Dan Coyle’s book Hardball: A Season in the Projects, about Little League baseball in Chicago’s notorious Cabrini-Green public housing development, hit a home run when it was published in 1993. USA Today called it “an astonishing feat of eavesdropping on young boys’ games and fantasies and a hard-eyed, unsentimental look at Cabrini-Green.” The Chicago Tribune said it was “wisely detached, understated and gripping,” and The New York Times called it “a heart-rending book.”
Now, the book by Coyle ‘87 has been brought to the silver screen — sort of. Two screenplays and some controversy later, Paramount Pictures’s feature film Hardball, starring Keanu Reeves, opened September 14 in theaters nationwide.
Those expecting an exact transfer of the book to film, however, may be disappointed. The movie is only loosely based on Coyle’s account of the Near North Little League’s 1992 season. Whereas the book focuses on the kids and the story of the Near North league, founded by a black social activist and white businessman, the film centers on the Keanu Reeves character, a young man with a gambling habit who receives a loan from a friend to pay off betting debts on the condition that he coach a Near North team. The movie follows the pitfalls and triumph of coach and team with Reeves’s character, in the best Hollywood tradition, finding personal redemption through his work with the kids.
“I wrote a novelistic nonfiction account of what happened, and I focused on the kids,” says Coyle, who coached a team in the Near North league one year and then got a leave of absence from his job as senior editor of Outside magazine to report and write the story. “That’s not the movie they made, but that’s their expertise. I’m not disgruntled that they’ve changed my story.”
Last summer, however, when the film was shooting in Chicago, the mayor and some of those associated with the league were disgruntled. In a news conference, Mayor Richard M. Daley fumed that the script’s profane dialogue was a slur against the Cabrini-Green baseball players and the city of Chicago. Bob Muzikowski, a founder of the league, threatened a lawsuit and then made good on his threat this August, alleging the film defamed him and the league.
Originally the film had been assigned an “R” rating for coarse language and violence. However, apparently bowing to pressure, just before its release Paramount ordered the film re-edited to a kinder, gentler version, qualifying it for a PG-13 rating.“The real profanity is that places like Cabrini-Green exist,” Coyle argues. "If the movie brings that to light and encourages people to get involved and help, then that’s all to the good.
“My main hope is that this movie can draw some attention to these kids and this league and leagues like it, connecting people through volunteerism,” Coyle says. “We have a scholarship fund that we started when the book came out (Near North Little League Scholarship Fund, 839 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago, Illinois 60614), and I hope some good can come from the film.”
A few of the players from Coyle’s 1992 team already have been aided by the fund. One is attending the University of Illinois, another Michigan State. “It’s naive to think every kid can be helped by programs like the Little League,” he points out, “but some are.”
Coyle now resides in Homer, Alaska, where he is a contributing editor to Outside magazine and has just completed Waking Samuel, a “literary suspense” novel set in Alaska.