The Natural turns 30 on Sunday, and we decided it would be unjust not to recognize it, so for this one we are breaking away from celebrating tenth birthdays to celebrate one of the great sports movies of all time. But maybe that’s where I should stop myself. Barry Levinson’s film, adapted from Bernard Malamud’s novel, is not so much a sports story but rather a tale of fame and fallen heroes and why we cling to iconic figures. I am pretty sure I could write pages and pages about why I love The Natural—its solemn nostalgia and ability to reawaken every part of me that loves every part of baseball—but I will try to contain myself.
The movie probably resonates with me more now than ever before. In a world of SportsNation, months of NFL draft coverage, and entire hours of television dedicated to the triumphs or failures of individual players, hype dominates the landscape, and expectations become all sorts of extreme. Can you imagine Skip Bayless and Stephen Annoying Smith dealing with a story like Hobbs’? Baseball stands as a beautiful metaphor for life, in which even the stars fail far more often than they succeed, and greatness can be snatched away in the blink of an eye. It also speaks to a simpler time, a sport not concerned with a fast or even watchable pace. Unfortunately, we all want more. More homers and strikeouts and highlights, more big names and bigger personalities. We place exorbitant expectations on young performers in sports, film, music, and everywhere because once we have seen great accomplishments, we want to see someone build upon them; we wanted Jordan Spieth to outyoung Tiger’s Masters record because records are meant to be and have to be broken in our overly competitive world. Pressure builds and builds around our idols and obsessions until they stand on the most delicate footing possible — forgotten as soon as they fall.
Roy Hobbs is not necessarily a fallen hero; he did no wrong, but circumstances outside of his control doomed him to fall short of the potential recognized by himself and others. We can never know if he would have fulfilled his Williamsesque prophesy, to walk down the street and hear people say: “there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was,” but I am confident he would have. In sports, I see largely ordinary men do extraordinary things. I know they are ordinary because they get hurt like us (Tony Canigliaro); they aren’t ready like us (Billy Beane); they fall from grace and from the public eye, never to reveal just how deep their talent runs (Josh Hamilton).
The film came out in 1984, when Josh Hamilton was three years old. He quickly became as close to a real-life Roy Hobbs as we will ever experience. Blessed with physical gifts as both a pitcher and hitter, there was not speculation about Hamilton’s potential: it was simply known that he would become one of the best players in the world, never mind that he was just 17 when drafted in 1999. The most “sure thing” prospect since another teen draftee, Ken Griffey Jr., Hamilton was believed to be able to make it in the majors as a pitcher or hitter (very Hobbsish), and would likely do so soon after the start of the new millennium. He was Bryce Harper before Bryce Harper picked up a bat, Mike Trout before he could tie his own cleats, godly in his talent and titanic in his potential. Then he showed the world how human he was.
Hamilton fell victim to injuries and drug addiction. Instead of bursting onto the scene with precocious teen talent, Hamilton struggled to find his way to the majors, finally making his debut in 2007. He was supposed to be the best in the league on his way to “the best there ever was” by then, well on his way to cementing his place among baseball’s immortals. Hamilton has shown his talent over the last seven years, even taking home an MVP in 2010, but one night stands out to me, a night that only young boys and Hollywood could have imagined. In 2008, the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium (in New York—the Hobbs comparisons become eerie) allowed the baseball world to feast its eyes on talent unlike most had ever witnessed. Hamilton swung 38 times in the first round. He hit 28 home runs, including 13 in a row at one point. Watching ball after ball sail into the New York night had a dreamy feel, and it made for what has to be the best ESPN programming in some time, which may not be saying too much (ahem, First Take).
People can’t even do that in wiffleball or video games. Hamilton—or Hobbs—is the player you create in a virtual world because you will never see him in ours, the slugger you pretend to be in your daydreams and fantasies. I didn’t just want to be a major leaguer while growing up; I wanted to be THE guy, the player with unlimited talent and even more potential—Nomar in 1997 or Pujols in 2001 or Ted Williams back in 1939. Hobbs makes me smile, but Hamilton breaks my heart. Hobbs ensures that he will be remembered forever, rising from the depths as he lifts a team and city from comparable doldrums, as he carries the Knights to the pennant in dramatic fashion. People may not say “the best there ever was,” but they would certainly say “there goes Roy Hobbs.” I do not know for certain if Josh Hamilton will reach that point, and that kills me. That magical night at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 2008 reminded every person witnessing of the deep well that contains Hamilton’s ability, a place that will perhaps never run dry but has certainly been greatly depleted. Hamilton is a hero to many, not only a great baseball player but also a human being who got his life back together having faced a crippling addiction. But I don’t think he will ever be a hero to himself, because he knows how good he could have been. One must hope he has an Iris Gaines of his own, reminding him of the present and future, lest he forever mire in the missed opportunities of the past.
I realize now that I have wandered from discussing how Redford shapes the film and augments its mythical aura, but I think this says a lot about his performance and about me as a viewer. He embodies Hobbs and Sundance and Johnny Hooker and all of his characters with seductive magnetism, reminding us of the lives we dreamed of as kids and still remember dreaming of as we age but fail to grow up. Redford’s appeal transcends gender or sexuality or time, I believe. In The Natural, who wouldn’t root for a country boy with a homegrown swing and hand-crafted bat? Who can help but root for the Knights, decked out in the regalia of a time when greedy owners and their corporate ambitions could be overcome by the divine prowess of a single man?
We often place superheroes’ expectations upon the shoulders of our superstars, calling upon them to bring in fans or sponsors or to save fading leagues. Rarely are we granted the privilege of experiencing a Roy Hobbs, but even rarer is the chance to witness someone with that talent who does not lose his years to gunshots or drug addictions. The Natural captures the simple beauty of Roy Hobbs, his smooth swing and smoother demeanor. One man, broken and wistful, conquering a greedy owner and a depressed city with easy strokes of the tool he created with his own hands. Even now, Harper seems to be heading down a dangerous road filled with injuries and mishaps. Matt Harvey has already lost one year of his career and may never be the same. Mike Trout has survived so far, and Giancarlo Stanton and a bevy of other young guns remain right on his heels. It wouldn’t be fun if we knew they would all fulfill their limitless potential, and it wouldn’t be tragic if one bad step or awkward collision didn’t stand between them and the Hall of Fame, between being the answer to a trivia question and the answer to our prayers.
Roy Hobbs emerges from the depths, but we know in the back of our minds our fallen gods don’t usually get so lucky, and that part of him will always wonder what could have been. For every Leonardo DiCaprio we have a Robert Downey, Jr.; for every beloved musician there’s one buried far too soon; for every Lebron there are countless careers derailed by physical and personal issues. We love Trout and Harper and Jennifer Lawrence and Lorde because if they’re doing it now, just IMAGINE what they can do when they’re full-blown adults! Especially now, in a world of social media and non-stop attention, it seems difficult to imagine these Hobbses staying the courses which seem so tantalizingly promising. I love The Natural for the baseball and bravado, but not everyone gets the chance to smash the lights. We wish redemption was always waiting there for us and for our heroes, but we know better. It’s just nice to forget for a couple hours.