Watching History: A Look at the Best Baseball-Themed 30 for 30s

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There has never been a sports documentary series quite like ESPN’s 30 for 30s.

The series, which originally started in 2009 as 30 stories from the 30 years since ESPN’s founding, now includes 73 full-length documentaries, 39 short films, and numerous other spinoffs like Nine for IX and SEC storied, most of which are available on Netflix. In 2014, it won the Emmy award for Outstanding Short-Format Nonfiction Program, an award it was nominated for again in 2015.

While most of the classic 30 for 30’s deal with the basketball (Like Bad Boys, The Fab Five, and Once Brothers) because of Bill Simmons’ direction, the series has a few fantastic documentaries about Major League Baseball. To commemorate the 14th anniversary of 9/11 this past month, ESPN released another sharp documentary on Former President George W. Bush’s emotional and stunningly accurate first pitch at Game 3 of the 2001 World Series. The 24-minute short captured the emotion of the moment by incorporating commentary from Bush’s head of security, former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and even Yankees’ superfan and Game 3 attendee Billy Crystal.

That got me thinking, what are the best 30 for 30’s ESPN have done about baseball? In all, nine of the 73 full-length docs have dealt primarily with baseball, with about a half dozen others having significant baseball elements to them. Here are my five favorites:

  1. Four Days in October (No. 24 in the series, directed by MLB Productions)

The story: The miraculous 2004 ALCS comeback of the Boston Red Sox, who surged back from down 3-0 to beat their hated rivals, the New York Yankees, and (in the World Series) break the 86-year curse of The Bambino.

Why it’s great: If you’re a Yankee fan, you can’t watch it. If you’re a Red Sox fan, chances are you’ve watched it 100 times. For everyone else, the storytelling is simply brilliant. Since MLB directed the film, they uncharacteristically released tons of behind-the-scenes and game footage that draws in the viewer. The shots of drunk Red Sox fans partying in the streets and newscasters trying to convince themselves that the comeback is really happening add to that effect. Four Days in October is like Fever Pitch (the similar 2005 movie starring Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore), minus the romantic comedy and fabricated elements, and with much more Bill Simmons and BAWSTAWN.

A truly underappreciated part of the film is literally anytime Kevin Millar is on camera, ever. There’s a reason he’s on MLB Network these days. The camera loves him. My personal favorite Millar moment is when he calls Pedro Martinez, Petey. Drunk Pedro Martinez celebrating with the trophy at the end is pretty awesome, too.

Where it ranks: This is a top five 30 for 30 for me because Simmons, who sits at a bar with Boston comedian Lenny Clarke and recounts the ALCS, shows his passion like he would in one of the NBA docs. It’s no coincidence that the best films in the series are about topics Simmons cares strongly about.

  1. Catching Hell (No. 32, Directed by Alex Gibney)

The story: Cubs fan Steve Bartman’s night of infamy in Game 6 of the 2003 ALCS, where he went from innocent bystander to all-time goat by interfering with Moises Alou‘s attempt to catch a foul ball and subsequently watched the Cubs fall apart and blow their best chance to break their championship drought in decades.

Why it’s great: The thoroughness of this documentary really sets it apart. Unlike Four Days in October, Catching Hell doesn’t have a whole series of material to cover, but basically just one game and really just one inning. But talented director Alex Gibney, who most recently directed HBO’s critically-acclaimed Scientology documentary earlier this year, goes deep into the Bartman controversy, interviewing several fans that sat next to or around Bartman that night and stadium personnel who helped Bartman escape with his life that night. To make a short subject fit two hours of TV time with commercials, Gibney interviews pretty much everyone involved with the exception of Bartman, who still doesn’t speak about the incident publicly.

ESPN reporter Wayne Drehs is especially fantastic in the film, and so is his longform piece on Bartman from a few years ago. He adds much needed color to the incident as the reporter with more knowledge about exactly what happened than pretty much anyone else.

Where it ranks: This one is probably in the top ten among 30 for 30s. Gibney’s direction, Drehs’ commentary, and the participation and first-person video from fans around Bartman make what could have been a mundane short film into a rewatchable classic. Unless you’re a Cubs fan, I suppose.

  1. Brothers in Exile (No. 67, Directed by Mario Diaz and MLB Productions)

The story: Half brothers Livan and Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez are both regarded as successful MLB pitchers, but their harrowing emigration stories reveal just how miraculous it is that they even made it to the majors.

Why it’s great: The newest of the full-length, MLB-related 30 for 30’s tells the original Cuban defection story at a time when defections for a chance to make it big in the majors are a commonly-accepted part of the game. Many of the modern game’s superstars, like Yoenis Cespedes, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Abreu and especially Yasiel Puig, dealt with terrifying journeys to the United States, but El Duque’s trip may have them all beat from a sheer near-death experience standpoint. The pressure the Cuban government put on the best player in the country after his much younger brother’s defection, the stranding of El Duque and his party on a deserted island and their subsequent detainment brings to light the kind of sacrifices these men make to achieve their major league dreams.

The documentary also came out at a particular interesting time, as just a month later, President Obama took the first step in lifting the 50-year embargo of Cuba that makes emigration so dangerous in the first place. It’s nice to think an exceptional sports documentary may have played a role in the decision.

Where it ranks: From a documentary standpoint it’s an above-average 30 for 30, but the societal relevance and impact pushes it into the top 15.

  1. The Day The Series Stopped (No. 64, Directed by Ryan Fleck)

The Story: The 1989 World Series between The Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants was postponed when the Loma Prieta Earthquake, perhaps the most devastating quake in the United States in the past century, hit the Bay Area just before Game 3.

Why it’s great: The timing on this documentary was impeccable, as it not only came out on the 25th anniversary of the earthquake, but also coincided with yet another World Series run for the Giants. As always, the archived footage from the day of the earthquake draws the audience in and introduces them to the terror felt by players, media and citizens in the region that day. As many good 30 for 30’s do, this film reiterated that baseball can sometimes be so much more than just a game.

Where it ranks: It’s an average 30 for 30 that stands out because of it’s relevant release date.

  1. Little Big Men (No. 19, directed by Al Szymanski)

The Story: The 1982 Kirkland, Washington Little Leaguers overcame long odds to win the Little League World Series over a historically dominant Taiwanese squad.

Why it’s great: Everyone loves watching the Little League World Series every August, as 12-year-olds get the superstar treatment from ESPN and capture the hearts and minds of the nation. The 1982 Kirkland team was one of the first to truly do that. The triumph of the Americans over Taiwan is a solid enough story for a documentary on its own.

What really makes this good though is the exploration of the emotional issues faced by the team’s star, Cody Webster, in the years following the victory. Singled out as a future MLB superstar, Webster was targeted and picked on for his weight at higher levels of youth baseball, so much so that his career was derailed and his potential never lived up to. The emotion he shows and the clear weight of all that has happened to him shows the unfortunate downside to fame at such a young age.

Where it ranks: It’s more obscure since it doesn’t deal with MLB, but it’s definitely above average. Perhaps the only knock is it’s not particularly rewatchable, since Webster’s pain is such a depressing commentary on American society.

Just missed the cut: Jordan Rides The Bus is one of the more popular baseball 30 for 30’s and serves as an awesome reminder that Terry Francona was Michael’s minor league manager. But the lack of participation from Michael himself hurts it. June 17th, 1994 might be the best documentary in the series, but it doesn’t deal with enough baseball to make this list.

Agree with my list? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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