It is a late November afternoon in 1998 and we are sitting in the center-field bleachers at the original Yankee Stadium in New York City. Atop the mound—an Aaron Judge tape-measure home run away—stands Kevin Costner. From our vantage point, the 6-foot-1 actor looks like a runty Tee-ball player.
On this chilly autumn day, The House That Ruth Built has become The House That Costner Converted: a movie backdrop for the Hollywood star’s last baseball flick, “For Love of the Game,” which would hit the movie theaters 10 months later.
There are roughly 300 of us extras on the set and our thespian skills are being put to the test. See, it’s about 40 degrees in the South Bronx, but we are supposed to act as if it is a comfortable late summer’s eve. Even Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep would be hard-pressed to make it look warm when you can see your breath.
Stephanie Moulis, our team leader, grabs a megaphone and shouts: “OK, people, let’s make a movie! Coats off! Ski caps off! Boom box off! We’re ready to roll!”
Costner is toeing the rubber, playing quite convincingly, Billy Chapel, an aging Detroit Tigers pitching legend who is re-examining his life choices while throwing a perfect game against the Yankees. In this particular scene, Costner is supposed to field a third-inning line drive off the bat of a fictitious Bronx Bomber. Stephanie yells, “Action!” and Costner follows through with his pitch, then snags the drive that is actually thrown to him by a catcher off-camera.
As instructed, we leap to our feet and cheer in anticipation of a Yankee hit. Then, we let loose with a collective groan when we see that it has been caught. Stephanie screams, “Cut!” and we throw on our jackets.
While Costner and director Sam Raimi examine the scene on an on-field monitor that looks like one of those old National Football League replay booths, I pan the crowd. Many have resumed reading either the New York Times or the tabloids. A few people have their noses buried in the Michael Shaara novel upon which the movie is based. Other extras play cards. Some listen to music on headsets. Some do crossword puzzles. Some snooze.
Stephanie notices that I’m scribbling copious notes into my reporter’s pad. She asks if I’m enjoying my first – and only – paid acting role. “It’s fun,’’ I reply. “But I didn’t anticipate so much down time. It’s like, ‘Lights! Camera! … Inaction!’’’ She laughs at my response.
Life as an extra can be ordinary. I make $70 a day, and eat some provided food that is about as tender as my old baseball glove. But it is fun nonetheless. And it gives me some column fodder as well as an insider’s view about how movies are made.
This group of extras is about eclectic as the Big Apple itself. I talk to film students from New York University, off-duty policemen who have appeared in television shows, such as “NYPD Blue,” a down-sized Fortune 500 company executive between jobs, several homeless people and a lovely Jewish grandmother from Brooklyn, who offers me some scrumptious homemade chicken soup from her thermos.
It is intriguing to see how the movie is painstakingly shot, often out-of-sequence. I learn what perfectionists lead actors and directors can be. The line-drive scene takes 17 takes, prompting one impatient extra to bellow: “Hey, Kevin, this isn’t rocket science. This is baseball.”
Actually, it’s baseball and filmmaking, and this is a time when Costner is at the top of his game at both. His previous two baseball movies—“Bull Durham,” written and directed by former Rochester Red Wings infielder Ron Shelton, and “Field of Dreams”—were smash hits at the box office and have become classics. One of the things that makes those films, as well as this one, credible is Costner’s baseball skills. He is the most believable ballplaying lead actor I’ve seen on screen, slightly edging sweet-swingers Robert Redford (“The Natural”) and Tom Selleck (“Mr. Baseball”) and pitcher Charlie Sheen (“Major League”).
As we move to the box seats behind home plate, I watch raptly as the then-43-year-old Costner throws some more. His delivery is fluid. There’s no speed gun on the premises, but I’m guessing his pitches are in the 70-75 mph range. During a break, Costner comes over and we briefly talk a little baseball. I mention my Rochester connection with Shelton, and he perks up.
“Ronnie could play a little,’’ Costner says, smiling. “I definitely learned a lot from him about how to make the game come alive on the big screen.”
After signing a bunch of autographs, and thanking the extras, it is back to work. We shoot two more scenes. At 11 p.m., a good 14 hours after we started, Stephanie tells us it’s a wrap. My acting career is officially over, two days after it began.
The following December, I attend a screening at a local theater. It is neat seeing how “For Love of the Game” was pieced together. I would love to tell you that at such and such a point in the movie you can see my mug, but I can’t. I’ve probably watched reruns at least 15-20 times, in hopes of proclaiming, “There I am! There I am!” Since they computer-generated the 300 of us to fill out the 55,000-seat stadium, I probably am there, in several places. But no close-ups. Alas, like so many aspiring thespians, I can lament how my best work wound up on the cutting room floor.
Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.