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Q&A: On his book tour, 'Bull Durham' Director Ron Shelton returns to the city that started it all

Ron Shelton speaks to Durham Bulls hitting coach Will Bradley by the dugout before throwing out the first pitch.
Josh Sullivan
/
WUNC
Ron Shelton speaks to Durham Bulls hitting coach Will Bradley before throwing out the first pitch.

It's a Saturday at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Hollywood director Ron Shelton has about 10 minutes until he's set to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

A member of the Bulls front office emerges from the dugout with two baseball gloves and hands one to the guest of honor. Shelton is wearing blue jeans, a white button-down shirt, and a blue hat adorned with the Duke Golf Club's logo. It's been a few years since he has thrown out the first pitch, and the former minor leaguer is worried. He's not in as good of shape as he was back then. Ron Shelton needs to warm up.

And he does. He zips the ball to his partner three whole times, windmills his arm around once, and walks toward the entrance of the dugout to talk shop with hitting coach Will Bradley.

"That's all I need," he shouts, with a smile.

More than three decades ago, Shelton came to the Triangle to direct the movie Bull Durham. Now he has a book, which is one-part memoir, one-part behind-the-scenes story, and one-part ode to baseball. In it, the director explains just how important the city of Durham was to getting the film made, and how it almost wasn't.

It's not a stretch to say that Shelton almost didn't make it on time to the ballpark — his flight from Los Angeles to Raleigh was canceled two times. He still hasn't had anything to eat or, more importantly, drink. His son was supposed to join him for one final father-son trip before he heads off to college in the fall, before his flight was also canceled. And an onslaught of fans with books to sign told Shelton stories of their relationship to the movie, with one woman even disclosing how her mother dated the real Crash Davis' brother. But for now, he makes himself at home in a familiar spot: on the baseball field.

From the dugout emerges Dalton Moats, a left-handed pitcher that will serve as Shelton's catcher for the evening. He's tall, with longer hair and sporting a big goofy smile below a pair of oversized sunglasses. Seeing the two stand together, it's impossible not to draw a parallel between the real-life Moats and the fictional Nuke LaLoosh, a character Shelton created.

"It's going to look like this," Shelton said, mimicking the slow, arching path to a catcher's mitt that is usually associated with these types of first pitches. But instead, he did his best to throw a strike. It came up a bit short.

"I threw that one about 54 feet," he said as he walked off the mound.

More than three decades ago, Shelton came to the Triangle to direct the movie Bull Durham. Now he has a book, "The Church of Baseball", that details the process. The book is one-part memoir, one-part behind-the-scenes story, and one-part ode to baseball. In it, the director explains just how important the city of Durham was to getting the film made, and how it almost wasn't.

The day before he flew to Durham, Shelton spoke with WUNC Social Media Producer Josh Sullivan from his hotel room in New York City.

Josh Sullivan: I'm going to lead off with what I promise is not a trick question. Do you have a favorite ballpark? And it's not necessarily limited to a professional ballpark.

Ron Shelton: My favorite ballpark that I ever visited was the old Tiger Stadium.

Sullivan: OK. How come?

Shelton: It had the overhanging, you know, upper deck and lower deck. So it felt very enclosed. It was deep dark green. It must have been good for hitters because the background was so dark. But you were close to the field. And I know people complain because there are pillars that you had to peek around like at Fenway, but I would trade being close to the field for me to look around a post now and then. I just felt like that was how baseball was supposed to be.

Sullivan: How old were you when you went there?

Shelton: I was playing baseball in AAA. We were in Toledo. I played for Rochester, and I looked at the map and saw that Toledo, which was Detroit's AAA team, was fairly close to Detroit. So we had a night game and I got a car and I went and I watched the game. Mickey Lolich pitched and Tony Oliva hit, and I came back in time for our game.

I thought 'Wow, that's a ballpark.' I later shot a scene there in a movie, so I just love that park.

Sullivan: What movie was that? Cobb?

Shelton: Cobb. Yeah.

Sullivan: Well, I went to the game yesterday, and when you walk into the Durham team store, right in front of you, you've got the t-shirts that say “a bunch of lollygaggers” on it. And you go over to the hats, and they've got hats with the shower shoes on them. And they're gonna be known as the Shower Shoes for a couple of games. When you look back at writing the script, these are moments — small, small moments — that are taking on a life of its own. I mean, they're on the front of the jerseys. Is that kind of surreal to you? And when you're writing a script like this, and when you're making the movie, can you imagine that these things are going to live on forever, as much as they do?

Shelton: No, it is still surreal to me. And when we made the movie, as you read in the book, I was just trying to get through the day. You know, it was a lot of fights, a lot of wars, the studio didn't like what I was doing. And so I just kept showing up to work every day, you know, face down and you know, focused on the day's job and trying to get through it and the thought that 34 years later I'm coming back to Durham with a book and the movie being iconic, it never dawned on me at the time.

Sullivan: Just for disclosure, I’ve read most of the book. I’m on chapter 13. I know you talked about coming back to the ballpark for the (movie’s) anniversary and meeting two children named Crash and Nuke and how wild that was to you. I know you spoke about how kind of run down Durham was when you were making the movie and how that fit. When you visit now, when you see pictures, and when you see videos, and see the way the area has evolved, what is that like knowing you might have had a little bit of a part in that?

Shelton: Oh, I'll take full credit for the rebirth of the Triangle and Durham.

I've been back a number of times, and I love what's happened. You couldn't find a restaurant when we shot in 1987. You couldn't find a restaurant. I mean, I found one, the Magnolia Grill or something. Downtown was boarded up, there's a scene of Crash walking through the town, and he takes a mailing tube out, and he looks at his batting stance in the window, all those stores were closed there, and those tobacco warehouses were empty. We see him walking by at night, all around the ballpark and all over the town. Now, there are condos and gorgeous apartments and shops. And you couldn't have imagined that in 1987. But I'm delighted to take full credit for the rebirth of the entire area.

Sullivan: I'll give it to you.

In Crash’s monologue, where he's telling Annie what he believes in — you know the list, wet kisses that last three days and the constitutional amendment banning the DH. Which is funny now, thinking about that line today, where now it's universal. High fiber. Were there parts of that list that were left out? Is there anything that didn't make the final cut?

Shelton: No. I wrote that as fast as I could type. I never changed a word. Well, the Susan Sontag line used to be Thomas Pynchon. And there was a reason we change that. But no, I was just trying to put a list together of things that didn't seem to go together. So you couldn't quite figure out who this guy was. You know, is he liberal? Is he conservative? Is he crazy? Is he just pulling her leg? You know, after that speech, you don't know anything about him, except that you want to know more about him.

Sullivan: Was Crash originally a switch hitter? Before you saw Costner in the cage?

Shelton: Oh, no, I would have never dreamed of finding an athlete, an actor who could actually do that. Kevin was switching in the cage. And I thought great, I can put the sun behind him. I can light him, well, you know, wherever the sun is, because he could hit from either side of the plate. Honestly, that was my thought. It was practical.

Sullivan: Honestly, the scene of his first at-bat, where you see him and he walks up to the bat boy, calls time and tells him to shut up. It's so simple, but I feel like that scene doesn't hit as well if you're switching (camera angles) back and forth, because he's a right handed hitter in that scenario. I feel like it really sets the whole tone.

Shelton: Yeah.

Sullivan: What is your relationship with baseball right now? Do you have the similar feelings as you did when you were a kid growing up in California? Has it evolved at all?

Shelton: I mean, I'm not obsessed with baseball. I have just done some work about it. My son just played high school baseball and graduated. I love to go to those games. I follow the games. I don't watch a whole lot on television. You know, I'm busy.

I think the game is part of the fabric of growing up in America and most great writers — American writers — have also written about baseball. I mean, Talese, and Updike and Richard Ben Cramer and Halberstam, and Walt Whitman and on and on and on. Why are they all writing about baseball? I mean, it's even, you know, the 1919 fix of the World Series is mentioned in The Great Gatsby, by Fitzgerald. So there's something about the game that is so intrinsically American. That, I think, is endlessly fascinating. I talked about that. There's a whole chapter in the book called ‘Why Baseball’ at the very end, you'll get to it. Why this fascination with a game? And I get my point of view on that, but yeah, I think it's a great game. I love the game. I love to watch it. I love to follow it. But as I said, my life is not built around baseball.

Sullivan: Do you still get that butterfly feeling in ballparks?

Shelton: Well, I don't go to ballparks very often. Dodger Stadium takes too long to get to, and the parking is too tough. My family, sometimes we go to UCLA games, because it's like a minor league stadium, and you don't have to cross the freeway to get there. And I go to minor league games if I'm going to town visiting, because I love that. Maybe one major league game a year. It's not like if you're from Boston going to Fenway or in New York going to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, and you just hop on the train and you're there. In L.A., it's a nightmare. So you know, I've seen more high school games than pro games.

Sullivan: Is there anything in particular, you're looking forward to being in the Triangle this weekend?

Shelton: Oh, yeah, I don't have to buy a drink in the Triangle. You know, everybody's picking up my tabs. No, my son's gonna join me from L.A. He's 18. And just sharing some some of this memory and history. And it's not even a memory anymore. It's ongoing. It's contemporary. So I wanted him to see some of this and feel some of this. And then I'll be there for three days. And it'll be great. So, no, as I said, I have a great fondness for the area. That growth grew out of this successful movie and then the resurgence of the town.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

Josh Sullivan is a social media producer with WUNC’s digital news team.
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