Early Era Photos
Not too long ago I watched the movie "Chasing 3,000”. The movie is a story of two brothers, Mickey and Roger, and their journey from California to Pittsburgh to see Roberto Clemente reach 3,000 hits the last week of the ‘72 season. I’ll be honest, I was a little nervous and slightly intimidated about interviewing the person who wrote this screenplay about his true story that I found so motivating. Bill Mikita was kind enough to let me call him and pick his brain about movie making, baseball, family, bonding, and Pistol Pete.
The movie stars Ray Liotta and Trevor Morgan who play Mickey, the high school athlete and Rory Culkin who plays Roger, the younger brother who lives with muscular dystrophy. It’s a film more about the journey than the destination. It’s based on the real life experience of Bill Mikita and his younger brother Steve.
Much like the journey in the movie, getting a movie made was a difficult. Bill explained that getting a screenplay is one thing, getting people interested is another. For several years, Bill and writing partner Cris D'Annunzio tried to get producers to pick up this project. It took a lot of fundraising and connections until enough were raised. Eventually, Bill contacted Ryan Johnson of Mandalay Pictures, who he’s talked to in the past. Ryan knew Ray Liotta's manager, once Ray read the script the project took off. As the cast was coming together Trevor Morgan and Rory Culkin were already good friends so their chemistry clicked instantly.
Even after the movie was under way, they encountered more obstacles including the stock market crash, which hurt a lot of movies, including their distributor. When that happened, the team brought the film to the Tribeca Film Festival where they reconnected with Maya Entertainment. In an ironic way, Bill said, he had to relive the epic journey and overcomes many obstacles to get this film to the end of its journey. A lot of movies have a couple year window before the content is no longer relevant, luckily, being a period piece, that wasn’t the case for this movie. Bill added that there is no way this movie would have gotten made without help from Pirates President Frank Coonelly, the Pirates, and the Clemente family.
The film played everyday for a week at Tribeca and Bill had the chance to talk to audiences. He felt that viewers really related, especially to the story of his brother striving to overcome obstacles. In a world of social media, people from all across the world have contacted Bill and Steve about their love of the movie. In Pittsburgh, the movie was really well received; people recognized the feel and look of the city - Not to mention their love of Clemente.
Bill recently read an article about Clemente, and how over time revisionist history has made people love Clemente more. Bill felt the writer missed the impression that Clemente had on kids. Kids between the ages of 10 and 18 in ‘72, saw Clemente as a hero that they could relate to. That’s part of what “Chasing 3,000” is about, going back in time. Bill explained that those of that particular generation felt, “his greatness really came from being a great person. If he had done anything else, he would have been great.”
One character that I really enjoyed was Chuck Ireland, a man who finds the boys sleeping in his barn and gives the boys a car to drive. I couldn’t help but to wonder if that really happened? There is a real Chuck Ireland, in fact, the real Chuck Ireland went to the game with them. The way his story actually played out didn’t fit into the movie, Bill told me. To this day, Bill and Steve still replicate Ireland’s voice-cracking-“Bush!”-holler in honor of him.
(M. Emmet Walsh as Chuck Ireland)
If you’re familiar with Clemente’s journey, you might know that with 2,999 hits, Clemente reached base on an error. Bill explained that the footage of that error didn’t exist - the footage in the movie is a different error. Bill relayed the actual play to me as if he just saw it. Clemente hit the ball hard up the middle, the second baseman dove and got his glove on the ball but it was hit too hard and trickled past him. The scoreboard flashed “Hit” and suddenly changed to “E”. “It added to the drama” he told me. He believed that in today’s game would have scored it a hit.
It’s been almost 30 years since Roberto’s tragic death and I asked Bill his feelings on losing his idol. “It was devastating” he paused “It’s one of those moments that you couldn’t believe when it happened”... “It was sort of like a family member. When you’re a kid, you see your heroes as invincible. It certainly impacted me, and everyone, my brother, my friends. It was a devastating day,.” He continued “It's interesting in many ways, when someone dies young, they take on a mythical quality”. I loved hearing Bill passionately talk about baseball. “Growing up in the 60s and 70s, baseball was the sport. Kids growing up didn't see baseball players, they saw baseball gods”.
Unfortunately for me, I never got to see Clemente play. I didn’t get to see a lot of greats play. Some day, how am I going to explain Ken Griffey jr to my kids? I asked Bill a similar question. Who in today’s game compares to Roberto? He was trying to be as respectable as possible to today’s players, but I honestly feel that he believes that there is no fair comparison. “There aren’t too many players today with that arm strength.” After thinking about it, Carlos Beltran’s skills came to mind. “The thing with Clemente is, he wasn’t large.” He told me a quote he once heard “He was an ordinary sized man with extraordinary talent”, today’s players are much bigger and stronger.”
Staying current, I asked him about Jeter’s pursuit of 3,000. He revised his Beltran comment, and thinks Jeter is comparable. He told me that Jeter is sort of a modern day Roberto. He has long been a Jeter fan. “He’s a winner, a leader, it goes beyond statistics”. Bill sent him a copy of the movie. “I wanted him to have a copy, and wish him well on his chase of 3,000. He’s a mythical kind of player”. Bill told me that Jeter might be the only comparable player today to the stars of the 70s.
He also told me that he would have given Jeter the 3,000th hit back. It’s part of history and, to quote Ireland “That’s what it’s all about”.
One thing I found interesting in the movie was, as kids, they traded baseball cards and formed lineups. As a huge fantasy nerd, I related. It was almost a precursor to fantasy. Bill said, he’s never thought about it like a fantasy lineup, but the statement was accurate. Baseball cards were a big part of their life. Whenever the new Topps checklist came out, the way they reacted, “it was magical”.
When it comes to modern times, I asked Bill if this story could happen today and how he would feel if one of his children ran away to see an idol? He jokingly told me that he was pleading the fifth. But in all sincerity, he told me that the world is a different place now. Not only is it more dangerous, but also, financially it would be more difficult. He wouldn’t want a teen to try that today.
At one point, I asked Bill if anyone said or asked anything that really left a lasting impact with him after the premiere. When it’s all said and done, Bill said something that really stuck with me. It wasn’t about Clemente, or even baseball, it was about his mother. Bill sadly lost his mother when she was 60 - he was 30 at the time. He looked at himself and asked what he wanted to be doing with his life - the answer was writing. That’s what motivated Bill to work on this movie. Do what you love. That theme resonated in this movie as well. Roger and Mickey have an unspoken bond at one point where they decide that this trip isn’t just about baseball, it’s about love. Their love, their journey and the fact that they don’t know how much time they would have together. So as I thought about this, I realized what this article was about, it’s about me, it’s about the reader. Don’t be afraid to do what you love. Don’t be afraid to do a write a long-winded “600 word” article that is now at 1550 words, don’t be afraid to take a chance, or follow your dream, don’t be afraid to sneak from home and follow your favorite baseball team. Actually scratch that last part. Take a second piece of advice from Bill and don’t do that.
“Chasing 3,000” had a 2010 release, went to DVD in Oct, played on ShowTime in June and July and will again in Aug and Sept. It’s also available on Netflix.
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- Bill Mikita, Carlos Beltran, Chasing 3000, Derek Jeter, Frank Coonelly, Ken Griffey, Ken Griffey, Jr., Pittsburgh Pirates, Roberto Clemente