Richard Linklater Still Dreams of Playing the Outfield

 Photograph by Jeff Riedel

One spring day a few years back, Richard Linklater walked out of the dugout during a University of Texas baseball scrimmage and made his way to right field. He was filming Inning by Inning, a documentary about the legendary Longhorns coach Augie Garrido, who wanted to see what the director himself could do on the field.

Linklater had been a promising high school prospect — "the kind of outfielder who could get to everything," in his estimation — but was now in his forties and had not played for two decades. And yet when one of the Longhorns hit a shot into the right-field alley, Linklater took off, sprinting with his head down, trusting that intuition would lead him to the right spot. "It never left, man," Linklater said. "I called off the center fielder and was like, 'I got it.' "

Linklater was recounting his athletic exploits one recent afternoon at a sandlot field near his office in Austin. It was a warm day, but he wore jeans and a denim cowboy shirt. He sported a middle-aged version of the floppy hairdo that was popular in his time as a college baseball player in the early '80s, when Linklater aspired to be the first major leaguer with a career as a serious novelist. "I failed on both fronts," he said.

Instead, Linklater has become Hollywood's Hall of Fame utility player, capable of occupying any position on the directorial field. Over the past three decades, he has made critically lauded films that range from experimental (Slacker) to comedy (The School of Rock) to animated drama (A Scanner Darkly), while filming the Before trilogy of movies, which follows the ups and downs of a couple over the course of two decades, and a single film (Boyhood) that took 12 years to make.

His new movie, Everybody Wants Some, is a comedy about a college baseball team much like his own, and a "spiritual successor" to his '90s cult classic Dazed and Confused. And though Linklater shies away from calling Everybody Wants Some a baseball movie, the film was forged by his time in the batter's box.

Walking across the sandlot infield in Austin, he spotted a 315 ft. sign down the left-field line and paused. "That fence looks real short," he said, pulling his arms back and swinging through an imaginary baseball. "Part of me still has the mentality that I can just pull one down the line."

A pivotal scene in Boyhood, for which Linklater earned best director, picture, and original screenplay Oscar nominations, takes place at an Astros game, during which a father tries to impart his love of sports to an unenthusiastic son. This was never an issue for Linklater. He played quarterback in high school, in Huntsville, Texas, but he truly excelled on the diamond, hitting .400 in three straight seasons. Before his senior year, Linklater moved with his father to Houston to play baseball at Bellaire High School. Linklater's teammates included six future pros, but he quickly cracked the starting lineup. "I was the guy who just got on base and beat your ass," Linklater said. "I'd walk, steal second, steal third, and score on a little pop-up. I was that guy."

In fact, Linklater was teenage royalty: letter jacket, expensive car stereo, girlfriends plural. But his feelings toward high school were manifested in Pink, the jock from Dazed, who memorably declared, "If I ever start referring to these as the best years of my life, remind me to kill myself." Linklater had an artistic side, and the move to Houston had the unexpected benefit of opening up a wider world. His grandmother took him to museums and the symphony, and he would see movies weeks before they got to Huntsville. "I went to see Eraserhead on a double date," he said. "I couldn't do that in a small town."

But he was still a jock, and his ticket to college was a baseball scholarship to Sam Houston State. The team was stocked with pro prospects, including future Phillies All-Star Glenn Wilson, but by his sophomore year Linklater was the team's starting left fielder and number three hitter. At the same time, however, he had discovered other interests. He took a course in playwriting and dated an actress he met while installing her air conditioner. During one scrimmage, Linklater remembers standing in the outfield thinking, "I kinda want to be reading Dostoyevsky instead."

He got his wish. During the team's final preseason game, Linklater started feeling inexplicably light-headed. A doctor determined that he had a heart arrhythmia, which meant his baseball career was over. "For the first time in my life, I wasn't in practice, and I suddenly had afternoons," Linklater said. He spent the rest of the year shutting down the library and more or less gave up baseball. When the school year ended, Linklater went to work on an oil rig in the Gulf and never came back.

Linklater had largely learned baseball from a series of "Vietnam vet, drill-sergeant guys." But when it came to filmmaking, he taught himself, reading technical manuals and making short films that focused on a particular aspect of the craft — one about camera work, another about lighting — as if he were a rookie working on his bunting in spring training. The deeper he got, the more he felt hopelessly behind. "I spent a decade catching up," he said.

Eventually he did. Slacker, released in 1991, became a visual touchstone for the Nirvana generation, followed quickly by Dazed and Before Sunrise. Those films earned him serious art-house cred, but it wasn't until he directed a remake of Bad News Bears, in 2005 — Billy Bob Thornton called him "the best-hitting director" in Hollywood — that anyone in the film world found out that one of its budding artistes was a former jock.

By that point, Linklater had begun letting baseball back into his life. He now lives on 49 acres outside Austin. In his late thirties, as part of "my own midlife thing," he decided to buy a pitching machine. Garrido, the coach at the University of Texas, sometimes invited Linklater and his friend Matthew McConaughey to batting practice, and when Boyhood came out, Linklater threw out the first pitch at an Astros game. "I made up in control what I lost in arm strength," he said.

All the while he was working on the script about his college baseball experience. When he showed a team photo to one of his daughters, who had asked if he remembered anything about his teammates, Linklater said, "Not only do I remember, I can tell you everything about them."

As in the movie, Linklater and his teammates lived off campus in two run-down houses they dubbed Amityville East and West. Pretty much everything that appears in the movie actually happened, Linklater told me, including the scene in which the team's freshmen are duct-taped to the outfield wall and used as batting-practice targets. "We were just a bunch of competitive assholes about everything." The movie includes hard-fought contests of pinball, foosball, pool, ping-pong, living-room basketball, and a challenge to see who can take the deepest hit from a bong. Filmmaking, Linklater remembers thinking, "had a much healthier mentality."

Still, Linklater's sports background is hardly a secret to his actors. Before filming, he puts his performers through one rehearsal after another, treating them like baseball players perfecting their swings, fastballs, and slides. "Like a good athletic coach, he knows how to put you into position to do what you do well," Ethan Hawke, who has worked with Linklater for more than two decades, told New York magazine. Adds Linklater: "There's definitely a coach-director correlation. You're not the performer — you're trying to bring out the best in others."

These days, Linklater's connection to baseball is limited to the occasional Astros game or a session with the pitching machine. A few years ago, Linklater and his teammates at Sam Houston State met for a reunion, during which he was pleased to find that his pitching-machine workouts had paid off: During an informal home-run derby, Linklater won the distance competition. For a moment he felt like a young player fantasizing about the pros. "It crossed my mind, like, 'I can still hit. I got good eyes. God, I've got a couple of years of eligibility,' " he said. But he quickly recognized that some dreams are better left unrealized. "Baseball is cruel. I remember in high school crying a couple of times — you have a bad game, you let the team down," he said. "Movies never made me cry."

Reeves Wiedeman wrote about a whiskey heist in Kentucky in the March 2016 issue.