In Everybody Wants Some!!, Less Baseball is More

Sometimes, sports movies without that much sports make for a better overall film.

That was the trailer for Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, released in 2016. The only references to athletics in that 150 seconds are a WIFFLE ball bat used as a beer funnel, a ping-pong match gone awry, and the hitting of baseballs at a group of freshman students duct-taped to a wall. This is not much of a departure from the 117-minute film itself. Set in the early 1980s, Everybody Wants Some!! has characters that are college-aged, a plot that is relatively unimportant (and arguably non-existent), and, despite a cast full of fictional ballplayers, just one stretch of actual baseball action.

And it is precisely because of this that Everybody Wants Some!! deserves mention among the sports genre’s classic works. Linklater recognizes that the sport’s sphere of influence stretches far beyond the confines of the field, and so do his characters, albeit not always with the purest intentions.

The film’s “story” is ostensibly told through Jake, a freshman southpaw at the fictional Southeast Texas University, played by Blake Jenner, but he is less a traditional protagonist than a conduit for the audience to interact with the personalities that surround him. Jake’s and his teammates’ personalities and identities have shared roots in sport, and though their distinguishing traits emphasize that not every ballplayer is cut from the same cloth, the unique chemistry they create is unmistakably bound to baseball.

When Jake meets the first of his new teammates, he identifies himself as a pitcher, which causes Glen McReynolds to immediately pull out of his handshake and wipe his hand on his and Kenny Roper’s shirt. “Not a lefty, are you?” McReynolds then asks, as he pulls beer from the kitchen fridge. When Jake confirms that he is, in fact, right-handed, McReynolds responds with just a whiff of relief, “Thank God. Those guys are always so fucking weird.”

It is the first of endless instances of fuckwithery between teammates, a term I am delighted to use and feel compelled to do so only because Jake explicitly describes this behavior as such later on. This and other similar jabs land so effectively because they are delivered with complete earnestness and never feel forced. The upperclassmen do think the freshmen have screws loose, and infielders do think the pitchers are weird. By highlighting this unwritten-but-understood hierarchy, Linklater gives this fictional team an authentic feel the film would almost certainly fail without.

That sort of in-house discrimination may not seem conducive to success, but the individual oddities at the heart of it actually bring everyone closer together. As the team basks in the glory of a successful prank-pulling on Jake, Finnegan notes, “We all take turns being chumps around here. You accept your chumpification, you wear it well, and you pass it on.” It’s a rite of passage of sorts, one dumb enough that only men could have established it, but I bet the flies on locker room walls across the country could confirm it has nonetheless continued into the 21st century.

An insatiable thirst for competition stands out as another quality most of the characters share. It is as aligned with sports culture as much as it is to male culture, in large part because American culture has seemingly made them one and the same. The resulting overlap is hard to miss. Jake, while watching two teammates test their endurance as they flick each other’s knuckles, posits that this behavior doesn’t seem too healthy, only to be rebuked by Dale Douglas, another upperclassman. “This, this, all of this,” he says, gesturing to the increasingly red knuckles behind him and the Mattel electronic baseball game console in his hand, “this is why we’re one of the best teams in the nation, man.”

That may be true, but that doesn’t make the actual attempt to bloody a knuckle any less barbaric. In any other cultural context it would be dumbfounding, but in this one it’s perfect. Be it on a Space Invaders machine, a foosball table, a miniature basketball hoop, a regulation-size basketball hoop or a backyard bet, the addiction to winning these players possess makes itself known more often than not.

Ultimately, the alternate avenues of competitive expression listed above are just distractions to bridge the gap until they can get on a baseball field. The aforementioned lone stretch of real baseball is a series of scenes that amount to less than 15 minutes, but not a second is wasted. In one bit, Finnegan makes the case against the meaningfulness of superstitions in baseball, all while noting that his “routines” don’t fall under the same umbrella. The beats of this conversation have been heard time and time again, but it’s fun to hear them from Finnegan, who once again capably and amusingly fluctuates from shockingly self-aware to completely aloof.

If a climax exists in this film, it is likely when McReynolds comes to bat against Jake in the scrimmage. McReynolds has at this point been established as the team’s leader and best player by a combination of comments of others and actions of his own, which include the halving of two baseballs with an axe. An axe! If that was supposed to convince me he was good, it worked. Jake gets ahead 0-1 when the first pitch is called a strike, but McReynolds, with his ping-pong loss still in mind, raises the stakes to 0-2 by request.

No music plays in the background. Jake takes a deep breath and then there is silence, followed by the whistling of the ball towards the catcher’s mitt. The ding off the metal bat is as solid as the contact made by McReynolds, who flies into second base as the fielders call out directions to each other. He pops up from his slide and begins taking off his batting gloves. “Welcome to college ball, freshman,” he says with a wink.

Baseball Coding with Rust – Intro
Getting into the nitty gritty of baseball action via a new(er) programming language.

It is the first legitimate at-bat of the film. It is also the last.

***

McReynolds may have been right when describing the weirdness of pitchers in the film’s opening minutes, but the scope of his assessment might not have been broad enough. What often goes overlooked in sports discourse is the inherent weirdness of serious athletes. Their athletic feats certainly are worthy of celebration, but why not acknowledge how strange it is to spend hours on end swinging a piece of wood or throwing of a five-ounce ball, and even more time thinking about how they can do those things better next time? The will needed to commit to that workload is no joke. Everybody Wants Some!! doesn’t pursue this point specifically, but it does take the time to show how that some sort of strange has baked itself into the players’ personalities.

Speaking of baked, take Charles Willoughby. Portrayed by Wyatt Russell, he is the team’s resident pothead, the owner of nearly every episode of The Twilight Zone on VHS, and, naturally, a pitcher. For those familiar with Russell’s filmography, the 30-year-old (at the time) may seem a bit old to be playing a college student. The film recognizes this discrepancy too, unlike many others (I’m looking at you, Spidey): Willoughby gets kicked off the team during their first practice because he’s actually 30 years old. He had forged fake identities at a variety of schools, according to a secondhand account from Plummer — which, if an alternative path to this information existed, would be taken with a hefty grain of salt — before the paper trail finally caught up to him at STU.

A man clinging desperately to the sport that has likely defined him for most of his life is exactly the kind of avatar the film needs. His professional ambitions probably were slim, as a player with real talent to write home about likely couldn’t and wouldn’t do much hopping around. With that said, it was likely not the game he clung to, but the way of life that accompanied it.

For athletes and fans alike, the mix of camaraderie and competition sports provides can be intoxicating, and its absence depressing. Earlier, during a night at the club, Finnegan voices the concern that he may be the only one to realize he can’t play ball forever. Willoughby, in a response that means mountains more in retrospect says, “Hey, man, you gotta appreciate it while it lasts, you know?” After a handshake with the team’s coach, who had called him off the field, he is caught by the camera looking back towards the field one last time. He is never on screen again.

For a lesser filmmaker, the placement of this particular sport’s culture from this specific point in time could result in a finished product that does nothing more than romanticize its subject matter. Romanticism’s relationship with baseball isn’t inherently negative, having anchored generations of fandoms. But stories from those who witnessed Willie Mays roaming center field or Sandy Koufax feasting on the mound have more tangible truths than works of fiction. They, at least, have the inimitable flavor of authenticity.

Linklater, though, whose storied career includes directing credits on Dazed and Confused and the Before trilogy, as well as baseball experience in the form of 2005’s The Bad News Bears, avoids the pitfalls that could hamper a film too reliant on romanticization. Linklater’s college ball experience likely aids his effort to some degree because, despite its ultimately transcendent point, Everybody Wants Some!! crucially gets the baseball right, both on the field and off.

***

“Who are these people?” Plummer asks as he and three new teammates stroll down the street, taking in their surroundings and the students occupying them. “This guy with the backpack, this dude on the porch. Like, I know what we’re doing here. You know, we’re playing baseball. What are all of these other guys doing here?”

“Yeah, I think that too,” adds Coma, an upperclassman. “Like, what would it be like to go through life knowing there’s no way you’d ever play pro ball?”

“Exactly,” Plummer says, as the exchange comes to a close. “All these people will never be anything more than just some dude doing some job, just like everybody else.”

Immediately after this exchange, a scraggly-haired student decked out in a denim jacket and denim shorts calls out to Jake. It’s an old high-school buddy and former teammate, one whose baseball career came to an end just in time for his passion for punk rock to blossom. Less than two minutes of film time later, Jake, Plummer, Coma and Finnegan find themselves in the heart of a punk rock concert. For a few hours, they’ve deviated from the baseball culture that has felt like home and find themselves, perhaps surprisingly, right at home.

Everybody Wants Some!!’s non-athletic focus frees up time for scenes that most sports films are forced to leave behind. The exchange above is one such scene, and though many of the others listed above hint at it, no sequence underscores the film’s most potent observation quite as effectively. Plummer’s and Coma’s worlds, like many others both past and present, revolve around baseball, but the world does not, despite the ethnocentric beliefs of this pair.

“This guy with the backpack” and “this dude on the porch” may not be playing a sport, or the sport in this case, but they have singular paths of their own. Yes, the experiences of the school baseball team are deemed unique enough to be the driving force of this particular film, but baseball is a touchstone of American culture, and its widely-understood mythology allows its subtleties to be understood and this broader point made more effectively. As teens transition to adulthood, they are learning how to navigate the world and taking advantage of whatever foothold they can find. The means are unique in practice but identical in nature, aimed at achieving a similar sort of satisfaction at the end.

***

The team cools off after practice at a local lake, inner tubes and canned beers abound. With the help of a towering tree, a sturdy rope and a metal ring, the players take turns swinging themselves into the waters below. Three players make the plunge with varying levels of success, but each is met with the same raucous ovation. Then, it is Jay Niles’ turn to make the leap.

Niles’ turbulent introduction to the team included unsubstantiated boasts of 95 mile-per-hour heat, the start of a nightclub brawl that got the entire team tossed, and a failed attempt in batting practice to show up McReynolds, who belted the second pitch he saw over the right field fence. Niles then crossed one final line in responding to some trash talk with more of his own. McReynolds’ calling out of the fiery pitcher’s selfishness is amplified when done in front of the entire team. Later on, Niles, with the familiar body language of someone who knows he messed up but cannot find the words to apologize, concedes it was a good hit. McReynolds tells him they’re cool.

Maybe an hour or two has passed since this exchange, and here is the entire team, cheering Niles on as he ascends higher on the tree than anyone. He leaps straight into the water, swinging be damned, and the crowd goes wild. He’s just one of the guys.

Everybody Wants Some!! works so well because it focuses on the community created by the sport it obviously holds in such high regard. Baseball’s trademark tomfoolery, competitive drive, and other unique qualities have endeared it to millions throughout the course of its existence, and it makes for a good centerpiece of this film because of it. Not everybody has baseball, but everybody has their version of baseball to help them flesh out identities and forge friendships that will last a lifetime. Communicating all of this is a big swing to take, but with McReynolds-like force, Linklater connected.


Mike is a contributor to The Hardball Times, FanGraphs Community Research, and SB Nation's The Bird Writes.
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drewcorb
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drewcorb

I remember stumbling across this movie because I wanted to go see something, and everything at the theater looked bad. So I figured a movie about college baseball must be at least somewhat enjoyable, even if I had never heard of it or seen a commercial for it. I was so pleasantly surprised; it’s definitely one of my favorite baseball movies.

Craig Tyle
Member
Member
Craig Tyle

Jake seems pretty clearly to be an older version of the freshman HS pitcher Mitch from Dazed and Confused.

Also worth noting that there is one scene from Linklater’s masterpiece, Boyhood, that takes place at an Astros game.