In baseball, it’s often said that “you just can’t write this stuff.” Sometimes the real-life drama of the game is so unbelievable that you’d roll your eyes if it were a movie. That makes it all the more difficult to make a good baseball film. Give it a think: You probably don’t need both of your hands to count them all, so susceptible are they to insufferable schmaltz, rank sentimentality and invalid team loyalties.
It’s documentary where baseball films really take off. Bull Durham and Bang the Drum Slowly aside, it’s hard to take most baseball films seriously. Even the classic ones, like Mr. Baseball or Major League, need a qualifier when talking about them. You don’t often need that when talking about documentaries, and no documentary captures the spirit of the game so thoroughly as Ken Burns’ recently updated Baseball (streaming on Netflix and Hulu+), an 11-part, 22-hour history of the sport, from its invention in the 1850s through the current steroid era and every up and down that the game – and the country – face in between. Even if Burns himself suffers from an invalid team loyalty (to the Red Sox), it doesn’t show in this immense, lovingly crafted PBS production.
Kokoyakyu: High School Baseball (Hulu+) is the surprisingly emotional story of two high-school teams from Japan – the reigning champions and a public school that has never gotten beyond regionals – trying to reach Koshien, the hotly contested summer baseball tournament where players like Hideki Matsui and Daisuke Matsuzaka made their names before the MLB. It means everything to these kids – the players and their classmates alike – and they show it in this short, relatable doc through their hard work and through their tears and their observance of the traditions of those who went before them.
In Ballplayer: Pelotero (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+) the dark side of baseball comes out as young Dominican players (Minnesota top prospect Miguel Sano and Houston prospect Jean Carlos Batista) go through the struggles of poverty and humiliation of an MLB investigation into their ages (a huge problem with Dominican prospects) as they try for a better life through baseball.
There is a rough American parallel in Harvard Park (Netflix, Amazon and Hulu+), the story of Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis, premier players of the 1980s, who went through similar struggles in South Central but ended up back every summer to train at the park. For them, like a lot of the early ball players, baseball is a way out more than a pastime. They do it for love of their family as much as for the love of the game, though the love of the game is never in question.