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Shelton’s time with the Wings inspired ‘Bull Durham’



Ron Shelton never imagined his script unfolding this way. Instead of realizing a dream he nurtured since he was knee-high to a Louisville Slugger and becoming a Major League Baseball player, the former Rochester Red Wing infielder’s narrative took him on a different, more rewarding journey—from Silver Stadium to the silver screen. And the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter will be the first to tell you that his reel life was dramatically influenced by his real life. Especially the two seasons he spent chasing the dream at the old ballpark at 500 Norton St.

scottteaser-215x160Although Shelton appeared in just 66 games in 1971, batting .260 with a homer and nine RBI, he helped manager Joe Altobelli’s powerhouse club win both the Governors’ Cup and Junior World Series. And Shelton’s Rochester experiences provided plenty of fodder for his classic 1988 romantic comedy, “Bull Durham,” which Sports Illustrated labeled the best sports movie of all-time.

“We had a fun-loving, close-knit team and there definitely are characters from my Rochester days that are in my movies,’’ said Shelton, who will be inducted into the Red Wings Hall of Fame at Frontier Field Friday evening. “For the most part, they are composite characters, a combination of several guys. I’ll never name names, but I know that some of the fellas from that team have recognized parts of themselves in those characters.”

Shelton’s Red Wing experiences clearly inspired two of the movie’s main characters – Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh. Davis, the steady, career minor-leaguer catcher played by Kevin Costner, was loosely modeled after Altobelli, while LaLoosh was influenced by Steve Dalkowski, a hard-partying flame-thrower who pitched briefly with the Wings and became a baseball legend regarded by some as the fastest and wildest hurler of all-time.

“Even though the Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh characters aren’t necessarily Joe and Steve, the dynamic inspired by Alto and Dalkowski certainly is a Red Wing-influenced part of the film,’’ Shelton said. “Alto managed me not only in Rochester, but also in the lower minors in the Baltimore Orioles organization, and he was always regaling us with stories about Dalkowski, who once threw a ball so hard he accidentally took a guy’s ear off.

“Joe said the Orioles were trying to get Steve to lay off the booze, so they decided to room him with a steadying influence like Alto. The experiment failed miserably. Alto joked that he spent most of his time rooming with Dalkowski’s suitcases because Steve was always out drinking.”

In reality, Crash Davis may be based on Shelton himself. Of all the characters the filmmaker has created in his distinguished career, none strikes closer to home than Crash. Like Crash, Shelton was a career minor-leaguer, who never had quite the talent nor the luck to make it in the big leagues. He never possessed Crash’s power, but he was a solid player, batting .253 with 10 homers, 133 runs batted in and 97 stolen bases in 512 minor league games.

Shelton gave up on his big-league dreams following the 1971 season after Baltimore dealt him to Detroit and he was assigned to the Tigers Triple-A club. He was 26 at the time with a wife and young child and a paltry salary. It was an agonizing decision, and for several years Shelton stayed away from ballparks and kept the fact he had played professionally a secret. He eventually wound up going back to college and earned a master’s degree as a sculptor. To support his family, he worked a procession of dreary jobs that included driving trucks, cleaning bars and digging ditches. At night he would paint and write, and, although that provided a creative outlet, he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. Occasionally, Shelton the movie buff, would catch a matinee, just as he had so many times while playing for Rochester.

“It dawned on me that maybe I should try my hand at screenwriting,’’ he said. “I had always loved the visual aspects of films, and I had some stories I thought might be worth telling.”

Shelton took a match to the first two scripts he wrote, but didn’t allow the strikeouts to torch his new dream. Five years spent toiling in a sport where failures far out-number successes taught him to be persistent. In 1982, nearly nine years after he started, one of his scripts was filmed. The movie was called “Under Fire,” starring Nick Nolte. Shelton followed that with “The Best of Times.”

But it wasn’t until “Bull Durham” was released that he became one of Hollywood’s heavy hitters. The film, starring Costner, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, was a hilarious portrayal of life in the minor leagues. It became a box office smash, grossing more than $50 million, and earning Shelton numerous awards, including an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. In addition to bringing him money and fame, “Bull Durham” enabled Shelton to come to grips with his baseball past.

“It was a catharsis for me,’’ he said. “It gave me a chance to affectionately treat a world I always loved, but had to leave.”

Shelton went on to win more critical acclaim for movies such as “White Men Can’t Jump,” a homage to trash-talking, hoop hustlers starring Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes; “Blaze,” which starred Paul Newman as Earl Long, the zany former governor of Louisiana who had an affair with a stripper; and “Cobb,” a darkly disturbing tale about Baseball Hall of Famer Ty Cobb, starring Tommy Lee Jones.

Through the years, he’s been approached about doing a sequel to “Bull Durham” and actually wrote an outline for it, but the deal fell through. And maybe that’s just as well.

“The characters became beloved, and you wonder if people really want to revisit them or leave them be in the sweet memory of where we left them,’’ he said.

Crash, Nuke and Annie Savoy will be revived next year on Broadway in “Bull Durham,” the musical. Adapting his signature film to stage was as difficult as facing Clayton Kershaw with an oh-two count.

“It was challenging because, my background is telling stories on film, where I can manipulate things until we get it perfect,’’ he says. “On stage, I can’t draw you close to an actor’s face the way I can with a camera. But I believe we’ve pulled it off.’’

Shelton, who will turn 72 on Sept. 15, also is juggling several other projects, including a film about a fictional NFL backup quarterback and another about the life of legendary New York Jets signalcaller, Broadway Joe Namath. Later this year, a Shelton comedy starring Morgan Freeman and Jones will hit movie theaters.

He says he is deeply honored and looking forward to returning to Rochester for the first time since attending a 25th-year reunion of the 1971 team in Silver’s final season.

“I can’t really put into words what the induction means to me, and I’m in the business of putting things into words,’’ he said. “Although I was only in Rochester for about a year and a half, my time there had a profound and lasting impact on me. It definitely influenced my films. This kid from Santa Barbara has a deep connection with Rochester.”

It was a place where one dream ended but another dream was launched.

Best-selling author and national honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

One comment

  1. Great article Scott. Makes me proud to be a Rochesterian.

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