Breaking down ‘The Saint of Second Chances’: 10 vignettes from the new Netflix doc

Breaking down ‘The Saint of Second Chances’: 10 vignettes from the new Netflix doc

Daniel Brown and Jason Jones
Sep. 19, 2023

It’s called an elevator pitch, and the challenge is to deliver a succinct, compelling overview in a few seconds.

It remains the biggest hurdle for the documentary filmmakers behind “The Saint of Second Chances,” which traces the tumultuous life of baseball raconteur Mike Veeck and premieres Tuesday on Netflix.


Let’s just say that if directors Morgan Neville and Jeff Malmberg had to explain Veeck’s storyline on an elevator ride, it’d better be a tall building, and they’d better light up the button for every floor like Will Ferrell did in “Elf.”

It has father-son pathos. (Veeck is the son of longtime MLB owner Bill Veeck, who was famed for introducing giveaways, theme nights and fireworks to major-league ballparks.) It also has exploding disco records, Chet Lemon inspiring the invention of skyboxes, a massaging nun in the outfield and an amputee who helps revive Darryl Strawberry’s career.

Above all, there’s the death of Mike’s daughter, Rebecca, at age 27. It’s here where the tonal shift in the storytelling somehow leaves viewers inspired despite the tears.

“Being frank about it, it’s a weird film,” Neville said with a laugh. “When people say, ‘Oh, just tell us in a sentence what the film is,’ I’m like, ‘I can’t do that!’”

Neither can we. With that in mind, here are 10 vignettes from “The Saint of Second Chances,” with help from interviews with the key participants.


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‘Every one of us has a Rebecca’

When the idea of the movie came up, Mike’s wife, Libby, took a reasonable stance: Anything that happened before they met was his business.

“But Rebecca is both of our business,’’ Mike said.

Libby put her foot down when it came to sharing the story of their daughter, whose brilliance and creativity prompted Mike to describe her as “my father incarnate.”

“They had a great courage,” he said. “The physical resemblance — the blue eyes, the blonde hair, the kind of puckish manner — it was all there.”

Rebecca had Batten disease, a rare fatal neurological disorder with no cure. She died in 2019 after cracking one last joke and slipping into a coma.

Mike Veeck with his daughter, Rebecca. (Courtesy of Netflix)

Libby considered the topic “too raw” to address with a mass audience, but she changed her mind after an eventful lunch at an oyster restaurant near her family’s home in Charleston, S.C. That’s where Neville, an Academy Award winner for the film “20 Feet From Stardom,” and Malmberg, who directed multi-award winner “Marwencol,” demonstrated their commitment to telling Rebecca’s story with dignity and respect.


After a screening in Nantucket, Mass., a woman approached Libby and asked if she could hug her.

“She said, ‘I’m a pediatrician, and I just want to tell you how uplifting this story is.’ That changed everything for me because Libby relaxed for the first time,’’ Mike said. “People leave (the film), I think, with an idea that this is what happens to all of us.

“You can have your daughter die and feel you were singled out or that it’s so much tougher on you. But it’s not. Every one of us has a Rebecca, and when she comes on the screen — when she bursts on the screen — that’s what people think about. I think it touches that in every one of us.

“I’ve cried for the last 15 minutes all five times I’ve seen the movie. I don’t know if that will get easier over time, but (the filmmakers) caught her spirit, you know?”

Unlikely origin story

Fifteen years ago, Neville was driving around Tennessee shooting another documentary when he turned his radio to the “Motley Fool” show on NPR. He heard some guy spinning baseball yarns.

“He was an amazing storyteller,’’ Neville said. “I don’t remember any specific story. I just remember his enthusiasm about being an evangelist for fun.”

Neville was so mesmerized that when he got to his destination, he remained in his car until he could hear the guest’s name. He scribbled it down and reached out via Mike Veeck’s personal website.

“We started corresponding, and it was just a ‘we should do something someday’ kind of thing,’’ Neville said. “And here we are 15 years later, with a film.”


Being the son of an owner had its obvious perks for Mike. But he was also aware of how others viewed him and what it was like to be seen as a privileged son.

“I understood early on that I was a hated breed,” he said. “And we should be. Just because you’re born into it doesn’t mean you have any talent.”


As the film shows, Mike did all he could to fit in, given his status.

“I worked office hours,” he said. “And then I went and worked at Comiskey (Park) with the grounds crew, cleaning the whole ballpark out.

“I could never outthink anybody. I was never the smartest person in the room, but nobody could outwork me. I knew that that was the way to establish myself. It was just working hard.”

The success Mike has had in his career he attributes to the mindset of being the owner’s son and how it helped him with his work ethic.

“It was the No. 1 influence on my career in shaping it, after creativity and joy,” he said.

Boxes in the sky

Skyboxes aren’t out of the norm in today’s sporting venues. When Mike thought of the idea as a way to generate the revenue to re-sign Chicago White Sox outfielder Chet Lemon, it was hardly something he thought of as groundbreaking.

He didn’t even have a name for them. They didn’t have bathrooms. They were actually the old press boxes from when the Chicago Cardinals played at Comiskey.

“It sold out in three days, and we didn’t even have a name for it,” Mike said. “They came to me one day and they go, ‘Hey, I just sold one of these; what’s it called?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, call it a skybox.’ So that was how it was, just by the seat of the pants.”

Malmberg said: “I’m not sure how proud Mike is of the fact that he basically invented the skybox out of sheer desperation.”

The skyboxes paid off down the road for other teams. It wasn’t just a means to re-sign one player. It became a major source of revenue.

“Joe Robbie took it and financed building a whole stadium with skyboxes,” Mike said. “I wasn’t smart enough to figure that out.”

Those suites in Florida at what is now Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins, range from $18,000 to $50,000.

Outfield theatrics

Bill Veeck introduced fireworks exploding from the outfield scoreboard as a way to commemorate home runs at Comiskey. The idea can be traced back to his wife, Mary.


“My dad was at a play with my mother,” Mike said. “The last scene of this particular play was a pinball machine that just kind of exploded. It was a theatrical experience. Dad watched that and applied it to the scoreboard.”

Mike calls fireworks the “most universal” of his father’s “gags.”

“Whether we like the game, we hate the game, whatever it is, people are childlike when it comes to fireworks,” Mike said. “And it was such a unifier, you know, except for the other teams. They hated it. But usually it’s the childlike wonder of, ‘Isn’t this marvelous?’”

Baseball’s ‘Big Fish’

As an inspiration for their baseball movies, the filmmakers turned not to “Field of Dreams” or “Bull Durham” but to the Tim Burton fantasy drama, “Big Fish.’’ In that film, a frustrated son tries to distinguish fact from fiction in the life of his father, the teller of tales.

That’s why they parked Mike in a Chicago bar, had him look directly into the camera and turned him loose.

“Mike is a yarn spinner, so, like, embrace the fable of it,’’ Malmberg said. “He’s kind of nudging you. He’s that guy that you don’t know — but does he know you? Because he’s telling you this fabulous story, and you don’t want it to stop. Maybe you don’t believe it all.

“Once we sort of latched onto that aspect of Mike, I think that’s where it starts to blossom.”

Purposefully, the fact-checking was less than rigorous. Did Mike Veeck really have a 25-by-25-foot wall of negative press clippings to motivate him? Let’s not overthink it. Did co-workers really throw up in the hallways of Comiskey because they were disgusted by his presence? Probably only in Mike’s imagination.

And that “Owner’s Son” T-shirt that Mike wore when Bill hired him to work for the White Sox? That has to be fiction, right?

“No, he did, actually!” Malmberg confirmed. “That was just an extrapolation of him knowing internally how people would react. It was sort of a punk-rock move to just say, ‘This is what you were all thinking of me.’’’

Darryl Strawberry rediscovers his joy

The story of Strawberry and Dave Stevens, the only minor leaguer ever to play without legs, is a highlight of the film. That friendship played a key role in Strawberry’s participation.


“They’re still friends,” Malmberg said. “It was kind of hard to get Darryl to come and tell these stories. When he heard that Dave was (involved), he didn’t hesitate.”

Strawberry, an eight-time MLB All-Star and three-time World Series champion, had become disenchanted with baseball by the time he played with the minor-league St. Paul (Minn.) Saints in 1996 in an attempt to rehabilitate after testing positive for cocaine the year before. He revived his career in St. Paul at age 34, belting 18 homers over just 29 games, batting .435 with a 1.538 on-base plus slugging.

Darryl Strawberry briefly played for the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints in 1996. (Courtesy of Netflix)

He would go on from the Saints to join the New York Yankees and that season win the second of his three World Series rings.

“What he really did was rediscover his love of the game,” Mike said.

Strawberry also discovered a friend in Stevens. A congenital amputee, Stevens was a three-sport athlete (baseball, football and wrestling) at Wickenburg High in Arizona. He played those same three sports at Augsburg College (now Augsburg University) in Minneapolis before winning seven Emmys as a sports broadcasting professional.

Stevens’ enthusiasm is contagious, then and now, and in the documentary, Strawberry clearly gravitated toward him.

“He was really a happy-go-lucky guy who’s been through a lot,” Mike said. “I think that had a huge impact on Darryl. When you see Dave Stevens, I mean, what do you say? How bad a day are you really having?”

Charlie Day gets the ‘anger’ right

Charlie Day (best known as Charlie from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) portrays young Mike Veeck in several re-enactments, mostly from the White Sox days. Day did so without ever consulting with the real Mike but somehow nails the role, according to the vote that counts.

“I thought it was remarkable,” Mike said. “When I do meet him, what I’m gonna ask him is, ‘How did you get that chip on your shoulder down?’ I mean, he’s too good-lookin’ to play me, but he got the anger perfectly. He must have watched enough tape or interviews to pick up on this.”

Neville and Malmberg said they settled fairly quickly on using re-creations for key scenes, having done so to great effect in “Shangri-LA,” a documentary series about music producer Rick Rubin.

Day was the first person they approached about playing Mike.

“And as it turns out, he played baseball, and he’s a huge sports fan,’’ Neville said. “He’s a documentary fan, and it took him no time to say yes.”

Jeff Daniels sounds like baseball, shoes and pants

Jeff Daniels, the genial veteran actor, narrates the documentary. Asked about what Daniels’ voice adds to the film, Mike recalled the time he wrote for a short-lived baseball magazine called “The 108.” The title refers to the number of stitches on a baseball.

“That’s what I think Daniels is. I think he ties the whole thing together in a way that would never have occurred to me,’’ Mike said. “It’s like those shoes that you always love and that pair of slacks that are rumpled and don’t look very good but are comfortable. I think that’s a tremendous, understated, powerful performance.”

Film therapy

Even though Libby had reservations about the documentary, Mike said the project was definitely worth it. Watching it makes him emotional, but it’s been good for him.

“Everybody’s life, we never realized the subtle impacts we’re having constantly,” Mike said. “That’s kind of an interesting thing, but a two-edged sword.”

He was able to see Libby in a different light: “I watched my wife be so calm compared to the rest of us, saying, ‘You know, he had made a lot of mistakes.’”

And then, there was his son, Night Train. (Yes, his real name is Night Train. Dad thought that would be a cool deal on the playground. Who wouldn’t want to pick Night Train on their team?)

Night Train showed some levity discussing growing up with Mike as his father.

“I watched my son be really funny in some of the lines,” Mike said.

There are moments of laughter and sadness when discussing Rebecca. We see her joy and sense of humor. We also see Mike hit with the emotions of talking about Rebecca.

“The moment that I see Rebecca on camera or on film and I remember the courage that she had and the dignity with which she died,” Mike said. “It makes me want to live up to her memory and be as courageous a person as she was.”

(Illustration: Sam Richardson / The Athletic; photos courtesy of Netflix)

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