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Bad Santa tries coaching Bad News Bears

by Alan Schwarz
July 19, 2005

He's played an air-traffic controller, a psychotic murderer and even a really bad Santa. But in real life, Billy Bob Thornton plays one heck of a baseball fan.

The Academy Award-winning actor, an immense Cardinals fan since his youth in rural Arkansas, carries his love for the game to each of his movies--none more so than the new remake of "Bad News Bears," which opens nationwide on July 22. Thornton naturally plays the tattooed and profane boozer who coaches a group of Little League goofballs to their championship game. Very true to the original 1976 hit, the movie adds dozens of updated one-liners--he calls his foreigner-infested squad "a damn League of Nations--to keep today's kids laughing (and parents covering their ears).

I sat down with Thornton recently to discuss "Bad News Bears," his ill-fated professional pitching tryout, and learning his nasty slider from Bob Gibson.

ALAN SCHWARZ: Not too many people know you were a pretty good high school pitcher in the early 1970s who tried out with the Royals. But it didn't last very long.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: When you say you tried out for the Royals, people think they came and scouted me. But it was one of these tryout camps. There was me and another guy from my town who went out to try out for it. And I had my collarbone broken just standing around.

We were taking infield practice and I was just standing there talking with this other guy. We were behind first base, kind of where a first-base coach would be, but a little further back. I was just talking to him and the next thing I know, I'm laying on the ground. The third baseman had thrown over to first base, and the guy wasn't looking and it hit me right in the collarbone. I never got to throw. They never saw me.

AS: Could you have made it?

BBT: I don't know. I didn't throw the ball that hard. My fastball was maybe 81-82 mph. But I threw a lot of junk--that was my thing. I had a really good slider, I threw a curveball, and I had a screwball. I had a good changeup too.

Jeff Suppan came out to the set of "Bad News Bears," and I threw with him, and he said, "You threw me about seven major league sliders there. You could strike some guys out." So I don't know. But if I had made it in baseball, I would've been retired for a decade now. I'd be selling cars in Orange County or something.

AS: What does the story of "Bad News Bears" mean to fans? Why does it resonate with people?

BBT: People like to read stories or watch movies about underdogs and misfits. You get to see a bunch of losers come together and do OK. I think this is the message for kids--you have to love the game and love playing it, as opposed to concentrating on "I have to win or I'm a failure as a human being." You want to instill winning in them, but it doesn't have to be done in the heavy-handed way that all of our dads practiced.

AS: You say in the movie, "You can love it, but it doesn't always love you back."

BBT: It's like dating a German chick. [Note: That's his next line in the movie.]

AS: Walter Matthau was the Al Pacino of Little League coaches--what was it like playing the character he played so well in the original movie?

BBT: It's obviously a bit frightening. You have to think about that. But I've played Davy Crockett in "The Alamo" and I've played James Carville in "Primary Colors." When you're doing something like that, you have to forget there was ever another one. I didn't watch the movie before we did ours. I didn't watch it at all.

Subconsciously I had an image from when I had seen it when I was younger. I had seen it two or three times, but I purposely didn't watch it (again) because I didn't want to see Matthau, who was amazing, and sort of imitate him. Even if I had set about to not imitate him, it would've snuck in there. I would've tried to make choices to try to not be like him on purpose, and that's a bad trap to fall into, too.

AS: It's easy to think of "Bad News Bears" as a kids' movie, but it speaks to hardcore folks too--I heard that Augie Garrido showed it to his University of Texas team before the final of the College World Series.

BBT: It all starts in Little League. Whether it's Johnny Damon or whoever, it started in Little League. I think hardcore sports guys still know that that's a part of them. That's where we first got excited about the whole thing.

AS: You learned to pitch by throwing through a tire, right?

BBT: It gave you something that was close to what a strike zone is to teach you control. Most of the dads would hang it on a rope like a tire swing. My dad put a mattress against a tree so the ball didn't go all over the place. And he put the tire on the ground and leaned it up against the mattress so it was down here. He taught me to keep the ball down. I'll never forget him for that.

AS: Growing up a huge Cardinals fan in the 1960s, my guess is you wanted to be Bob Gibson, not Ray Washburn.

BBT: Gibson was my guy. I had learned my pitches out of his instructional book. He had a book in the '60s that had diagrams of how to throw a slider, a curve. I learned all of those pitches out of there. To me, Gibson was this amazing guy who actually took the time to teach me how to throw.

AS: To this day you have the Cardinals logo on your web site.

BBT: Absolutely. The Cardinals organization knows that I'm a big Cardinals fan. I'm to the Cardinals what Jack Nicholson would be to the Lakers, only geographically he has it made.

They invited me to throw out the first pitch one day and Gibson was there, and he was catching me. It made me nervous after having (bragged) about having been a pitcher, so I couldn't be like a politician and roll it up on the grass. So I threw a slider to him. He came out to the mound, put the ball back in my hand and said, "Man, that was a damn good slider, where did you get that?" and I said, "Out of your book!"

AS: So you're this big Cardinals fan, but you named your first rock band "The McCoveys," not "The Cepedas?"

BBT: None of the Cardinals' names sounded like band names at the time. There were bands called the Youngbloods and the McCoys. I thought, "McCoveys," "McCoys" . . . that sounds good. I was always a fan of Willie McCovey even though I wasn't a Giants fan.

AS: And I believe you have the largest baseball-cap collection among all living Oscar-winners.

BBT: I've got at least 250-300 caps. There's one that I've retired that I love. It was a Houston Colt .45s hat. I used to wear it in the press a lot because I loved pictures of me in that hat--".45s" on there with the orange.

AS: Do your Cardinals have the pitching this year?

BBT: I think so. If Suppan remains strong, and (Chris) Carpenter is doing great. I think the Cardinals simply have the most talented team out there. But it's not only about talent. The Boston Red Sox wanted to win that World Series last year and the universe was in them. I believe fate was the thing there.

AS: What can the Cardinals learn from the Bad News Bears?

BBT: I'm telling Tony La Russa that he has to show the team "Bad News Bears." A little bit of the underdog spirit can help them.


You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to alanschwarz@baseballamerica.com.

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