The Battered Bastards of Baseball (2014), directed by Chapman and Maclain Way, is a documentary in the style of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. An original production from Netflix, the film explores the brief history of the Portland Mavericks, an unaffiliated team that played against the short season Class-A affiliates of the Northwest League from 1973 to 1977. The documentary is filled with voices and memories of those who participated, from the late and charismatic owner Bing Russell’s son (also a player), to the bat-boy, the players, the team’s general manager, and local reporters. From time to time, the film defaults to tropes that one might expect in a story about unaffiliated and underpaid players—namely, they did it for “the love of the game.” But that’s not very interesting. The most compelling components of the film—the traits that earn a recommendation from this reviewer—are the ways in which it illustrates the dynamics of what happens when a band of outsiders infiltrate a world dominated by the status quo of business and offer a collective “eff you” to the establishment.
The team was founded after the 1972 season, when the Triple-A Portland Beavers left town for Spokane, Washington. It would be incorrect to say that the Mavericks compensated for an absence the Beavers left behind. A void there was, but it existed even while the Beavers played, as is evident in the extremely low attendance and general apathy regarding baseball. That is why the team left. It was also why nobody expected the Mavericks to be successful. But they were.
How they did it is one of the key questions of the film. They were able to transform disinterest into passion by cultivating an identity of disregard that spoke to the people of Portland. Their unpredictable play was exciting and was in contradiction to the rote emphasis on player development that might have made the Beavers uninteresting. Their unconventional play—the film even terms it “reckless”—was a product of the personnel. Many of the players were rejected big leaguers who played with a chip on their shoulder, including Jim Bouton who had been blackballed by major league teams after publishing an expose on player culture. Several times throughout the film, the players refer to their opponents as “bonus babies,” which conveys not only a sense of entitlement from the affiliated players, but also disillusionment regarding the realities of professional ball that the Mavericks had previously experienced. At one point in the film, it is noted that the team rostered 30 players because doing so ensured that every fan could identify with at least one player. They also had a female general manager, which is a barrier no major league team has yet to cross. The team also had an Asian-American manager. From management to the field, the Mavericks employed individuals who faced challenges with which the fan-base could identify. They were human beings who encountered hardship rather than professionals making a pit stop in Portland on their way to the big leagues. Not that minor-leaguers aren’t also disadvantaged (most never make it and are never paid well to play baseball), but that was the sense that differentiated the Mavericks and the Beavers. Rather than the Portland Mavericks, they were, as the film highlights, Portland’s maverick baseball team.
Besides a sense of ownership that connected the team to the fans in order to make a successful market, the team is remembered for its on-field accomplishments. The Mavericks earned a winning record and finished first in their division each of its five seasons. How an independent team that constructed its roster after an open try-out outplayed its affiliated opponents is a question worth probing. The film suggests that the team won a lot of games because the stakes
were low. They had nothing to lose and were unconcerned with getting promoted, so they were able to gel as a team and win more than they lost. While this answer contains a whiff of #narrative, I don’t think it’s far off of the mark. There is something to chemistry as a cause rather than an effect of winning. Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus about “the Grind” of a long season and the toll it takes on players. Even in a short season, the Mavericks look like evidence that maintaining a loose clubhouse can help players maintain focus, and even stave off fatigue over a long period of time.
While exploring the team’s on-field success is a strong suit of the film, it is also a bit overstated, though it does add to the drama of the film (for better or worse). First, I wonder if the Mavericks were not as disadvantaged as they seemed. While most of them were not good enough to play for affiliated teams, they were likely a bit older than their Class-A counterparts. Additionally, the fact that the Mavericks never won a Northwest League championship is portrayed as tragic in the film. Too much is made of the practice of organizations assigning higher level players to compete for a title at a lower level. To the best of my knowledge, this is common practice today. I see no reason why it would not have been then, particularly because the extra games provide more high-stakes playing time for players in development. Instead, the film portrays such procedures as underhanded ways to defeat the little guy.
Indeed, it is not the on-field defeat of the underdog Mavericks that rankles the viewer, but the off the field one. After five years of success, the team was shuttered by the strong-arm of professional baseball. Prior to the 1978 season, the PCL created a new iteration of the Portland Beavers and claimed exclusivity to the territory. It was an appropriation of the Mavericks’ revival of the baseball market in Portland. Though the new Beavers, like the old, weren’t as successful as the Mavericks.
In the end, the film gets at the beauty and ugliness of baseball. The upstart team created interest in the team out of practically nothing, as if the joy of baseball lay dormant in the collective consciousness of Portland’s residents and awaited an awakening spark. But that very rekindled interest led to the demise of the Mavericks. Professional baseball has always existed to make owners money, and the PCL moving back into Portland is an expression of that. The tactic exposed the soullessness—the lack of feeling we know is there but can’t focus too much on—that is behind the gracefulness and entertainment of the game we love.
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