Jon Hamm Celebrity Softball

Million Dollar Arm Is Everything Wrong With Sports Movies

A new movie theater opened in my home town and I love it! I’m getting out and seeing more films I want to on a regular basis because it’s so convenient. The only drawback is that every time I go see a movie there, no matter what it is, they show the trailer for Million Dollar Arm.

I haven’t seen the movie, but the trailer spoils the whole thing. Sight unseen this looks like a pile of cliches that Hollywood keeps pumping out because we keep watching. This makes me mad for a bunch of reasons

The White Savior

Imagine a movie about Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, two people who use sports to work their way out of poverty in India, taking the unlikely path of winning a reality show and learning an unfamiliar sport on the other side of the world. What do you think the poster of that movie would look like?

Million Dollar Arm Poster

The main protagonist in Million Dollar Arm is their rich, white, straight, American, male agent J.B. Bernstein. He’s on the poster, he has the unnecessary love interest,  and he’s played by professional handsome man John Hamm. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big Jon Hamm fan and what Mr. Bernstein did (with help from others) was innovative, but making him the lead falls into some uncomfortable tropes.

First, it shows Hollywood’s fear that a movie has to almost always star a white man to make money. How they know this when they hardly ever try anything else is beyond me. I love white people. I happen to be white myself, but we don’t need to have all the opportunities.

The Million Dollar Arm trailer immediately reminded me of another sports movie, The Blind Side, one of the most glaring examples of White Savior complex in film. They’re movies where amazing white people help hopeless people of color from their terrible life of drowning in stereotypes.

Maybe a White Savior movie could be an interesting or good if 1) it depicted the savee  as a three dimensional, non-stereotypical person with their own agency 2) it wasn’t already a trope. Like all my gripes with this trailer, this is another example of something we’ve seen too many times. It’s hardly Million Dollar Arm’s fault; it just got here last.

Based On A True Story, Kind Of

Because the white guy is the hero, they have to start changing the story right away. Unlike in the movie, The Million Dollar Arm website says that the idea of recruiting pitchers from India was as much, if not more, that of Berstein’s nonwhite partners Will Chang and Ash Vasudevan. Their characters have smaller roles in the movie than in real life.

The trailer shows Bernstein at the end of his rope. His agency on the brink after having a big client vultured away, almost exactly like in Jerry Maguire. The real Bernstein is a successful executive whose clients include Barry Bonds and Emmet Smith. It seems to indicate that losing one client would not break his firm. Unlike in Jerry Maguire, there is no way the commissions from getting Singh and Patel minor league contracts could save a business. It seems like a false urgency has been created for dramatic effect.

I don’t know why people like movies more when they are based on real events, but they do. That’s the only reason I can think that they would tell this story when they changed so much so it fit a predictable Hollywood formula.  Maybe the movie is drastically different, but Million Dollar Arm’s trailer is showing it going down a very well worn path.

A Not That Great True Story

This may be difficult to quantify, but Baseball is probably the hardest major American sport to master. Unlike Basketball or Football, players never come straight out of college or high school to play. Instead, they spend years developing in the minor leagues before they ever get a chance to play for the team that signed or drafted them. On the rare chance they do make it, there is no guarantee that they will stay or succeed at that level.

This is true of Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel in real life. One has already moved back to India and the other is pitching in Australia. I don’t say this to denigrate their achievements. It’s not easy to play baseball at a minor league level, but washing out of the minors is a fairly common story.

It’s also a story we’ve already seen on the screen in The Rookie. The Rookie was another Disney baseball film based on a true story (directed by The Blind Side’s John Lee Hancock). It tells the story of Jim Morris, a high school coach who tries out for pro ball as a promise to his team when they win their first championship. At age 35, he surprised everyone by throwing a 98 MPH fastball and being signed to a minor league contract by The Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The Rookie seems to hew pretty close to Jim Morris’ actual story, but it ends after he makes his first relief appearance for The Devil Rays in the majors. What it doesn’t show that that was about as good as it got for Morris. He hurt his arm the next year and was done. He pitched a total of fifteen ok relief innings in the majors. Again, not to put him down, but it’s a fairly common story.

It’s not that these stories aren’t interesting, but they’ve been shoved into the casing of a traditional Hollywood narrative and held up to be something more than they are.

The Antidote

R.A. Dickey
Like everyone else complaining on the internet, I have an agenda driven by personal bias. The thing that drives me craziest every time I see The Million Dollar Arm trailer is that R.A. Dickey’s excellent memoir has yet to be made into a film. With his bats named after mythical swords, crazy pitching face, and a trip up Mt. Kilimanjaro for charity, Dickey is already a folk hero. His book tells the story of reinventing himself as a baseball player with basically a trick pitch while struggling for years with sexual abuse, a broken home, medical setbacks, marital problems, money issues, and thoughts of suicide. He comes through it all and establishes himself as a starting Major League pitcher at an even older age than Jim Morris. On top of that, he lived up to the hype, winning the Cy Young Award in 2012.

I want to see a movie based on this book so bad. It would have everything Hollywood would want in a story. I just hope they don’t buff out all the hardship and keep Dickey a flawed, damaged person working to better himself. The last thing we need is another Million Dollar Arm.