Ken Burns must love Hardball, if only because it assigns our national pastime the cherished role of Holy Redeemer. Keanu Reeves stars as the white coach of a black Little League team in this inner-city weepie, and if enduring Burns' multipart documentary was like watching grass grow, sitting through Hardball is like picking daisies in a baseball sandlot. One by one, the things that separate whites from blacks in this country are eliminated until all that remains is a love for the game and love for one another. Sounds hard to swallow, I know, but Hardball is at least based on the real-life memoir of Daniel Coyle, who took a leave of absence from his magazine-writing job to coach the First Chicago Near North Kikuyus. The name is a wonderful hybrid of an African tribe and the team's corporate sponsor. Other teams included the Merrill Lynch Watusi and the Morgan Stanley Mau Mau.
Coyle coached in Chicago's Cabrini-Green, which, with more homicides than Vermont, North Dakota and Montana combined, was the most notorious housing project in the country at the time. Other projects were even more dangerous, but Cabrini-Green happens to be only a few blocks away from Chicago's Gold Coast, which rivals Manhattan's Upper East Side in per-capita wealth. I remember when former Mayor Jane Byrne moved to Cabrini-Green in order to draw attention to the neighborhood's plight, then moved back to the Gold Coast three weeks later, her point apparently having been made. I also remember when a 7-year-old boy was killed by sniper fire on his way to school one morning, an event that finally galvanized the government into trying to do something about this two-square-mile war zone, which was being annihilated by rival gangs.
If I'm not mistaken, Hardball never mentions that we're in Cabrini-Green, although you can see Sears Tower in the distance. And the Kikuyus have become the Kekambas, which I assume is an African tribe. The movie, which is directed by Brian Robbins (Varsity Blues and Ready to Rumble) and adapted by John Gatins, has left out some of the interesting texture of Coyle's book, like the fact that batting and pitching signals had to be adjusted so as not to be confused with gang signs, or the fact that uniforms had to be chosen in gang-neutral colors. Another word for this kind of texture is life, and although Hardball doesn't exactly flinch when confronted with a world where the simple act of playing a baseball game can seem like a miracle, it can't help but soften the edges. And after more or less leaving our tear ducts alone for most of its length, it finally goes after them with a Power-Vac.
Another change from the book is Reeves' Conor O'Neill, who's a gambling addict with a specialty in professional sports. In the first scene, Conor is sitting in a church pew, his head buried in his hands. When a priest asks him if he's searching for something, he says, "Yeah, I'm looking for the Bulls to cover the spread." Instead, with every bookie in town wanting a piece of him, he strikes a deal with an old friend: $500 a week to coach the most foul-mouthed collection of tots this side of South Park, Colo. "You suck, just like my girlfriend," one of them says to another. "I'm so tired of your shit, bitch," another one announces. This from-the-mouths-of-babes trash-talking, which jacked the rating up a notch to PG-13, gives the movie a nice boost. As does the African American lingo and flava. (Instead of Bad News Bears, it's Bad Newz Bears.) The young cast, many of them recruited from the Chicago area, more than hold their own with Reeves.
Surprise. Still, Reeves does a good job of staying out of the way, letting the players shine. (In fact, they seem to make it all the way to the championship game, also known as "the ship," without any visible coaching.) Hardball must think it's thrown us a curve by having the coach wind up the saved one, not the savior, but we've all seen that pitch before. A true curve would be if the movie showed us how Cabrini-Green ended up the way it did, a victim of government neglect and political hardball.