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Rudi Stein

June 6, 2011

Chico’s Bail Bonds Player of the Week: Rudi Stein

[My ode to the 1977 movie The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is due out June 7. To celebrate, I’ll be shining a weekly spotlight on the boys in the customized van.]

Have you ever stood on a pitcher’s mound and taken an endless beating? I have. I was 12, the same age that I would guess the character Rudy Stein is supposed to be in The Bad News Bears. I was in my final year of little league and to that point had never done any pitching and wasn’t a strong kid and couldn’t throw hard, but we weren’t a very good team, either, so I got three chances to pitch. The first appearance went misleadingly well, as I pitched the final inning of a lopsided win against the worst team in the league and struck out three bottom-of-the-order nine-year-olds. The next day in school a tough kid in my grade who had seen the performance cornered me.

“That was just luck yesterday,” he said. The kid didn’t even play little league, but my improbable success, brief and inconsequential as it was, seemed to offend his sensibilities.

“You got lucky,” he said, scowling.

My next performance was another short appearance but a bad one, a brief hemorrhaging of hits and walks mixed in with the occasional out. In my third and final time on a pitcher’s mound I did not record a single out and, eventually, during a mound conference with the coach, wept. Between sobs, I begged to be taken out of the game. The coach complied, and that was that for pitching.

In the 1976 film The Bad News Bears, Rudi Stein, patron saint of endless mound beatings, never crumbled as I had but instead just kept hurling for however long his team needed him to. Midway through the film, his utter ineptitude, central as it is to the team’s hopelessness, prompts the team’s coach, Buttermaker (Walter Matthau), to bring in a ringer, Amanda (Tatum O’Neal). After she rides to the rescue, Rudi is needed only for two more ineffective appearances on the mound, once when Amanda has a bad cold and again, in the last inning of the championship game, when Amanda’s sore arm causes Buttermaker to replace her. Within moments of Rudi’s entrance into the tightly contested championship, several line drives have been rocketed all over the field, puncturing the tension of the game. Rudi Stein exists independently of the possibility of winning. He doesn’t weep or quit. He keeps throwing his powerless pitches.

***

By the outset of the 1977 sequel The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, Rudi Stein, suddenly appearing to be an at-bat or two from leaping straight out of childhood altogether and into stooped, paunchy middle-age, seems to have surrendered his deepest hopes and dreams. In the first movie, he had been the very first Bear player to announce both his name and his wishes: he wanted to pitch. He wanted it so much, in fact, that he pitched and pitched despite having absolutely no knack for it. But at the start of the second movie, there’s no sign at all that the Bears have a pitcher on their roster at all (Amanda’s absence is never mentioned), only that they desperately need a pitcher, which is how the swaggering, vulnerable bullshitter Carmen Ronzonni enters the fray.

Throughout the sequel, Rudi Stein is a marginal character, a member of the wow, cool chorus in the back of the customized van as it sails across the West. We are left to make up for ourselves what might be going on in his mind now that his original dream to move from the sidelines to the middle of the diamond has faded, sending him back to the sidelines again, now without any hope, really, of ever reentering the game in a meaningful way.

Rudi’s most memorable moment in the movie is when he wanders over to the bleachers at the outset of the Bears’ first practice in Houston. He takes his place near Kelly Leak’s father, Mike, who has been told that beyond posing as a coach he doesn’t really need to do anything else since the Bears don’t need a coach. Without a word to Mike Leak, who is reading a paper, Rudi lies down and puts his hat over his face to take a nap. It’s a funny thing for a kid to do, especially one who went so far as to trick his parents into letting him ride with the other boys unchaperoned across several state lines, this familial betrayal ostensibly launched because everyone involved in the ruse wanted badly to keep playing baseball. But Rudi Stein, given the chance to play some baseball on the practice diamond, chooses instead to take a nap like he’s a retiree winded from his morning mall-walk. He rises from the nap only when the practice devolves into a brawl. He takes the cap from over his face, sits up a little, and looks at the bodies flying.

“Oh my,” he says, mournfully, his pubescent voice cracking.

With that, he is out of his slumber and back in the world of the Bears. If things ever went smoothly, he’d be left out entirely, but there will always be a need for someone to rise and endure the meaningless innings. Rudi Stein leaves the sidelines and moves without hesitation toward his fate, our fate, garbage time.

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