BATTERED-BASTARDSBaseball is a sport built around failure. A player who failed to get a hit six out of ten plate appearances would be among the greatest batters of all time. It is that spirit of failure and against-all-odds endeavoring that The Battered Bastards of Baseball captures with stunning success.

The documentary, available on Netflix starting July 11, tells the story of the Portland Mavericks, an independent single-A minor league team owned by an actor that undermined organized baseball from 1973 to 1977.

Bing Russell is probably best known for his role as Deputy Clem on the television show Bonanza or for being the father of famed actor Kurt Russell. However his Hollywood notoriety belie the fact that Bing’s roots were in baseball. As a kid he was a bat-boy for Yankee teams featuring baseball legends like Lefty Gomez and Joe DiMaggio. When Bing was unable to become a professional baseball player himself, he set out for a career in acting.

The Battered Bastards of Baseball, directed by Bing Russell’s grandchildren Chapman and Maclain Way and relying heavily on Kurt Russell’s recollection paints a picture of Bing as an utterly familiar paternal figure. He was driven by his work, where Bing consistently found himself in somewhat thankless supporting roles, but found an infinite amount of solace in his love of sport.

Bing Russell was so enamored with baseball that he made instructional videos and compiled mountains of notes all in an effort to glean a greater understanding of the game he loved. In 1973, that love of baseball took shape in the form of what many considered to be an ill-advised attempt to resurrect baseball in Portland.

The triple-A minor league team that had been in Portland abandoned the city for greener pastures. Bing Russell filled the baseball-vacancy by starting an independent baseball team in the Oregonian epicenter for eccentrics. While it seemed laughable that an actor could find success with a minor league team not affiliated with a major league club, soon enough Bing Russell proved there was plenty of method to his madness.

Until the Portland Mavericks and Bing Russell, baseball had completely squeezed out any external competition. While baseball’s early history is littered with independent teams, the league had neatly organized itself into a stratum of minor league levels and team affiliates that most effectively developed prospects for the majors.

What this type of scheme didn’t do was take into account the city or fan experience of people attending minor league games. It also assumed a certain infallibility on the part of major league clubs in that players they had passed on couldn’t possibly be good enough to compete with the players in their system.

Bing Russell immediately set about proving those assumptions wrong by carving out a counterculture kind of baseball team. Russell hired a manager who had never made the big leagues because he was a third basemen in the Orioles organization stuck behind Brooks Robinson. He then held open tryouts in an attempt to discover other baseball outcasts and castoffs that needed something outside the status quo in order to have one last chance at playing professionally.

Because the Mavericks were not affiliated with any Major League team, their players stayed on the roster all season. They also played with a chip on their shoulder since they’d been deemed undesirable by the affiliated teams. Thus, the Mavericks became a collection of players clinging to a dream and willing to fight tooth and nail for one more day of their professional sports fantasy.

The story of this ragamuffin roster becomes the thrust of the documentary. A group of guys thought to be not good enough to play professionally go about upsetting the applecart of organized baseball. In doing so, these everyman characters endear themselves to the city of Portland. Fans show up in droves to cheer for chubby ballplayers that left jobs as substitute teachers or painters to make a go at being a professional athlete.

The mutual appreciation of the fans for bringing baseball back to Portland and the players for having an opportunity to play pro baseball, created a symbiotic formula for baseball success. In the stands, the Mavericks boasted the best attendance numbers of any minor league team. On the field, the players scrapped and hustled their way to the top of the league.

The underdog overtones persist throughout the film. The team of oddballs, with Bing Russell at the helm, ultimately claims alumni that are nothing short of inspiring if not almost unbelievable. There’s an Oscar winner, an acclaimed writer, the first Asian baseball manager, the first female general manager, a failed gubernatorial candidate who went to jail and a player who has been missing since 1984 possibly because he’s an FBI informant.

All of these players were given a second chance by a renegade owner and each player rewarded Bing Russell for giving them an opportunity. It is, in many ways, the American Dream played out through America’s Pastime.

Though the Portland Mavericks existed for only five years, their history speaks to the core of baseball and humanity. Failure is for everybody. It’s a common identifier. The heroics are in its aftermath. Whether that’s driving cross country for a baseball tryout, toeing the plate again after a previous strikeout or simply refusing to adhere to the established order of things, success is on offer for those willing to move on from past failure and risk failure in the future.

In the spirit of Bing Russell and the Portland Mavericks, The Battered Bastards of Baseball isn’t a glossy 30 for 30 on ESPN or a huskily narrated HBO special. It’s an independent kind of sports documentary. Like its protagonists, the film takes a chance by going outside the established order and, whether you’re a baseball diehard or not, it’s impossible not to like this kind of underdog.

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