Two thumbs up! Belt's 21-pitch at-bat a triumph of cinema

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Tuesday, April 24, 2018

There's a guy sitting down just behind the Giants dugout, and he's holding a beer. After Brandon Belt fouls off the first pitch from Jaime Barria, you can see that guy over Belt's right shoulder. He's got a watch on his left wrist and the beer, all the way full, in his right hand.

If we were watching a short film about an at-bat that lasts forever, this would be a clever bit of subtle storytelling and setup by the directors. The watch, of course, represents time and can tell us exactly how much of it will elapse in this real-time drama. But time is sometimes too literal. Time bends, like a web, Einstein theorized, some moments taking forever, some years passing in a flash. The watch is not the best measure of time. The beer is.

You didn't need to watch Belt vs. Barria on television to enjoy it. The plentiful shots of the Giants dugout -- Belt's teammates laughing and cheering -- make that clear. But over the course of 13 minutes and 21 pitches, Belt and Barria and the catcher and the umpire and the baserunner and the first baseman aren't the only ones putting in work. A television production crew is making decisions the entire time, no different than Scorsese deciding how to light a scene or Wes Anderson deciding what color to make his Futura this time. In fact, Belt vs. Barria is a short film, with (by my count) 102 separate shots. It has a non-linear time structure, a tortured anti-hero and an ambiguous ending -- some of these things on accident, some of them by the film director's design. It's a classic bottle episode, and it's something of a masterpiece.

Shot 1

Our film opens with something like an opening-credits sequence: It's a wide shot from behind home plate, Barria and Belt in the center of the frame but flanked by the plate umpire, baserunnerJoe Panik, catcher Martin Maldonado, shortstop Andrelton Simmonsand first baseman Luis Valbuena. This is our cast, and all will play a part. As the shot lingers, our narrators, Victor Rojas and Mark Gubicza on the Angels broadcast, establish Barria's character: He might be a little amped on adrenaline; he could struggle with changeup feel. Belt is the focus of the visual. He prepares the setting, brushing the dirt of the batter's box smooth and then stretching his shoulders back, limbering up for the battle ahead.

The camera then cuts to a close-up of Belt. He is being established early on as a villain: He's wearing a black hat, for starters, a common chromatic trope in Westerns. Because he's left-handed and because of where the shot is set up, he's looking from the right side of the screen to the left. In the language of film, left-to-right movement on the screen typically symbolizes progress; by contrast, right-to-left movement makes viewers feel uncomfortable and is often used to symbolize "antagonism, regression, evil." Belt is the antagonist here.

The first pitch, a fastball down the middle, is -- innocuously or portentously -- fouled away. "He had a pitch to hit," Duane Kuiper says on the Giants broadcast, which could be the marketing tagline on posters for this film. (We're otherwise focusing exclusively on the Angels broadcast for this analysis.)

Shot 7

After Barria evens the count with a pitch out of the strike zone, Maldonado fakes a pickoff throw to first. There's a lot of focus on the baserunner in the storytelling to this point: a close-up of Barria's eyes sneaking a peak at Panik, broadcast discussion about the threat of Panik taking off. Panik is a MacGuffin; the real story (a 21-pitch at-bat!) is being slowly unspooled while the audience is unaware.

Shot 17

There are only subtle clues of the actual, 21-pitch story. After Belt fouls a 1-1 pitch away, a ball boy named Jimenez runs out to give the umpire a new supply of balls. As the camera trains itself on Belt, the ball boy runs through the shot, briefly in focus and then quickly out of focus, out of thought. That ball boy will be an important recurring character, but, like the murderer in Adult Swim's "Too Many Cooks," you aren't trained to notice him when he first appears.

Shot 22

On-screen Lexus ad. In film history, Lexus ads typically foreshadow the impending arrival of danger.

At this point, Belt has seen only five pitches. There's nothing extraordinary about the at-bat. But Rojas and Gubicza anticipate it. "As a young pitcher, doubt creeps into your mind that at some point, you're going throw a pitch and it's not going to be located well," Gubicza says. Barria throws ball two. The camera holds from its center-field angle for 16 seconds, the longest uncut shot of the sequence so far, and it's haunting in its stillness.

Shot 28

Belt fouls a ball down the right-field line, and while the center-field camera holds its shot, the unseen crowd erupts into sudden applause. Rojas informs us of a "nice catch down there," but we never see the catch. For the viewer, this is a reminder of a world outside our self-contained story. It's a bit disorienting. Scary, even. If the outside world is outside, then that means we're all alone inside.

Shot 31

Barria, chewing gum, fidgeting with his hat, getting his breath, a waterfall flowing relentlessly in the background of the shot. Gubicza mentions all the pitches Belt is seeing are an advantage for the Giants, the first time the story introduces value judgment to the actions. On the surface, all we've seen so far could be viewed as No Change, status quo holding. But with this, Gubicza has just officially made the pitch count a character and declared that, in the story so far, Belt is ahead. Each pitch will increase that advantage. The pitch count is like a ticking clock, though it counts upward rather than down.

It's the eighth pitch of the at-bat. Gubicza's warning is a perfectly timed shift for the story. From this point forward, each foul ball is treated with a little more seriousness: "Another one," Rojas says after Belt fouls one in shot No. 42, the first time he italicizes his call.

Shot 52

We see the full crowd for the first time. It's like the moment in "The Truman Show" when we find out Truman is on a show: We're watching people watching people being watched by people being watched. "This is baseball giveaway day, right?" Gubicza asks, laughing, a way of reinforcing that the people watching in the crowd are not the same as the people watching from home. It's a fundamentally different spectatorship. They get baseballs. They are characters. We hear their reactions to these pitches, but they don't hear ours.

Finally, Panik takes off for second. If you doubted he was a MacGuffin, it's now clear: We finally got the big baserunner payoff, Belt fouls the ball off and Panik returns, never to steal again.

Shot 57

Gubicza and Rojas laugh after pitch 14. And it dawns on us: We're watching a comedy! We have been all along! An absurdist comedy about an existential stalemate. "You know, you just gotta stay in that same game plan," Gubicza says, and you imagine him standing next to a giant boulder and telling Sisyphus, "Look, what you gotta do is just keep pushing."

Shot 63

After another foul -- pitch 15 -- there's more laughter, a bit more crowd pickup, and a chorus of male voices saying, "Yeaaaaaah." That's probably the microphones picking up the Giants dugout, which we'll soon see is full of Giants cheering and laughing, in a panning shot you just know the director was dying to get to at some point in this film. It's now very clear, despite this evident "tie" we're watching between Unstoppable and Immovable, that Barria is losing and Belt is winning. It's especially evident in the shot we don't see: The one of the Angels dugout. The players are sitting lifelessly, waiting for this to end, but we don't get to see it (except on the Giants' feed). The only emotion we get from the Angels' perspective is from Barria, who jerks his head away from Belt after pitch 15 and paces in frustration around the mound.

Shot 77

We finally get to see Belt -- heretofore a one-dimensional character driving the action with no visible emotion -- broadened into a full character. The camera gets close on him as he takes a deep breath, then mouths, silently (to us), "Wow." And that's when we get the ball boy payoff: The blur of Jimenez passes in front of Belt once more. And that's when we get the beer payoff: It's now down to its final 2 inches.

The camerawork is also shifting, subtly. As it goes back to Barria for shot No. 78, it holds the head-on pre-pitch view long enough for us to see Barria drive his body toward the mound.

It's the first time we've had that view for that moment, and it's powerful. It shows the amount of labor Barria is going through. It shows how much this must be taking out of him.

Shot 94

Brandon Belt smiles. He smiles!

Shot 97

Center-field camera. The 21st pitch is about to come. Rojas, on Barria: "He's not giving in, either." This, really, is the tagline on the movie poster. Because we're about to learn, the movie was never about Belt, who was "winning" the entire time. It was about Barria, who ultimately, finally, won.

Shot 98

To right field. Kole Calhoun, standing in the fair field of play, is going to catch the ball Belt hit on Pitch 21. The crowd cheers for 13 seconds. The broadcast shows both dugouts applauding the effort. It's our denouement. Belt gets high fives in the dugout; the Angels infielders are smiling on the mound around Barria. And the broadcast goes to our final shot:

A replay of the 21st pitch. It's, in many ways, the least interesting pitch. What made the at-bat special was not the one time Belt hit the ball fair, but the 20 times he didn't. But this replay, in slow motion, holds its gaze on Barria just long enough for us to see the most interesting moment of the entire sequence: As he watches the ball sail into right field, Barria turns, walks off the mound, eyes still on the flight of the ball, and he puts his hands out, palms up, and shrugs his shoulders. It's the most ambivalent pitcher reaction you'll ever see. Who even knows what it means? This sequence does not give us a winner. It gives us a shrug.

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