Halsted Theatre Centre

When we used to play pinners on the steps along Mozart Street or fast pitch in the playground at Boone School, Eric or I would usually pinch-hit for Dick Allen. And when we had driven home the winning run, one of us would pretend to be Howard Cosell and interview the hero of the game. I don’t know what games kids play today, but I imagine they play contract talks: “You get to be the agent. I get to be Rickey Henderson, and Lumpkin here gets to be the owner.” “Aww man, why do I always have to be the owner?”

With all the new faceless ballparks, high-dollar salaries, and cable superstation broadcasts, the charm of baseball has worn off a bit. Still, some part of all of us who grew up hurling Wiffle balls and doing play-by-play while throwing a rubber ball against the rebbetsen’s brick wall wishes we had made the big leagues and become true old-fashioned American heroes.

There’s something of the nostalgic, dreamy quality that baseball possesses in Dan Foley and Jeff Santo’s cute and simplistic The 25th Man: Spence Taylor Is Back!, which tells the story of a bench warmer for the Cubs who had one great season and is positioning himself to make a comeback. And yet the play, now at the Halsted Theatre Centre, is so obvious and mawkish it leaves one hungering for the days of one’s childhood, when dreams were real and not just authors’ cliches.

It was 1989 when Spence Taylor (Jim Rafalin) had his glory year–he hit 30 dingers. But a case of vertigo and God knows what else has dumped him unceremoniously into obscurity. He hungers for one last chance, though he’s afraid that when he gets to the plate he’ll let himself and everyone else down.

Taylor is a pepper-pot chatterbox of a ball player–crude, brash, but a good guy at heart. He dispenses advice to rookies about women. He shouts pointers to Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson. And he confides in the team’s trainer, Yosh (Dan Tagliere), who longs for the days of Mays, Mantle, and DiMaggio, when ball players were heroes and not “overpaid prima donnas.”

This description is probably enough to make any non-baseball fan want to puke. But I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff–hearing the theme music to The Natural sends shivers up my spine. Yet even I was pretty bored by this play.

Foley and Santo have solved the daunting “How the hell do you make a play about baseball with less than nine guys?” puzzler by showing us only one player. Dawson and the rest of the crew are imaginary, though Taylor has to pretend to high-five and congratulate them. It’s like watching a baseball game by rolling up your scorecard and using it as a telescope to peer at just one player for the entire game. The isolation effect is interesting for a while, but it gets a little tiresome. Halfway through you start to crave a hot dog.

Taylor is a charming character and an almost heroic one, but how long can you listen to the philosophical musings of a guy whose idea of intelligent advice is “Hey battuh, hey battuh, hey battuh”? When the climactic moment comes and Taylor is asked to pinch-hit in a key game situation, there’s a little bit of suspense. But it comes not so much from wondering whether Taylor will come through and save the day, but from trying to figure out which trite ploy the authors will use to end this sucker.

The final wrap-up, in which the adorable Yosh and Taylor discuss the illustrious past and uncertain future of baseball, is an exercise in T-shirt-slogan philosophy. And when Taylor says his Lou Gehrig good-bye to the sport he loves, I felt myself getting a little queasy. It’s the same queasiness I feel every time I see a group of fans at Comiskey Park trying to do the “wave” and every time I hear that John Fogerty baseball song “Centerfield.”

Rafalin gives an excellent performance, keeping one’s attention even during the duller passages. But he’s let down by the tedious, meandering script. There are cute and amusing moments, but not much more.

The one good thing about the play is that it seeks to humanize the American dream. It lets us get inside the mind of a ball player and hear what he is thinking and hoping for–it will make me think twice about ever booing an athlete on the field. But I’m not sure how many people will want to pay to see The 25th Man when they can see the real thing for half the price at Wrigley Field.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Casey.