The mavericks of baseball

BY MATTHEW BYRD | JULY 24, 2014 5:00 AM

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3.5 out of 5 Stars

Dan Bernstein, a Chicago radio host who is both smarter and snarkier than the average sports talker, was recently discussing the MLB All-Star Game when he remarked, “Baseball is definitely the most human sport around.” I’ve always been more of a football fan, preferring its brute physicality and complex strategic underpinnings to the “American Pastime,” but I think Bernstein’s right, even if I can’t articulate why. It’s one of those comments that makes sense, even without explanation or evidence.

Bernstein’s remark rolled around in my brain as I watched The Battered Bastards of Baseball, a documentary from directors Chapman and Maclain Way that was picked up by Netflix to air exclusively on its streaming service.

The film traces the life of the Portland Mavericks, an independent minor league team that operated in Portland, Oregon, in the 1970s. The aptly named Mavericks were unique in that they were the only minor-league team.

The Mavericks were the brainchild of Hollywood actor Bing Russell, who possessed not only an obsessive love for baseball but also a tremendous understanding of it. Bing’s son Kurt (yes, that Kurt Russell) explains how his father had hundreds of pages of baseball fielding patterns in his room, and we see a young Kurt star in baseball fundamentals videos, which were used by major-league clubs to educate some of the more dim-witted professional athletes.

The Mavericks lived up to their moniker in about every way imaginable. Without financial support from a major-league club, the Mavericks couldn’t afford conventionally talented players, so they held open tryouts. The Mavericks comprised players who couldn’t make it with major-league affiliated clubs, either because they drank too much, gambled too often, grew their beards too long, or stated their opinions too loudly. In the patriarchal environment of baseball, the Mavericks were the only team with a female GM, then later, the first Asian-American one. 

On the baseball diamond, the Mavericks were giants. The film briskly moves through the team’s high-speed focus on stolen bases and deadly efficient pitching that make it easy to understand why the city of Portland did the same 40 years ago. The Mavericks consistently broke minor-league attendance records, and the fans’ enthusiasm is shown to rival that of older clubs in bigger cities.

There’s a tradition with a broom which, when discovered, left me jealous of the Portlanders lucky enough to be in the stands on those summer nights.

If the film left anything to be desired, it’s faces. We get to go in depth into the mind of Bing Russell (which is a mind worth mining), but the actual members of the team sometimes seem to blend together, only achieving a few seconds of summary. This is especially odd, considering these players were a rogue’s gallery of individualistic rebellion (one of the more amusing anecdotes in this film is just how many members of the Mavericks ended up in the witness-protection program). That the film sometimes glosses over the individual subjects is a little disappointing.

And yet, somehow, when the team eventually falls victim to the baseball powers that be (which despise them for fielding a competitive ball club without major-league assistance), you feel like something special has been disbanded. You can’t really explain why, but you can feel it.

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