James StewartNovember 19, 2009
It’s been a while since I’ve seen the first Bad News Bears movie, but I believe that in both The Bad News Bears and The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Kelly Leak first appears on screen while operating a motorcycle. That’s how I remember it anyway, though I can’t be certain that there’s not an earlier scene in the first one in which he displays some evidence of immense baseball skills—I think he unleashes a Dwight Evans-caliber throw from beyond the outfield—and in that instance he’s not on a motorcycle, or maybe it’s the same scene and he dismounts the bike to make the throw. (Guess I need to watch that flick again.)
(But speaking of that throwing arm: why is this arm never considered for use on the pitcher’s mound? In both films, the team’s primary on-field crisis centers on a glaring lack of pitching depth, the face of this crisis being the horrifically inept efforts of lob-balling mopup man and nap aficionado Rudi Stein. What, it never occurred to anyone to ask Kelly to burn a few in there? Any kid who ever spent a moment playing little league could tell that Kelly belonged to the species of little leaguers who were just bigger and stronger than everyone else, and those kids always pitched, and threw hard, and either struck you out or hit you in the knee and made you cry as you limped to first because it hurt so much.)
Anyway, the point is, Kelly Leak, the coolest of all charismatic brooding loner heroes, announces early on, by being astride a motorcycle, that he comes directly from the heart of the rebellious, questing version of the American Dream. Brando in The Wild One. Hopper and Fonda in Easy Rider. Even, in decidedly tamed form, the Fonz in Happy Days.
Kelly, with his flat expression and apparent outsider status, showed himself to be among those older heroes of youthful adventurousness and alienation, but to that he added an element that expanded the range of the motorcycle rebel icon: he could do stunts. The stunts furthermore showed both that he was an athlete of almost mystical powers and that he had a daring disregard for his own safety. In this way he merged a bit of the flash and spectacle of real-life 1970s motorcycle icon Evel Knievel with counterculture cool, and he also foretold a growing trend in youth sports and in the greater culture: the rise of “extreme” action sports.
Which brings us to today’s card, which I found on the sidewalk a few months ago as I was hoofing it up Western Avenue to catch the Blue Line train. It appears to have come as an insert in a Sports Illustrated for Kids magazine. I doubt it somehow slipped from the grasp of a loving collector of Motocross Rider cards, because, for one thing, I doubt there are very many devoted collectors of any kind of cards anymore, and for another, any kid interested in Motocross Riders is probably more likely to want to actually do sports than to be a spectator and collector and dreamer of sports.
In addition to being a spectator and collector and dreamer of sports, I always liked to play sports, too, but despite being a loner (or maybe in part because I was a loner who otherwise didn’t have much of a social life outside of sports) I preferred team sports. The only solitary sport I participated in was cross-country skiing, which I liked more than downhill skiing in large part because of my inherent cautiousness. I never could have been like Kelly Leak or the “Supercross” champion shown here, James Stewart. Once, the Kelly Leak of my grade, Mike Heyder, came over to my house with his minibike, and I was too terrified of it to even try going ten feet across the soft grass of our side yard. Another brush with “action sports” came when I begged and pleaded for a birthday gift of “The Shark,” a yellow plastic skateboard in the Sears catalogue, but when I got it, after the surging thrill of holding the mysterious object in my hands and listening to the ball-bearing whir of the red rubber wheels as I spun them, I was barely able to stand on the thing for fear of flying off of it and shattering my skull.
(Ironically, years later, after a childhood and young adulthood of assiduously avoiding physical risks, I’d fly off a cliff while ten seconds into my first attempt at mountain biking, but that’s a whole other long story that also relates tangentially to Kelly Leak et al.)
They made a remake of The Bad News Bears a few years ago, which I saw with my friend Pete, but I’ll be damned if I can remember a single thing about it beyond a sense that it was not awful and that it was utterly unnecessary. Also, I recall that it was set in the present day, which makes the involvement of a Kelly Leak character highly improbable. These days, if Kelly Leak got the urge to participate in organized sports, he could apply his talent and daring to any number of “extreme” pursuits. He could be Tony Hawk (who, I believe, loved baseball but quit it to devote himself to riding structural cousins of The Shark). He could be James Stewart, Motocross Rider. He could be the Kelly Leak that existed before the beginning of the first Bad News Bears movie, never venturing inside the confines of the little league field.
I guess more athletic options for kids can’t be a bad thing, but in light of the above discussion it saddens me nonetheless. How can baseball survive the loss of Kelly Leak?