Q&A: On his book tour, ‘Bull Durham’ director Ron Shelton returns to the city that started it all

It’s a Saturday at the Durham Bulls Sports Park, and Hollywood director Ron Shelton has about 10 minutes left as he prepares to throw the ceremonial first pitch.

A member of the Bulls front office came out of the dugout with two baseball gloves and passed a hand to the VIP. Shelton wears blue jeans, a white button-down shirt and a blue hat with the Duke Golf Club logo. It’s been years since he made his first pitch, and the former minor leaguer is worried. His body is not as good as it used to be. Ron Shelton needs to warm up.

he made it. He pulled the ball to his partner three times, circled his arms, and walked to the entrance of the dugout to talk to batting coach Will Bradley.

“That’s all I need,” he exclaimed, laughing.

Shelton came to the Triangle to direct the film Bull Durham more than three decades ago. Now he has a book that is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes, part ode to baseball. In it, the director explains how important the city of Durham was to the making of the film, and how little it has.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Sheldon was barely on time to get to the court — his flight from Los Angeles to Raleigh was canceled twice. He still didn’t eat, and more importantly, didn’t drink. His son was supposed to be with him on his last father-son trip, and then his flight was canceled before college in the fall. A group of fans holding books for autographs spoke to Sheldon about their relationship to the film, and one woman even revealed how her mother dated the real Crash Davis’ brother. But for now, he’s making himself comfortable in a familiar place: the baseball field.

Dalton Moat emerged from the dugout, a left-handed pitcher who would serve as Sheldon’s catcher on the night. He’s tall, with longer hair, a pair of oversized sunglasses, and a big smile. Seeing the two standing together, it’s impossible not to draw a parallel between the real-life moat and the fictional character Sheldon created Nuke LaLoosh.

“It’s going to look like this,” Shelton said, mimicking the slow, arched path to the catcher’s glove typically associated with these types of first pitches. But instead, he went out of his way to throw a punch. It’s a bit short.

“I threw that about 54 feet,” he said as he walked.

Shelton came to the Triangle to direct the film Bull Durham more than three decades ago. Now he has a book, “The Baseball Church,” that details the process. This book is part memoir, part behind-the-scenes story, part ode to baseball. In it, the director explains how important the city of Durham was to the making of the film, and how little it has.

Shelton spoke with WUNC social media producer Josh Sullivan in his New York City hotel room the day before his flight to Durham.

Josh Sullivan: I’ll start with what I promise is not a trick question. Do you have a favorite course? And it doesn’t have to be limited to professional courses.

Ron Shelton: My favorite stadium I’ve been to is the Old Tiger Stadium.

Sullivan: OK. how did it get here?

Shelton: It has overhangs, you know, upper deck and lower deck. So it feels very closed. That’s dark green. This must be fine for the batter because the background is so dark. But you are very close to the field. I know people will complain because at Fenway Park you have to look around at the posts, but I’d rather look around a post from time to time close to the ballpark. I just think that’s how baseball should be.

Sullivan: How old were you when you went?

Shelton: I play baseball in AAA. We are in Toledo. I play for Rochester, and I looked at the map and saw that Detroit’s AAA team, Toledo, was close to Detroit. So we had a night race and I got a car and I went to watch the race. Mickey Lolich pitched, Tony Oliva batted, and I was back in time for our game.

I thought ‘Wow, that’s a ballpark. I later shot a scene there in the movie, so I really liked that park.

Sullivan: What movie is that? Cobb?

Shelton: Cobb. Yes.

Sullivan: Well, I went to the game yesterday, and when you walk into the Durham team store, right in front of you, your T-shirt says “Pile of Lollipops”. You go look at the hats, they have shower shoes on the hats. They will be called shower shoes for a few games. When you look back at the script, these moments — tiny moments — are taking on a life of their own. I mean, they’re on the front of the jersey. Is this surreal to you? When you’re writing a script like this, when you’re making a movie, can you imagine these things going to be like them forever?

Shelton: No, it’s still surreal to me. When we made this movie, as you see in the book, I just wanted to get through the day. You know, that was a lot of fights, a lot of wars, and the studio didn’t like what I was doing. So I’m at work every day, you know, face down, you know, focusing on the day’s work and trying to get it done, and I think in 34 years I’m going to come back to Durham with a book and this movie is iconic , which I never realized at the time.

Sullivan: Just to disclose, I’ve read most of the books. I’m in chapter 13. I know how crazy it was for you that you talked about going back to the court for the (movie) anniversary and meeting two kids named Crash and Nuke. I know you talked about how Durham was a failure when you made this movie and how that fit. When you visit now, when you see pictures, when you see videos, when you see how the area is developing, what is it like to know that you might be involved?

Shelton: Oh, I’ll give full credit to Triangle and Durham’s rebirth.

I’ve been back many times and I love everything that happens. When we shot in 1987, you couldn’t find restaurants. You can’t find restaurants. I mean, I found one, Magnolia Grill or something. The city center is boarded up, and there’s a scene of Crash walking through town, and he pulls out a postbox and looks out the window at the batting pose, where all the shops are closed and those tobacco warehouses are empty. We saw him walk by at night, around the field and all over town. Now, there are condos and gorgeous condos and shops. You couldn’t imagine something like this happening in 1987. But I’m happy to take full credit for the rebirth of the entire region.

Sullivan: I give you.

In Crash’s monologue, he tells Annie about his beliefs – you know the list, wet kisses that lasted three days, and the constitutional amendment banning DH. It’s funny now, think about that thread today, now it’s common. High fiber. Is there something missing from this list? Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final cut?

Shelton: Do not. The faster I can write the better. I have never changed a word. Well, the Susan Sontag series used to be Thomas Pynchon. We changed this for a reason. But no, I’m just trying to put together things that don’t seem to be together. So you can’t quite figure out who this person is. You know, he’s a libertarian? Is he conservative? Is he crazy? Is he just pulling her leg? You know, after that speech, you didn’t know anything about him and just wanted to know more about him.

Sullivan: Was Crash originally a switch hitter? Before you saw Costner in the cage?

Shelton: Oh no, I would never have dreamed of finding an athlete, an actor who could actually do it. Kevin tossed and turned in the cage. I think it’s fine that I can put the sun behind him. I can light him up, well, you know, wherever the sun is, because he can hit from any side of the plate. Honestly, this is what I think. This is practical.

Sullivan: Honestly, the scene where he hits the ball for the first time, you see him, he walks up to the bat boy, calls time, and tells him to shut up. It’s pretty simple, but I don’t think if you switch back and forth (camera angles), that scene isn’t going to be good because he’s a right-handed hitter in that situation. I think it really sets the whole tone.

Shelton: Yes.

Sullivan: What is your relationship with baseball now? Do you feel like you grew up in California as a kid? Has it evolved?

Shelton: I mean, I’m not obsessed with baseball. I just did some work. My son graduated just after playing high school baseball. I love going to those games. I follow games. I don’t watch much on TV. You know, I’m very busy.

I think the sport is part of growing up in America, and most of the great writers — American writers — have written about baseball as well. I mean, Tallis, Updike, Richard Ben Kramer, Halberstam, Walt Whitman, et cetera. Why are they all writing about baseball? I mean, you know, the restoration of the 1919 World Series was mentioned in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. So there’s something inherently American about this game. I think, that’s endless charm. I talked about that. There’s an entire chapter at the end of the book called “Why Baseball,” and you’ll see. Why are you so obsessed with games? I have my opinion on that, but yeah, I think it’s a great game. I like this game. I like to watch. I like to follow it. But as I said, my life wasn’t built around baseball.

Sullivan: Do you still have that feeling of being a butterfly on the court?

Shelton: Well, I don’t go to the baseball stadium very often. Dodger Stadium takes a long time to get to and parking is so hard. My family, sometimes we go to UCLA games because it’s like a minor league stadium and you don’t have to cross the highway to get there. If I’m going to visit the city, I’ll go to the minor league games because I like that. Maybe a major league game a year. It’s not like you go from Boston to Fenway, or New York to Yankee Stadium or Citi Field, and then you hop on a train and you’re there. In Los Angeles, it was a nightmare. So you know, I’ve watched more high school games than pro games.

Sullivan: Is there anything special, are you looking forward to going to the Triangle this weekend?

Shelton: Oh yes, I don’t have to buy drinks in the Triangle. You know, everyone’s picking up my label. No, my son will be from LA with me he’s 18. Just sharing some of this memory and history. It’s not even a memory anymore. It’s in progress. It is contemporary. So I want him to see something and feel something. Then I’ll be there for three days. it will be great. So, no, as I said, I absolutely love this area. That growth stemmed from the successful film, and then the town’s revival.

This interview has been edited for brevity.

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