I am pretty sure I could write pages and pages about why I love The Natural—its solemn nostalgia and ability to reawaken every part of me that loves every part of baseball—but I will try to contain myself to the subject outlined so subtly in the title.
Roy Hobbs is not necessarily a fallen hero; he did no wrong but circumstances outside his control doomed him to fall short of the potential recognized by himself and others. We can never know if he would have fulfilled his Williamsesque prophesy, to walk down the street and hear people say: “there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was,” but I am confident he would have. In sports, I see largely ordinary men do extraordinary things. I know they are ordinary because they get hurt like us (Tony Canigliaro); they aren’t ready like us (Billy Beane); they fall from grace and from the public eye, never to reveal just how deep their talent runs (Josh Hamilton).
The film came out in 1984, when Josh Hamilton was three years old. He quickly became as close to a real-life Roy Hobbs as we will ever experience. Blessed with physical gifts as both a pitcher and hitter, there was not speculation about Hamilton’s potential: it was simply known that he would become one of the best players in the world, never mind that he was just 17 when drafted in 1999. The most “sure thing” prospect since another teen draftee, Ken Griffey Jr., Hamilton was believed to be able to make it in the majors as a pitcher or hitter (very Hobbsish), and would likely do so soon after the start of the new millennium. He was Bryce Harper before Bryce Harper picked up a bat, godly in his talent and titanic in his potential. Then he showed the world how human he was.
Hamilton fell victim to injuries and drug addiction. Instead of bursting onto the scene with precocious teen talent, Hamilton struggled to find his way to the majors, finally making his debut in 2007. He was supposed to be the best in the league on his way to “the best there ever was” by then, well on his way to cementing his place among baseball’s immortals.
Hamilton has shown his talent over the last six years, even taking home an MVP in 2010, but one night stands out to me, a night that only young boys and Hollywood could have imagined. In 2008, the Home Run Derby at Yankee Stadium (in New York—the Hobbs comparisons become eerie) allowed the baseball world to feast its eyes on talent unlike most ever witnessed. Hamilton swung 38 times in the first round. He hit 28 home runs, including 13 in a row at one point.
People can’t even do that in wiffleball or video games. Hamilton—or Hobbs—is the player you create in a virtual world because you will never see him in ours, the slugger you pretend to be in your daydreams and fantasies. I didn’t just want to be a major leaguer; I wanted to be THE guy, the player with unlimited talent and even more potential—Nomar in 1997 or Pujols in 2001 or Ted Williams back in 1939.
Hobbs makes me smile, but Hamilton breaks my heart. Hobbs ensures that he will be remembered forever, rising from the depths as he lifts a team and city from comparable doldrums, as he carries the Knights to the pennant in dramatic fashion. People may not say “the best there ever was,” but they would certainly say “there goes Roy Hobbs.” I do not know for certain if Josh Hamilton will reach that point, and that kills me. That magical night at Yankee Stadium in the summer of 2008 reminded every person witnessing of the deep well that contains Hamilton’s ability, a place that will perhaps never run dry but has certainly been greatly depleted. Hamilton is a hero to many, not only a great baseball player but also a human being who got his life back together having faced a crippling addiction. But I don’t think he will ever be a hero to himself, because he knows how good he could have been. One must hope he has an Iris Gaines of his own, reminding him of the present and future, lest he forever mire in the missed opportunities of the past.
I realize now that I failed in my attempt to focus on how Redford shapes the film, but I think this says a lot about his performances and about me as a viewer. He embodies Sundance and Johnny Hooker and Hobbs and all of his characters with seductive magnetism, reminding us of the lives we dreamed of as kids and still remember dreaming of as we age but fail to grow up. Redford’s appeal transcends gender or sexuality or time, I believe. In The Natural, who wouldn’t root for a country boy with a homegrown swing and self-made bat? Who can help but root for the Knights, decked out in the regalia of a time when greedy owners and their corporate ambitions could be overcome by the divine prowess of a single man?
We often place superheroes’ expectations upon the shoulders of our superstars, calling upon them to bring in fans or sponsors or to save fading leagues. Rarely are we granted the privilege of experiencing a Roy Hobbs, but even rarer is the chance to witness someone with that talent who does not lose his years to gunshots or drug addictions.
Watch – witness – Bryce Harper as often as you can while you can. Naturals are in limited supply.