Playing for Peanuts
3-disc set for $24.99
Low pay and no showers and bus rides aplenty. Managerial tirades, balky tarps, and legions of bugs. These are a few of our favorite things.
When it comes to minor-league baseball, Bus Leagues is all about the honest nitty-gritty of it all. We get to enjoy the fan side of the experience, so we need to turn elsewhere to get the perspective of the guys on the field. For that, look no farther than John Fitzgerald’s fantastic television series Playing for Peanuts.
PfP is a year in the life of the South Georgia Peanuts of the short-lived South Coast League, a bargain-basement operation unaffiliated with MLB. It was basically a place for baseball’s down and out to seek redemption. Peanuts Manager Wally Backman is the perfect centerpiece for the story. A World Series winner with the ’86 Mets, Backman spent a handful of days managing the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004 before his intemperate past came to light, and he was summarily fired. Like every player he coaches during the 2007 season, Backman is in indie ball solely for the chance to get out of indie ball.
That said, let’s be honest: the travails of also-rans in a rinky-dink league are entertaining, even downright hilarious. Fitzgerald’s access to the team was total, and that’s what the viewer gets while watching Playing for Peanuts. Accomodations were scant in a league with a per-team salary cap of $75,000, so hardships were plenty. At home, Peanuts players slept two or three to a room amidst dead bugs and empty beer cans. On the road, showerless stadiums forced the team to bus back to their crowded motel rooms for post-game cleanup. That they handled it all with grace and humor is truly remarkable.
The DVD is packed with hilarious moments. A season-opening skydiving stunt goes awry. An inexperienced grounds staff first leaves the tarp off during a rain delay because they have no sprinkler system and the grass needs water. Then, when the sprinkle becomes a monsoon, they struggle to pull the tarp across the rapidly-filling swamp that was once the infield. And Backman’s fully-bleeped, dirt-kicking, bat-throwing tirade against an overzealous umpire is a classic, not to be missed.
Former major leaguers Cecil Fielder and Phil Plantier show up, but the Peanuts players are the real story. Catcher Tug Gillingham and Pitcher Mike Colacchio are entertaining within the context of the season, and really shine in the DVD extras, where they team up for instructional minutes that focus either on the development of baseball skills, or the devious world of clubhouse pranks. Infielder Johnny Washington gives a no-holds-barred tour of the team’s living quarters that is as funny as it is disgusting. As the season wears on, a handful of Wally’s boys get picked up by MLB farm clubs, and the viewer feels happy for each one.
Of course, the ten-episode arc isn’t all sunshine and roses. This is, after all, a jury-rigged indie league that folded after one season. Over the last three episodes, even Gillingham’s smile starts to fade as he and the team face odd league actions, poor umpiring, and a night game that is halted by a power outage. Even then, the humor shines through, as the players build a small fire in the dugout, no doubt using leftover tinder from the last hot seat prank.
If you want to see how Bull Durham compares to the real thing, buy this DVD. John Fitzgerald captures the spirit of the indie leagues for good or ill, and his camera is always on the scene for the hilarious and meaningful moments of the Peanuts’ lives. I can truly say that as I sat here in the dead of winter, watching these guys play for nothing more than pride and hope, it was like I could almost smell the fresh-cut grass, feel the summer sunshine, and taste the gnats. No need to wait for pitchers and catchers to report – they’re all right here, and you can visit them any time you want.