Yeah, and I got my enchanted jock strap!
- Carl Carlson, in response to Homer Simpson’s claims of owning a magic bat.
Perhaps the worst thing about The Natural, the 1984 Robert Redford vehicle, is the sports-talk radio nonsense that it seems to support. In the world of The Natural, striking out isn’t just bad luck or a lack of talent; it’s a moral failing. This is how far too many fans view their local baseball players, and it’s as idiotic in real life as it is on film.
The Natural has a lot in common with your typical misogynistic 80s horror movie in which only the chaste have any hope of surviving. Roy Hobbs is gunned down in the opening scene of the movie for having the temerity to pick up an attractive young lady. Moreover, this incident apparently haunts him for almost two decades as Hobbs both blames himself for being shot (which is idiotic) and feels embarrassed about the situation (which allows him to be blackmailed. “Hey, Hobbs, throw the game or I’ll show the pictures of how you were shot 30 years ago.” Uhm, Ok.). It is no small irony that besting a thinly veiled Babe Ruth figure known as The Whammer, a man who never met a drink or a floozy he didn’t like with apparently no impact on his quality of play, led to this allegedly embarrassing situation.
We will return to the role of women in The Natural in a moment, but first we should discuss magic. There is a place for magic in movies, and even in sports movies, but it helps if there is some internal logic to that magic. Roy makes a magic bat out of a tree that was struck by lightning. This tree has special significance as Roy’s father died underneath it. The story of the bat (known as Wonderboy) is one of the movie's strong points, but that strength is undercut later when other forms of magic seem to trump the magic of lightning and dead fathers. (Wonderboy also inspires the immortal line, “I boned it so it wouldn’t chip.”)
The magic of the bat is apparently shareable, as the team adds lightning-bolt patches to their jerseys which inspire a long winning streak, and the bat itself allows Hobbs to shatter the clock in the scoreboard at Wrigley Field. The New York Knights should have been unstoppable; however, it turns out the magic bat only works if you’re not hanging around with harlots.
One would think that after being shot by a crazy hot chick at the age of 19 that Hobbs would show some skepticism towards being seduced by another one, but he quickly falls for Memo, the coach’s niece despite ol’ Pops warning him that she's “bad luck.” And boy, is she ever. Memo is set up with Roy when Roy won’t take a bribe from “The Judge”, the team’s evil owner. You can tell he’s evil because he sits in an unlit office all day in the dark probably strangling puppies. The Judge wants Roy to throw games so that he can force out Pops the manager, and providing Roy with easy tail was apparently his best idea. It’s probably a good thing he’s not an owner anymore.
The only cure to Memo's curse is Glenn Close who shows up wearing white and being lit by the sunlight in an angelic manner, and takes Roy to the Soda Shop to reconnect. It’s all very symbolic. It’s also a little strange as it turns out they have a son together. (Interestingly, in the book version (at least according to Wikipedia), Roy rebuffs Iris (the Glenn Close character) because she is a grandmother, going so far as to discard a letter from her without reading it because it mentions that she is a grandmother. What a jerk.)
The whole movie is basically a series of slumps and hot streaks based on who Roy is currently hooking up with, scenes of threats from the judge, and Roy looking all stoic and noble.
Eventually he’s poisoned by a donut with makes his old bullet wound start to bleed through his stomach. If that sounded crazy to you, well, just pretend that the poison donut was baked by a guy using sugar from the burned sugar cane field where his father died. That’s what I do.
You’ve certainly seen the final game before along with the iconic scene where the lights explode. Before all of that happens, Roy breaks his bat. In the book version Roy is acting like a dick before the game and when his bat breaks he strikes out. He then goes on a bit of a rampage and (sort of) admits to throwing the game a la Shoeless Joe. In the movie version he breaks his magic bat which – remember – is imbued with the power of both lightning and his dead father, and instead switches to a bat made by the batboy in his spare time. This apparently imbues bats with a similar magical force as Roy crushes an enormous home run even though his poisoned donut bullet hole is profusely bleeding in an entirely non-Christ-like way.
The Natural is not without redeeming features. The soundtrack is pretty solid. Just like Major League, it involves both Randy Newman and an owner who wants to lose on purpose, and you can’t go wrong with Major League. Though hokey, the ending has become a classic cinema moment as has Bump Bailey’s untimely death.
However, all of the good will you may from the feel-good ending, the overcoming of adversity, the dumping of slutty blonds, and the turning down of bribes, will be lost when you get a look at The Natural’s kid throwing a baseball. If Roy Hobbs is The Natural, I think this kid's throwing motion puts paternity into serious doubt.
I mean, where did they find this kid? This makes Kathy Ireland’s field goal kicking in Necessary Roughness seem completely plausible. In the world where the son of the greatest baseball player ever throws like this, the Mighty Ducks trick formations all work, C. Thomas Howell and the guy from 30-Something really can beat the entire 1984 US Olympic Volleyball Team, Rocky doesn’t need to block, and Cole Trickle can really pass like 50 cars in one lap. It’s just terrible.
“The Natural” tries too hard in every respect. It beats you over the head like an old western. Good guys wear white, bad guys wear black, screwing people will get you shot or take away your feel for the curveball, umpires are routinely against the team you’re rooting for, as is the media, and the only reason you ever fail is because you didn’t have the fire or the passion or any of the other nonsense that meatballs complain about on the radio.
That said, there are some good things about The Natural:
1. I think it’s filmed well. There are a ton of memorable shots in The Natural.
2. Tearing the cover off the ball, and throwing it so hard that it gets stuck in the netting.
3. Bump Bailey’s untimely demise.
4. The last scene, if you ignore the stupid bat boy.
5. The fact that Roy succeeds without his magic bat, perhaps implies that there was no magic bat after all.
6. The New York Knights logos and uniforms are actually pretty sweet.
7. Roy hits the reporter during his secret batting practice.