Monday, May 8, 2017

Reeling Backward: "Major League" (1989)

My affection for baseball movies is a puzzle, even to me. I don't care for the sport at all, but it's rendered a lot of great fictional legends over the years. Perhaps it's because you only see tiny snippets of the game, and just the interesting stuff.

Baseball may be the most boring sport, but perhaps precisely because the mind wanders so much, it's the one that best lends itself to storytelling.

I never got around to seeing "Major League" at the time, and had little interest. It seemed like a big, dumb, crude movie about and for jocks. In a lot of ways it's the apotheosis of "Bull Durham," which came out a year earlier and was more my speed. That film was about people who happened to be connected by minor league ball; it was very much of baseball but not about baseball.

"Major League" was a big hit that spawned two sequels and has become embedded in the lore of baseball in a way that hasn't really happened with football or basketball flicks. Players and broadcasters frequently reference the film, such as catcher David Ross filming a tribute upon the movie's 25th anniversary in which he played most of the major roles himself.

It launched or buoyed a lot of careers. "Wild Thing," aka Ricky Vaughn, probably remains Charlie Sheen's most memorable role as the oddly coifed badboy pitcher who eats a big slice of humble pie when he's made to wear dweeby glasses to improve his control issues. It made Wesley Snipes, playing Willie Mays Hayes, the speedster base-stealer, such a big star to the extent he declined to appear in the sequel.

This was also the period of Peak Corbin Bernson, who specialized in playing well-groomed, blond preppy dicks, most notably on TV's "L.A. Law." Here he's Roger Dorn, the highest-paid and sole marquee player on a team of misfits and has-beens. Tom Berenger, already a big star, bought a few more years in the spotlight as Jake Taylor, a broken-down veteran given one last shot at the majors before his balky knees give out.

Dennis Haysbert and Renee Russo both made their big-screen debuts (other than tiny cameos) at age 35 in "Major League," and have gone on to long and productive film and television careers. He played Pedro Cerrano, the voodoo-worshiping power hitter who has trouble with the curve; she was Lynn Wells, Jake's spunky ex- and, he hopes, future wife.

Bob Uecker plays the Indians' play-by-play announcer, Harry Doyle, who generously tips a bottle of bourbon into his coffee, and tries to spin gold to the mostly-empty seats.

Probably the unlikeliest career boost was to James Gammon, the (now) famously gravelly voiced manager of the team. The rare cameraman-turned-actor, Gammon bounced around for years playing cowboys and tough guys. With that iconic voice, which sounds like a motorized purr, and authoritative mien, Gammon would go on to a very busy career in the 1990s and aughts, doing movies, plays, television ("Nash Bridges") and voice work ("The Iron Giant").

Gammon steals pretty much every scene he's in, and "Major League" remains his signature role.

(A personal aside and missed opportunity: Gammon owned a horse ranch in the Ocala, Fla., area while I was a reporter and later entertainment editor at the Ocala Star-Banner. I tried to hook up with him a number of times for an interview, but he preferred his privacy when not working. He died at age 70 in 2010.)

The plot from writer/director David S. Ward is a pretty typical sports underdog story: the beloved owner of the Cleveland Indians passes away of old age, and his spoiled bitch trophy wife (Margaret Whitton), a former Las Vegas showgirl, decides to decamp the organization to Miami for warmer pastures and a huge, modern stadium built with local tax dollars.

(The Miami Marlins would, of course, go on to do just that four years later.)

Her contract with the MLB says she can move the team if attendance falls below 800,000 people for the season. So the roster is packed with newbies, problem children, creaky old minor-leaguers, wannabes and never-beens. The plan is to tank the season, drive the fans away and say hello to ocean breezes.

Gammon plays Lou Brown, manager of the minor league Toledo Mud Hens, brought in to run the circus into the ground. When he first fields the phone call with the offer, Lou is at his off-season job, running the service desk at a local tire shop; he puts the Indians' general manager on hold to haggle with a customer about some whitewalls.

Even if you haven't seen the movie, I think we all know how this turns out: after a run of comedically atrocious performances, the ragtag team starts to gel, overcomes cultural differences and personal beefs to make an unexpected run at the title. The villainous owner buckles down even harder, trading in their team jet for an aged propeller plane and later a smoke-filled bus, but that only brings them closer together.

In perhaps the film's most famous bit, Lou Brown places a life-size cutout of the owner in the locker room, promising to remove one piece of clothing for every win. They make it to the big game, facing off against their longtime rivals the New York Yankees, as the last piece is removed to reveal her pastie-covered woobies.

Interestingly, for what's remembered as a bawdy comedy, this is the closest we come to any female nudity in the film -- though there's male asses aplenty.

The side plot stuff is pretty lame, mostly revolving around dalliances with women. Ricky is seduced by a strange woman who turns out to be Dorn's wife, seeking revenge for his brazen philandering. Their inter-team squabble plays out literally during the down moments of the championship game. (It's never really explained why self-styled badass Ricky is afraid of the team dandy, the guy who won't sacrifice his body to shag a ground ball.)

Jake's redemption is rather half-hearted. He admittedly slept around like crazy on Lynn, took her for granted, and hasn't spoken to her in three years as the story opens. Yet he expects her to drop everything she's doing to fall back into his burly arms, including giving the heave-ho to her rich jerk lawyer fiance.

In one awkward scene, Jake stumbles into a party hosted by Lynn's beau, and he is politely interrogated over his career prospects. The snooty rich guests don't even know the name of the Cleveland team, or recognize him as the starting catcher. Jake is forced to confess that he has no idea what he'll do after baseball, and that he earns the "league minimum."

(What the filmmakers don't tell you is this amounted to $62,500 in 1989. That's about $123,000 in today's dollars -- hardly mortifying chump change.)

Most of the actors reasonably pass themselves off as pro athletes. Berenger looks like a jock's jock, and Sheen was an actual pitcher in high school who reportedly got his fastball up to the mid-80s m.p.h. during production. (With a little help from steroids, according to Sheen himself.) I was struck how there are no six-packs or bulging muscles; these are normal male bodies, though more in shape than average. It was another age then.

Another enduring tidbit from the film is Jobu, the fictional voodoo god worshiped by Cerrano, including a miniature shrine built in his locker complete with rum and cigars. You can still buy little Jobu dolls, which look like a well-tanned version of Doc Brown from "Back to the Future," and other merch from "The Jobu Lifestyle" website. During their 2016 World Series run, the actual Cleveland Indians built their own modern-day Jobu shrine.

This brings me to the question of the relationship between the city and the ersatz version of their team presented in "Major League." The Cleveland portrayed in the movie is a grimy, polluted blue-collar town where the residents constantly bad-mouth their baseball team in between itinerantly going to watch them play in a run-down, cheap-looking stadium. (Actually Milwaukee County Stadium.)

"They're shitty," relates the Greek chorus, otherwise known as the team of Japanese stadium groundskeepers, using subtitles.

Usually sports movies employ fictional names and settings, as in this one, which recently appeared in this space. I'm surprised the Indians agreed to have their likeness used in a not-exactly-flattering portrait of the team and town.

I'm not sure if "Major League" deserves to be immortalized quite like it has. The jokes are pretty straightforward, and the locker room misogyny of the film hasn't aged well. (If it ever looked passable in the first place.) But it's got some distinctive characters, the baseball action is convincing and there's plenty of fun to be had. Call it a stretch double.

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