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For Love of the Game

O.K., movie fans. We're down to the final frames of ''For Love of the Game,'' and the big questions are still unanswered.

Is Kevin Costner as 40-year-old Billy Chapel of the Detroit Tigers, with 19 major league seasons and more than 4,000 pitches on his frayed, pain-ravaged right arm, going to complete a perfect game in front of more than 56,000 fans at Yankee Stadium on the last day of the season?

And will Billy Chapel realize before it is too late and she flies off to a new job in London that Kelly Preston as Jane Aubrey, talented magazine writer and editor and plucky single mom, is the love of his life?

But before we answer these questions and find out if the imperfect man wins his perfect game or exchanges his passion for baseball for a passion for Jane, first a time out.

Not to sell you a beer or a four-wheel drive vehicle but to tell all those guys out there who decided on the basis of the trailers and commercials that ''For Love of the Game'' was a baseball movie that Universal Pictures has tossed you a noon-to-6 curve.

''For Love of the Game'' is a baseball movie the way ''You've Got Mail'' was a movie about the retail book business.

But while you're standing there, frozen, jaws gaping, ponder this good news and bad news: ''For Love of the Game'' is two movies for the price of one: a baseball story and a big, gooey romance. You know, a date movie.

Yes, deep down, or au fond as the romantic French say, ''For Love of the Game,'' directed by Sam Raimi (''A Simple Plan'') is really about the love of a difficult man for a good woman.

The baseball story, thanks to Mr. Costner's athletic credibility (see ''Bull Durham'' and ''Field of Dreams'') and a complement of real ballplayers like Ricky Ledee, Dave Eiland and Juan Nieves, umpires like Rich Garcia and Jerry Crawford and other professionals, works better than the romance. Taken together, they add up to routine entertainment, because the overloaded love story doesn't strike sparks or really tug the heartstrings, and the script by Dana Stevens pivots on behavior that sometimes seems more convenient than character-driven and has some ludicrous lines.

Underlying the story of Billy Chapel's crucial game is the story of his five-year romance with Jane Aubrey, seen in flashbacks as the star pitcher tries to coax one more win out of a worn-out arm while Vin Scully as the television announcer invests the proceedings with the prose poetry of the national pastime. And as Chapel battles the batters, he is also harboring the news that the team on which he has spent his adult life is being sold by family ownership to a corporation that plans to trade him as fast as it can. Is it time to quit?

In the let-'em-meet cute onset of the romance, Chapel, driving a Porsche convertible while on a Tigers' visit to New York, picks up Jane at the side of a road, where she is venting her fury on her broken-down VW. At first unaware of Chapel's fame, Ms. Preston, playing the role of winsome woman that in recent years has seemed to be the property of Meg Ryan, rapidly succumbs to his charms. And so begins a now-and-then relationship that gradually deepens and then shatters in the face of Chapel's self-absorption and refusal to acknowledge any emotional need except for his profession.

''This can only end bloody for me, Billy,'' Jane tells him at one point.

So as the big game begins, Jane is at Kennedy Airport, ready to begin a new life in a new country.

John C. Reilly contributes neatly humorous support as Gus Sinski, the stubbled catcher whose concern for the pitcher prompts Chapel to call him the ugliest wife in baseball. And Jena Malone brings honesty to her portrayal of the daughter born when Jane was only 16.

But filmmaking, like baseball, is a team game, and sometimes even a talented lineup produces unexceptional results.