The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training
By Josh Wilker
Soft Skull Press, 2011
List Price: $12.95
Josh Wilker didn’t write his ode to “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training” to try to sell anyone on the film’s brilliance. His first chapter, in fact, is titled “Flaws.” Of course, these faults, which seem so readily apparent now, were invisible to the 9-year-old that watched the movie in a theater full of like-minded, cheering boys back in 1977.
When Soft Skull Press approached the author of last year’s hit “Cardboard Gods” (and the like-named website cardboardgods.net) about contributing to its Deep Focus series on movie criticism, “Breaking Training” was one of the first films that came to his mind. It made that much of an impression on Wilker.
It’s easy to understand why this implausible, cheaply made sequel would resonate with a young boy at the end of the 1970s. Its underlying themes include rebellion, independence, camaraderie, an unwillingness to give up and just plain fun. The gang that came to prominence in the original “Bad News Bears” movie, hits the road, minus a coach—or indeed any adult to supervise them—destined for a game in the Houston Astrodome in a stolen van driven by long-haired outfielder Kelly Leak, who despite his penchant for cigarettes is still several years shy of legal driving age.
Leak, who chased off the team’s short-lived successor to the original film’s Coach Morris Buttermaker, is drawn to Houston by a parallel agenda: tracking down the father who walked out when he was 5. They find him, and when the Bears find out they can’t participate in the Astrodome game without a coach, Mike Leak agrees to fill the role, setting the stage for the clash and resolution between father and son, who famously take the field after the authorities try to cut short the scheduled four-inning contest. As fiery shortstop Tanner Boyle ducks and dodges men attempting to clear the diamond, father and son spur the crowd into the “Let them play!” chant that became a signature moment for this otherwise forgettable film.
Wilker explores the significance of each of the main characters, focusing on Kelly Leak as the story’s hero. The first of several chapters on Kelly, titled “The Coolest Kid Who Ever Lived,” describes him as a “tough but runty” juvenile delinquent in the first movie who matured into a confident “version of the primordial American hero: He Who Stands Alone.”
“In American mythology, the hero stands alone until called reluctantly from solitude to action,” Wilker writes. “Kelly Leak was like the Kelly Leaks in every town, but he was also like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name or Billy Jack or Kwai Chang Cain. Even Fonzie avoided the shenanigans of the gang on ‘Happy Days’ until the need arose for him to materialize and make everything all right.”
Wilker’s analysis of the film and its characters is simultaneously universal and extremely personal. He discusses some of the political events of the Carter administration and how America morphed into something different when Ronald Reagan took over a few years after “Breaking Training” was released. Somewhere along the way, Wilker writes that the nation changed from a place where kids could play outside all day unsupervised into one in which parents schedule play dates and monitor Websites looking for child molesters. He says that beyond physical threats, a materialism spawned by increasing commercialism led to “a dawning era of superficial, consumer-oriented individualism and societal atomization.”
As readers of Cardboard Gods know, Wilker was sheltered from some of this, having grown up in rural Vermont. At 9, he was still child enough to lose himself in “Breaking Training.” Watching the movie now, it’s easy to dismiss it as simplistic schlock. All but the most hardened critics, however, will acknowledge its merits after reading Wilker’s take.
At 30,000 words, it’s not quite a book; it’s more of an EP followup to his debut release, when Wilker anchored episodes from his own upbringing to baseball cards collected along the way. Readers who enjoyed “Cardboard Gods” will likely enjoy this book as well, as the writing is uniquely Wilker. It’s not just the way he crafts his sentences, it’s the way he steps back to contemplate an idea and roll it over in his head to examine it from a different angle. He also has a vast store of pop culture references to place things in context.
If a thousand other writers took a turn on “The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training,” none would dissect it the way he does. Then again, how many of them, if given their choice of films to discuss, would have picked it to begin with?
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.