Ron Shelton Joins 'From Phenom To The Farm:' Episode 68
It’s no coincidence that one aspect of “Bull Durham” adored by baseball fans was its authenticity. The film served as a glimpse into the rarely-seen life of minor leaguers—some skyrocketing to the big leagues, and others fighting just to, “keep going to the ballpark, and keep getting paid to do it.”
In his recently released book, “The Church of Baseball: The Making of Bull Durham: Home Runs, Bad Calls, Crazy Fights, Big Swings, and a Hit,” the film’s writer & director Ron Shelton details his life in baseball that preceded his life in movies, which led to every ounce of realism that graced movie screens during his directorial debut.
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In 1967, following the conclusion of his two-sport college career (he was also a standout basketball player) at NAIA Westmont College, Shelton signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Orioles. When Shelton arrived at Rookie-level Bluefield, it quickly became apparent that there were very few guaranteed roster spots—a consistent theme during his entire career.
“You’re not even thinking about the big leagues—you’re trying to think that day, that town, how to get your hits, make the plays, show that you can play the game at a high level,” said Shelton. “It’s all about who’s ahead of me, how do I beat him out, who’s behind me, how do I make sure he doesn’t get my job.”
Shelton asserted himself as a starting infielder during his professional debut with Bluefield, quickly getting promoted to Class-A Stockton after 19 games, and by his age-24 season he’d made it to Double-A. Life in the minor leagues during that era shared plenty of similarities with the minor leagues of 1988 or present day—long days at the ballpark, lengthy road trips, and downtime in temporary cities. For entertainment, Shelton and his teammates would take in matinees at a local theater, an early precursor to his post-playing career.
On the field, reaching the high minors in the Oriole organization meant any further advancement would require squeezing into one of the most talented rosters in baseball. Baltimore was coming off a 1966 World Series victory, and in the following decade would win another title and three American League pennants. The year Shelton signed, the big league Orioles had multiple Hall of Famers on their roster, including two in the infield, along with All-Stars and big league mainstays. For Shelton (and other O’s farmhands) it meant spots on the big league roster rarely freed up.
“It was always a tryout—and everybody will tell you that. Every day you’re fighting for your life,” said Shelton.
Shelton finished the 1971 season in Triple-A, but 1972 opened with a labor strike. With the season in doubt and a family to feed, Shelton chose to move onto a different phase of his life.
That decision eventually took him to Hollywood, where he parlayed a job reading scripts into a job writing scripts. Inspired after reading the script for “Platoon,” noting how authentic Oliver Stone’s Vietnam War epic felt (Stone having served in combat), Shelton to turned to what he knew in order to churn out scripts that felt real—the world of sports.
He first penned the script for the 1985 football film, “The Best of Times,” starring Kurt Russell and Robin Williams, before using his past life to create a masterpiece. For his directorial debut, Shelton brought readers into the world he lived for years. During his time in the minor leagues, Shelton played with many players like Crash Davis—vets trying to hang on— and every year he’d see a Nuke LaLoosh toting a million dollar fastball with zero clue as to where the ball was headed.
Audiences got sucked into the magic of the minor leagues, and “Bull Durham” became a hit—so successful a film that it helped in jumpstarting the golden era of MiLB that came in the 90’s. Shelton has continued to visit the world of sports, tapping into basketball with “Blue Chips” and “White Men Can’t Jump,” and golf with “Tin Cup.” Every Shelton sports film expertly taps into the mind of the athlete, and his style has resonated with moviegoers for over three decades.
“I think I can tell these stories from the athlete’s point of view, not the fan’s point of view,” said Shelton. “Because the athlete is looking at a different game from the fans, has a different take on everything.”
On the latest episode of ‘From Phenom to the Farm,’ former MiLB infielder and film director Ron Shelton joins to talk life playing the “Oriole Way,” stories from the set of “Bull Durham,” and the benefit of working with athletes on film sets.