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Robert W. Creamer
June 01, 1987
A TV movie on life in Class D baseball hits a home run
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June 01, 1987

Low Minors, High Style

A TV movie on life in Class D baseball hits a home run

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Before I start raving about Long Gone, the made-for-television movie that is currently being shown on cable TV by HBO (a subsidiary of SI's publisher, Time Inc.), I ought to make it clear that there are some things wrong with the movie. The plot, as with most baseball movies, gets a little melodramatic; there's an implausibly happy ending; and there are other small flaws that keep Long Gone from being a great film.

Even so, I think it's the best made-for-television movie I've ever seen. If that's faint praise, considering the feeble quality of most TV films, I'll go further. Long Gone is right up there with the best baseball movies ever made. Its fresh impact derives largely from a lively performance by William L. Petersen, a highly acclaimed Chicago stage actor. He plays Cecil (Stud) Cantrell, a onetime rookie standout who never made it big because of a war wound (the time is the 1950s). Cantrell, now well past any chance of rising to the major leagues, is the player-manager for the Class D Tampico Stogies, at the lowest level of the minors.

You might expect Cantrell to be that stock figure of baseball movies, the grizzled taciturn veteran who chews tobacco, spits a lot and is a gruff but good-hearted guy. Petersen's Stud Cantrell is good-hearted all right, and he's getting a little gray at the temples, but otherwise he's loud, cheerful, handsome, still youthful in his thirties, and he's having a ball. He likes running a ball club, and he still plays the game better than most of those he manages. He has an engaging grin and like most ballplayers, a foul-mouthed sense of humor. He smokes cigars, drinks beer and whiskey, and chases women. He's outrageous at times, but he's also funny and tough, and he's a good manager.

The lighthearted plot has two or three serious threads. Cantrell picks up a pretty blonde, Miss Strawberry Blossom of 1957, played by Virginia Madsen. She's just another one-night stand as far as Cantrell is concerned—until she decides, to his astonishment, that he's the man she's going to marry. At the same time an innocent rookie named Jamie Don Weeks (played by Dermot Mulroney) falls for a sweet young thing he meets at a picnic and naively tries to follow the cynical, hedonistic Cantrell's advice on how to handle women. And a hard-hitting black catcher named Joe Louis Brown (Larry Riley) joins the hitherto all-white club; to keep local bigots off the catcher's back (this is the Deep South of 30 years ago), Cantrell says that Brown is a Venezuelan named Jose. One of the movie's comic highlights occurs when a Hispanic teammate coaches the catcher on how to pass as a Latino (all he has to do is say, "No comprendo, senor").

These story lines are worked into the melodramatic climax and the eventual solution, but if parts of Long Gone seem contrived, most of the movie's details are vivid and valid, and the baseball scenes are simply marvelous. Both Petersen and Riley look and act like ballplayers, and so do the other actors. The casting is perfect. Henry Gibson of the old Laugh-In show portrays the mealy-mouthed owner of the Stogies, and someone had the brilliant idea of casting Teller, from the comedy-magic team of Penn & Teller, as the owner's sly, scheming son. Gibson and Teller spend a lot of time in huddled conversation, and the resemblance between the two is extraordinary and hilarious.

Despite vulgarity and purple language, Long Gone is a remarkably tasteful film. Director Martin Davidson uses one or two period pieces—a high-finned Cadillac, an old jukebox with its stack of records—to establish the time as the 1950s, but he doesn't clutter up the movie with too much memorabilia. Davidson uses slow motion, that great clich� of sports movies, to great effect once early in the film and then wisely sets it aside. Nor does he overdo a scene in which the bus arrives at the hotel where the white players stay and the black catcher walks away to his own lodgings, but the quiet shock of the sequence is all the more effective in bringing home the loneliness of a black athlete in a white world.

In short, Long Gone is a good movie, as well as a very funny one, and for his performance in it William L. Petersen walks off with the MVP award.