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Unrealistic expectations

Shows involving sports often come up short in the details

Posted: Wednesday September 29, 2004 12:57PM; Updated: Wednesday September 29, 2004 2:32PM
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I'm not ashamed to admit that I've seen the new CBS show, Clubhouse. It's exec produced by the guy who did The Wonder Years, so I figured maybe it would be worth watching.

Problem is, The Wonder Years was about a kid surrounded by other kids, living in a middle-class setup in a sweeter time, which made a lot of the overly saccharine touching moments bearable. And it was presented as a retrospective, so the rest of the hokiness could be explained away as nostalgia. Clubhouse, on the other hand, takes place in a major league clubhouse, and the whole project underscores the difficulty of presenting an even remotely real look at pro sports.

I have serious trouble watching movies or shows that have sports in them -- which happens all the time since everyone always wants to use them as some sort of metaphor for life -- because they always horribly screw up the details.

As I write this, I'm flipping channels, having just watched about 25 minutes of Little Big League on the Family Channel. Not the most plausible of tales. And even as a die-hard Indians fan I have only lukewarm feelings toward Major League. They're going to hire a tire salesman to manage the team? They're going to live in barracks that look like they're from the set of Biloxi Blues?

Even Teen Wolf bothered me because the other nine players on the basketball court look like they've never played the game before. Granted, they've probably never played with a werewolf before, but at some point you'd think someone on the other team would snap out of it and jump in front of the Wolf and try to take a charge on one of his coast-to-coast drives.

Clubhouse is especially egregious because the point of the show is that a 16-year-old fatherless bat boy will glean enough wisdom from the players and a crusty equipment manager played by Christopher Lloyd (who looks like he's doing an impersonation -- and not an overly good one -- of himself as Reverend Jim Ignatowski) to become a man.

In the first episode, the bat boy has to deal with a player's steroids. In the second it's a corked bat. Next week I think he performs Tommy John surgery, and for sweeps I believe he lands the team charter on the Cross Bronx Expressway. The show is missing many realistic touches: the cursing, the crass behavior, the midgets roaming the clubhouse. (By the way, did you see that Pedro Martinez brought a 28-inch man -- purported to be the world's third-smallest -- into the Red Sox locker room last weekend, apparently so his teammates could have a good guffaw? The guy is an actor, so I suppose he could guest on Clubhouse.)

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Maybe I'm being too hard on the show -- I'm guessing cops feel the same way when they watch NYPD Blue and 53 minutes into the show someone comes in off the street and offers up a complete explanation of who killed whom. But to me it's just further proof that unless you're willing to provide a realistic, warts-and-all look at sports, you might as well stay away from it as subject matter.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training was on this afternoon. The most unbelievable thing is that a major league crowd would actually go to the trouble of chanting for Little Leaguers -- especially at the behest of William Devane. (William Devane has only played a Kennedy in a made-for-TV movie once. I could have sworn he's done it at least eight times.) Shockingly, they chant "Let them play!" and "We want a hit," but never "We want Matthau!"

Speaking of Walter Matthau, bought a great DVD the other day: The Taking of Pelham 123. They do not make movies like this any more. A taut thriller whose only special effect is speeding up footage of a subway train traveling at a normal speed to make it look like it's careening out of control.

Speaking of unbelievable sports scenes, this always bothered me about Caddyshack: Why does Ted Knight take the bet at the end of the movie? To recap, the match is all even, and all four golfers have somehow hit it stiff on 18, leaving everyone with a 10-foot putt. Dr. Beeper misses, then Knight makes his (with the ol' Billy Baroo -- who is Billy Baroo?). Chevy Chase misses, leaving Danny Noonan with a chance to tie, at best. Now, there's $40,000 on the line, and the worst Knight can do is push. Then Dangerfield makes him a "double-or-nothing" offer: $80,000 that Danny makes the putt. First of all, it's not double or nothing, since he hasn't lost the first bet. It's more like a big side bet -- but it essentially replaces the first one, meaning it makes absolutely no sense for Knight to take it. He's gone from a situation where his worst case is breaking even and his best case is winning $40,000 to one where his worst case is losing $80,000 and his best case is winning $80,000. He's essentially risking 80 grand to win 40. Makes no sense.

The one sporting event the rest of the world will be talking about today -- which will get no play in the States -- is Wayne Rooney's three-goal debut for Manchester United in the Champions League on Tuesday. Just a phenomenal performance, but, thanks to ESPN, one you couldn't see here without going to a bar. ESPN holds the Champions League rights and shows a fair number of games on ESPN Deportes, which no one in the world gets. Instead of showing more than one game a week on ESPN2, the network gives us a steady diet of EXPN Today and the World Series of Poker. Yeah, people like poker. The Fossil Man wins. We get it. Now show us some soccer, for crying out loud. At least let someone show the highlights -- there were none on Fox Sports Report or Sky Sports News. And what's with that Trivial Pursuit game ESPN was showing while the Spanish-speaking world was watching Rooney's debut? Is "No" not in Roger Lodge's vocabulary?

Thanks to all who responded to last week's query about the hidden message on the jacket of The Da Vinci Code. I learned it's something of a Masonic SOS, and it also offers a hint of the subject of Dan Brown's next book.

Thanks for stopping by. Stay classy.

Mark Bechtel covers NASCAR for Sports Illustrated and SI.com.