April 6, 2012
Guests: Brad Ausmus
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, sitting in for Terry Gross. As baseball returns to Major League parks, we're going to listen to the interview I recorded last August with Brad Ausmus, who was one of the most respected catchers in baseball for nearly two decades.
I invited Ausmus to the show because I've long been fascinated with the lives catchers lead. They're a special breed of ball player, really. They aren't like outfielders, gracefully loping under fly balls, or infielders diving for grounders. They're hidden behind masks, crouched behind the plate, eating dust from pitches in the dirt and getting clipped by foul balls.
The position is incredibly demanding, both physically and mentally. Besides doing 150 deep knee-bends a day and absorbing collisions at the plate, catchers have to study hitters and call for just the right pitches and manage the delicate psyches of their pitchers, young and old.
Brad Ausmus retired in 2010 after 18 seasons in the big leagues, 10 of them with the Houston Astros. He's a three-time Gold Glove winner and was named to the 1999 National League All-Star Team.
He caught more than 1,900 games in all, seventh on the all-time list. He's now a special assistant to the general manager of the San Diego Padres.
Brad Ausmus, welcome to FRESH AIR. As a catcher, your role is unique. You and the pitcher are busy on every play, while seven other guys, although they all do tremendous things from time to time, are standing around. Tell us - describe, if you will, some of the physical demands of catching in the big leagues.
BRAD AUSMUS: Physically, it's mainly getting in and out of a squat. You do it not only during the course of the game - which is actually the easier part - you do it in the bullpen, you do it in spring training, you do it doing the warm-ups, you do it prior to the game.
At times, I've tried to total up the number of squats I've gotten into over the course of a season, and, you know, you'd have to go 150 squats a day for seven months, and you'd come up with a number. So your legs take a toll, especially when you get down to the last two months of the season. In August and September, you start to feel your legs getting tired.
I remember walking up the stairs one season when I had a newborn, my second daughter, and I would walk halfway up the stairs to the landing, and I'd kind of have to rest because my legs were tired. So there is a physical demand, mostly on your legs.
DAVIES: And I imagine that you like a pitcher who works quickly. I mean, you're there crouching, and somebody who takes his time, you know, picks up the rosin bag, thinks it over, rubs his forehead while you're there crouching, does that make your day tougher?
AUSMUS: It definitely makes it tougher. When you have a pitcher who works quickly, not only works quickly in the sense that gets the ball, gets back on the pitching rubber and is prepared to get the sign and go but works quickly in the sense that myself as the catcher and the pitcher are on the same page in terms of what pitch should be used in the situation against this hitter in this game, and there's not much shaking off going on. The pitcher's constantly in agreement with the catcher. That's the games that are fun and go quickly.
DAVIES: Now, you have those deep knee bends you're doing all day, or at least all through the game and the warm-ups, but there are those times in the game when you get nicked. Now, I imagine the equipment's probably improved since you first started, right, the protective equipment?
AUSMUS: It's improved - yes, it's improved and become a lot more comfortable, actually.
DAVIES: Yeah? In what ways?
AUSMUS: When I first started, really the inside of the shin guards protecting your legs was just hard rubber, and now they're rubber lined with cloth, and it's a lot easier, especially when sometimes you get gravel or dirt in between your legs and the shin guard. And this new material softens it, and it's not constantly grinding on your skin.
But there's been improvements in other areas. The chest protectors, they now have a slow-release foam rather than just being stuffed like a stuffed animal with fabric or some type of fiber. And of course nowadays catchers have a choice of masks. They can go with the old-style mask and helmet combination, or they can go with the relatively new style in the last 12 or so years of the hockey mask, which has become pretty popular.
DAVIES: And why is the hockey mask better?
AUSMUS: Well, being a former hockey-mask wearer, I liked it for a number of reasons. One, it provided protection for the entire head. So if the hitter on his backswing came all the way around and hits you toward the back of the mask, your head was still protected in a hockey-style mask more so than it would be in the old-style mask.
But also the bars were thinner and closer to your face, which gave you a better viewing through the mask, and you could see the field better, see the pitch better, see any ball being thrown to you better.
Thirdly and finally was with the new-style mask you never had to take it off. You know, when you wore the old-style catching mask, the helmet was generally turned backwards, and the brim of the hat faced backwards.
So if there was a pop-up or a foul ball that you were chasing, and you looked up, what would happen is the brim would hit your upper back or the back of your shoulders, and it would cause the mask to jostle. As a result, catchers constantly have to remove their masks for a foul ball or a pop-up.
With the catching-style mask, there is no brim in the back. So you can move your head in all directions without changing your view or jostling the helmet itself, or the mask itself. So you could leave it on, on a pop-up. You don't even have to remove it and worry about throwing it to the side or stepping on it or hitting the umpire with it.
DAVIES: Right. Do you catch one-handed, with one - with your bare hand behind your back for protection, or do you keep both hands out there?
AUSMUS: Well, it changes based on the situation. If there's nobody on base, I keep my right hand or my throwing hand kind of to my side by my hip and down a little bit to protect it from a foul ball.
Back 40, 50 years ago, before there was changes in the catcher's mitt, it used to be just basically a pillow with a hole in the middle or a dent in the middle that catchers would have to catch the ball and immediately put their throwing hand over it so it wouldn't pop out.
And there's been a lot of changes in the catcher's mitt. It's hinged, and it has a webbing. You don't really need two hands to catch the ball. So when there's nobody on base, the throwing hand, in order to protect it, is either behind me or down by my right hip.
Now, if there's a runner on base that could possibly steal, or I need to be concerned with the ball in the dirt not getting by me, then I'd bring my hand - and I actually lay it relaxed on the groin area or the inner thigh of my right leg, and it just kind of hangs there flat against my inner thigh, and it's in a good position there to either block the ball in the dirt or to be ready to throw a base-stealer out.
DAVIES: And you hope you don't get a foul tip into that exposed arm or hand.
AUSMUS: You're right, and it's a precarious position. What I've found is, first in, you know, 18 years in the major leagues I may have gotten hit in that spot 10 times. It doesn't get hit very often. I've also found that if you keep your hand relaxed, when you do get hit, there's usually no damage.
And I can say over the course of my entire career, there was only one foul ball that hit my throwing hand that caused me to miss any time. I missed two or three games when I was playing for the Houston Astros. But other than that, it's usually like any other foul tip. You shake it off and you move forward.
DAVIES: So a guy's 58 feet away throwing 90 miles an hour, a batter swinging in front of my eyes, and I'm staying relaxed.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AUSMUS: That's the goal.
DAVIES: Now, you mentioned balls in the dirt. They're a terrific weapon for your pitcher, I mean to get a batter lunging at a ball that's dropping out of the strike zone. And so you get a lot of ground balls and a lot of strikes that way, and that's good for your team. But there's also the risk that that ball can get past you, the catcher, and a base runner can advance.
You were known for being good at stopping balls in the dirt. Any particular tricks you used?
AUSMUS: There's nothing - no trick to it. And really the important thing about keeping balls in front of you - this is how I often explain it. If I was a basketball player, and somebody took a jump shot, and I swatted the ball into the stands, blocking a shot, everyone might ooh and ahh, but the truth of the matter is, is that team gets the ball back because it went out of bounds. So it doesn't do us any good.
That is very similar to catching. You can't just block the ball, you have to control the ball, because if you block it and it ricochets more than five feet away from you, the runner's going to advance anyway, and it hasn't done you any good.
So my whole theory on blocking was controlling the ball, kind of catching the ball with my chest protector and keeping it close to me, because if it went too far, we're in a worse predicament.
DAVIES: Now, I want to talk about collisions at the plate. There are some collisions in baseball, like occasionally outfielders will collide with each other or the wall, and sometimes it happens among base runners. But the one time in baseball that a collision is intentional and accepted is when a runner is coming in from third, the catcher is waiting for a throw from the fielder, and the catcher's got to catch that ball, make the tag on the runner, and if you block the plate, they're allowed to plow into you, right?
AUSMUS: Yeah, absolutely. You are free game.
DAVIES: Tell us about how that works. I mean, would you block the plate and thereby induce a collision, or would you like to give them a path so that they would slide and try and avoid the tag? How did you approach that?
AUSMUS: You know, every play at the plate can be slightly different, but going into it, this was my general approach: The ball gets hit to the outfield, there's a runner at second base, I know there's a possible play at the plate as soon as the ball's hit.
So I get my feet set, usually at the left - the front left corner is where I put my left foot, and I kind of point my toe towards third base because if that runner slides into me, I don't want to have my toe pointed towards the pitcher's mound, and now the runner slides into the side of my knee. So I'm setting my feet ahead of time.
And as the play develops, you get a sense, by looking back and forth and through your peripheral vision, if there's going to be a play or not. And as the throw comes in, what happens more often than not is the throw takes you to where you go because you have to catch the ball and apply the tag. So you have to go where the throw is.
If it does come right to you, and there's time to catch the ball and set, then that's probably when you're going to get hit. The general rule as a base runner is if you're running towards home and the catcher is about to catch the ball or already has the ball, that's when you want to hit him. That's when you want to either jostle him, jostle him just before he catches it, or hit him hard enough where he drops it. And that's really the only time where the contact comes into play at home plate.
DAVIES: You want to tell us one of your more memorable encounters there?
AUSMUS: I - one clearly stands out above the rest. I was playing in Houston, and we were playing against the Milwaukee Brewers, and a player named Scott Podsednik was on second base, and there was a base hit to center field, where Carlos Beltran was playing. And there was going to be a play at the plate.
The throw, kind of as I described, took me a little bit to my right, and I had to reach with my gloved left hand and come back towards home plate, and as I came back towards home plate, Scott Podsednik hit me on the left side of my shoulder and mask, and I was actually spun around, my helmet came flying off, and I was unconscious for about five or 10 seconds.
DAVIES: Wow. I hate to ask you this, but did you hold the ball?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
AUSMUS: You know what, ironically I did. I didn't know it. I held on to the ball, and I landed face-first in the dirt, and the pitcher, who was backing up home plate in case of an overthrow, had to come over and take the ball out of my glove while I was unconscious, in case the runner at first, who had had the original single, tried to advance to the next base.
And Scott Podsednik, who had plowed into me and knocked me out, was actually called out.
DAVIES: Yeah, I mean typically the umpire just looks to see if the catcher holds on to the ball, and if he does, it's an out, right?
AUSMUS: Yeah, generally that's how it works. If there's a collision, they're assuming a tag was applied, and more often than not, that's the case.
DAVIES: Do you think the rules should change? I mean, you know, this doesn't happen at second base or third base, where guys just go barreling into a fielder, and I've got to see - even though as a catcher you've got some protection, the momentum is with the base runner.
I mean, I remember Pete Rose actually ended the career of a catcher in the All-Star Game once, by plowing into him. Should the rule change?
AUSMUS: No, I don't think there should be any rule changes other than with one caveat. I would say maybe take away the head hits. Any contact by the base runner at the catcher's head or above his shoulders could be deemed illegal.
That way, with all the new studies and discoveries concerning concussions, you might be able to avoid some post-playing career issues, medical issues. But other than that, home plate's different. Home plate is not second base. Home plate is not third base. When you cross home plate, you've scored a run, and one run can make the difference in a game.
So for me, being a catcher, even though I know I could have been hurt while trying to block home plate or trying to apply a tag at home plate, home plate's not third base. If someone slides into third base, that's not going to win the game for them.
If someone slides into home plate, and they've crossed it and tagged it, that could win the game for them, and the axiom in baseball is one game can be the difference between a playoff team and a team that goes home and plays golf. So one run could be the difference.
DAVIES: Brad Ausmus spent 18 years behind the plate in the big leagues. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with former big league catcher Brad Ausmus. He caught more than 1,900 games in Major League Baseball. We're talking about the life of a catcher.
I want to talk about what happens there at the plate with the umpire. I mean, you're behind the plate. The batter's at the back of the batter's box, and the ump is crouching over your shoulder. You're kind of almost a unit there. I mean, do you and the umpire sort of work together? Is there a sort of choreographed dance there?
AUSMUS: Generally speaking, the umpire works around the catcher. There are some umpires who like to place a hand on the catcher's shoulder or side. It kind of lines them up and gives - they know where they are and gives them their view of the strike zone.
And you know, 99 percent of the catchers have no problem with it. And sometimes the umpire will even say, hey, does my hand on your shoulder bother you? And once again, I think 99 percent of catchers say no, don't worry about it. As long as the umpire's not actually pushing you in any way when you're trying to catch the ball, it's usually not an issue.
The umpire is kind of setting up around the catcher, but you are, in a sense, working together. And you know, I will have umpires, or I have had umpires, say, hey, I'm having trouble seeing the inside pitch, can you get a little lower. And generally you try to accommodate the umpire. This guy's making decisions on balls and strikes. The last thing you want to do is make him angry.
So you are working together, and you get to know these guys. You know, people from the stands are yelling blue or four-eyes, you know, whatever they have for the umpire, but you know, you get to know the umpires by name. You have a rapport with them. You know who you can joke around with, who you can't. So there is a relationship there that goes beyond business.
DAVIES: And can you work an umpire? I guess one of the things you do is when a close pitch comes in, you try and frame it for the umpire and make them give it the appearance of a strike, right? And that's something I'm told you were known for doing well.
AUSMUS: Yeah, you want to get every pitch you can. And my whole premise was the less movement you had, the less distracted the umpire is, the more likely the umpire is to think it's a strike. If there's a lot of movement, he's thinking you're reaching for the ball, it can't be where you wanted it. Maybe it was a ball. Or sometimes just the movement of a catcher itself can distract the umpire.
So my whole theory was as little movement as possible and make the ball look like it's in the center of my body. So there was a slight shift of my upper body as I tried to catch the ball towards the center of my chest protector, in a spot where the umpire could see it. I don't mean catch it literally on my chest protector, but directly in front of my sternum, I would try and catch it with slight shifts from side to side, no sudden movements.
DAVIES: Now, if you're not getting the close calls from the umpire, can you work him at all?
AUSMUS: You can. You know, early in the game, generally speaking, I'm going to let the umpire kind of establish where his strike zone is. You know, these guys aren't computers. Not every umpire has the exact same strike zone. There are slight variations.
And I don't mind the variations, as long as these variations hold true for the entire nine innings. If they've established their strike zone in a certain manner in the first two innings or so, I don't want to see that strike zone change when we get into the eighth inning and now the game is on the line and he misses a call that he's called all day.
So as long as they're consistent with their strike zones, you know, I don't think anyone really has a problem with it.
DAVIES: And what does it - tell me what it sounds like when you admonish an umpire or work him in a circumstance like that, where you think they've, you know, they've changed their strike zone.
AUSMUS: It would again, it would depend on the situation. If it's the first time I disagreed with him, it would - it'd be very congenial. And one general rule I stuck to was I didn't really admonish an umpire or argue or question an umpire while there was a hitter within earshot.
Even if it was only the second pitch at the at-bat, and the at-bat went eight pitches, I would wait till that hitter was gone before I said something to the umpire, and usually if it was one - the first or second pitch that I disagreed with it, I'd ask him: Hey, where did you have that curve ball that he threw second pitch?
And the umpire might say: Oh, I had it outside. And I said: I thought it caught the corner. That right there sends a message, all right? He thinks - he knows that I thought it was a strike, even if he had the pitch being outside.
Now, if this happens again and again, or he consistently misses pitches that I think are strikes, or he consistently - or I should say not consistently, if he later in the game doesn't call something a strike that he had called early in the game, then it could get a little bit more volatile.
And believe it or not, sometimes you don't even have to say anything. You can just hold the pitch a little bit longer, not throw it back to the pitcher as quickly. Body language speaks as loud as words.
DAVIES: And the rule is you're not allowed to argue balls and strikes. You can be ejected for that, right. So you kind of have to be subtle about it.
AUSMUS: You can. I mean, the umpire will give you some leeway in terms of disagreeing with him. You know, umpires know they're not going to get 100 percent of the pitches right, and as long as you're not complaining every single inning, every single game they're behind home plate, they really don't have a problem with you disagreeing with them.
I think as a catcher, you need to understand that these guys have a job to do. The large majority of them are doing the best they can. You know, they don't have vendettas against players, generally speaking. That rarely happens. They don't hold grudges. One of the first things they're taught is they can't hold grudges.
They're trying to get every pitch right. They're being evaluated on it. And there's no animosity that the umpires harbor, for the most part, against players. They want to get the call right.
DAVIES: Brad Ausmus spent 18 years catching in the big leagues. He's now a special assistant to the San Diego Padres. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Davies sitting in for Terry Gross. We're talking about the life of a major league catcher with Brad Ausmus, who retired in 2010 after 18 seasons in the big leagues. He's now a special assistant for the San Diego Padres.
One of the most important things a catcher does is to call the pitches that the pitcher is going to throw. I mean people who watch the game know that between your legs you will drop typically I guess one finger to signal a fastball and then two, three or four for various other pitches that the pitcher might throw the, you know, a curveball, a slider, a changeup. And when you see this working well it's interesting. You will see the pitcher get the ball back and then almost go into the wind up immediately. And I'm thinking for that to happen the catcher must be making the decision on what pitch to call immediately as soon as the last pitch is a completed.
Does it work that quickly? I mean, is that what you do?
AUSMUS: Basically, yes. That's exactly what happens. A pitch is thrown and as soon as you've thrown it back there's kind of a checklist that you go through. And it becomes more reflexive as you do it more and more. And a veteran catcher, a lot of the checklist he just glosses over because he knows the answer to it. But you're really going through a bunch of different things in your mind, including what's the score? What inning are we in? How many outs? What's this hitter's weaknesses? What is this pitcher's strengths? Who's on deck? How did we get this guy out last time? What pitches did he see? What pitch did we just throw? So I mean there's about 10 to a dozen things that you kind of - a checklist you go through in your mind before you put that signal down.
DAVIES: Right. And then you can pick from four or five pitches that the pitcher throws. And it can be up or down or inside or outside. That's a lot of options that you've got to get through in a hurry.
AUSMUS: It is. And you prepare for it. You know, it's, that checklist you go through before every single pitch. But a lot of it happens beforehand. You know, you, we have pitcher and catcher meetings. On the teams I've played with the catchers would get together and go over the entire offensive lineup or potential lineup, their strengths, their weaknesses. What - can they run? Do they hit and run? Are they bunters?
Before every series I would have a stack of graphs and they would have each hitter on the opposing team, what they did against right-handed, what they did against left-handed pitchers, what they did against curveballs and sliders, against right-handed or left-handed pitchers, what they did against changeups and split-fingered fastballs against right-handed and left-handed pitchers.
And this all gets condensed down into basically a sheet or a chart of strengths, weaknesses. All this knowledge gets applied when you get into the game with that pitcher and you have to call pitches.
DAVIES: So a catcher then who knows his pitcher and knows all of the hitter's tendencies and calls a great game is a tremendous asset, and I think people in baseball know this. And frankly, people who write about you say that you were one of the best at this. Adam Dunn who is, of course, a terrific left-handed power hitter has said of you, as a hitter I hate him.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: Because you are known for doing this well. You've also though got to handle your pitcher's psyche. If the pitcher out there is getting frustrated, not hitting his spots and you trot out. I'm sure every conversation is different, but do you have to know, I don't know, do some pitchers bristle if you make a suggestion? Is it a matter of simple encouragement? Is it strategy? What do you say when you get out there and talk to them?
AUSMUS: The one general rule I had - and this didn't apply every single time I went out to talk to a pitcher. You know, there are times where I would have to get on a pitcher, but my general rule was when I left the pitcher's mound after talking to any given pitcher, I want them to feel like they can get out of this situation.
Baseball's a tough game. It's not as physically demanding as say football or hockey. But it's a tough game in the sense that it's pitch after pitch after pitch for 150 pitches a game for six straight months with very few days of rest. So when I left that mound, I wanted that pitcher even if he was in the worst situation possible. If he was in bases loaded, no outs, with the tying run at third base in the bottom of the ninth inning, when I left that pitcher's mound, I wanted that pitcher to feel like hey, I've got a chance to get out of this.
So I, my general rule was to be positive. Unless there was a guy who I knew could handle a little yelling or little berating, I was generally very calm and I walked away hoping that they felt like this is not an impossible situation.
DAVIES: And when somebody could take a little berating what would you berate them about?
AUSMUS: Usually when I was berating someone it was because they were pitching what I would call scared. They were trying to avoid contact or they were afraid that the hitter was going to hit the ball. In sports in general you can't be afraid of failure, but in baseball there's so much failure you really can't be afraid of it. So the only time I would berate a pitcher or get on a pitcher would be when I felt like they were pitching scared on the mound and that they were trying to avoid contact because they were afraid of what was going to happen. So unless you were doing that like I said my general rule was to walk away with them feeling they could get out of that situation.
DAVIES: Crash Davis, the catcher in "Bull Durham," said you play the game with fear and arrogance. Did you like that movie?
AUSMUS: I did like it. Yeah. It was a good movie.
DAVIES: There's a moment in that film where his young pitcher, "Nuke" LaLoosh is shaking off his signs. And he says I can't believe this guy is shaking off my signs. And after conversing with him at the mound, "Nuke" wanted to throw his fastball against a guy who always looks for a first ball fastball. The catcher then Kevin Costner, tells the batter what's coming.
Did you get irritated when young pitchers would shake your signs off?
AUSMUS: I did. There were times where I did get irritated, especially later in my career when I felt like I had a generally pretty good knowledge of the hitters in situations. I don't mind being shaken off and I would never make a pitcher throw a pitch he doesn't want to throw because if he doesn't believe in it it's not going to be successful even if it's the right pitch. I'd rather have him throw what he wants to throw even if it's the wrong pitch. But it would bother me at times when a young pitcher who had never seen the hitters before would come up and start shaking.
It would also bother me sometimes when a pitcher would come out of the bullpen for the first time in a series, and maybe it's the third game of a four-game series and he hasn't pitched or seen any of these hitters and I've seen them for three straight days and he'd come out and start shaking.
Does that make me right and them wrong? Absolutely not. Like I said, I would rather they throw the wrong pitch with conviction than throw the right pitch halfheartedly. That being said, there are times too where I'll put a sign down and they'll shake and I'll put it down again and they'll shake, and I'll put it down a third time and they'll go OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DAVIES: OK. This is the pitch. Now this gets sensitive. Did you ever call for your pitcher to plunk a batter? I mean this is a part of the game, they say - situations where you might throw at somebody or throw in, throw close to them.
AUSMUS: Yeah. Yes I have. You know, there are times where a team or a player kind of breaks the baseball code. You know, whether it's trying to steal a base late in the game when the opponent had a big lead and didn't need to be stealing bases and scoring more runs, trying to stick it to us or show us up. An opponent slides into our second baseman with the cleats high, looks like he's trying to injure him. You know, there are times where you kind of take the law into your own hands.
DAVIES: Would those calls come from the dugout or would they come from you?
AUSMUS: You know, I've had managers tell me they want player X to be hit and there's been times where I've walked up to a pitcher in the dugout and said hey, when player Y comes up drill him. So it's happened. It's happened both ways. It hasn't happened a lot but it has happened and it is part of the game. It has been for generations.
DAVIES: In general is there much conversation between you and batters? I mean can you ever get into a batter's head? Do you ever try and do that?
AUSMUS: I didn't do it too much. You know, when I was hitting I didn't - other than to say hello to the catcher, unless I was good friends with him I didn't want to talk too much. And I know how hard hitting is so I kind of left hitters, I left them alone when they walked in - other than to say hello. You know, there was a lot of guys who I played against for a lot of years so certainly I'd say hello, how you doing. After that it was business.
Now there are, you know, a handful of friends that I've known for decades that would come to the plate and I might joke around with them. But as a general rule other than a hello I - we both had a job to do.
DAVIES: Well, Brad Ausmus, it's been fun. Thanks so much.
AUSMUS: All right. Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Brad Ausmus caught 18 seasons in the big leagues. He's a three-time Gold Glove winner and ranks seventh all-time for most games caught. He's now a special assistant to the general manager for the San Diego Padres.
Now here's that scene from the classic baseball film "Bull Durham" we just spoke about. Here catcher Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner, has called for a curveball to start a hitter. On the mound his pitcher "Nuke" LaLoosh, played by Tim Robbins, disagrees. The scene is slightly edited for clarity.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULL DURHAM")
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD SHOUTING)
TIM ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") Why's he calling for a curveball? I want to bring heat. Shake him off. Start throwing 'em.
(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)
KEVIN COSTNER: (as Crash) Dammit. Time out. Hey, why you shaking me off? Huh?
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") I want to bring the heater to announce my presence with authority.
COSTNER: (as Crash) Announce your what?
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") Announce my presence with authority.
COSTNER: (as Crash) To announce your (bleep) presence with authority? This guy's a first ball, fastball hitter. He's looking for heat.
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") Oh yeah? So what? He ain't seen my heat.
COSTNER: (as Crash) All right, Meat, give him your heat.
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") Why is he always calling me Meat? I'm the guy driving a Porsche. Fastball.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
(SOUNDBITE OF BALL BEING HIT)
(SOUNDBITE OF BULL ROARING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Home run for Burt Brooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF HANDS CLAPPING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Play ball.
(SOUNDBITE OF BULL ROARING)
COSTNER: (as Crash) Well, he really hit the (bleep) out of that one didn't he?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
COSTNER: (as Crash) Look at that, he hit the bull. Guy gets a free steak.
(SOUNDBITE OF BULL ROARING AND LAUGHTER)
COSTNER: (as Crash) You having fun, yet?
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") Oh, yeah, I'm having a blast. Thanks.
COSTNER: (as Crash) Good.
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") God, sucker teed off on that like he knew I was going throw a fastball.
COSTNER: (as Crash) He did know.
ROBBINS: (as "Nuke") How?
COSTNER: (as Crash) I told him.
DAVIES: Coming up, Ed Ward on two new CD sets of black gospel music. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: American roots music has been pretty well scrutinized in recent years, but one genre has been neglected, gospel. Black gospel has been better served than white gospel, but anyone who wants to learn more about the roots of soul music has a job ahead of them.
Rock historian Ed Ward says that job has been made easier by two sets of CDs curated by Mike McGonigal: "Fire in My Bones" and "This May Be My Last Time Singing." Here's Ed's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DON'T LET THE DEVIL RIDE")
MISSISSIPPI NIGHTINGALES: (Singing) Don't let the devil ride. Oh-oh-oh, don't you let the devil ride. 'Cause if you let him ride, he'll want to try to drive. Don't let him ride.
ED WARD, BYLINE: Some years back, I was driving across the South with a German friend, leaving early Sunday morning from Athens, Georgia, and heading to Louisiana. I turned on the radio and found a black church service in progress, and a woman with a remarkable voice singing. Who's that? My friend asked. I told him I had no idea. But with a voice like that, she must be famous, he said. Some miles down the road, when the station had faded out, he still didn't believe me. Of course, that's no reason to believe she didn't make a record.
Mike McGonigal, whose literary magazine Yeti mixes indie rock and literature, has been collecting gospel 45s on vanity and tiny independent labels for years, and in his spare time he's put out two triple-disc sets of amazing stuff from his collection. Some of it, like the Mississippi Nightingales' "Don't Let Him Ride," which we just heard, is fairly conventional, but some of it isn't.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER GET READY")
ELDER ROMA WILSON AND FAMILY: (Singing) Well, you just well to get ready you got to die. Just better get ready, you got to die. Well, it maybe today or tomorrow well, you can't tell a minute or hour.
(SOUNDBITE OF HARMONICA)
FAMILY: (Singing) Well, you just as...
WARD: Elder Roma Wilson and Family were a man and his three sons, all four of them playing harmonicas, recorded in 1948 in a Detroit record store. They weren't even informed that their record had been released until McGonigal contacted them.
Most of these recordings are fairly obscure, but not all of them. Elder Beck's "Rock and Roll Sermon" is too long to play here, but it's long been snickered over as a prime example of a preacher preaching against something that his band knows only too well. For a denunciation of rock 'n' roll, it rocks; in fact, rocking is something that's all over these collections. Witness Little Ax and the Golden Echoes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SO SOON")
LITTLE AX AND THE GOLDEN ECHOES: (Singing) Whoa. So soon. So soon. And I'll be at home. And I'll be at home. So soon. So soon. I'm coming home. I'll be at home. Because I'll be... A working. I'll do the talking. With my savior. Amen, yeah. So soon. So soon. Oh, lord. So soon. I'm coming home. So soon. I'll be at home. So soon. So soon. I'm coming on home. I'll be at home. So soon.
WARD: McGonigal has unearthed stories on most of these records, and he reports that Little Ax, who put in time with a lot of professional gospel groups, was named Wilmer Broadnax - although the word on the gospel circuit was that Wilmer was born Wilma and spent her entire life passing as a man.
These selections I've played so far were from the "Fire in My Bones" collection, which includes not only independent recordings, but also a fair helping of ethnomusicological recordings. The fact that the follow-up collection, "This May Be My Last Time Singing," is more narrowly focused on gospel 45s from 1957 to 1982 makes it even more exciting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAY BE MY LAST TIME SINGING)
MAMIE SAMPLE: (Singing) May be my last time, may be my last time, may be my last time, may be my last time, I don't know. May be my last time singing, oh, yeah. May be my last time, I don't know. May be my last time praying, oh, yeah. May be my last time but I don't know. Oh, it may be my last time...
WARD: It's exciting, but that doesn't mean that it's any more polished. Missionary Mamie Sample recorded this in New Orleans in 1972, an old Staples Singers song that's clearly fallen into the folk tradition - not to mention The Rolling Stones' repertoire. In fact, pop music, the blues and the church get pretty intertwined in some of these numbers.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU EVER NEED A FRIEND")
THE MASONIC TRAVELLERS: (Singing) Oh, if you ever need a mighty good friend, I know you... Sure do need him. Oh, if you ever need a mighty good friend I know you... Sure do need him. Oh. Whenever you need a mighty good friend, he sure do. Oh. If you ever need a mighty good friend, I know you sure do need him now. You need him every day. Every day. Every hour. Every hour. Everywhere you go. You know. Whoa, the lord...
WARD: The Masonic Travellers of Memphis, Tennessee recorded this for the J&W label, for which the song's writer, Willie Morganfield, was a producer. If his name seems familiar, it should be, he's one of Muddy Waters' sons. I have to admit that I hope these two collections do very well - not just because McGonigal's a nice guy and he's done a fantastic job here, but because it might indicate that there's some interest in gospel.
And these records are fine in their own quirky way, but the vast majority of black gospel remains not only out of print, but inaccessible. Every big postwar independent label that recorded black music â Chess, Duke, Scepter and Jewel, to name just a few â had a gospel label on which the major, auditorium-filling acts recorded. The situation in gospel right now is like having all the 13th Floor Elevators' records in print while nobody can get to The Beatles' recordings.
With the revival of interest in soul, it might be nice to let people hear where it - and most of its singers - came from. Until then, I commend these sets to you, with their odd mixture of sermons, songs and strangeness.
DAVIES: Ed Ward is Fresh Air's rock historian. He lives in France. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the "Deep Blue Sea" starring Rachel Weisz. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: At the age of 66, the Liverpool-born writer/director Terence Davies is getting renewed attention with retrospectives in the U.K. and the U.S. for his quiet, meditative films. His newest is a loose adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play "The Deep Blue Sea" which stars Rachel Weisz as a woman who leaves her older, aristocratic husband for a young and penniless former Royal Air Force officer. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Terence Davies' films aim for and often achieve a state of music, the camerawork in harmony with the soundtrack, the images connected by emotion rather than narrative. Adapting Terence Rattigan's 1952 play "The Deep Blue Sea," he throws out the tidy structure and much of the dialogue, and shows the events through the eyes of the adulterous Lady Hester Collyer, played by Rachel Weisz.
It's 1950, but parts of London are still in rubble from the Blitz of a decade before, and the emotional rubble is nearly as stark. In the long, mysterious opening shot, the camera begins on a street dead-ended by debris, then pivots and glides to show Hester's boarding house, then rises and moves in on a window from which she peers out.
In a series of fade-ins and fade-outs, she closes the curtains, puts towels in the crack below the door and feeds coins into the gas meter. She means to die. As she lies down to wait for the end, the memories come, flashbacks depicting how she got to this grim place.
It's no coincidence her name is Hester: Her affair with Freddie Page, an ex-Royal Air Force pilot, played by Tom Hiddleston, leaves her so exposed she might as well be wearing a scarlet A. But she doesn't care about the stigma or reduction in circumstances. Her love is too intense.
She won't return to her kind husband, Sir William, played by Simon Russell Beale, who's much older, but in spirit still a child, still dominated by a repressive mother. In a flashback over dinner, the old dowager, played by Barbara Jefford, pointedly quizzes Hester on her interest in the gentry's sporting life.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEEP BLUE SEA")
BARBARA JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) Do you play?
RACHEL WEISZ: (As Hester) Tennis?
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) Anything.
WEISZ: (As Hester) I occasionally play a hand at canasta.
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) Cards are a pastime. I meant a sport.
WEISZ: (As Hester) I've always thought of sport as one of the more pointless of human activities.
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) That was almost offensive.
SIMON RUSSELL BEALE: (As Sir William) I'm sure Hester didn't mean to be impolite, mother.
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) I take it you don't play, then.
WEISZ: (As Hester) Occasionally. I just find it very hard to be passionate about it.
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) Beware of passion, Hester. It always leads to something ugly.
WEISZ: (As Hester) What would you replace it with?
JEFFORD: (As Collyer's Mother) A guarded enthusiasm. It's safer.
EDELSTEIN: That dialogue points up Hester's dilemma, but the rest of "The Deep Blue Sea" is far more suggestive. The pace is slow - legato, you'd say, if this were in fact music - but the frames are concentrated, scored by lush passages from Samuel Barber's Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and thick with period bric-a-brac evoking Davies' affection for the pop culture of postwar Britain.
Hester remembers Freddie, slender and upright in his double-breasted jacket and crazily handsome, taking her hand and saying she really is the most attractive woman he has met - the height of his eloquence. But words aren't the point. In the most startling shots, the camera revolves above their entwined naked bodies, their sculpted limbs the same color, ivory-gray with a tinge of pink, so you can barely tell male from female. The consummation is total.
Hester tries to connect with Freddie in other ways, going to the pub and drinking with his mates and taking him to art galleries to see the Impressionists. Whatever happened in the war has left Freddie damaged, abusive, an alcoholic, but she'll forgive him everything - except his leaving her. More than anything else in her life, she says, her love for Freddie is natural.
The word natural had special meaning for playwright Rattigan. The author of such elegant dramas as "Separate Tables" and "The Browning Version" was gay, but could never write about that, and so found other ways of exploring the impact of secrecy and smothered passion on the psyche. Rattigan fell out of fashion with the arrival of the so-called Angry Young Men of the British stage, but Davies' version of "The Deep Blue Sea" restores the playwright's potency.
The central trio is sublime. Simon Russell Beale's Sir William is a poignant mixture of aristocrat and adolescent, and Hiddleston perfectly evokes the archetype of the upright British soldier, both at his most gallant and his most unstable in the aftermath of the empire's upheavals.
But this is Rachel Weisz's movie. She's as luminous as a Pre-Raphaelite portrait, yet she brings to Hester a high-wire, modern tremulousness, as if that portrait were melting into something Impressionistic - much like the movie itself, a lyric re-imagining of Rattigan and a tone poem of genius.
DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download Podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org.
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