On March 12, 2015, Will Ferrell went where only four other men had gone before: Every position in Major League Baseball, in a single day. Of course, Bert Campaneris, César Tovar, Scott Sheldon, and Shane Halter pulled this off over the course of one game—Ferrell dropped into five separate exhibition matches, suiting up for 10 of the 15 MLB squads that conduct their spring training in the Arizona-based Cactus League. Ferrell’s effort was a promotional stunt with a number of motivating factors: The 50th anniversary celebration for Campaneris’ landmark game, a fundraiser for the charity Cancer For College, and the Funny Or Die-HBO co-production Ferrell Takes The Field. With enough advance warning, fans turned out on March 12 to cheer for their teams and the Saturday Night Live alumnus; among the seas of officially licensed team merchandise, Ferrell Takes The Field catches a spectator dressed like Buddy The Elf and a sign co-opting Ferrell’s Anchorman sign-off: “Stay Class, Dodger Fans.”
But the uniforms he wears in the special are more than just another piece of wardrobe, and the nine positions on the baseball diamond aren’t parts in a fictional story. Whatever concessions the MLB may have made for the celebrity, this is for real: When Chicago White Sox designated hitter Will Ferrell steps into the batter’s box, he’s facing live pitches from Jean Machi—and facing potential injury. Because of this, there’s a palpable tension to Ferrell Takes The Field that’s never deflated by the comedy. While goofing on the exaggerated stakes of the average sports doc with its grandiose musical cues and underdog narrative, the special is propelled by its sense of risk. What if a batter smacks a frozen rope back at Ferrell while he’s on the pitcher’s mound? If he can’t hit those 90 mph fastballs, how’s he going to be able to field them as a catcher? What if he takes the sarcastic suggestion of White Sox manager Robin Ventura and allows himself to be hit by a pitch?
To these ends, Ferrell Takes The Field uneasily rides the line between fact and fiction, pure sporting circumstance and manufactured reality. Ferrell can work around the demands of nearly every position he plays, and it’s only when he’s in left field for the Los Angeles Angels that his presence has any bearing on the game—and at that point, the Angels are already taking a beating from the Cincinnati Reds. There’s a touch of Sacha Baron Cohen to the proceedings, but unlike his Talladega Nights co-star, Ferrell let everyone around him in on the act. This reduces the amount of acting required of the athletes he interacts with (that’s good!) and makes his behavior off and on the field seem even stranger (that’s good, too), but it also eliminates all but the remotest potential for honest, outrageous reactions. That’s not bad—it just leaves Ferrell stranded in his own bits. In turn, it leaves his fellow players more bewildered than anything else, interacting with the star like he’s a mascot who’s wandered onto the field in the middle of the action.
At its heart, Ferrell Takes The Field is an underdog story about an underdog who’s not worth rooting for. Taking cues from some of his most notable roles—everyone from Ron Burgundy to Brennan Huff to Eric Jonrosh—the persona he adopts for his day in the majors is convinced of talents he doesn’t possess, and anyone who says otherwise is subject to a temper tantrum. For this reason, the charity angle of his Arizonan road trip is the most important part of the special. The fundraising effort never quite squares with Ferrell’s acerbic performance, and it’s pushed to the opening and closing minutes, but it gives meaning to the shenanigans. Without Cancer For College and Ferrell’s personal connection to its founder, Craig Pollard, Ferrell Takes The Field would be a minor chronicle of eccentric behavior only the hugely famous could pull off, akin to Bill Murray bringing a film crew along the next time he crashes a bachelor party.
At least the energy of the documentary manages to put the joy of Ferrell’s experience above the bluster. Between the broadcast excerpts and play-by-play commentary, Ferrell Takes The Field conveys the excitement of pulling off this massive stunt, a gee-whiz sincerity that comes through even when the star is acting like the helicopter parked in center field is part of a day’s work for a major leaguer. The special never forgets the actual scale of this undertaking, whether it’s throwing to the map of the five ballparks on the travel itinerary or inserting wide shots of the crowds that turned out to see the movie star meet the all-stars. In this sense, Ferrell’s faux-bravado is justified, even as his anti-feats of non-athleticism are juxtaposed with archival footage of actual achievements by Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, or Kirk Gibson. Ferrell Takes The Field gets its sense of humor by way of perspective.
Then again, there’s always that threat of injury to keep things interesting. Ferrell’s belief that a 47-year-old can jump start a Major League Baseball career might be fake, but his physical reaction to connecting with one of Machi’s pitches is nothing but real. Later, he gets to beam with genuine pride about making contact with the ball during a Major League Baseball at-bat, but in the moment, there’s a lot of pain behind that pride—and the moment is what Ferrell Takes The Field is all about.