The film follows the perfect game performance of an aging star baseball pitcher, Billy Chapel, as he deals with the pressures of pitching in Yankee Stadium in his final outing by calming himself with memories about a long term relationship with Jane Aubrey.
The play-by-play of the game is announced by longtime Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers baseball broadcaster Vin Scully, who himself has called four perfect games in his career, and Steve Lyons.
The Detroit Tigers travel to New York to play a season-ending series against the New York Yankees. At 63–97, the team has long since been eliminated from playoff contention and are playing for nothing but pride against the Yankees, who have a chance to clinch the American League East with a win. For 40-year-old pitcher Billy Chapel, however, this may end up being the most significant 24 hours of his life.
In his Manhattan hotel suite, Billy awaits his girlfriend Jane Aubrey, but she doesn't show. Jane is also a single mother with a teenage daughter Heather that Billy got to know. The next morning, Billy is told by Tigers' owner Gary Wheeler that the team has been sold and that the new owners' first move will be to end Billy's 19-year tenure with the Tigers by trading him to the San Francisco Giants. Billy also learns from Jane that she is leaving that same day to accept a job offer in London.
Billy is a famous, accomplished pitcher, but has a losing record this season, is near the end of his career and is also recovering from a hand injury. Wheeler hints that Billy should consider retiring rather than join another team. As he goes to Yankee Stadium to make his last start of the year, Billy begins reflecting about Jane, detailing how they met five years prior. These flashbacks are interspersed within the game, along with glimpses of Jane watching the game on a television at the airport.
As the game progresses, with friend and catcher Gus Sinski aware that something is on Billy's mind other than baseball, Billy dominates the Yankees' batters, often talking to himself on how to pitch each one. While in the dugout resting between innings, Billy also reflects how his relationship with Jane was strained by his shutting her out of his life after he suffered a career-threatening injury in the off-season. The pain of pitching is getting worse as the game goes on.
Billy is so caught up in his thoughts that he does not realize he is pitching a perfect game until he looks at the scoreboard in the bottom of the eighth inning. Gus confirms that no one has reached base, and says that the whole team is rallying behind Billy to do whatever it takes to keep the perfect game bid alive. Billy's shoulder pain has become intense by this point, and after he throws his first two pitches of the inning well out of the strike zone, Tigers manager Frank Perry makes the call to warm up two relief pitchers in the bullpen. The count goes to 3–0 before Billy recalls pitching to his father (now deceased) in the back yard. He rallies and throws a strike, then gets the batter out on the next pitch.
Before the Tigers take the field for the bottom of the ninth inning, Billy has final ruminations about his career and his love for Jane. He autographs a baseball for Wheeler, who has been like a father to him for many years. Along with a signature at the end, Billy inscribes the ball with "Tell them I'm through. For love of the game."
After finishing the perfect game, Billy sits alone in his hotel room as the realization sinks in that everything he has been and done for the past 19 years is over. Despite his amazing accomplishment, Billy weeps not only for the loss of baseball, but for the other love of his life, Jane.
The next morning, Billy goes to the airport to inquire about a flight for London. Jane had missed her flight the night before so she could watch the end of his perfect game. Finding her there waiting for her plane, they embrace and reconcile.
The pitching coach who prepared Costner for this role was former New York Yankees/Milwaukee Brewers middle reliever, Mike Buddie. Buddie also had a small speaking role in the film as the character Jack Spellman.
The Yankees manager is played by Augie Garrido, former head coach of the University of Texas Longhorns. Garrido is the former head baseball coach of California State University Fullerton, which is Costner's alma mater.In the opening credits, a newspaper headline says that "Billy Chapel dominates Game 1 of the 1984 World Series". In real life the starting pitcher of game one for the Tigers was Jack Morris.
No Tigers pitcher has ever pitched a perfect game.
Although filming took place prior to the 1999 season, the movie correctly picked the Yankees to win the division with the Boston Red Sox in second place. The movie also nearly correctly determined the Tigers' final record of 69–92. In the movie, the Tigers record is 64–97, with one game to play.
In the next to the last game of the actual 1999 season, the Tigers were playing in Kansas City against the Royals. The Tigers lost 9–5.
In the scene where Billy first meets Jane in New York in 1994, she makes a reference that summer was over and that she had missed it. The only games that the Tigers played in New York that season were in April, due to the 1994–95 Major League Baseball strike.
In the film, fictional Tigers outfielder Mickey Hart makes a great catch in the 8th inning to keep Billy's perfect game alive. This is redemption for Hart, as earlier in the film there is a flashback to an embarrassing play where a fly ball bounced off his head and over the outfield wall for a home run. The humorous play was said to have defined his career to that point. The play is nearly identical to one that occurred in the 1993 Major League Baseball season, to then Texas Rangers outfielder Jose Canseco.
In reality, baseball players that have spent 10 years in the major leagues and their last 5 years with the same team have the right to block any trade. As Chapel had spent 18+ years with the Tigers, he could have refused a trade if he chose.
The film received mixed reviews from critics. For Love of the Game has a 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 93 reviews. In Roger Ebert's review, he gave the film 1 and a half stars out of 4 writing, "'For Love of the Game' is about the kinds of people who give the wrong answers. It's the most lugubrious and soppy love story in many a moon, a step backward for director Sam Raimi after A Simple Plan, and yet another movie in which Kevin Costner plays a character who has all the right window dressing but is neither juicy nor interesting."
The film opened at #2 with a weekend gross of $13,041,685 from 2,829 theaters for a per venue average of $7,023. Ultimately, For Love of the Game grossed only $35,188,640 domestically and an additional $10,924,000 overseas to a total of $46,112,640 worldwide. Based on an estimated $80 million budget, the film was a box office bomb.
Costner earned a Golden Raspberry Award nomination as Worst Actor for his performance.