“All basketball players,” NBA coach Phil Jackson once said, remarking on Michael Jordan leaving the NBA for a shot at baseball in the minor leagues, “fantasize about being baseball players.”
A lot of others, too. Besides basketball players, the list includes football players (Deion Sanders, Bo Jackson), comedians (Bob Hope, Billy Crystal, Bill Murray), actors (Charlie Sheen, Kurt Russell, Kevin Costner, George Clooney), directors (Ron Shelton, Woody Allen), rock stars (Bruce Springsteen), rappers (M.C. Hammer), presidents (Dwight D. Eisenhower), and even writers (George Plimpton wrote one of his best books, Out of My League, about pitching to Willie Mays’ and Mickey Mantle’s All-Star teams at Yankee Stadium).
Will Ferrell, though, tops them all: he’s the first 47-year-old ever to try and crack the major leagues.
Ferrell Takes The Field, the actor’s engaging special for HBO, is part charitable project and part tribute to longtime A’s All-Star Bert Campaneris who, in a publicity stunt fifty years ago, became the first major leaguer to play all nine positions over the course of a game. Ferrell does “Campy” one better: in five Grapefruit League exhibition games, he plays all nine positions on the field, takes a turn at-bat as designated hitter, and puts in half an inning coaching third base.
The tour kicks off at an Oakland A’s-Mariners game, where Ferrell, “in a beast mode,” charges onto the field then stops to ask his teammates, “Where do you guys put your wallets?” (“In your locker,” someone off-camera shouts.) Later, he steps into the batter’s box, takes a look at a 94 mph fastball and quickly concludes, “There’s all this hoopla about the home run. To me, the most exciting play in baseball is the sacrifice bunt.” Slapping one on the grass five feet in front of the plate, he declares the bunt “a symbol of America’s greatness.”
Dreams are shattered when, after just one inning, Oakland general manager Billy Beane—who inspired the book and movie Moneyball—trades Ferrell to the Seattle Mariners, whom the A’s happen to be playing that day. “Billy Beane,” grunts a disgusted Ferrell, “is a blood-sucking liar…all about numbers and crap. He doesn’t know about heart.”
Within minutes, though, Ferrell finds he can relate to his new Seattle teammates because several are Latino and, he says, “I was almost born in the Dominican Republic.” After being released by the Mariners, he is picked up by his home team, the Los Angeles Angels, and heads to center field to the sound of pounding Carl Orff-like music. He tells Mike Trout, the big league’s premiere player, “They’re taking you out.” Trout is astounded: “What?! I don’t think so.”
Ferrell then asks, “Can I borrow your cap and glove. I left mine…”
“I want those back,” Trout shouts as he returns to the dugout.
Despite that short-lived moment of glory, Ferrell is soon an ex-Angel and gets picked up by the Chicago Cubs—but wears an Arizona Diamondbacks jersey instead. Cubs team executive Mike Russell decides, after half an inning, to pass on Ferrell: “We’re looking for guys with ability. Knowledge of desert wildlife isn’t important.”
Ferrell Takes the Field is laid-back humor, affectionate towards the game and those who work in it. It’s fun rather than funny. Some may be disappointed that this isn’t slapstick comedy of the sort you see in an Adam Sandler (or even a Will Ferrell) vehicle, but it’s nice that this docu-special, as it’s called, stays true to the game aside from the premise of a 47-year-old, slightly pudgy actor playing in pieces of five different major league exhibition games. There are no set-ups, no contrived situations.
If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to walk into a real game, this, as much as anything you’ll ever see, will show you. You will cringe, as Ferrell does, when he trots out to the shortstop and third-base positions hoping no one hits a screamer at him. When he fields, awkwardly, a one-hop single in the outfield and then fires the ball back to the infield—I use “fire” here loosely—you may nod and wonder if you could have done as well.
There are no stunts; Ferrell draws natural humor from the situations and then moves on. Playing catcher for the San Francisco Giants, a position you can really get hurt playing, Ferrell finds his thigh muscles can’t take the squatting, stands up, and calls for an intentional walk. Giants manager Matt Williams, feigning anger, kicks him off the team. By the next inning, he is pitching for the Dodgers and delivers an off-the-cuff line worthy, in its indecipherability, of Groucho, telling the pitching coach, “I throw a European curve ball.”
Ferrell Takes the Field might be called a vanity project if it wasn’t for charity, benefitting organizations dedicated to fighting cancer, including Cancer for College, a group founded by Ferrell’s fraternity brother at USC, Craig Pollard, whose hopes for a baseball career were derailed by cancer (as Ferrell’s was by comedy).
The docu-special works because baseball is the only sport where an ordinary guy can be a creditable fake athlete. Ordinary guys can’t pretend to be a football player unless they’re just going to try a kick, and facing off against LeBron James is simply out of the question. As Ferrell sums it up, “There’s nothing more American than going to the ball park, having a hot dog, and watching nine guys from the Dominican Republic play baseball.”