June 20, 1988 6:06 PM EDT

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BULL DURHAM

Have you noticed that baseball players are getting better looking? The old style — paunchy Babe Ruth, ferrety Bob Feller, the sunken Dust Bowl visages of players in the ’30s — has surrendered to today’s sleek, chipper California look. Keith Hernandez, Dave Righetti, Jose Canseco, Dale Murphy, Rafael Palmeiro and a hundred others have the handsomeness of soap-opera stars. And their fine swagger italicizes the sexiness of contemporary sport. These guys know they’re the studs of summer.

Annie Savoy (Susan Sarandon) knows it too. She is a true believer in the church of baseball. Each season she selects the most promising prospect from her local minor-league team, the Durham (N.C.) Bulls, and instructs him in the arts of body language and the hanging curve. For some women it might be merely fast food for an avaricious appetite, but Annie is more than a jock groupie; she is an inspired coach on a couch.

This season her acolyte is Ebby Calvin (“Nuke”) LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), a southpaw with a million-dollar arm and a five-cent head. Nuke is a little raw. He’s meat in need of curing, and Annie sees that as her mission. So she straps him into her bed and reads passages from I Sing the Body Electric. You remember Walt Whitman; according to Annie, he pitched for the Cosmic All- Stars. And his dithyrambs, invoking “limitless limpid jets of love,” could be in praise of a fastball pitcher whose arm doesn’t turn to overcooked pasta in the top of the ninth. They could also be about sex. “When you know how to make love,” Annie tells Nuke, “you’ll know how to pitch.”

Nuke is a natural. He fathoms not the ontological complexity of his own best pitches: “God, that was beautiful. What’d I do?” Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) is quite another species of ballplayer, the kind cursed with self-awareness. All that thinking has made him a journeyman catcher with a decade-long career bouncing through the minors like a Baltimore chop on Astroturf. Now Crash must baby-sit Nuke into maturity, teach him to connive a little in the game’s moral geometry. “Strikeouts are boring. They’re fascist,” Crash tells Nuke. “Throw some ground balls; it’s more democratic.” With professors like Crash and Annie, Nuke can’t miss vaulting to the bigs. Then maybe the grownups can get together and discuss what Crash believes in: “long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last for three days.”

Ron Shelton, who spent some years in the minors, has made a movie with the loping narrative rhythm of a baseball season. This is, after all, a game of anticipation: waiting to gauge an opposing pitcher’s heat, waiting for a seeing-eye grounder or a play at the plate. Shelton locates the tension and the humor between pitches, between ball games, between the sheets.

It helps too that he has written the wittiest, busiest screenplay since Moonstruck, and that his three stars do their very best screen work. Costner’s surly sexiness finally pays off here; abrading against Sarandon’s earth-mama geniality and Robbins’ rube egocentricity, Costner strikes sparks. Aided by a snazzy red-neck roadhouse bar-band score, Bull Durham is a long, smart kiss to baseball that should last longer than three days. How about all season? Wouldn’t it be poetic justice if Ron Shelton were the movies’ Mr. October?

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