The Screwball: lights, camera, action in the bullpen!by Azure Texan
September 19, 2013
The news is out: On May 16, 2014, Disney will release the baseball drama Million Dollar Arm, a true story about an agent who signs two Indian cricket players, Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel, to professional baseball contracts.
Of lesser note are similar movies from smaller studios, each a gripping tale of an adventurous scout discovering a potential prodigy in an unlikely place.
Milos, a Croatian orphan whom Croatian officials call “incorrigible” in a fake Croatian accent when they really should be speaking Croatian all along, is roaming the streets of Zagreb one afternoon when he pilfers from an open-air restaurant a delicious serving of arambasici, which, as most American moviegoers know, is a delicious dish consisting of minced meat, onions and garlic in vine-leaf parcels, served with Croatian sauerkraut and breath mints.
Dodging Croatian traffic and sprinting from Croatian police, Milos catches the eye of the Tigers’ director of Croatian scouting operations Milos (no relation) Milosevic, who, using a state-of-the-art Croatian technology called the Croatian Yellow Pages, tracks down Milos at the Dickensian Home For Incuhrudgubal Croatian Boys (Now With 60 Percent More Croatian Gruel!)
Keenly aware that the Tigers need speed, especially since first baseman King Felder has begun to generate his own gravitational field, the Detroit scout courageously enters the home’s notorious torture chamber, which consists primarily of large speakers blasting Croatian folk rock. There he finds Milos as one often finds a Croatian orphan—that is, wearing a Buffalo Bills Super Bowl XXV Champions t-shirt stained with arambasici—and offers him a standard intercountry adoption and a basic rookie contract.
“You’re not here to hit home runs; you’re not even here to drive in runs,” the crusty, chain-smoking manager tells Milos upon the Croatian’s stateside arrival. “You’re here to do one thing and one thing only: steal bases.”
Predictably, that’s exactly what Milos does, as the Tigers equipment manager discovers upon arriving at the park on the day after Milos’ debut.
Back in Croatia, Milos, who is now working incognito as a freelance audio technician, enters the orphanage and uses the stolen bases as soundproofing in the notorious chamber of folk-rock torture. It helps a little, especially during Milos (Distant Relation) Milosevic’s rendition of “Arambasici, Thou Art Very Tasty,” though not enough to quell the planned orphan rebellion.
In the early hours of a cold January day, just before the Croatian sun peeks above the Croatian horizon, Milos sneaks into the group home and helps his old orphan pals stack a dozen MLB bases beneath a dusty unlocked window.
Minutes later, as he sips Croatian coffee at a Croatian café, Phillies scout Milos Milosevic-Boutrous-Boutrous-Ghali-Day-Lewis does a dramatic spit take upon seeing the blurred figure of super-speedy orphan boy go by.
With coffee dripping down his chin, he places an immediate call.
Nigel Ian Iannigelson is a strapping, apple-cheeked lad from northern Scotland whose prodigious drives, often reaching the green on long par fives and occasionally maiming and/or killing local shepherds who’ve wandered too close to the course because they’re focused on their MuttonButton iPhone app, catch the eye of Yankees European scout Ian Nigel Nigelianson.
Aware that the Yankees are desperate for right-handed power—hey, recent pickup Alfredo Sariona can’t stay hot forever, and even if he can, embattled third baseman O-Rad is almost sure to be suspended, likely by his nipples during an unusually aggressive and ultimately DL-inducing episode of BDSM—Nigelianson signs Iannigelson to a two-year, incentive-laden contract worth upwards of eight million Yankee dollars, redeemable at fine establishments everywhere except for parts of the Florida Panhandle.
On the strength of tape-measure dingers that occasionally maim and/or kill local dog walkers who’ve wandered too close because they’re focused on their PuppyYuppie iPhone app, Nigel moves quickly through the Yankees' minor-league system, so quickly, in fact, that only a cinematic montage set to the music of Smash Mouth can adequately portray it.
To great and boisterous acclaim, Nigel makes his Yankee Stadium debut in an early-August series against—amazing how things work out this way, especially in the movies—the rival Red Sox. Aware of his Bunyanesque exploits, not one of which, interestingly, ever resulted in manslaughter or negligent homicide charges, Yankee fans urge the young Scotsman to “go deep,” “go long,” “hit it out,” and “kill the guy in the Red Sox cap!”
Billy Crystal, appearing as himself, then leans out from the seat nearest the camera and shouts, “Do yer dinger!”
Suddenly, Nigel turns greenish gray. Even as he steps in to face Boston hurler Robert “The Incredibly Evil And Remarkably Odious Texan” Clements, his brow begins to furrow and his face becomes a frown. What Billy Crystal, being an American comedian and not a Scottish ethnolinguist, has failed to understand is that in Scottish English, “do yer dinger” doesn’t mean “hit a homer.” No, instead, it is an emphatic expression of disapproval.
Days pass, in a depressingly gray montage.
Embarrassed by the golden sombrero against the Red Sox, and troubled by the Golden Corral in suburban Houston, Nigel spirals into severe homesickness and acute depression. Suddenly preferring plaid—or, if you like, tartan—to pinstripes, he struggles to make contact at the plate.
“Aye,” he mutters to himself, “’tis easier to hit a ball off a tee, or even out of the gorse—and also, admittedly, off Philip Humber, appearin’ as ’imself.”
Soon, Nigel changes his walk-up music to a melancholy bagpipe version of “Going Home,” which, in bringing tears to his eyes, does no favors for his already dismal K rate. Desperate for a semblance of familiarity and success, he begins spending more and more time at the local muni, usually in the rain, often while sipping single-malt Scotch and always while listening to Aye, Susan. You, Sheena: Susan Boyle Sings Sheena Easton’s Greatest Hits.
Concerned for his well being, the Yankees respond with an anti-Scot, pro-American intervention, condemning golf, Sheena Easton and Scotch while praising arena football, Kenny G and Michelob Ultra, not to mention Miller Lite with the new punch-top can. Properly if superficially Americanized, with a fondness for NCIS: Des Moines to show for it, Nigel beings spending time—some would say too much time—in Internet chat rooms, launching comment after comment about “the broken immigration system,” “those geniuses in Congress,” and the new Doritos Locos Tacos at Taco Bell.
Thanks in no small part to AristotleInSeottle, Nigel contracts a severe case of carpal-tunnel syndrome and lands on the 15-day DL. Again depressed, and longing once more for home, he then dons a highland kilt and a tartan Tam o’Shanter and heads posthaste to the nearest putt-putt course. There, under gray skies the following morning, team officials find the lifeless body of Nigel Ian Iannigelson, crushed beneath the plaster Loch Ness Monster.
“What Goes Up...”
Upon returning to base camp after a quick Everest climb—in flip-flops, no less, and while carrying a portable espresso machine—Sherpa Tenzing sees a very cold but very curious man, dressed in a thick North Face jacket embossed with the logo of the San Francisco Giants, boldly staring at him.
After an hour of squat thrusts and wind sprints to round out his day, Sherpa Tenzing at last approaches the man and, in halting English, asks, “Why are you staring at me, especially when there is a flat-screen TV, which my brother carried all the way from Kathmandu, in your heated tent right now?”
“Because,” the man replies, “I’m a scout with the San Francisco Giants, and while you wouldn’t think that a scout with the San Francisco Giants would be at the Everest base camp in the middle of the season, well, here I am.”
“Go on,” the Sherpa replies, doing additional squat thrusts.
“Well, my American baseball team is in serious need of some middle relief. Ever heard of Zito? You have? Well, as you can imagine, we need a long reliever in the worst way. We need a pitcher with some big-time stamina.”
Three weeks later, while visiting the Coit Tower during an off day, the Giants’ new long reliever takes an ugly stumble down the spiral stairway and fractures his right ankle. (Irony, thy name is Coit Tower. Or maybe it’s American Cinema. Whichever.) While convalescing, Sherpa Tenzing goes to Chinatown for dim sum. In the midst of a delicious serving of haam seoi gaau, he is suddenly reminded of the Sino-Nepalese War of 1798-1792, waged over a long-simmering dispute regarding the minting of silver coins.
Flush with anger, Sherpa Tenzing pays for his $32 meal with three Susan B. Anthony dollars, two Sacagewea dollars, three nickels and five dimes. Limping, he absconds from the restaurant only to be clocked from behind by a Teochew-style dumpling, courtesy of Mr. Cho’s powerful right arm.
Three days later, Mr. Cho takes the mound in the top of fifth.
“Something Fishy This Way Comes”
While exploring the fish market in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, one sunny autumn day, a senior scout with the Miami Marlins catches a glimpse of something spectacular: Positioned at a strategic spot on the unloading docks, a tall, wiry young man is making acrobatic one-handed catches of slippery flatfish, cumbersome snapper, tricky mackerel and unwieldy pomfret, completing the acrobatics by firing each fish directly into a faraway bin.
Enthralled, the scout approaches the man with a serious offer: Come to America, woo the groupies, make some serious coin, get your own baseball card, appear on talk shows, appear on a Wheaties box, marry a Yankees mistress and make a mistress of a Yankees wife, get a book deal, write a column for ESPN: Miami, chill with LeBron, go to late-night parties featuring Pitbull and other stars I know nothing about, get your own boat, get your own yacht, get your own WaveRunner, move into a palm-lined mansion and then tear down that mansion and build another mansion with a swim-up bar and a 12-seat theater and a personalized bidet that deploys the collected tears of Jerry Dipoto, get a secret condo in a downtown high-rise and staff it with a pair of “personal assistants” and a trio of private masseuses, drive a sweet ride, and lastly, have a popular fish taco named in your honor. You can have it all. Just come play center field for the Marlins.
Covered in sweat, reeking of fish, infested with gnats and flies, the young man smirks and replies, “Uh, the Marlins? You’ve got to be kidding me.”
It is a very short movie.
“Contact 2: Electric Bugaloo”
In the midst of a multi-day, offseason hike through the steamy jungles of eastern Madagascar, an unnamed Pirates scout stumbles upon an isolated village whose residents are busy preparing a traditional Malagasy feast. Positioned at the ravitoto preparation station, a sinewy young man is swatting flies with remarkable success—success made more remarkable by the fact that he’s using a narrow twig of the native rosewood tree rather than an oversized novelty flyswatter, e.g., Everything’s Bigger in Madagascar!
Crouching, the scout continues to watch the performance. Swing, splat! With nearly every deployment of the rosewood twig the man makes solid contact, thus protecting the savory pot of cassava leaves and pork in garlic-flavored coconut milk. Even when a fly dives away like a Du Yarvish slider, the last thing it sees with its compound eyes is the business end of a twig.
Enchanted, the scout grabs a weathered notebook and begins jotting notes.
Strengths: Exceptional hand-eye coordination. Strong hands and excellent twig speed. Compact swing, but shows good extension. Quick wrist action and makes solid contact with power. Uses the entire field, er, I mean village.
Weaknesses: Skinny calves; not sure of upper-body definition, as he is wearing a Houston Cougars: 1983 NCAA Basketball Champions T-shirt.
Summation and signability: Can’t-miss swinger, can’t-miss kid.
Turns out, the scout was right: Mahefa enters August with a contact rate of 99.8 percent—baseballs are bigger than flies, after all—and a K rate of 0. (That’s right: 0.) He did go to two strikes against Yarvish in the third inning of a late-July match-up, but then fought off a couple of wicked two-seamers before dropping an opposite-field flare, Ichiro-like, to left-center field.
Also Ichiro-like, Mahefa is universally adored, both for his preternatural ability and his exotic, somewhat mysterious otherness. It isn’t long before groupies and paparazzi begin trailing him to breakfast, lunch and dinner, with one TMZ pap asking if he’s found any good ravioli in Pittsburgh.
“It’s ravitoto,” he tells the pap, in a thick Malagasy accent, “just like the supergroup formed by Ravi Shankar and the American rock band Toto.”
Suddenly, Mahefa is overcome with homesickness, not only because of the reference to ravitoto but also because of the reference to Toto, since he, like millions of others, believes the principal lyric to be “I miss the rains down in Africa” and not “I bless the rains down in Africa.”
(Granted, Madagascar is not exactly in Africa, but for narrative purposes as they relate to popular American cinema, it’s close enough.)
Speaking of American cinema, Mahefa goes to see Madagascar 4: Electric Bangalore during an off day in L.A. Rapt, he watches as Alex, Marty, Melman and the gang take their animal circus worldwide, to the applause of Paris, the accolades of Accra, and finally, sadly, the boos of Bangalore.
To their disappointment, the circus animals have discovered that Bangalore has gone electric, with every licensed operator driving a Nissan Tea Leaf. Since the circus animals came to town in a fleet of gas-guzzling Hindustan Pushpaks, the Bangaloreans have reacted with fury, ultimately driving the circus out of town on the quietest, most efficient motorcade in history.
From a nearby port city, the animals embark on an ark-like conveyance and begin crossing the Indian Ocean toward Madagascar. En route, they pick up a starving Indian boy and a Bengal tiger, cast adrift on the open seas. Over dinner, Pi tells the animals that pi, as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, is a mathematical constant represented by an infinite decimal.
Seated in the theater, Mahefa immediately thinks, “An infinite decimal! Just like my current batting average, which happens to be a league-leading .333!”
The following day, Mahefa steps to the plate with renewed purpose. On the first pitch from Grack Zeinke, however, he takes a fastball to the ribs. In the ensuing brawl, Mahefa suffers a severe corneal scratch. Forced to wear contact lenses, he struggles at the plate. His contact rate, once so stellar, begins to plummet. Hoping to curry favor with optical gods, he names his contact lenses Lefty and Righty and sings to them at night. When that doesn’t work, he calls them Contact 1 and Contact 2, in the hopes that the more professional and less personal names will foster a workmanlike bond.
While walking to PNC Park one day, he loses Contact 2 and stumbles over a curb. Vision blurred, he fails to see the otherwise conspicuous Jake Busey when he gets back to his feet. Grinning wickedly, as only a Busey can, the strange man whisks Mahefa away in a white panel van and later straps him into a teleportation device, its coordinates directed not to Vega but to an Iowa cornfield, circa 1989. Upon arrival, a wide-eyed Mahefa mutters, “No – no words. No words to describe it, mostly because I can’t see out of my right eye. In any case, they should’ve sent a poet, but not the guy who does those lame-ass poems on that MLB Network commercial. Seriously. ‘And those who steal to applause’? What is this, a Croatian orphan movie?”
Half blind, Mahefa steps out to the Iowa cornfield and sees, or thinks he sees, his father emerge from the cash crop and into a gauzy, dreamy haze.
“Come, my son,” says Mahefa Sr. “Come back to Madagascar. You will no longer need to swat flies, as we now have a bug-zapper made in Bangalore.”
“Really, my son. It is called the Electric Bugaloo.”
A scout in Iceland places a call to Astros management.
“Listen,” he says. “I’ve got a guy up here with five tools—hell, maybe six.”
“Sign him,” the GM quickly replies, hoping not to incur roaming charges. “Sign him now.”
Days later, Magnus Einarsson makes his first appearance at the executive offices of Minute Maid Park. Standing 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, and thick with Arctic muscle, Magnus is carrying a metal toolbox containing a ball peen hammer, a flathead screwdriver, a Phillips head screwdriver, a homemade mallet and a Stanley MaxSteel Eight-Inch Adjustable Wrench.
“OK,” the manager tells Magnus, “you’re in left field.”
Were it just a joke, it would end right there. But it’s a movie, with the narrative structure of setting/character/plot/conflict/climax/resolution.
So, yeah, Magnus goes out to the green acres of left field, and he’s this huge Icelandic guy who’s never played ball a day in his life, and he just stands there until a very deep drive is launched in his direction, and he stumbles under it with the hilarious inelegance of drunken circus clown, and when at last he reaches up to catch the ball, it hits him square in the solar plexus.
By season’s end, he ranks second on the team in ultimate zone rating.
Were it just another joke, it would end right there—with a not-so-subtle appraisal of the woeful Astros. But it’s a movie, so, while sitting at his Houston home one night and watching the ALCS on TV, Magnus puts down the remote control to answer a knock at the door. Standing before him in sheer pink nighties are a pair of seductive co-eds, one blond and the other brunette. Magnus is surprised, pleasantly so, as he had not been told that it would be this kind of movie.
As for the resolution, who knows?
No one has made it to the end of the film.
“Ode To Grecian Earnings”
Pavlos is a brash, strong-willed teen from central Athens whose affinity for chucking Molotov cocktails at the local police has strengthened his right arm considerably. Stumbling onto the scene of a rally-turned-riot one warm Athenian day, Dodgers Hellenic scout Demos “Papa” Papadopoulos glances across the carnage to see Pavlos hurling a wicked heater toward Police Lieutenant Cosmo “Cosmo” Cosmopoulos. Tailing low and outside, the heater catches Cosmopolous flush on the left shin, setting his government-issued pants leg aflame and causing him to launch into a solo but spirited rendition of the Kalamatianos, a popular Greek folk dance in which the participant takes 10 steps forward and two steps back to a 7/8 musical beat, often while contemplating the late Greek economist Cornelius Castoriadis’ revolutionary theory that social change is a product of radical discontinuity.
Working fast, Pavlos follows the heater with some serious chin music, brushing Lt. Cosmopoulos off the barricade and putting the fear of Zeus in his dark Grecian eyes.
Having performed his daily supplication to Caerus, the Greek god of opportunity, Papa approaches Pavlos with an intriguing offer: Pitch for the Ogden Raptors, the Class A affiliate of the Dodgers, and we’ll pay you in hard American currency—currency, unlike the Euro, that you can stash securely at the Bank of Utah on Washington Boulevard (hours: 9 a.m.-6 p.m.).
“The only debt crisis you’ll have to worry about,” a grinning Papa tells a curious Pavlos, “is your debt to me for having exposed you to wonders of the Utah State Railroad Museum (hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.)”
Six weeks later, in the seventh inning of a home game against the Idaho Falls Chukars, Pavlos tears his rotator cuff—and here he’d gotten a bit too cute—while attempting to throw a gyro (pronounced yeeeerrr-oh) ball.
Back in Greece, Pavlos begins rehab at the Ares Memorial Therapy Center, where, during a smoke break, he meets the rehabbing Lt. Cosmopoulos. Forging an unlikely friendship, the two men decide to attend a Yanni concert, in part because they love Yanni but also because they have a Grouponopoulos. En route, they are trampled to death in a run on the bank.
Azure Texan is a writer living in Austin.