"All right. Let's do it."
"Ready. Engines off, please. Roll."
Behind the plate in an empty baseball stadium, a portly man wearing dark red polyester slacks and a black chest protector is pulling on a face mask. A pitcher and a catcher in full game uniform are warming up as they await the batter. In the foreground, near the on-deck circle, a slim girl with straight brown hair and a mass of freckles on her nose is seated on the grass intently doing her stretching exercises. Beside her on the ground are two bats, a baseball cap, a red batting helmet and an aged red equipment bag that says LAKE HAVASU CITY KNIGHTS on its side. As the girl leans forward, a voice of impatient male authority is heard from the first-base dugout.
"Come on! Let's go!"
The girl looks up and over her right shoulder. "I'm not loose yet," she says.
She stretches a moment longer, then stands up, lifts one of the bats, takes a few practice swings, looks back toward the dugout and says, "Ready." Then she slams on her cap and her batting helmet and takes her place in the batter's box. The ump says, "All right. Play ball."
So went Scene 22, Take 1 of Blue Skies Again, a Lantana Productions film distributed by Warner Bros, that was shot in part last April and May at the New York Yankees' spring training stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. and that is scheduled for release early next year. For movie purposes the park is Kruger Stadium, spring training home of the Denver Devils, a major league team of the expansion variety, owned by a rich businessman of the Ted Turner variety. The main character, the freckled Paula Fradkin, has driven her 1968 Dodge all the way from Lake Havasu, Ariz. to Fort Lauderdale, uninvited and unrecommended, to try out for second base with the Devils. If she makes it she will be the first female major league baseball player. If she doesn't, well, it was a long shot anyway. The main question is, will she get a chance to try? A subplot having to do with the owner and Paula's lady agent (owner meets agent, owner offends agent by his oafishness, owner and agent fall in love—so what else is new?) helps fill the time between baseball scenes. But it is around the fate of Fradkin, who is played by a 20-year-old college softball player named Robyn Barto, that Blue Skies Again revolves.
Actresses have passed as athletes before, often with the help of stand-ins, special cameras and strategic editing. But Blue Skies presented special problems. Show-biz technology can produce wonders, but it can't create an arm where there isn't one. "Every actress I interviewed for the part told me she could throw a ball," says Richard Michaels, the director. "And every one was pretty poor. I mean, they threw like girls. But a good actor and actress won't tell you they can't do something. After about a month I told the producers I thought it was time to start looking at real ballplayers."
Movie stars have been discovered in odd places, like drug stores, and predictable places, like chorus lines, but Robyn Barto was probably the first actress ever discovered playing leftfield. The North Lady Trotters slow-pitch softball team from Broward Community College in Florida was playing in a tournament in Miami last February when Barto was approached by Michaels and Casting Director Dee Miller. Robyn not only had the look ("young, cute, likable, wholesome") and the athleticism ("she walks like an athlete") that Michaels was seeking, but she also turned out to be able to deliver a line pretty well.
"What's necessary in a non-professional," says Michaels, "is a lack of inhibition, a natural charm and an ability to get past nervousness about saying lines."
"From the beginning Robyn wasn't worried about the acting, only the ball playing," says Miller. "She didn't want a double. She wanted to do it all herself."
After two weeks of being coached in the nuances of hitting a major league fastball by former Yankee Batting Coach Joe Pepitone and the team's minor league Pitching Coach Stan Saleski, Barto was on her own. In the seven weeks of shooting that took place after the Yankees left their Fort Lauderdale digs last spring, she was called upon to hit, run, throw and steal, and to give a credible performance as a second baseman over and over again. Her hands were blistered, then calloused from swinging a 32-ounce bat hundreds of times each day. No one in the cast, which includes enough actors to comprise two baseball teams—the Devils and the Memphis Blues, an exhibition-game opponent—took as much of a physical beating as the 5'7", 120-pound Barto did. A headfirst slide into second base had to be filmed at least six times for various technical reasons. Another slide left her right knee bruised and bleeding. "I've got so many wraps on," she said one day in the Devils' dugout as the company nurse changed the dressing on her battered knee, "that I could take all my clothes off and nobody would notice."
All the while, Barto was being observed and judged, not only by the director, the cameramen and the professional actors—Harry Hamlin as the owner, Mimi Rogers as the agent, Kenneth McMillan as the Devils' manager and Dana Alcar as a former player-turned-agent—but, perhaps most critically, by the Devils themselves.
Ray Negron, a former shortstop in the Pirates' farm chain, plays Jerry Washburne, the Devils' shortstop. "He's supposed to be a super shortstop who's not too bright," says Negron, deadpanning. "So it's a challenging role."
When Negron's playing days, which lasted one season (1975), were over, he went to work for the Yankees as the man who videotaped their games for coaching purposes and eventually became friendly with Reggie Jackson, who, he says, led him into acting by helping to get him parts in TV commercials. "The best acting school I ever went to was Yankee Stadium," says Negron. "And the best acting teacher was George Steinbrenner, though Reggie was pretty good, too."
About Barto, Negron says, "They could have signed somebody like Kristy McNichol, but she wouldn't have been able to give you the job Robyn can. You know, for a girl, she can play. I think the audience is going to be very impressed. She throws hard. She had a little problem with the hitting part, but that's natural. I had a problem with the hitting part, and I'm an ex-professional."
Jeff Rosenberg, who plays Tube, a relief pitcher, was a defensive lineman at East Texas State and played semi-pro ball in baseball's Mexican League in the off-season. Now he teaches handicapped children in Chattanooga. Rosenberg Coached Barto regularly in one of the batting cages alongside the Fort Lauderdale stadium.
"She had a problem with a hitch in her swing," says Rosenberg. "In Softball you have time to wait a little longer, so you have time to do that. In baseball you have to react quicker. But she does a good job. I stand back there and throw it to her and I get some line shots."
The only thing Barto lacks as an actress is ego. She wore no makeup. She was unconcerned about her hair. All the makeup artist did was occasionally smear sun-block over Barto's freckles. The hairdresser, who danced attention on the other stars—patting, combing, brushing, spraying men and women alike—rarely bothered with her. Robyn would run her fingers through her brown bangs and slam on her cap, and she was ready. "She didn't know anything about the movie business at the start," says Michaels, "but she was willing to ask questions and to risk looking foolish."
She does, however, know something about ballplaying. "Some people help you in a positive way, like Jeff does," says Barto. "Others 'help' you in a negative way by challenging you, by saying you can't play ball. I can play ball."
Cilk Cozart played basketball at the University of Tennessee for a year before transferring to King College in Bristol, Tenn., where he majored in English and drama. In the film he plays Wall Street Chandler, the Devils' star pitcher.
"In the movie," says Cozart, "Paula walks into a restaurant where I hang out, and I tell her that some of these other guys may want to treat her like she's one of the boys, but to me she's a freak, and that I've got better things to do than hang out with freaks, and I leave. Wall Street Chandler would do that, but Cilk Cozart wouldn't. If a girl would try out for my team I'd say, 'Hey, let's go, what do you need to work on? Let's see you.' "
Negron, who is stretching things a little when he says he is 6 feet and 165 pounds, says, "I think a girl could make it. You always have one girl or another who's six feet, six feet one. Physical strength is the only consideration. Take me. I'm not as big as the average big league ballplayer, so I know. I could start a season great, but then come July and August, I'm just worn out. I'd start losing weight in August and it would be tough for me to finish out the season."
"I imagine someday it'll happen," says Frank Umont, 62, a retired American League umpire who played the ump in the movie. He has two lines in it, "Safe!" and "Time!", which he delivers in a voice that has the resonance of a foghorn. "I don't see why a girl couldn't play major league baseball," he says. "I think someday, I don't know how soon, you may even see a girl umpire."
"This movie is not all escapist fantasy," says Michaels. "To me it's a representation of everybody's personal desire to have a shot at something, no matter what it is, that one-in-a-million shot at the whole ball game."
Meanwhile, Robyn Barto, outfielder, has already lived one of two 20th-century American fantasies. The first: One day you're walking down the street, minding your own business, and a movie producer comes along and says, "Kid, I'll make you a star. Sign here." Barto can live without the other: A major league scout sees you walking down the street minding your own business and says, "Kid, you got talent. I can tell by the way you walk. Sign here."
"Most likely I'll just go back to school when this is over and play softball," Barto said on the last day of shooting at the stadium. "Our team should be pretty good next year, and what I've learned about baseball will probably make me a better softball player."