Since the first time I viewed it as an eight year old (around 1989), The Bad News Bears was something of a pedestrian, underdog baseball tale – something that was reinforced by the crass, raunchier 2005 remake substituting Billy Bob Thornton for Walter Matthau as the antihero Morris Buttermaker. However, the original (and, I suppose its successor) is not really about baseball, but about vicarious living to cover our own insecurities and downfalls.
Granted, sports as a metaphor for victory and defeat in life can be seen in any number of sports films, but The Bad News Bears is a touch different in that there is not a discernible “winner” and “loser” – or, more accurately, “hero” and “villain” in the binary-character-type sense. For example, in The Longest Yard (and its remake), the guards and the “sadistic” (straight from IMDB) warden are the villains, and convict Paul Crewe is the hero. In the Mighty Ducks franchise, Gordon Bombay (and his ducklings) are the hero matched against the devious Sharks and their coach — or a Viggo Mortensen-led Russian squad in the second one (a highly original villain). Hell, even The Natural pits Roy Hobbs against the media, and Teen Wolf juxtaposes Scott Howard against Mick, a man with no surname – something that blatantly screams “villain.”
In Bears, both Buttermaker and Roy Turner (Vic Morrow) are rather dislikable. Buttermaker because he drinks too much, remains distant from any possible emotional connection, smokes like a fiend (which was much more acceptable in the ‘70’s), and doesn’t want to be on the field. He’s merely coaching these kids for a paycheck. His indifference is repelling, and his transition to “coach” is brief in that it is soon overtaken by a gruff, mean competitive spirit.
Turner on the other hand is a dedicated coach – to a fault. He trains his players to be the best than can be, but this often entails public humiliation, condescension, and the occasional slap. (I’m convinced this wouldn’t be nearly as odious in the film if it wasn’t laid on his son, but films need drama.) The coldest moment of all in the film comes directly after this when Turner returns to the dugout and continues to manage the game, making substitutions to replace his son, whose mother escorts him off the field – and presumably into a custody battle.
In the end, you root for the Bears and Buttermaker. After all, they are the ragtag bunch, and he never hit one of his players, but our rooting for them in rather ominous in the sense that they are destined to become those that we condemn for being crass, indifferent, and unkind (Buttermaker and Turner). Sure, Buttermaker becomes a bit more diplomatic in the end and bit less competitive when he substitutes notoriously weaker players for stronger ones. And these weaker players, in turn, make incredible plays that bring the Bears close to a victory, but, in this near-comeback, their personalities becomes dingier with the spirit of cutthroat competition: Lupus, the shy, toe-headed pipsqueak whose name bespeaks weakness, offers a threat of rematch at the end; this is shortly after the second place trophy (though diminutive and rather patronizing) is thrown back at the Yankees at the end of the game; the racist Boyle continues with his epithets; and Buttermaker passes out celebratory beer to the murder of eleven-year olds.
In a sense, The Bad News Bears offers a foreshadowing commentary on sports parents – those who take their children’s sporting events to an ultra-serious level – while at the same time illustrating the contradiction between our chastisement of these parents and our tendency to embrace the competition itself. In other words, we condemn Turner and mostly dislike Buttermaker, but we champion the Bears’ spirit, even though its rife with vulgarity and cockiness – and aren’t these the two traits we disliked in the Yankees for the first 108 minutes of the movie? Aren’t these also the traits that we dislike in Turner?
Perhaps Turner striking his son pushed us from moderately dislike to totally abhor, but is this any worse than the Yankees being pelted with the second place trophy? And, perhaps we can condone their actions because they are children, and adults (like Tuner) are supposed to have the restraint that children do not. But what will become of these children given the lack-of-a-leash that Buttermaker has on the them?
Are the Bears – and the Yankees – not two teams of Turners-in-the-making?
And, this is why I found a new appreciation for The Bad News Bears. The film is, at once, exemplifies our love of competition and our simultaneous chiding of it – it just depends on whether or not it works in our favor.