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61* (December 30/01)

Billy Crystal's fascination with baseball is no secret. From his lengthy monologue about his first experience at a ball game in City Slickers to a trip to Yankee stadium for Comic Relief, his love of the game has always been evident. It makes sense, then, that he'd direct a film based on the legendary struggle to over-take Babe Ruth's home-run record back in 1961.

That struggle was between two very different players, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris. Mantle was widely loved and seemed to have no detractors, while Maris was pretty much the opposite. A newcomer to the Yankees, Maris was a hard-working family man - reluctant to step into the spotlight (a position Mantle had no problem assuming). The film follows that one season in '61 where the two were lucky enough to find themselves chasing Ruth's record at the same time. Though the press assumed there was a rivalry between the duo, they were actually good friends and even wound up living together for a short while.

61* feels authentic; from the stands of Yankee stadium to the announcers in the booth, the whole thing seems to be an accurate representation of what it must have been like during that season. This is no doubt due to Crystal's almost obsessive passion for baseball and his likely insistence that everything be just right. As Mantle and Maris, Thomas Jane and Barry Pepper fill the larger-than-life roles with an appropriate down-to-earth quality. These were two regular guys embroiled in an almost epic struggle - well, it was painted as epic by the media anyway.

Crystal's passion for the story does give the flick a definite sense of authenticity - but it also hinders him from being able to reign his sense of excess in. At a running time of around 130 minutes, the movie is at least a half hour too long. While the baseball scenes never really become tiresome, the various glimpses into the personal lives of these two players eventually does. Once the point's been made regarding the character of these two men (Mantle was a laid back, take-it-easy sort of guy, while Maris was a hard-working family man), there's not really too much more to say about the pair. Instead of presenting us with yet another incident involving Maris' hatred of the press, perhaps more sequences involving his love of baseball would have been more appropriate. But regardless of any superfluous character-building sequences, the movie is just overlong. 90 minutes or less would have been ideal.

But despite that, this is still a movie worth checking out - if only for the incredibly detailed presentation of the time period and two superb performances.

out of