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  HBO Films  
  Billy Crystal  
  Barry Pepper, Thomas Jane, and Anthony Michael Hall  
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When Barry Bonds broke Mark MacGuire's home run record in 2001, I was saddened by the relatively minor attention his feat received. Compared to the MacGuire/Sosa race of 1998, the media released a collective yawn on Oct. 5, when Bonds eclipsed MacGuire by hitting both his 71st and 72nd home runs. Amid the news furor following Sept. 11, Bonds (whose relationship with the press had always been in the proverbial dumper) seemed to be short-changed -- even unappreciated -- in a time when New York firefighters are more noteworthy than national politicians, much less San Francisco ball players. I thought that perhaps Bonds got a raw deal.

After watching 61*, I've changed my mind.

As the eventful 2001 baseball season neared its 7-game World Series finale, 61* seemed the obvious choice for a Saturday movie. I expected a rah-rah spectacle about baseball heroes and the glorification of our most genteel American sport. But, in fact, 61* is very much a movie about the self-important journalistic whims of sports writers at a time before television became the great media power. The film portrays the 1961 Yankees season, when Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris competed in a race to break Babe Ruth's one-season home run record. While the season and the pressures of performance were difficult, more stressful for the athletes was the constant media pressure and the false scandals created to sell newspapers. 61* captured the emotional and physical abuse Mantle and Maris endured during the season, including stress-induced hair loss and long-term self-neglect. The movie provides us with a reminder that media attention, whether in print on or the screen, is not always a dream come true. In fact, pressure from media, club management, and even fans gave more grief than glitz for Maris, whose wife and children suffered alongside him during that fateful season.

Obviously, the romantic draw of this movie is its nostalgic look at two athletes coming into maturity as players and as people, something that Bonds himself may not yet have achieved. But, I'm always a little cynical about sports nostalgia, even with my love of baseball -- which is why this movie impressed me all the more. It doesn't sugar-coat Mantle's boozing and womanizing. Nor does it paint Maris as an all-American good ol' boy. His hostility, particularly towards the press, often was his worst enemy. Certainly, there are plenty of those gratuitous at-the-plate picturesque moments that baseball fans adore, but they are tempered by the background reality of a sports industry in its ferocious ascendancy, including the vultures who often feed on celebrity weakness. As such, it is an interesting watch not only for fans of the sport, but also for those fascinated by the impact of stardom in any form. Now that we are approaching the beginning of the 2002 baseball season, it might just be a reminder of the price many pay for "the love of the game."

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