Author: Matt Vancil
Writer’s Potential: 7
An ex-con father tries to repair his relationship with his son by hatching a scheme to catch Barry Bonds’s record-breaking home run ball.
WALLY DASSLER gets out of prison through a work-release program, forced to work as a beer vendor for the L.A. Dodgers. Though he hates baseball, Wally decides to use the opportunity to reconnect with his baseball-loving son, 13-year-old RUSS, who lives in San Francisco and is a huge Giants fan. Wally hasn’t seen Russ since he went to prison three years ago, and he fears Russ hates him. It’s a little more complicated than that; fortunately for Wally’s sake, Russ is also eager to reconnect with his father.
One of Wally’s duties is to deliver manila envelopes from his unpleasant boss, BOYER, to a mobster bookie, CAMPESE. Turns out, Wally still owes Campese a great deal of money, and it’s implied (but later revealed) that Wally went to jail as a fall guy for Campese and his goons. Wally also strikes up a friendship with a washed-up Dodgers relief pitcher, ELLORY SYKES.
The plot kicks into gear when Russ shows Wally his easy ability to predict when homeruns can be hit. Unable to deny his gambling past, and still owing Campese plenty of money, Wally tries to figure out if there’s any kind of betting market for predicting homeruns. He makes some small bets so he can slowly pay back Campese, but he learns that the real money would be in baseball artifacts. His interest is especially piqued when he learns that Barry Bonds’s record-breaking single-season homerun ball sold for $450,000. Since Bonds is closing in on the all-time homerun record, this gets Wally’s gambling gears working. He takes Russ to a Giants game in San Francisco, where he notices how often and how easy it is for players to hit homeruns into McCovey Cove.
Wally tells Russ they’re going to catch Bonds’s record-breaking ball, using Russ’s statistics. Russ tells him there are too many probability problems—what if he doesn’t hit in McCovey Cove, what if it’s an away game, what if he hits it when the Giants aren’t playing the Dodgers (Dodgers games are all Wally can afford)? Using the statistics, Wally thinks it’s pretty likely that Bonds can break the record during a Dodgers away series against the Giants near the end of the season. He decides to enlist the aid of Sykes, enticing him by saying everybody will remember the loser as much as the winner—everybody remembers Bill Buckner, everyone will remember Ellory Sykes. He also offers a share of the money for the ball. Sykes agrees that, if all the conditions are met and Bonds is ready to break the record when the Dodgers play the Giants in San Francisco, Sykes will throw the pitch to ensure that Bonds will hit into McCovey Cove.
Things get complicated when Sykes meets Russ. Russ shows him some statistics and gives him some pitching advice, insisting that he could actually have a pretty good game if he stopped telegraphing his pitch when he adjusts for the shoulder injury that classified him as “washed-up” in the first place. To Sykes’s surprise, the kid’s right, and suddenly his pitching game is back. In fact, Sykes pitches so well that he almost singlehandedly leads the Dodgers to be serious playoff contenders. When Bonds suffers a mild injury that throws off his statistical schedule for breaking the record by two homeruns, Wally practically begs a reluctant Sykes to take a dive on two Bonds at-bats. Sykes, worried that his comeback will be short-lived, agrees to give up the homeruns.
After this suspicious return to bad pitching form and a few hostile remarks from Sykes, Russ suspects his father is only spending time to use him for information on getting that ball, and he only wants the ball for the money. He becomes reluctant to help, and Wally insists he’ll spend time with him outside of baseball. He tries to go to watch his “mathletics” competition, but he’s held up by Campese and Boyer. They both suspect Wally of intentionally helping Sykes get his game back to bet Sykes will start winning games. Their threats cause Wally to completely miss Russ’s competition. He arrives just as everyone’s leaving the school.
Wally also managed to steal Boyer’s cell phone. Russ has told him that Bonds has caught up and will break the record in Colorado, ahead of schedule, if something isn’t done. Using Boyer’s phone, Wally calls in a fake bomb threat, pretending to be a terrorist. The game is canceled, to the disappointment of the crowd. There’s an ugly scene in the parking lot where Russ and Wally finally have it out; Wally demands to know why Russ never visited him in prison. Russ tells him he was embarrassed and ashamed. Wally tells Russ why he was in jail in the first place: he developed his gambling problem to help put JUANITA—Wally’s ex-wife and Russ’s mother—through college, and then he went to prison for Campese so they wouldn’t hurt his family. He’s hauled off by a school security officer and spends the night in jail.
The next day, he’s bailed out by Juanita (but is picked up at jail by his mother, ABBEY), who tells him Russ will be at the Giants-Dodgers game. Wally phones in another fake threat: a shark sighting in the water near McCovey Cove. As all the kayakers waiting to catch balls vanish, Wally—and a toy boat with a fake shark fin tied to it—float into the otherwise-empty cove. By this time, Boyer and Campese have figured out Wally’s real plan. Campese, armed with a gun, confronts Wally in the Cove, while Boyer threatens Russ in the stands and steals his laptop, which is loaded with all the statistics and analysis formulae.
Sykes is on the mound, and Bonds is at bat. Instead of taking a dive as he’s already done twice before, Sykes remains true to himself: he strikes out Barry Bonds, to the dismay of the San Francisco crowd. When Campese tries to shoot at Wally, the Cove is surrounded by cops and closed off for real. Wally sneaks away, just in time to find Boyer with Russ’s laptop. Boyer smashes it, Wally is prepared to kick the crap out of him when Boyer calls for the police. Wally slips Boyer’s cell phone back to him, then tells the cops that Boyer—who has been pretending to be a Giants official—broke into the stadium, and he’s the one who called in the fake bomb threat in Colorado and the fake shark sighting earlier. The cops check the number, it matches what they have, so they haul him away.
Wally gives Russ a mitt, with a loving inscription burned into it. He realizes his scheme to catch the ball is over, but he no longer cares. He’s just happy to spend time watching the game with Russ. On the mound, Sykes is getting tired. After getting nailed in the elbow by a ball, he’s relieved. Unwilling to give up even though his father has, Russ thinks the pitcher relieving Sykes will pitch Bonds a homerun, and that homerun will go right into the Dodgers’ bullpen. Wally sneaks into the bullpen, where he meets up with Sykes. They make amends for Wally’s unethical behavior. Bonds hits a homerun in the opposite direction of the bullpen; Wally isn’t concerned. However, it hits the foul pole and bounces—right into the bullpen, where Wally catches it with the mitt he got for Russ.
Wally tries to get back to Russ through a sea of reporters. He barely manages to slip the ball to Russ before being hauled off by police. He’s sent to a minimum-security prison. Russ visits him at the first opportunity and reluctantly explains that he sold the ball for millions. Of course, it wasn’t the real homerun ball—it was a ball he had signed earlier by Barry Bonds. Russ still has the actual ball.
There are a lot of really nice moments here, and quite a few twists and turns in the story that transcend the average sports movie, even while it fits very comfortably in the genre. There’s nothing here that could be called bad, but there are a few things that could be better. While well-written overall, there are a few moments where the dialogue relies a little too heavy on clichés, and other moments where it’s pretty on-the-nose. This speaks to one of the few major problems here: the characters, while interesting in the broad strokes they’re given, are never really dug into deeply. They’re all interesting enough that I wanted to know more, but we never really get it.
Wally’s an interesting case. He has a pleasant, attentive, caring mother. He has an ex-wife who, one assumes, is both intelligent and driven, and their son seems to follow in her footsteps. So where did Wally go wrong, in being a screw-up? Did he really just get in over his head in an effort to make a quick buck? There’s a hint at something deeper in his not finishing college, and his belief in a general sense that he’s a fuck-up (rather than believing just the gambling and dealings with Campese the landed him in jail was his only real misstep). Is he following in the footsteps of his unseen father, or is it something else? He seems intently focused on get-rich-quick schemes. In the script right now, his primary motivation for getting rich quick is to pay back Campese and quit his Dodger job.
What if it were more complicated than that? What if there was no Campese, no mob threat, no money owed? That subplot is really the only weak thing in the script, because it relies so heavily on clichés. It’s tied up pretty nicely, but pretend for a second that the subplots not even there. If Wally is just one of those guys who gets fixated on wealth, but putting more emphasis on another of Wally’s goals—mending his family. He landed in jail because (among other things) he couldn’t support his family, and he discovers something that will supply them with so much wealth that none of them will have to work a day in their lives. Getting that ball becomes symbolic of his quest to get everything back to what he sees as “normal,” before he screwed everything up. This would strengthen his realization that it was never the money—it’s the time spent together, bonding.
What’s Russ’s story? He’s a mathlete, obviously gifted, but he also understands the practicalities, knowing exactly how Sykes needs to adjust his throw, but—even more impressively—knowing exactly where Sykes was going throw and being able to connect with the pitch and knock it out. Even if you know what you’re looking for, this isn’t the easiest thing in the world to do, which leads to the impression Russ is at least a halfway decent athlete, in addition to being a math whiz. This is a dichotomy that could be really interesting. What’s his life like at school? Is he popular among nerds or jocks, or both? Or everyone? Or nobody, because he’s not really a math nerd or an athlete—he just loves baseball to a degree that alienates fellow students. Beyond this, when he has conflicts with Wally, Russ still plans to help him. Why? If he really thinks Wally is only interested in the monetary value of the ball, why continue to help him? A little more depth into the character might explain this.
Sykes is a pretty interesting character, too. It’d be interesting to see him with the team. His interactions with the wise catcher, Hiruma, are really nice, but it seems like with Sykes being a fairly bad pitcher at the start, then getting his groove back, it’d be nice to see a change in attitude from his teammates. It’s easy to imagine they don’t like him at first, because he does nothing but give up runs. Do they like him more once he starts winning games from him, or do they like him less because they’re jealous of the attention he’s getting or the younger players don’t like an “old-timer” stealing their glory? A lot of interesting conflict could come from his interactions with the team, which could then motivate or complicate some of the decisions Sykes makes through the script.
A minor story issue: I admit being fairly ignorant of how parole and work-release programs work, but I can’t figure out why Wally is hauled back to jail at the end. Is it because he’s fired from his job? Although I recommend getting rid of the Campese/Boyer subplot, if the author keeps it, wouldn’t he be exonerated by Campese and Boyer being arrested, which would hopefully bust their gambling scheme wide open? This isn’t to say I think it’s a bad choice to send him back to prison at the end—I liked that. I just don’t understand why, so the reasons should be clearer.
And as a practical issue, though the use of real teams and players add to the authenticity of the script, it might be a tough sell convincing Major League Baseball and the Dodgers to license the franchise when the script portrays team employees as corrupt (i.e., running gambling rackets, fixing pitches). Same with Barry Bonds, who is notorious for not allowing his likeness or name to be licensed without a dump-truck full of money. Perhaps going with fictionalized teams and players—but clearly patterning him after Bonds—would make this an easier sell, if less authentic.