Hailed as a milestone in baseball cinema for its visual poetry, but scorned for debasing Barnard Malamud's classic novel,

The Natural

on DVD is now a slightly longer, somewhat better movie.

But the reason to get this director's cut, two-disc version, released this month, is the many extras that when combined create a separate full-length documentary that is better than the film.

Included is a first-rate three-part documentary on the making of the film, and one is devoted to Malamud and features his daughter as she recounts how her father's story led him to write the book and what he thought of the film. Also good are having cinematographer Caleb Deschanel discuss how he lighted the scenes and composer Randy Newman talk about his elegiac score. Screenwriters Phil Dusenberry and Robert Towne outline the adaptation process (Dusenberry recalls how President Reagan asked him why that woman shoots Roy Hobbs).

From interviews with cast members and director Barry Levinson to a segment on the man whose tragedy inspired the book, Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, the extras practically offer a course on moviemaking.

In trying to get The Natural finished for its May 11, 1984, opening, Levinson said his cut was rushed, and now it's closer to the vision he "intended."

Robert Redford's Hobbs was going to be the greatest ballplayer who ever lived, but, while traveling, he meets a disturbed woman who has been killing celebrated athletes. After she watches Hobbs strike out a character modeled on Babe Ruth, she turns her gun on Hobbs in a hotel room - similar to how Waitkus was shot by an obsessed teenage woman.

Sixteen years later, in 1939, Hobbs joins the last-place New York Knights. Its manager, Pops (Wilford Brimley), was co-owner but needed to sell shares to a partner, the Judge (Robert Prosky); if the Knights don't win the pennant, the Judge gets control of the team, which means the end of Pops.

Hobbs becomes the league's best hitter, but it's the off-field playing that pushes the film: Will Hobbs give in to temptation (money and Kim Basinger) or chose the right path (honesty and Glenn Close).

Levinson has revised the opening; instead of scenes from Hobbs' childhood - playing catch with his father, making his own bat - happening chronologically, they're now remembrances by Redford as he proceeds via train to New York, which better illustrate what he's lost. There's new footage on how Hobbs' past will always find him and on the bond between him and his father. These make the film better structured.

Watching Redford's performance again, I now think it is better than I remembered: Hobbs keeps everything close to his chest. While he has achieved his dream of playing in the big leagues, he knows it could all end in a minute if his story gets out. Such a character would be as low-key as Redford portrays him.

The filmmakers admit they were making a "fable" and "fairy tale" of the story. This explains the simplicity that is annoying: The bad women wear black; the good woman wears white; one player (a Knight, no less) inspires and leads his team from last to first place.

Redford, Close and Prosky share memories of the production.

The first DVD release had liner notes on Waitkus. Here, there's an entire chapter devoted to his story, which includes poignant memories from his son. While he physically recovered, the post-traumatic syndrome and its accompanying depression caught up with him.

The Natural didn't become the "great American film" of "the great American game." No movie could; baseball is too layered, too wide-ranging for one movie to capture its essence. The extras, however, bat 1.000, and remind us of the joy of the game and the joy of the movies - a terrific doubleheader!

The Natural (Director's Cut)

With Robert Redford, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Kim Basinger, Wilford Brimley, Richard Farnsworth and Robert Prosky.

Price: $24.94 (two discs)

Parent's Guide: Unrated

The extras: **** Documentaries on author Bernard Malamud; interviews with baseball authors, scholars, journalists, fans and players; mythological references in the film; the story of the Phillies' Eddie Waitkus, and Cal Ripken Jr. on "The Heart of the Natural."

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