By CHRIS KAZARIAN
“The best amateur ball in the county is played in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Playing here is a chance of a lifetime” – Ryan Dunne (“Summer Catch”)
In the unlikeliest of settings – a fundraiser for New Mexico governor Bill Richardson – movie producer Michael Tollin delivered a curve ball when it was his time to talk to the guest of honor.
“Basically how these things work is you write a check to get there and then stroll out on some expansive lawn overlooking some luxurious mansion in the city and wait for 90 seconds to talk to the guest of honor,” he said. “So you should have a good idea beforehand of how you want to spend those 90 seconds. I had just finished shooting Wild Hogs in New Mexico. I thought about talking about tax incentives and how hospitable the state had been to filmmakers or his position on issues like his track record on hostage negotiations.”
Tollin decided otherwise. Those things, he thought, paled in comparison to the one thing that really mattered – the Cape Cod Baseball League. “I went up to him and said, ‘Hello, I am an old fan of the Kettelers. Then I introduced myself as the director of Summer Catch. He said he had a lovely time in Cotuit and how it was one of the most memorable summers of his life. Then we talked about how great Jessica Biel is. It can’t get much better than that.”
For Tollin, sports, and in particular, baseball, is the one thing that brings clarity to life. “The beautiful thing about baseball is that it often bears a strong resemblance to truth,” he said.
That is perhaps why the prolific movie executive has a list of credits that is so male-oriented and sports dominated. His most recent work, The Bronx is Burning, is airing on ESPN. Based on John Mahler’s bestseller, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx Is Burning, the miniseries details the Yankees 1977 tumultuous season that ended with a World Series victory.
His other works include; Radio, Bonds on Bonds, Coach Carter, Hardwood Dreams, Varsity Blues, and Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream.
His love affair with athletics started at a young age growing up in the outskirts of the sports-crazed city of Philadelphia . He credits one man, his father Sol Tollin, for passing that passion on to him.
His dad, he said, “was a crafty lefthander, who stood all of five-foot-eight. He was all city in baseball and basketball at Chester High School in the late 40’s and went on to Haverford College where he excelled there as well.”
In 2001, the small private university on the Main Line honored his father for his accomplishments on the hardwood, where he averaged more than 20 points a game at a time when scores typically ran into the 40s.
As rumors go, Tollin said, his dad supposedly pitched a no hitter in college and was drafted to play major league baseball. Although he can not verify any of this, Tollin laughed, “Why let the truth get in the way of a good story.”
And that is exactly what sports has given him as a producer – good stories that his audiences can relate to.
More importantly, however, it drew him closer to his father. “I grew to love sports because it was a source of real bonding with my dad,” he said.
Even during the past 17 years while he was living in Los Angeles and his dad was outside of Philadelphia, he said, conversations were simply about sports. “During the Phillies seasons we would talk almost every day to do a post mortem on the games,” he said. “I have a 10 minute drive to work, which by LA standards is not that difficult, but I would spend those 10 minutes talking about the mistakes made by Charlie Manuel or Pat Burrell the runners the team left on base, or how they squandered a lead.”
Those discussions, he said, were always done with the faith that their beloved team would always turn things around. Unfortunately, they no longer happen, as his dad died last July, the same day the Phillies acquired veteran pitcher Jamie Moyer from the Seattle Mariners.
“It was almost like the spirit of my dad was brought back,” he said. “[Moyer] is a crafty lefthander like my dad who couldn’t break a window pain with a fastball. He survived in the majors on brain, style, and cunning. That was my dad’s reputation as a pitcher.”
It is also what he sees in his son, Lucas Philip Tollin, an 8-year-old all star pitcher who just finished his little league season last week. “He embodies my dad’s spirit. He doesn’t throw hard, he just throws strikes,” he said.
In a few years, Tollin hopes his son will get to live nearly every boy’s dream on Cape Cod. “I have every intention of bringing him back to the Cape to be a bat boy for one of the teams,” he said.
Although Tollin grew up on the east coast and lived there for much of his life, it was not until he was preparing to shoot Summer Catch in the summer of 2000 that he actually got to experience Cape League baseball. “I was really blown away by the quality of the games and the spirit there,” he said.
Summer Catch represents Tollin’s first feature film as a director and the experience, he said, “was very gratifying. I felt lucky to be doing it, riding my bicycle to a small town in a baseball field we created… It was great fun. I had my glove, ball, and mitt on set and we would play catch in between set ups. Obviously the movie encompasses more than [baseball], but that was my favorite part for me.”
The movie was filmed primarily in Southport, North Carolina where Tollin’s crew took a vacant lot and created a field modeled after those found on the Cape. “It is a composite,” he said. “We wanted to represent how it felt to be in a Cape League environment. We got pretty good feedback about our attention to detail and for respecting the magic of the Cape League.”
To give Summer Catch some authenticity, he said, the crew spent several days shooting in Chatham.
Tollin recalled several moments from making the movie that stood out. One had to do with Wilmer Valderrama, who was making his feature film debut as an actor.
As Tollin described, he was also new to the sport of baseball. Yet, that did not deter him from trying his hardest to perfect his game.
Sometimes it affected production, particularly during one scene at the end of the movie where Valderrama’s character, Mickey Dominguez, has to make a Sportscenter-type catch to preserve a no hitter being pitched by his Chatham A’s teammate Ryan Dunne (Freddie Prinze Jr.) “We assumed we’d have a stunt person do the actual catch, but he insisted on doing it himself,” he said. “We spent the better part of the night trying to get it just right. I give him a lot of credit. This is a kid who did not grow up playing baseball.”
In another scene, screenwriter John Gatins plays a Dennis-Yarmouth pitcher. “That was a treat for him because he had been a high school pitcher growing up in Poughkeepsie,” he said.
Unfortunately, the experience did not end well. “He suffered a spiral fracture because he had pitched one too many curveballs,” he said. “We sent him to a doctor in New York. He has happily recovered and is raising Yankees fans in Los Angeles.”
Tollins also had a chance to cast Hank Aaron and Phillies slugger Dick Allen in the movie, which ends with Ryan Dunne making the big leagues for Tollin’s favorite team.
It is nearly the perfect ending for Dunne, who like all Cape League players, has dreams of playing professionally.
Tollin is not unlike many of us, who will never get to experience the thrill of pitching or hitting in a major league ball park. “I played sports for as much as I could as long as I could, but the die was cast by the time I was entering high school,” he said. “I could see the ceiling and it was right above my head at 5’8.”
While he will never be a baseball player in this life, Tollin said, “I’ve been asked, what would you like to come back and do in your next life. I would want to be a big league shortstop, but it wouldn’t be bad to be a Cape Cod League shortstop either.”
Until then Tollin will settle simply for being an obsessed sports fan. His movies will undoubtedly share that passion with others, much like his dad did with him and he is doing with his son, Lucas, and 14-year-old daughter, Georgia.