Wednesday, August 21

Major League

The 1989 baseball comedy film Major League remains a touchstone for film fans who like baseball, comedy, and/or baseball comedy. It's a generally well-regarded movie in the celebrated genre of baseball movies - not typically ranked in the top tier with Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and The Natural, but a significant entry in the conversation.

But for me, and most other Cleveland Indians fans, it's something even more special - not just a hilarious baseball flick, but a hilarious baseball flick about our team, and for those of us living in the Forest City, a movie about our town. The dialogue and characters from Major League have become inseparably intertwined with fandom of the actual Cleveland Indians club - "Wild Thing" blares from the speakers at every game, "Vaughn" and "Dorn" jerseys outnumber those of the actual ballplayers, and as a little kid I could barely keep straight which one was Willie Mays Hayes and which one was Kenny Lofton. I don't know of a professional sports franchise whose identity is so closely tied to a fictional film, with the possible exception of Anaheim's hockey club before they dropped the "Mighty" part of their nickname.

As usual, I'll just throw out my semi-chronological, semi-coherent take on the film, a funny baseball pic for most and an enduring cult classic for fans of the Tribe.

- I couldn't possibly enjoy the opening montage of Major League more. Over the strains of Randy Newman's bittersweet "Burn On," we see shots of Cleveland in all its '80's Rust Belt glory. I suspect I would have enjoyed the downtrodden Cleveland of that era as much as I enjoy the steadily rising (but still kinda downtrodden) Cleveland of today. The very first image is of one of the Guardians of Traffic, a group of stone men keeping watch on the Lorain-Carnegie bridge to whom I give a special salute to every time I cross the Cuyahoga that way, which is quite often. It's remarkable how much the cityscape still looks like that opening view, other than the conspicuous absence of the yet-to-be constructed Key Tower.

- The juxtaposition in the second shot is probably striking to a lot of viewers, as a neighborhood baseball game is being played directly adjacent to tall white industrial towers. Doesn't seem weird to me at all - that's Clark Fields, where I play in my football league. No, really, I like this movie for more than the Cleveland stuff, I promise.

- My buddy JHH devised the best possible way to experience this movie - simply fast-forward through all the scenes with Rene Russo. Nothing personal, Rene ... you're just not adding a lot of value here. I liked Thomas Crown Affair.

- If you're up for a challenge, try this Sporcle quiz to list the Indians' lineup in the one-game playoff against the Yankees for the division title. Any more than six, and you're a superfan. The Spring Training segment of the film is a really effective way to introduce the Tribe's cast of characters: flamboyant speedster Willie May Hayes (Wesley Snipes), down-on-his-luck catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), spoiled star Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), superstitious Latino slugger Pedro Cerrano (an almost unrecognizable pre-President David Palmer version of Dennis Haysbert), ex-con flamethrower (Charlie Sheen) and croaky-voiced manager Lou Brown (James Gammon). Pretty impressive cast of future stars and a lot of memorable personalities for one 90-minute baseball comedy.

- You know who else was in this movie? Me! I was a fan in old Cleveland Municipal Stadium when they filmed the overhead shot of the actual Indians night game that was used in the film right before the one-game playoff. I can still remember them announcing over the loudspeaker that the shot was going to be used in an upcoming film. Admittedly, it's possible that the shot was actually in Major League 2, but whatever.

- On the flipside of that, it's curious that legendary Tribe drummer John Adams doesn't get any screen time here. I guess the fourteen years of hammering his bass drum at almost every game that he'd put in to that point wasn't enough to merit a cameo.

- I was watching this in Pittsburgh one time with my buddy Gopo, and when odious ex-showgirl owner Rachel Phelps says derisively, "No wonder they haven't won a pennant in 35 years," he asked the perfectly legitimate question, "is that still true, have they still not won one?" I immediately, and with unnecessary haste and enthusiasm rallied to my Tribe's defense: "No! They've won two!" Easy, Francis. Still no World Series since '48 - the Cubs get all the press for their Series drought, but the Indians are #2 in that department with a bullet. I don't really see why we should be talking about this. Moving right along ...

- Of course, the hapless Tribe doesn't actually even win a pennant in Major League. That's right - the climactic, triumphant victory that caps off the movie is actually just a one-game playoff for the American League East crown. The fictional Erie Warriors would still have to knock off the AL West Champions in the ALCS to claim the American League pennant, THEN beat the National League champion for a World Series title. In fact, Major League 2 reveals that the Indians went on to lose the ALCS to the Chicago White Sox, failing even to reach the Series. That's how bleak it's been for Cleveland sports fans, ladies and gentlemen. Not only have none of our three major teams won a championship since 1964, not only have we suffered some of the most iconic gut-punch losses in sports lore ... but even when they make a movie about a Cleveland sports team succeeding, we still can't win. Unbelievable. Some day, though, as Jake Taylor says, there will be only one thing left to do: win the whole fuckin' thing.

- Is there some reason the Academy didn't give Gammon some sort of Lifetime Achievement award for his portrayal of manager Lou Brown? I dare you to find me a more effective use of the word "shitburger." Also, one of these days, I'm going to get myself a sport coat with a Chief Wahoo crest on it like the one Brown sports about the Indian Express. That's a solid look.

- I often want to use the coach's line when Charlie Sheen's Ricky Vaughn makes his first appearance at Spring Training: "Look at this fuckin' guy!" I'm not sure it's well-traveled enough to work in most company, though.

- Gotta love those '80's Tribe uniforms. Those were their look the first few years of my fandom, and I'm still fond of the simple block letters and red, white, and blue color scheme (plus the road grays). They've gone back to that look to some extent with their boss road grays of today (with a red block "C" on the blue cap instead of Chief Wahoo), though they still rock the red script "Indians" on their home whites. The less said about their alternate cream-colored home jerseys with the bright red caps, the better.

- How come no one uses the bullpen cart anymore?

- The success of Major League led to two forgettable sequels - Major League 2, featuring much of the original cast, and Major League: Back to the Minors, with new cast members. Blah.

- As exasperated, then ultimately rejuvenated, Tribe broadcaster and Jack Daniel's (yes, I put the apostrophe in the right place) enthusiast Harry Doyle, actual Milwaukee Brewers play-by-play guy and "Mr Baseball" Bob Uecker does an absolutely fantastic job here. From "Juuuuust a bit outside" to "In case you haven't noticed ... and based on the attendance, you haven't," he brings a constant stream of bonus comedy to all the game action. Such is the legend of the movie that Doyle has his own fake twitter account, as does his mostly mute color guy Monte and, of course, Cerrano's spiritual adviser Jobu.

- I read on Major League's Wikipedia page that there was an alternate (or perhaps original) ending where, instead of a bitchy villian, she's actually a die-hard Tribe fan who adopts her persona to motivate the team, and had all along masterminded the assembly of the ragtag group.

- The final game is really a well-constructed sequence, involving all of the principals in believable and clever ways, especially bringing Vaughn on in relief and earning thousands and thousands of dollars in royalties for the Troggs (even though they use some cheesy remake in the movie). The winning run, where Hayes scores from second on a bunt, even foreshadows Kenny Lofton's amazing dash home from second on a passed ball in the '95 ALCS. I told you it was easy to get those two confused!

I'm not going to lie to you - seeing that jacked-up fake crowd in Major League and watching Kenny sprint around the diamond brings back fond memories of the Indians' playoff appearances in the '90's and '00's. We gotta get back, friends.

For me, at least, Major League is the lens through which I view baseball - there are so many common situations in baseball where the first thing that springs to mind is a line from Major League. To wit:

* A speedy player: "With your speed you should be hittin' 'em on the ground and leggin' 'em out." - Manager Lou Brown to Willie Mays Hayes.

* A player gator arms a grounder: "Don't give me this 'olé' bullshit!" - Brown to Third Baseman Roger Dorn.

* A player boots a grounder: "At least he didn't spike himself." - Broadcaster Harry Doyle, about Dorn.

* A losing streak or tough loss: "They're still shitty." - The Asian groundkeepers.

* A towering home run from an opponent: "Too high? What does that mean, too high?" - One of the fans in the outfield bleachers.

* A nasty breaking ball: "KY ball from Harris." - Doyle, of course.

* A player swings and misses on a curveball: "Straight ball, I hit it very much. Curveball ... bats are afraid." - Pedro Cerrano.

* A pitch well out of the strike zone: "Juuuust a bit outside." - Doyle

* An inept offensive performance by the Wahoos: "One hit? That's all we got, one god damn hit?"

There you have it, sports fans - Major League, an enduring sports and comedy classic with an extra-special spot in the hearts of Cleveland Indians fans like me.

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