We’re big fans of filmmaker John Fitzgerald. His films capture the little moments in sub-major-league baseball that we love to see. His first film, The Emerald Diamond, follows the creation of the Irish national baseball team, and its gradual climb to respectability on the European scene. His second effort, Playing for Peanuts, takes the viewer inside a season in independent baseball, with all of the attendant pitfalls and simple joys that go along with a fly-by-night league.
John was kind enough to enlighten me about the ups and downs of independent filmmaking. Read his answers to my questions below.
Bus Leagues: You seem to have a fondness for the underdog – one that we share. Have you ever been tempted to cover a more popular subject with a built-in audience?
John Fitzgerald: Absolutely. You’re right that I do like underdog stories, but I’m always open to stories about all subjects, big and small. Although, I did think that a story about Ireland and a story about minor league baseball would have large enough audiences to support a film or TV show. I was wrong in both cases.
BL: Playing for Peanuts captured the essence of everything we love about the lower levels of professional baseball. Do the players ever remember it fondly, or do they just want to get out?
JF: I think the players enjoyed it. I’m not sure if it was the players or the situation, but everyone seemed to have a great sense of humor about the whole thing. There were times where they just wanted to get out of there, but there was an overall acceptance of the situation and a sense that they’d be telling stories about their time with the Peanuts for years to come.
BL: Your edits and choices always move the story along in compelling fashion. Where did you learn filmmaking?
JF: Thank you. One of my friends – cinematographer Bill Winters, who also worked on Emerald Diamond and Playing for Peanuts – went to NYU film school. I learned a lot from helping him on his student films. As far as editing, I’m self-taught.
BL: It seems like your cameras were always around when something kooky happened. Did you develop a sixth sense for where to be at any given moment?
JF: I’d like to say we could sense when something weird was about to happen, but the league was a circus. If you had a camera turned on, you were bound to get something interesting.
BL: Was there anything you didn’t catch that you wish you could have included?
JF: Yes. On the final game of the regular season, Tug Gillingham hit a walk-off homer in extra innings. I believe it was his only professional home run and I think it was the only walk-off HR for the Peanuts that season. Unfortunately, it was the second game of a long and rainy doubleheader and I had sent the crew home to rest up for the upcoming playoff series. We were exhausted and running on fumes so it had to be done, but it would’ve been great to have that moment on camera. Although in retrospect, I’m not sure it would have added much to the narrative of the TV show.
BL: Was it difficult to find the humor in what was a basically bleak situation for the Peanuts?
JF: I don’t think it was a bleak situation for the players. Like I said, they had a sense of humor about it, so that made it easier to film… However, I do think it was a bleak situation for the six cities that hosted the South Coast League. The fans and the cities really got screwed financially and emotionally.
BL: Your film about Irish national baseball, The Emerald Diamond, had a gift-wrapped rags to riches storyline. What led you to that story?
JF: I found the Irish team’s website and I wanted to play. It turns out, I wasn’t eligible to play, but I was intrigued by the story. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was in Dublin filming the first interviews for the documentary.
BL: It’s hard to judge the relative skill levels of players on film. Did you see anyone during the making of either film that you thought had major-league potential?
JF: There were no MLB prospects in Ireland, although it wouldn’t have surprised me if guys like Joe Kealty or Chris Gannon (both products of the Boston College baseball program) or Brendan Bergerson (U of West Virginia) ended up playing independent minor league baseball. The window of opportunity for those guys is probably closed now, but they were very talented players.
In Peanuts, there were three former major leaguers – Mike Caruso, Curtis Goodwin and Desi Wilson. Caruso definitely could have played major league baseball again, but I don’t know if he was prepared to do so. Aside from that, there were several guys that were in their mid-20s that probably could have made it if the circumstances were right – Steve Garrabrants, Jon Zeringue and Jasha Balcom. Zeringue was a big prospect with Arizona – his name used to be mentioned along with Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin, but he never made it past AA. A lot of times that stuff depends on injuries, age and a player’s agent. I have no doubt Jon Zeringue could bat .240 with 12 HR as a major leaguer right now. Unfortunately, he made it back to AA when he was signed by Oakland during the show and he was in spring training camp with the Dodgers this season, but I believe he is out of baseball now.
BL: I was able to find Emerald Diamond on Amazon.com, and you sell Playing for Peanuts at your website. Has it been difficult finding distribution for these projects?
JF: I’ve tried to find distribution, but it hasn’t worked out. So self-distribution is the only other option.
BL: How do you finance these sorts of DIY projects in the first place?
JF: Emerald Diamond was financed with credit cards (I don’t recommend it). Playing for Peanuts was financed on credit cards and investments from family and friends.
BL: The economy’s been kind of shaky. Do you have another project on tap, or do you have to lay low for a while?
JF: I don’t think the market for indy DVDs and TV shows will come back for a long time – if it ever does come back. The economy is in bad shape and the distribution model is shifting from DVDs to downloads… The end result is that it’s just not safe to put money into traditional media projects.
I’m working on a new web project called SmallBallUSA.com. The goal is to provide something like an interactive digital documentary for every affiliated and independent minor league team in the US and Canada. The scope of the project is enormous, but I’m going to move forward and avoid spending money on it until I know it’s a viable idea.
BL: Do you get out to a lot of minor-league games? Which teams are your favorites?
JF: I don’t really have a favorite team – I do like checking out Atlantic League games because I’m in NY and there are a lot of guys in that league that have played at a very high level.
I haven’t been to a minor league game this season. I’m hoping to change that soon.
If we can get John away from his computer for one night and out to a live ballgame, we’ll consider this season of Bus Leagues an unqualified success. But we hope he won’t be out too long. SmallBallUSA sounds like our kind of site.