"Play Ball!" |
by Alan Swyer

 At what he called the get acquainted lunch, which took place before he officially agreed to direct the baseball instructional video he was offered, Leibowitz did a surreptitious check on what he termed attention span.
After countless hours with public figures -- doing on-camera interviews with politicians, scientists, law enforcement officials, and athletes -- directing actors for film, plus singers in music videos, Leibowitz had learned the hard way that each and every person has a fixed period of time -- a maximum -- after which concentration shuts down.  That means that at a certain point, shooting simply must be interrupted.  Though for most people the window is roughly ten minutes before a break is needed, there are those who are able to go five, ten, or even fifteen minutes longer.  Others, however, reach their limit sooner -- after eight, six, or in rare cases, only five minutes or so.
Clete Holmes, to Leibowitz's astonishment, broke all land and sea records.  His ceiling, Leibowitz noted over tasteless pasta at a San Fernando Valley Italian restaurant that wouldn't have lasted a week in Rome, New York, or even Hoboken, was two minutes maximum. 
As Leibowitz saw it, that translated into an attention span in the same range as a two-year-old child and a Labrador Retriever.
But given Clete Holmes' singular place in American culture, that was no great surprise. 
Clete Holmes, Leibowitz knew all too well, was baseball's quintessential Bad Boy, a guy whose stats and accomplishments would have guaranteed a first-ballot entrance into the Hall of Fame had his behavior been anything less than deplorable.  Mickey Mantle's alcoholism, Ty Cobb's racism, and the great Babe Ruth's legendary womanizing and carousing were far more palatable to baseball's powers-that-be than Clete's most glaring infraction.  He, in their eyes, had committed the game's cardinal sin:  betting on his own team's games.  To make matters worse, he then spent years disputing and denying clear-cut evidence, only to do an about-face when money woes forced him to come clean in an As Told To autobiography calculated to bring in an influx of cash.
So from a public relations standpoint, Leibowitz was taking a risk in getting involved in such a project.
And factoring in Clete's ridiculous attention span, the production itself could potentially range from difficult to absurd.
But Leibowitz, who loved challenges, particularly when there was controversy, was a lifelong sports nut.  He had done a film about a Bad Boy in the world of basketball -- a Harlem playground legend whose life went awry -- and would later do a documentary about an even more questionable world:  boxing.  Yet the Clete Holmes project, he recognized, might be his one and only chance at directing anything even remotely associated with baseball.
But also not to be denied was a reality drummed home repeatedly by both his agent and his business manager.  For different reasons than Clete -- foremost among them, double alimony plus child support -- Liebowitz, too, needed a payday.
So rather than heed the all-too-present warning signs, Leibowitz did his best to convince himself that the experience would be interesting.  And grist for his memoirs, should he ever write them.  And maybe, if luck proved to be on his side, even fun.

Sporting hair a reddish color not found either in nature or on his old baseball cards, and with a fondness for warm-up suits usually seen on L.A.'s third-tier Russian mobsters, Clete Holmes, Leibowitz sensed immediately, was fighting desperately not to appear un-young.  More ominous for the task ahead was that there was something willfully, coarse, abrasive, and animalistic about him.  While those traits, coupled with his legendary cockiness and aggressiveness, may have been virtues on baseball diamonds, they were, Leibowitz knew too well, hardly pluses on-screen.
The camera, he had learned from experience, was not only unerring in capturing a person's true self -- it somehow managed to exaggerate a human being's very essence.  As a result, a soul who was naturally upbeat would, when seen on-screen, seem positively ebullient, while someone taciturn would go from reticent to total sourpuss.
 So what was needed to make the instructional video viewer friendly was a counterbalance for Clete -- someone kids, their parents, and their grandparents would actively welcome to their TV screen or laptop.  But that someone, Leibowitz knew, could not in any way be threatening to Clete.  It couldn't, therefore, be someone young and good-looking. 
The answer, Leibowitz sensed, was an old-time scout named Tim Norwood, who in the best sense personified the word avuncular.  Easy-going, with a warm smile and a twinkle in his eye, Tim made both baseball and life seem like fun.  Tim would, if brought in as a sidekick, light up a screen darkened by Clete.  And in the process, he would serve another key function as well.  Since Clete's frame of reference was entirely from once-upon-a-time, the names he mentioned would, to a Little Leaguer or even a high school player, seem prehistoric.  But if Clete alluded to a long-retired lefty pitcher named Steve Carlton, Tim could state, Like Clayton Kershaw today.  Or for Gary Carter, interject, Who today would be Buster Posey.  Or for Mike Schmidt, add, Who played third-base like Pablo Sandoval or Adrian Beltre.

All too vividly aware of the potential pitfalls and land mines ahead, Leibowitz hosted a series of what he privately termed bonding lunches with Clete and Tim, during which the two old-timers grew comfortable not merely with each other, but also with the director.
As the rapport developed, so, too, did an interesting dynamic -- that of two baseball lifers hanging out and telling stories while sharing insights about a game they both loved.
Starting to feel a bit more positive, Leibowitz searched for a baseball diamond that was secluded enough to keep them relatively free of gawkers during production, then selected a racially mixed group of minor league and collegiate players for the drills they would be shooting.
For his technical crew, he was careful to hire people who knew something about baseball, making certain to avoid anyone who might in any way annoy or irritate Clete, even inadvertently.  Then, he hand-picked an assistant director whose main task would be outside the usual job description:  to monitor Clete's two-minute attention span.  It was a strange task -- one about which no other person, especially Clete -- could be informed.  But one minute and forty-five seconds into a take, Doug Grote was to signal Leibowitz.  And in non-filming moments, if someone else managed to commandeer Clete, it was up to Doug to interrupt by telling Clete, as the two-minute mark neared, that the director needed him. 

“So who's in charge of this circus we're about to put on?” Clete asked Leibowitz one afternoon when the two of them were alone.
“Yours truly.”
“And you know more than me?”
“About baseball?  No.  About filming?  Absolutely.”
“Hold on --” Clete said, clearly irritated.
“No, you hold on and hear me out.  When Tony LaRussa was managing you at Oakland, who was in charge?”
“He was.”
“And if the manager's Mike Soscia?  Or Maddon?  Or a younger guy like Girardi or Bochy?  Who's running things?”
“He is,” Clete acknowledged with no great glee.
“Well, on this team I'm the manager.”
Clete eyed Leibowitz carefully.  “But what if --”
“There's something that bothers me.”
“Then pick a nice quiet moment, and we'll talk.”
“And then?”
“I'll decide what's best.”
Not pleased with what he what have termed intransigence if he were familiar with the word, Clete steamed.
“You got some set of balls,” he stated once he regained something approximating composure.
“You can bet on it.”
“That supposed to be funny?” Clete snarled, ever so sensitive about his reputation.
“It's a figure of speech.”
“Then listen up, Mr. Figure-of-Fuckin'-Speech!” Clete bellowed, jamming a finger into Leibowitz's chest.  “That's someplace we don't go.  You hear me?  That's someplace we never fuckin' go!”
Aware that if pushed beyond the boiling point Clete Holmes was capable of picking him up and breaking him in two, Leibowitz nonetheless stood his ground.
“What's the first rule of baseball?” he asked calmly but clearly.
“You fuckin' tell me!”
“Be a team player.”
Clete glared, all the while searching unsuccessfully for a response. 
When none was forthcoming, Leibowitz shrugged, then turned and walked away.

As always on the night before actual production was to begin, Leibowitz had a tough time sleeping.  His mind raced not just with the customary obsessions -- what he might have missed that still needed to be done; what contingencies perhaps had been overlooked; what things, big or small, could possibly go wrong -- but also with the X-factor provided by Clete Holmes.
Yet happily, Day One got underway without either a bump or hitch.  No crew member called in sick or got lost, no piece of equipment had a glitch or even a hiccup,
Clete, who was known to surround himself with a posse, accepted Leibowitz's First Day of Shooting ban of onlookers, showing up at the ballpark entirely on his own.  Though clearly ill at ease, he relaxed a bit when greeted by Tim Norwood, who, per Leibowitz's suggestion, promptly led him toward the catering truck.  There they were instantly handed humongous breakfast burritos topped with salsa, crema, and a mound of guacamole.
Only when they were seated at a bench and chomping did Leibowitz approach the living legend.
“Ready to play ball?” Leibowitz asked.
“Put me in, coach,” Clete replied, getting a pat on the back from Tim Norwood.

With non-pros, Leibowitz tried whenever possible to shoot in sequence, so that questions like Where are we? or Where does this fit in? became a non-factor.  That led him to start production with what's known as a Cold Opening -- a shot of Tim and Clete, talking in the dugout -- which would provide for viewers both an introduction and a statement of purpose.
“For years young players and their parents have been asking me for something that would teach baseball the right way,” Tim began once the camera was rolling.  “And thanks to you, Clete, they'll have that opportunity.”
“We'll do our best,” Clete said.  “You and me and all the ballplayers here to help us.”
“And know what?” Tim replied.  “We're gonna have fun doing it.”
“Played the right way, baseball is the most fun there is,” Clete added, relieved when Leibowitz said, “Cut!”
Only then did Clete add what he hadn't said on-camera.  “Except getting laid!”
“I kinda remember what that's like,” Tim joked.  Then, as their laughter subsided, Clete grew serious.
“Did I do okay?”
“Academy Award,” Tim answered with a smile.
“I'll settle for a base hit,” Clete said.  “So, Mr. Director, what do you have to say?
“Remember how you told me you've never done anything like this?” Leibowitz replied.
Clete nodded.
“Well, now you have.”
“And lived to tell the tale,” Tim added..
“Which means,” said Leibowitz, “we get what in filmmaking is known as the great reward.”
“Namely?” asked Clete.
“Another take for insurance.”

At eleven that morning, while Doug Grote was wrangling a wandering Clete Holmes for the third time in less than an hour, Tim Norwood got a call, then approached Leibowitz with a troubled look on his face.  “One of my grandkids took a fall at school,” he began.  “Okay if I sneak out at lunch for a half-hour or so?”
“Take more than that if you need to.”
“Just want to poke in at the hospital and say hello.”
Always the good sport, Tim finished the next segment they were filming -- Clete's approach to baserunning -- then announced to Clete and Leibowitz that he'd be back right after lunch.
 “What's up?” Clete asked.
“I figure it's a chance for you guys to finally get a word in without me monopolizing the conversation,” Tim joked.
“Lunch is on me,” Leibowitz said, grabbing Clete's arm and leading him toward the catering truck so as not to lose the star to the calls to friends and bookies he would otherwise make.
“What are the three most important things in the world?” Clete asked as the two men put down their plates -- Leibowitz's an ascetic piece of salmon accompanied by brown rice and steamed veggies; Clete's a mountain of salmon, prime rib, and lasagne, plus a helping of potato salad.
“I give up.”
“Think of the Three P's.”
“Still blanking.”
“Pussy, the ponies, and more pussy,” Clete bellowed.
Again and again Clete tried to steer the conversation toward dive bars and massage parlors, though not in that order, but each time Leibowitz did his best to return to baseball.
What surprised him, during the moments when he was able to get Clete to concentrate, was how fresh, intelligent, and iconoclastic the aging star's take proved to be.  “Why is it that people claim you need power at the corners?” Clete asked at one point, referring to third-base and first.  “What's to prevent you from having a power guy at short, like Ernie Banks?  Or behind the plate like Piazza?  Or at second, like Morgan?”
Seeing Leibowitz smile, Clete continued.  “And why in hell try to hide some lug with hands of stone at first?  Dumbest thing I ever heard is to hide a guy like Dick Stuart --”
“Dr. Strangelove --” Leibowitz interjected, drawing a fist bump.
“-- In that position,” Clete continued.  “Think what it means.  The pitcher doesn't want to throw over.  The catcher won't throw behind a runner.  The shortstop and third-baseman start to aim, which is bad news.  And a ground ball or pop-up toward first with the game on the line?  Nightmare!  You want power over there?  Give me Vic Power, who was the best fielding first-baseman I ever saw.  Or else a non-power guy like J.T. Snow, who had great hands.”

With Tim Norwood back as promised, filming went well that afternoon, giving everyone the sense that the rest of the three-day shoot might prove to be trouble-free.  Everyone, that is, but Leibowitz, who knew that each day carries with it the potential for new and unforeseen problems -- which is why the industry saying, Never dare or upset the movie gods.
What concerned him above and beyond the mercurial nature of his star, plus the less than likely chance of rain or a terrorist attack, was the fact that to keep the investors from having coronaries, he had imposed only a one-day ban on visitors.
Lookie-loos, as they were often called, could have a disruptive effect, as could friends, relatives, and hangers-on, especially when dealing with someone as prickly and inconsistent as Clete Holmes.
So it was with sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach that he saw Clete, on Day Two, arrive with a guy with gold chains and a ponytail of thinning gray hair.
“Come say hello to Mumbles,” Clete squawked, waving Leibowitz over.  “He's got a great idea for us.”
“Cups!” Mumbles offered as though proposing a path toward world peace.  “We need a segment about the importance of cups.”
“We?” Leibowitz asked.
“You.  Me.  The video,” Clete interjected, gleefully grabbing his own crotch.  “We don't want any sopranos.  Right, Mumbles?”
“Fuckin'-A!” Mumbles answered.
“Let me think about it,” Leibowitz said, signaling for Doug Grote to get Clete as far away from Mumbles as possible.
To the dismay of the crew members who had worked with him on other projects -- particularly the cinematographer and the sound man, who knew he who never dawdled when there was work to be done -- Leibowitz ambled out toward the right field, then suddenly burst into laughter.
The laughter started slowly, then grew steadily until the director was doubled up in stitches in a way none of them had ever seen or imagined.
What they didn't know -- indeed couldn't know -- was that the laughter was based not on a joke or a funny piece of behavior, but rather on what Leibowitz considered to be the absurdity of life -- especially his.  Having come to LA from New Jersey via Paris with the hope of being the next Orson Welles, Jean-Luc Godard, or Preston Sturges -- someone who could magically combine art, entertainment, and social criticism -- he was instead shooting at an off-the-beaten-track baseball diamond, worrying not about lenses or dialogue, but rather some schmuck of a hanger-on obsessing about protective cups in jockstraps. 
Only with a nearly superhuman effort was Leibowitz ultimately able stifle his guffaws, then return to the task at hand.

A segment on bunting went fairly well, slowed down only by Clete mugging on a couple of occasions -- once for a couple of the investors, then later when Mumbles pointed out a prime example of cleavage among the onlookers.

Not finding the distraction to be either helpful or endearing, Leibowitz was not overjoyed when Mumbles approached him once they were ready to take a break.
“So we going forward with the cup idea?” Mumbles asked, with Clete standing nearby.
“Only if we get you on-camera.”
“Doing what?” Mumbles inquired.
“Grabbing every guy's crotch to see who's protected.”
While Mumbles sneered, Clete took a step forward.  “That ain't helpful!” he growled.
“No shit,” Leibowitz said.  “Time to move on.”

Fortunately, there was little chance for an extended period of pouting, for the next segment was Clete's favorite part of the game:  hitting.
With renewed zeal, he spoke incisively about what he considered to be the best approach -- reminding potential viewers that the area next to home plate is called the batter's box, not the watcher's box -- then put on a show that would have been impressive from a star in his prime, but was awesome from someone years beyond his playing career.
First from the right side, then from the left, Clete demonstrated initially how best to swing the bat, then how to hit the ball the opposite way, and finally how to foul off pitches until the right one -- the hitter's pitch, as he termed it -- finally appears.
For the onlookers who were gathered, as well as for the minor leaguers and collegians -- and even for Leibowitz, who had been around future Hall of Famers at Spring Training in both Arizona and Florida -- the demonstration went beyond memorable.  It was the highlight of the entire production.
And it led to a standing ovation that caused Clete's chest to swell.

Hoping that the glow would carry on through the rest of the shoot, Leibowitz shook Clete's hand, then moved toward centerfield to set up a segment on outfield play.
Only when he was ready to shoot did he look for Clete, who was cornered by a white-haired woman in a Dodger cap and her cute, blond granddaughters, aged, Leibowitz figured, roughly ten and twelve.
With Doug Grote nowhere in sight, Leibowitz started sprinting toward them.
“Clete, I need you!” he yelled, all too vividly aware of Clete's limited attention span.
“Duty calls,” Clete said apologetically to his well-wishers.
“One last question, Mr. Holmes?” asked the younger of the girls.
“Sure, honey,” Clete responded, ignoring Leibowitz, who was shaking his head.
“During your playing days --” the blond-haired girl began.
“Did you used to lift weights?”
“Only when I took a leak!” Clete stated proudly, leaving the grandmother and her granddaughters mortified as Leibowitz dragged him away.

Though everyone involved in the production -- the ballplayers, the crew, the investors, and even Leibowitz -- thought they were on to something special, by Day Three there was an ever-increasing sense of restlessness.
The source, each and every one of them knew full well, was Clete Holmes.
Like an unruly kid, or a dog that barks incessantly, he had gone from amusing to tiring, and then became simply tiresome.  Anything and everything was about him:  his wants, his needs, his ego, his mood swings, his posse.  And most of all, his total and unrelenting narcissism.
Even the most easy-going people Leibowitz had assembled -- Tim Norwood and Doug Grote -- made it clear to Leibowitz that their patience was wearing thin, though neither joined the ranks of those who started grumbling openly or belly-aching publicly.
Trying to keep a lid on an explosive situation, Leibowitz defused a couple of near blow-ups, then put a last-second stop to what would have been a production-ending practical joke in which Clete's prized collection of gloves and bats were almost set on fire.
But once he had sufficient footage to cut together a video if -- for whatever reason, or reasons, production was never quite finished -- Leibowitz backed off as peacemaker.
And it was then, when he had adopted a completely different attitude that Clete approached him once too often.
“I keep feeling like there's something you've missed,” Clete said in a condescending way.
“Some way to end the video with a bang.  You know, that'll hit home.  That they'll really remember.”
“I got it,” Leibowitz said as Tim Norwood, Doug Grote, and some others wandered up.
“Let's hear.”
“I figure we'll have Tim say, You know, Clete, I'm convinced that anyone who watches this video will be not just a better ballplayer, but a better person as well.”
“Not bad,” Clete responded.  “And what do I say?
“Can't you guess?”
“Guess what?”
“You can bet on it!”
Though everyone else got a kick out of the joke, Clete Holmes refused to speak to Leibowitz the rest of the day.

Clete's demand that Leibowitz be banned from the editing room backfired due to a Directors Guild contract that gave Leibowitz what's known as final cut.

Somehow, Tim Norwood got significantly more close-ups than was originally intended.  And that meant that the putative star, who wanted at all times to be featured, wound up with far fewer than he hoped for or expected.

As is often said in baseball circles, payback is great.

Alan Swyer was once a boxer. Plus, he recently made a documentary about boxing:  www.elboxeothemovie.com