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Taking on 'The Flying Dutchman'

Modine plays baseball great in 'Winning Season'

By Todd Leopold

Matthew Modine plays Honus Wagner in "The Winning Season."

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(CNN) -- It never hurts to have friends in high places, as Matthew Modine found out.

The actor knew he would have to get into "baseball shape," as he describes it, when he was cast as Honus Wagner in "The Winning Season."

After all, Wagner, the turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop known as "The Flying Dutchman," was one of baseball's all-time greats: an original Hall of Famer and revered player and coach, not to mention a feared hitter. He's still in the top 10 in several all-time hitting categories almost 100 years after he retired.

So Modine turned to an expert -- Cal Ripken Jr., a passing acquaintance of the actor.

Modine described his dilemma to the legendary Orioles infielder, who now owns a minor-league baseball team in Aberdeen, Maryland. He expected to get a few pointers on how to sharpen his skills. Instead, Ripken invited the 45-year-old actor to join the squad.

"He said, 'Come on out to Aberdeen and play with the IronBirds,' " Modine recalls in a phone interview. "I took my 17-year-old son along."

The two found themselves not only warming up with the team but also playing in training games.

For Modine, it was his own "Field of Dreams."

"To have the opportunity to go to camp with my son, and then play ... it doesn't get any better," he says.

The long and the short of it

Winning Season
In "The Winning Season," Joe Soshack (Shawn Hatosy) finds himself in 1909, meeting Mandy Henton (Kristin Davis) and Wagner.

"The Winning Season," based on a children's book by Dan Gutman, concerns a teenager named Joe Soshack (Shawn Hatosy) whose family is in a financial bind. When Joe comes across an extremely valuable Honus Wagner baseball card in the garage of an elderly neighbor, he realizes that he may have the ticket to solve his family's financial problems.

However, the magical card has other ideas. Joe mysteriously finds himself in 1909 and meets the actual Wagner, whose Pirates team is taking on Ty Cobb's Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Through his relationship with Wagner, Soshack learns what is truly valuable.

Kristin Davis plays Wagner's love interest, society girl Mandy Henton. The movie airs 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT, a division of Time Warner, as is CNN.

Modine, who had always wanted to do a baseball movie, was impressed by Wagner's character as well as his baseball skills.

"I didn't know much about Wagner besides the baseball card," he says. "When I researched him, I found out he was one of the best guys ever to play the game. I couldn't find anything negative about him."

Indeed, Wagner was considered a nice-guy player by contemporaries and, after his retirement, was a mentor to generations of Pirates. The story about the baseball card is indicative: The card was released by a tobacco company, and Wagner -- a nonsmoker -- asked it be pulled because he didn't want to encourage smoking among children. (Only a handful survive, and one sold for more than $1 million in 2000.)

Modine tried to evoke Wagner in many ways -- including emulating the player's bowlegged walk -- but one thing he couldn't do was shrink his lanky 6-foot-4-inch frame to match that of the stocky, 5-foot-11 shortstop.

"I once tried to make myself look shorter, but it didn't really work," he says.

Tougher still was coping with playing conditions. There were the primitive baseball implements, including a glove that left Modine with bruises.

Moreover, "The Winning Season" was filmed in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in the midst of a heat wave that pushed the thermometer to 100 degrees. To simulate the flannel uniforms of the time, the filmmakers had a costumer make them out of the closest material they could find -- cashmere.

"If I'd gone with padding [to look like Wagner], I would have disappeared," Modine says.

Taking a swing at different roles

Modine trained with Cal Ripken Jr. and Ripken's team, the Aberdeen IronBirds, to sharpen his baseball skills.

Modine says he likes to mix up his roles. "The Winning Season" is a family film, like his 1995 work "Fluke."

But the actor has also starred in the brutal Stanley Kubrick war movie "Full Metal Jacket" (1987), John Schlesinger's thriller "Pacific Heights" (1990), Oliver Stone's football melee "Any Given Sunday" (1999), Jonathan Demme's Mafia comedy "Married to the Mob" (1988) and Robert Altman's edgy cross section of Southern California, "Short Cuts" (1993).

The directors, in fact, are often a selling point for the actor.

"My father ran a drive-in theater when I was younger, so I knew 'Midnight Cowboy' before I was supposed to," Modine says of Schlesinger's X-rated 1969 best picture.

Working with Altman was also a pleasure, Modine adds; he notes that one scene, in which Modine, playing a doctor, has an argument with his brazenly bottomless wife (Julianne Moore), "is studied in film schools and re-created in acting classes."

For "Winning Season," there was the also the thrill of playing an athlete -- something Modine's only done twice (in 1985's "Vision Quest," in which he played a wrestler, and in 1992's "Wind," in which he played a racing yachtsman).

Sports movies also offer a nice message, Modine says.

"They show that, through hard work and dedication, we can become champions and winners -- or we all believe we can," he says.

And having Cal Ripken Jr. on your side never hurts.

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