The Perfect Game (2009)

Directed by William Dear. Clifton Collins Jr., Jake T. Austin, Moises Arias, Cheech Marin, Ricardo Trevino, Ryan Ochoa, Louis Gossett Jr. IndustryWorks (U.S. 2010).

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?C+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +2
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up

External Ratings

MPAA ?PG USCCB ?NA

Content advisory: Some excessive drinking.

By Steven D. Greydanus

There has been only one perfect game in the history of the Little League World Series, and the story is as unlikely and as perfect as any underdog sports-movie fairy tale.

In 1957, in Monterrey, Mexico, a ragtag group of boys came together to play the great American pastime, not yet an international passion. A local Monterrey man, César Faz, once an aspiring major-league player, taught them the fundamentals of the game.

The Monterrey Industrials, as they were called, came to the United States with three-day visas, crossing the border on foot, expecting to play, and lose, a single game in McAllen, Texas. They won. Then they won the next game, and the one after that, and so on, sweeping through regional and state tournaments.

Their visas expired, and they would have been deported if not for the intervention of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. They were skinny and undersized; they lacked money for food; they became exhausted by a schedule that didn’t always permit their accustomed siestas.

They arrived in Williamsport, PA, to play for a title that no non-American team had ever won. Even then, they didn’t understand what the championship really was. Their La Mesa, CA, opponents loomed an average of five inches above them and outweighed them by an average of almost 30 pounds.

Monterrey’s star player, an ambidextrous pitcher named Angel Macias who idolized Mickey Mantle, considered the right-handed hitters on the other team and decided to pitch right-handed. They then proceeded to play the only perfect game in Little League Series history, becoming the first non-American team to take the title.

Los Pequeños Gigantes, “the Little Giants,” they were called; César Faz wrote a book with that title about the team’s unlikely rise to championship, and in 1960 it became a Mexican documentary. Two years ago W. William Winokur turned the tale into a historical novel, The Perfect Game, subsequently adapting his own novel for the screen. The film is directed by William Dear, whose other baseball movies include the Angels in the Outfield remake and The Sandlot 3.

Winokur’s novel and screenplay doesn’t always stick to the facts. James “Cool Papa” Bell, a Negro League legend, appears here as a retired player working as a groundskeeper, offering sage coaching advice that’s ignored by the arrogant Yanqui teams but gratefully accepted by the Monterrey players. The genial parish priest Padre Estéban (Cheech Marin), a Mexican throwback to the old-school Hollywood men of the cloth, accompanies the players on their American road trip. A plucky gal reporter (Emilie de Ravin of “Lost”) initially resents being forced to write about kids playing baseball, but makes stars of them.

Faz (Clifton Collins, Jr.) is depicted as a dispirited boozer working in a steel mill in a sleepy pueblo until the local children and Padre Estéban persuade him to coach the boys. In reality, Faz was already coaching an amateur team, and the glass company he worked for asked him to form the Monterrey Little League team.

Incidentally, they were called the Monterrey Industrials for a reason: Monterrey was Mexico’s industrial capital, a booming steel town rather than the stereotyped shanty town the film depicts. That’s typical of a movie that is more about uplift than authenticity. The heart of the story is robust enough to survive the heavily clichéd treatment, but it’s a close call.

The screenplay is as pious as any Golden Age production (“Movie Mom” Nell Minow of Beliefnet aptly dubs the film “The Good News Bears”), with lots of Catholic-leaning talk about God, faith and miracles. Some of this is heavy-handed, though there are nice bits. Marin is affable as an avuncular cleric more comfortable delivering lines like “If God didn’t want us to play games, He wouldn’t have made them so fun” than repeating mea culpa, mea culpa at an unconvincing Mass (once during the Eucharistic prayer!). I like the religious and interracial ecumenism of a vignette in which the boys, unexpectedly deprived of Padre Estéban’s pre-game blessing, stubbornly refuse to play ball until a black Baptist preacher (Cool Papa’s nephew!) steps forward to pinch-hit, reading from Psalm 108“Your loving kindness is great above the heavens … With God we will gain the victory, and he will trample down our enemies.” (Incidentally, what translation is he reading? Not the KJV, or any actual translation I can find. Each of those line readings crops up in different translations, but I can’t find one that has them both.).

Like other recent period sports movies, most recently The Express, The Perfect Game is a tale of overcoming prejudice as well as odds. Jingoism, racism and sexism are all acknowledged in ways that are fairly obvious but hardly heavy-handed or out of place.

I’m tickled to see that The Perfect Game, despite its accented English dialogue and stereotypes, opened at #2 at the Mexican box office (behind How to Train Your Dragon) earlier this month (was it dubbed into Spanish?). Clearly this real-life tale of national pride and underdog triumph still packs a wallop south of the border — even more, perhaps, than something like America’s 1980 Olympic “Miracle on Ice” here. Perhaps as much as we love underdog stories, America is just too big and powerful in too many ways to fully appreciate what a 1957 Little League championship could mean to Mexicans even in 1957, let alone 2010. The Perfect Game is a reminder of what a game can mean.

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Mail: Re: The Perfect Game

Review of The Perfect Game gives C+ for overall recommendability, but reading the review I don’t sense the reason for the C+. Sounds like a good movie. Is the rating an error?

The rating isn’t an error. I wrote the gentlest review that I could, but the key to the tepid rating is in this sentence:

The heart of the story is robust enough to survive the heavily clichéd treatment, but it’s a close call.

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