Sundance 2014: Todd Field looks back on the 'Battered Bastards'
The Portland Mavericks baseball team were more than just mavericks. They were outlaws. In 1973, Hollywood actor Bing Russell roared into Oregon and established the Mavericks as an independent minor league team, meaning he had to recruit players that the Major Leagues franchises had rejected, a scrap heap that included a fair share of burn-outs, head-cases, and outright degenerates. “Guys were gambling in the back of the bus, there was drugs, there were women everywhere,” says Oscar-nominated director Todd Field (Little Children). “These guys were pirates.”
Field didn’t write or direct the Battered Bastards of Baseball, the documentary about the Mavericks that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 20. But he does play an important role in the doc directed by Russell’s grandsons, Chapman and Maclain Way. Long before he broke into Hollywood, Field was the Mavericks’ wide-eyed 13-year-old bat-boy, watching his heroes act like the Lost Boys of Summer for as long as they possibly could. “There was nobody who wasn’t half-baked or out of their mind on that team — in really good ways and in ways that were kind of scary,” he says. “They all played together and they all laughed together and they all fought together and they all got drunk together. And in that way, yes, it was a very Robert Louis Stevenson [Treasure Island] kind of situation for me.”
Field was a baseball-mad kid who caught Mavericks fever after the team rejuvenated Portland with a wild and winning ball club. In 1976, he talked his way into becoming one of the outfield shaggers who retrieved foul balls and home runs for the team. But the dream job was bat-boy, and when a slot opened up in 1977, he seized the opportunity. “I showed up for open tryouts, but so did a bunch of other kids,” says Field. Rob Nelson, one of the Mavericks who had run a baseball camp that Field had attended, told the kid to work so hard that there was no way Russell couldn’t give it to him and that’s what he did. “I just ran my ass off, and Bing gave it to me,” says Field. “All summer, I went on road trips with them. I went everywhere with them. It was incredible.”
The Mavericks motley crew would roar into town on their team bus, a four-wheel Jolly Roger that had been reconfigured with mattresses instead of seats. (“It was like Ken Kesey’s bus!”) On the roof was a loud-speaker and one of the players would grab the mic and howl, “Lock up your daughters! The Portland Mavericks are in town! We’re coming! We’re going to beat the f–king sh-t out of you!”
Russell kept the team in line for the most part, but mutiny occasionally reared its ugly head. Mavericks manager Frank Peters — who in later years would spend time in prison — had to lock himself in the bathroom once because the team’s star outfielder pulled a gun on him in the lockerroom. “It was like rapper stuff,” says Field.
Field’s parents allowed him to travel with the team — “It was a different time,” explains Field. “I can only imagine that I just wore them down” — meaning he spent his whole summer with the Mavericks, at the stadium, on long road trips, and in crummy motels. “I was a very, very naive 13-year-old, and the things that I witnessed were pretty remarkable,” Field says. “But as opposed to them seducing a 13-year-old into this life, it actually scared me in a good way. I loved all these guys, but I knew that I was still a child. I wasn’t confused about that. I knew there was a line between me and the sorts of things they were doing.”
There may have been a line, but his duties as bat-boy went beyond the traditional. One of his responsibilities was rolling a hand-truck down to the nearby brewery before each home game, stacking it with 10 cases of beer, and pushing it back to the stadium before the first pitch.
He idolized the players so much that when Nelson asked him what he wanted more than anything in the world, he answered, “I’d have tobacco but it would be bubble gum, so I could spit and look like these guys. A year later, Rob had bought a bubble-gum kit out of a magazine and we were cooking it up in my kitchen. That’s part of where Big League Chew came from, to be honest with you.”
Field quickly learned how to walk the walk as a Maverick, and before long, he could also talk the talk. In one game, after several players had been thrown out, the umpire tossed Field too. “I probably said some choice expletives that had to do with his lack of vision, but I had no idea what I was saying,” he says. “I was just copying these guys, parroting everything they said.”
That day, he ended up in Russell’s owner’s box with the rest of the banished Mavericks, who raised beers to Field’s first career ejection, not unlike the scene in Goodfellas where Henry first gets pinched.
The Mavericks were disbanded after the 1978 season, and Field would eventually become a successful Hollywood actor, in movies like Gross Anatomy and Eyes Wide Shut, and a critically-acclaimed director. Next week, he heads to Italy to start pre-production on an adaptation of the novel, Beautiful Ruins. Whatever he’s accomplished in film, though, Field points to his time with the Mavericks as the beginning of everything. “Bing really gave me this opportunity to see that there’s no shame in dreaming,” he says. “After seeing what those guys did, it made me pretty fearless about pursuing things that, if I knew the odds, would seem pretty ridiculous to pursue. It just totally changed my life. It wasn’t a small thing. My entire existence right now pivoted off of being the bat-boy for that team.”
The Battered Bastards of Baseball has received several positive reviews, and it’s impossible to see it and not recognize its potential as a great sports feature film. Bing’s son, Kurt Russell, who also played for the Mavs, has been approached several times over the years to make a movie about his father, who died in 2003, and the Mavericks. Field, who knows a little something about how to get a movie made himself, even worked on his own coming-of-age script 20 years ago, when he was still in film school. “It would be a great movie if you could get it right,” he says. “If I were to make it, I wouldn’t want to sanitize it, you know? It’s not a Disney movie. There’s a huge amount of heart and a lot of love that was within that team obviously, but it wasn’t a polite situation. Bing would come back to haunt anyone who would make a Disney version of the Mavericks.”
The Battered Bastards of Baseball