Why you should care

When a film seduces you, despite your better judgment, with an ending that is more Hollywood than Hollywood, then you know you are in love.

Baseball and film lovers alike should hate The Natural , the 1984 cult classic starring Robert Redford as the veteran ballplayer and golden boy, Roy Hobbs. Many of the subplots are as far-fetched and contorted as the play on the field, and Redford is filmed with enough backlighting to drown an angel.

Yet The Natural remains one of the most beloved sports films of all time, close to the hearts of movie buffs and baseball diehards. Even if the happy ending differs from Bernard Malamud’s book, watching the film is the perfect way to usher in the baseball playoffs and the most magical of months for baseball fans, October. In the film’s unforgettable climax, Redford, a 47-year-old actor playing the mid-thirties Hobbs, smashes a home run that shatters the lights at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium (demolished in 1988), setting off a shower of fireworks as he trots around the bases.

From any perspective — pyrotechnic, cinematic, basic laws of physics — Hobbs’ blast and the ensuing light show are unnatural and should be utterly unbelievable. But they’re not.

The Natural would be followed by real-life theatrics like Kirk Gibson’s game-winning World Series home run and Curt Schilling’s legendary bloody sock.

Perhaps it’s because Redford worked tirelessly to develop his Ted Williams-like swing (a rare triumph for an actor in a sporting role). Maybe it’s the transcendent theme music by Randy Newman, which would influence sports movies for a generation. Or it could simply be that the scene, directed by Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man ), is so perfectly composed. The visuals by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff and, yes, father of Zooey) are so well choreographed that our disbelief fades with the stadium lights as Hobbs crosses the plate.

As Levinson observed many years later, “There are these amazing things that happen that are beyond credibility and yet that’s the game, and that’s what makes The Natural exciting — these circumstances that are larger than life.”

The Natural ’s fairytale heroics would be followed by real-life theatrics like Kirk Gibson’s game-winning World Series home run and Curt Schilling’s legendary bloody sock. That’s part of the beauty of baseball — and of film. What starts as allegory or fantasy can become reality and, before long, blend right into history.

And so it goes with Roy Hobbs’ final at-bat. The slugger hits the sweet spot — and sends our disbelief on a soaring trajectory right out of the park.

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