn't matter to the fans of the Yankees.  The media worked hard to minimize Maris and celebrate Mantle, and Maris' frustration began to get the better of him as it became clear he would break the record first.  Mantle threw himself headlong into the celebrity aspect of his career, drinking too hard at times and often showing up with a severe hangover.  But it didn't affect his play or his popularity with the masses. 

Crystal directs 61* with a wonderful attention to detail, a firm grasp on the subjects, and an even hand over both characters.  There is no glossy interpretation of either of the men, only an accurate portrayal of their strength and weaknesses.  After the homerun chase, Mantle's age began to show through until he limped to retirement.  Maris would never really be the same, and perhaps the film suggests the pressures of the 1961 season were to blame for his decline.  Either way, as a stand-alone film, 61* excels in every way.