- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

Sure, sure. When you think of Robert DeNiro, you think gangster. And who wouldn’t, considering his best-known films include “The Godfather, Part II,” “Goodfellas,” “The Untouchables” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” plus his comedic takes in “Analyze This” and “Analyze That.”

But here’s an argument that DeNiro should also be known as one of the premier sportsmen of the movies. He won an Oscar for his unforgettable portrayal of boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” He swung a bloody deadly bat as Al Capone in “The Untouchables.” He stalked baseball star Wesley Snipes in “The Fan.” And it all started with one of the best baseball movies of all time, “Bang the Drum Slowly” (Paramount, 1974, 97 min., $19.99), which essentially was his first starring role and is newly available on DVD.

DeNiro got second-billing as Bruce Pearson, a not so smart catcher from the Georgia countryside who plays for the New York Monarchs (who wear Yankee pinstripes with an altered logo). Pearson has marginal talent, barely enough to play in the majors.

His roommate, famed fictional pitcher Henry Wiggen (Michael Moriarty), is his polar opposite, the somewhat refined star of the best team in baseball and an insurance salesman on the side.

Yeah, it’s a buddy film — with a twist. Pearson’s going to die.

That doesn’t give anything away; the movie begins with Pearson and Wiggen walking out of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Like most great baseball movies, “Drum” isn’t about the sport. It takes 27 minutes before a game appears on screen.

Instead, the focus stays on how an odd couple become best friends and a fractious team rallies around an ill individual (think Mario Lemieux).

It’s worth pointing out that “Drum” finds its origin in the second of a four-book series about Wiggen written by Mark Harris, who also penned the screenplay. Check out the first book of the series, “The Southpaw,” which tells Wiggen’s story in his own words and recently was listed as one of the top sports books of all time by Sports Illustrated. Sadly, Moriarty throws right-handed in the movie, but “Bang the Drum Slowly”does service to the book

That’s not the case with “Fear Strikes Out” (Paramount, 1957, 100 min., $19.95), another movie recently released on DVD. Both the book and the movie tell the story of Jim Piersall, a Boston Red Sox outfielder who suffered a mental breakdown in 1952. The book was co-written by Piersall, who courageously returned from the breakdown to collect more than 1,600 hits in the majors (and famously ran around the bases backward after the 100th home run of his career). The movie turns his life into a mockery.

Piersall has spent years deriding the film for its untruths and amateurism. Star Anthony Perkins, who portrayed another mentally unstable individual three years later in “Psycho,” handles the breakdown well but breaks down himself as a baseball player. He looks so bad that, according to ESPN.com, Piersall would later say “he threw a baseball like a girl and danced around in the outfield like a ballerina,” a comment that’s right on point.

It gets worse. The film-making team of producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan turned “To Kill a Mockingbird” into one of the top films of all time but clearly didn’t get things right here. The movie blames Piersall’s father for the breakdown, the result of years of pressure to do what his father couldn’t: play in the majors. Piersall vehemently denied that, and the book certainly doesn’t contain any episodes in which his father rips into him for failing.

The movie glosses over the headaches he suffered since he was a teenager — he’s shown taking aspirin once and holding his head a little. And its only reference to his mother’s own mental illness, something that put her in the hospital several times and the book ties to Piersall’s own problems, comes early in the movie and is nothing more than ambiguous.

Plus, Piersall breaks down on the field in the movie, climbing the netting behind home plate, while Piersall actually suffered the breakdown in a hotel room.

The biggest sin? The movie tries to pass off a stadium as Fenway Park even though it has no Green Monster and there are big palm trees behind it.

The third movie Paramount released for baseball season, “Talent for the Game” (1991, 91 min., $19.95), couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, considering the Anaheim Angels won last season’s World Series. It’s the story of baseball scout Virgil Sweet (Edward James Olmos) who needs to find a big-time prospect to keep his job with, of course, the Angels. The movie’s cute enough — Lorraine Bracco of “The Sopranos” plays his love interest — but “Talent” is pretty much a throwaway with an unbelievable ending.

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