Sample shifts talents from diamond to big screen
Former big leaguer's movie, about players' reunion, soon to be out in limited release
He had been warned. When he was kicking around the idea of making a movie, former big leaguer Billy Sample sought advice from a couple of big-time friends. One was Larry Meistrich, the award-winning film producer (including Sling Blade, with Billy Bob Thornton), who told him his idea was "really ambitious."
Which, of course, was a polite way of suggesting that he was out of his mind.
Then again, the odds against making it to the Major Leagues are long. And Sample had a solid .272 career average in a nine-year career with the Rangers, Braves and Yankees. So he plunged ahead.
The result? "Reunion 108," the story of two generations of players who won championships with the fictional Minor League Alpakas, who come together years later and begin swapping stories and comparing their experiences. It's expected to go into limited release after the All-Star break.
Sample, 58, wrote the script, raised the money and plays the role of Mombo, one of the older players. He helped with the auditions and directing, and now he's involved in the distribution. His sons, Ian and Travis, have scenes, as does his daughter, Nikki.
"I had a finite amount of money I thought I could get," Sample said. "I could max this out, max that out, extend the home equity and then hopefully get some investors to go along with me to cover the cost. I think what happens is that people who are 35 years old and younger have only known baseball players to make multimillion dollars."
Put it this way: The highest salary Sample ever made, with the Yankees in 1986, was less than what is now the Major League minimum.
With the movie's budget at $200,000, Sample apologized to some cast members for how little he was able to pay them. Still, he was able to assemble a quality cast of actors, including Jack Mulcahy (Porky's, The Brothers McMullen). He's particularly proud that the IMDb page for the movie estimated the cost, based on its production values, at $5 million.
"It's good. It's funny," Sample said of the finished product, which is bawdy, offbeat, occasionally sarcastic and even educational, and which will almost certainly get a R rating. "We had two screenings in April where the cast and crew and other filmmakers attended, and everybody seemed to like it. The feedback was great. I was really impressed with the acting. It was people creating something out of nothing; just took the script and ran with it.
"For some people working on day rates, to get that kind of commitment was really impressive. I think they felt we were on to something that was a little different -- that at the very least, we'll have a cult movie, especially for young adults. When I was putting it together, when I was writing it, I had young people in the back of my mind, because they're the ones who go to the movies. And even though we have a lot of older actors in it, we still have, I think, a lot of the themes and the humor that would be equally appreciated up and down the age spectrum. But even more so for younger people.
"The baseball scenes are really short, but it's not really about baseball, anyway. It's a baseball backdrop, but it's more about relationships and what goes on inside the clubhouse. It has a little bit of a fly-on-the-clubhouse-wall [feeling], where I brought people into what could be someone's clubhouse."
Sample, who was a psychology major at James Madison University, put a lot of himself into this film. In fact, of the 13 flashback scenes, four are based on personal experiences and all but one of the rest are based on actual events.
Sample has always had an interest in the media. After his career ended, he worked as a broadcaster for the Braves, Angels and Mariners. (Full disclosure: He worked at MLB.com for eight years.) He's been widely published, including in USA Today and Sports Illustrated, so maybe a movie was the next logical step.
When Sample started writing the screenplay in early 2011, he "had notes all over the house." Putting the script together took about six months. He submitted it to the Hoboken Film Festival, where it took the prize for "Best Unproduced Screenplay." At that point he might have thought the hardest part was behind him. It wasn't.
One stadium location fell through at the last moment. Post-production was delayed because he had to find more cash. Only one distributor showed an interest, then decided to pass. The list went on. Every time he thought he'd reached the finish line, the line moved a little farther into the distance.
Now, though, the end is in sight, and Sample is cautiously optimistic.
"It's a pleasant anticipation," he said. "Everything seems to be moving forward, but I've had so many speed bumps, I'm always wary of them. If I get one more good break, then I'm probably closing in on ecstatic. I can see everything coming to fruition."
And when that happens, he can officially add "filmmaker" to his resume. He already has other projects in mind.
"My thinking was, if we can do this, make a little money, then it will afford us the opportunity to stay in the business," he said. "Ian likes to write. I like to write. It would establish some credibility. So that was our big goal. Now, right now our big goal looks like it's about five years away. Then again, if I got real lucky and everything came together ..."
He laughed again. He's on the verge of seeing his movie shown in theaters. Now he can fully appreciate what his friend was trying to tell him at the beginning. No matter what happens next, he has beaten daunting odds.
Just like playing in the big leagues.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.