As the boys of summer are putting down their bats, heading for the showers, and we head into the home stretch of the baseball season with the playoffs and World Series, what could be more fitting than the film release of what I am certain will become a classic for generations to come, THE FINAL SEASON. There is something powerful about the simplicity and joy of baseball, the innocence and spirit of youth and Americana at its finest. This is the stuff that dreams are made of, but for the 1991 Norway Iowa Tigers, their dreams became legend.
Norway, Iowa is a small town. Population 586. 100 students in school. And every year, for 22 years, 14 of those boys stepped up to the plate and in 19 of those years brought the state baseball championship home to Norway where ballplayers “grow like corn.” Just take a look at the pros. Over the years, 16 of their players went to the pros and one-third of the players played college ball. Among them, Mike Boddicker, Golden Glove winner and in 1983 the best rookie World Series performance in 60 years (although sadly he struck out my beloved Phillies, Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt); Bruce Kimm, a Tiger, a Cub and a White Sox, has been coaching since 1982 and named head coach of the Cubs in late 2002; Hal Trosky, while at Norway hit a ball 600 feet and then went on to hit 228 home runs for the Indians and White Sox in the 30's and 40's. And then we have Coach Jim Van Scoyoc. Head coach at Norway for 19 years, he had a win-loss record of 854-254, was named 3-time Coach of the Year, National Coach of the Year, and went on to become a pitching coach for the Detroit Tigers minor league team. But all that was about to change in 1991.
With state budget cuts in every department, consolidation of smaller schools into larger was high on its list. Taking advantage of offered consolidation incentives, the Norway School Board agreed to merge Norway High School with that in nearby Madison, thus shutting down the school and with it, effectively destroying a town, ripping out its very soul by taking away the Norway Tigers. With one final season to go, the Board refused to renew Coach Van Scoyoc’s contract and then set out to crush any pride, honor or tradition in the school and the town by “sabotaging” the baseball team, hoping it would end its final season in defeat, missing that 20th championship. Actively hunting for the worst possible coach around, they found Kent Stock, a girl’s volleyball coach who filled in as assistant coach to Van Scoyoc the prior season. But Kent Stock wasn’t and isn’t your average coach. He lives, eats and breathes baseball. And he doesn’t know the word “defeat.”
Disheartened, fan filled stands become nothing more than ghostly reminders of the Tiger’s glory days. Everyone, including the team, has given up any hope of Norway winning its 20th championship. Simple ground balls turn into errors. Pitches turn into balks. Home runs are nothing but easy pop up outs. Did I say everyone? Sorry, I stand corrected. There was one person who didn’t give up. Kent Stock. Challenging his team with the inspirational words, “How do you want to be remembered?”, he touches their hearts and stirs pride. As homeruns start hammering and wins start mounting, so does the spirit of Norway. Once deemed down and out, the championship is again in their sights and within their grasp. One glorious final moment of victory in one glorious final season....a season, a team, a legacy and two coaches that will go down, and have, in history as being the best of the best.
Sean Astin stars as Kent Stock. Having met and interviewed Kent Stock himself, let me say that Astin’s performance is astounding. Forget the slight physical resemblance. Astin captures the very essence of Stock - his humility, a glint of excitement when he talks about the sport, inflected vocal passion, and indomitable spirit. According to Stock, “The first time I met Sean I knew it was a match. We have so much in common. I couldn’t be more pleased with how good he did being me.” Powers Boothe embodies Jim Van Scoyoc. Himself passionate about the sport, Boothe’s own natural athletic ability and coaching skills is beyond impressive. Just take a look at infield practices. Every throw, every hit is Powers. But more than his skill, is his heart and his core decency that radiates like the sun glistening over cornfields. Warming, powerful, commanding, yet calming inspiration. As I told him, not just the film itself, but his performance, made my eyes well up and gave me goosebumps. As for Michael Angarano? I took note of him in several episodes of “Will & Grace” and have followed him ever since. Appearing in “24" along with Boothe, Michael steps up to the plate here as Mitch Akers. Rebellious and unfocused, at odds with his dad, Mitch is sent to stay with his grandparents in Norway. Angarano captured his character’s rebellious nature but transformed him with a marked maturity and infectious joy. A great thrill for Kent Stock was having James Gammon star as Mitch Akers grandfather. Best known as Coach Lou Brown in the “Major League” films, everyone from Stock to the players, clamored to hear Gammon’s signature line, “Dorn!!”
Written by Art D’Alessandro and James Grayford, while this is technically Kent Stock’s story, they have expounded on Stock to encompass Norway and its team. With a multitude of characters, time didn’t lend itself to developing all of them fully, but by keying in on emotional aspects of the story, they concentrated on selective characters but still shined light on the lesser ones, adding to the small town flavor and appeal of the film.
A more perfect director than David Mickey Evans, I cannot imagine. Director of “The Sandlot” he is as passionate about baseball as Stock and Van Scoyoc. Showcasing small town USA with an opening montage that sticks in your throat and takes your breath away, his heart is on his sleeve with this production. His simplistic style compliments the emotional depth of the story. Particularly effective and beauteous is Dan Stoloff’s cinematography. Shot on location in Iowa, his combination of panoramic vistas with the intense vibrancy of the baseball diamond, flags, parades, white picket fences and apple pie, you can’t help but well up with pride and joy. As powers Boothe said, “They brought the essence of Iowa to the film. Americana.”
Serving as sports choreographers, Van Scoyoc and Stock brought the same excellence and authenticity to the screen and its playing field as they did the Norway Tigers. Calling on a ringer, Van Scoyoc even brought in his brother-in-law, Mike Boddicker, who ended up staying on the film, coaching and putting his own inimitable pin point accuracy on celluloid. But for a few scenes, when you see a ball being thrown, or a knuckle curling just before release, that’s Boddicker. But, when it comes to the players, despite having special utility extras, it was quickly learned the real actors had baseball experience and great skills which only required a bit of fine tuning by Van Scoyoc. So, be it Michael Angarano (a powerful hitter), Roscoe Myrick, Bret Claywell or any of the other players, what you see is them hitting, pitching, fielding. According to Stock, they all love the game so much and are so good at it, “They begged every day to play a real game” which they finally did get to do at shoot’s end. For Stock and Van Scoyoc, however, this was like being back home. Back at Norway. Where ballplayers grow like corn and where baseball always bring you home.
THE FINAL SEASON hits one out of the park!
Kent Stock - Sean Astin
Jim Van Scoyoc - Powers Boothe
Mitch Akers - Michael Angarano
Polly Hudson - Rachael Leigh Cook
Burt Akers - Tom Arnold
Directed by David Mickey Evans. Written by Art D’Alessandro and James Grayford. Rated PG.