In my opinion, Brooks Robinson is the greatest baseball player who ever stepped onto the diamond. He might not hold any of the more prestigious records in Major League Baseball history like runs batted in or career batting average, but I'll settle for his reputation as the greatest defensive player of all time as I think about "61*" landing on Blu-ray disc from HBO.
Robinson doesn't have a darn thing to do with Billy Crystal's now ten year old film about Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris trying to reach Babe Ruth's once dominant 60 home runs in a single season record, but he, like Maris, played the game the way it should have been played. And considering his career accomplishments started piling up right around the time "61*" takes place in, it seems a logical thought process and connection.
HBO has carefully timed its release, as usual. "61*" comes to Blu-ray just in time for Father's Day, the 50th anniversary of the epic home run race record as well as a new year-long exhibit that pays tribute to the film's 10th anniversary at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown. When released a decade ago, "61*" was nominated for 12 Primetime Emmy Awards and won two (Outstanding Sound Editing and Casting).
Some might think you need to love, or at the very least like, baseball if you are to enjoy "61*." Not true. In many ways, this is a story about a relationship between two teammates that blossoms at times and falters at others. Baseball sits as the context, of course, but as "61* makes its mark in its 129 minute run time, viewers discover that Mantle and Maris are men with baggage outside of their athletic careers, and when they've got no one else to turn to, they wind up with each other.
"61*" was made shortly after Mark McGwire broke Maris's long standing record of 61 home runs in a single season. McGwire eventually got to 70 total, and a few years later, some guy named Barry Bonds came along and clubbed 73 en route to shattering Hank Aaron's career record of 755. After reaching 762 for his career, Bonds called it quits and retired under a steroid infused cloud, as did McGwire.
It's difficult seeing "61*" and thinking about the issues related to performance enhancing substances. We know so obviously today about things that taint history and great athletes, but somehow these same things went undetected throughout the late 1990s and early-to-mid 2000s. It's a real challenge to not think about how solid or hollow a record is given what we know today, but for Mantle and Maris, baseball was what they used to bridge a gap during a turbulent time.
"61*" opens as the Maris family is heading to watch McGwire try to break Roger's record. Things quickly flashback to 1961, when Maris (Barry Pepper), who arrived the season before, receives his Most Valuable Player award from the 1960 season. Yet it's Mantle (Thomas Jane), not Maris, who New York Yankee fans adore. He starts the season off on fire, and Maris fears his future with the Yanks is short lived. Instead, manager Ralph Houk (Bruce McGill) switches the pair in the batting order. Soon, Maris, like Mantle, is hitting bombs at a Ruth like pace.
Much of "61*" passes in montages, with cut aways to newspaper articles about the teammates jockeying for position as the pace leader toward Ruth's record. The film also focuses on how badly Yankee fans want Mantle to break Ruth's record, and not Maris. Unlike Maris, Mantle is a long tenured player in the pinstripes. Mantle's a veteran, however, and he has a taste for life off the field, including flashy women and alcohol. Whitey Ford (Anthony Michael Hall) and Bob Cerv (Chris Bauer) are often there to help Mantle out of a jam because they go way back. As Mantle can't keep pace and Maris pulls away, commissioner Ford Frick (Donald Moffat), who apparently had a super close relationship with Ruth, tells the world that unless someone breaks 60 home runs in 154 games (the number Ruth played when he hit 60 in 1927), their record will go down in history with an asterisk.
Even though we know how things end (and if you don't, Maris hits home run 60 during the last game of the season), it's the build up and not the climax that make "61*" special. Maris gets hate mail from people who love Ruth, love Mantle or, well, just don't like him. Owner Dan Topping (Bob Gunton) encourages Houk to expedite his players on their quest for fame, but he adamantly refuses. Mantle's feud with Joe DiMaggio gets some attention, as do the relationships he and Maris developed, for good or otherwise, with local and national reporters and press correspondents. It's all entertaining, funny, engaging and pleasant to watch, mostly because "61*" was made with passion.
I don't know how closely Crystal depicted Maris and Mantle, but in "61*," their opposite approaches to baseball and life are the show. Jane is a swanky woman hunter off the field and has an alcohol vice, while Pepper is mild mannered, loyal to his wife and smokes like a chimney. Each approaches his role with respect for the man, not just the player, he's been tasked to recreate. Details abound as they argue, interact, laugh and get to know one another. They're pretty well cast, and it shows.
The film's most memorable moment is a conversation between Houk and Maris, where the hitter learns that, whether or not he wants to acknowledge it, he's the biggest sports story in the world. His frustration with the media bugging him and his family has led to stress, so much so that his hair begins falling out. Maris realizes what he owes to baseball, however, and because it's the game he loves to no end, he sucks it up and plays to win. The scene is meaningful for those with adversity in life, be it on or off the field. Its message is humble, wholesome and direct, and there's little doubt Maris would have it any other way.
"61*" is entertaining enough, and despite a run time maybe 15 or 20 minutes too lengthy, it's entertaining. Baseball's modern dark side gets no face time, but its permanent one (perseverance) is highlighted quite a bit.
Ten years later and in 1080p High Definition, "61*" looks pretty darn good. Crystal's efforts to make his motion picture feel and look authentic are rewarded with this very clear and bright 16:9/1.78:1 transfer to Blu-ray disc. Dugouts, locker rooms, outfield bleachers and all the other sights you can imagine when old time baseball comes to mind are here. Especially attractive are the interactions between Maris and his wife, Pat (Jennifer Crystal Foley…Billy Crystal's daughter). Many shots during these scenes are close ups that exhibit vivid and grain free facial characteristics. While "61*" isn't on the same level as more recent HBO releases, Blu-ray once again works its magic.
You'll have no issues hearing every bad word from Mantle, every supportive comment from Maris and the sounds of the game. The film's English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is a real treat because it compliments the visuals extremely well, especially during the game sequences. There's something unmistakable about a wooden bat cracking when it makes contact with a baseball, and "61*" captures it ever so well. Natural background noise also does its thing without fail, but doesn't dominate over vocals that easily convey frustration, joy, anger and triumph. Additional audio options include French and Spanish DTS Digital Surround 2.0s, while subtitle choices are English, French and Spanish.
A few tidbits here, including an audio commentary with director Crystal, a featurette titled "The Greatest Summer of My Life: Billy Crystal and the Making of ‘61*,'" bios, hitting and fielding stats for the real Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, as well as Maris's 1961 home run list. With these special features, history and reality are blurred, and it's quite effective.
A Final Word:
Understand that "61*" is far from groundbreaking stuff. It's good stuff, but not Earth shattering. The film's re-release on Blu-ray seems appropriate for anniversary purposes and otherwise, namely a reflection on how many professional sports have become tainted over the years. Simultaneously, "61*" lets viewers step back to a time when the men battling on the field were larger than life, and didn't need an injection to prove it.