Sunday, July 3, 2011

Homecoming Queen

I recently watched a movie about my second-favourite sport, pool, called Turn the River. Pool tables are often used as a cinematic device - to set a scene in a bar, say - but movies about pool are rare, and good ones are even rarer. There is one great pool movie, maybe one or two good ones, and after that there's a whole heap of mediocrity.

Turn the River falls solidly into the latter category, in the way that indie movies tend to be mediocre. It's a story about a female pool hustler trying to make enough money to kidnap her estranged kid and move from the American Northeast to small-town Ontario. And it didn't try, like so many billiards movies, to glamourize the game. It didn't have major plot holes. The filmmaker was willing to set his characters up for failure. The acting was satisfactory, featuring a bitter, grumbling Rip Torn in all his old-codger glory. The characters were twisted archetypes. The filmmaking was quiet. The effect was that the audience got the sense of being the fly on the wall witnessing a tragic human-interest story unfold in real time. Some find that type of film boring, but in short it was a movie that I should have loved.

But the whole thing just didn't work. The narrative moved past understated and into vague. We never got a sense of how our female hustler came to be that, or of how good she is (or was). We don't know why, if she's so good, she's broke at the beginning of the movie and yet suddenly thinks she can break the bank. We don't understand her relationship with the Rip Torn character, how he came to be a father figure to her without knowing certain critical details about her life. Aside from some hints at paternal abuse, we don't even know why she needs the kid back now, as opposed to five years ago. And the pool shown in the movie looks legitimate, but as a pool player I was rarely given enough time to appreciate the games themselves - the more you get into it you realize that this isn't a movie about pool, it's a movie that features some pool players making easy shots that then tells you who won. And worst of all, the title refers to a poker, what's that about?

My point is, Turn the River was a good story that wasn't told properly. It's not an awful film, by any means. It's just one that won't top many lists. It's a story about resiliency and struggle that leaves out the resiliency and struggle.

Roy Halladay was once a human-interest story in his own right. He wasn't simply a pitcher who had a few good years into Toronto. He tantalized one September afternoon in 1998 and then lost it all. The obvious metaphor for what happened to Roy Halladay in 2000 is of a highly touted fighter who gets knocked to the canvas in the first round of his first professional fight. Or to extend a hustling metaphor, he was a kid who ran out his first rack and then lost $10,000 trying to follow it up. He was not merely a prospect who had failed to develop; he was Edward Norton in 25th Hour, a white-collar thug exposed as a skinny white middle-class pretty-boy.

But then he came back. And he didn't come back like Todd Van Poppel came back, a failed starter who salvaged a long and thoroughly mediocre career as a reliever. He didn't even come back like Eric Gagne or Rick Ankiel, who became useful to great players once they had converted to a position that better suited their skill sets. No, when Doc Halladay came back, nickname in tow, he became that prizefighter everyone had glimpsed. On July 2, 2001 he stepped back onto a major league field with a revamped delivery, but it was more than that. He had murdered the fresh-faced kid who had once thrown that one-hitter and reincarnated himself as a player.

Please forgive the hyperbole. This is the story as it is known, and I'm only recounting the myth that is the man. The Roy Halladay saga sustained us, as Blue Jays fans, through lean times. It was thirteen years ago that he first made an appearance in a Blue Jay uniform, and in those thirteen years the Blue Jays have never played a meaningful game in August. He was our Zach Greinke (before Zach Greinke had even been drafted). While on some level we knew we were latching onto something insubstantial, it was the only thing that we had. There were no pennant races. Aside from Carlos Delgado in 2003, there were no serious MVP candidates. There was only Halladay, year in and year out. We could never pick the Blue Jays to win the AL East, but we could pick Roy Halladay to win the Cy Young Award, and that was something more than nothing.
That career amounts to a story, and that's why I can't help but feel like when Carlos Villanueva disdains the ovation that Halladay received on Saturday, he's missing the point. What he sees is a good pitcher facing some ex-teammates, the same way all I saw in that movie was a supposedly good pool shark winning some cash games. Carlos Villanueva has been on the Blue Jays for three months. How could he possibly know the stories? I don't begrudge him the emotion at all - it's ballsy for a pitcher to call out the fans three months into his stint, even if he didn't say anything particularly harsh, and that strength is certainly something you look for in your players. And there's no question that through his first 72 innings in a Jays uni, CV has been terrific. As a fan, I appreciate Villanueva very much.

But if you watch The Hustler, you develop an appreciation for Fast Eddie Felson. You understand that he is a flawed individual, but understand why he must win the final game against Minnesota Fats. You understand why Minnesota Fats must, in the end, succumb to Eddie's superior determination and admit himself beaten. It's certainly a hard thing to have perspective on the story while you are participating in it, which is another reason I don't begrudge Villaneuva his feelings; the second he stands on the mound and thinks about how much better the opposing pitcher is, he's already, on some level, lost.

But the Roy Halladay legacy will survive in Toronto long after Carlos Villanueva has moved on. And that's why, as a Jays fan, I wish I could have been at Rogers Centre on Saturday to show my appreciation.

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