Thursday, September 6, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: MAJOR LEAGUE

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who apologize in advance for nitpicking Major League.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our summer baseball series continues with the 1989 classic, Major League. The seminal comedy follows the rag-tag Cleveland Indians (sorry) as they stave off destruction at the hands of new owner Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), who hopes they’ll perform poorly enough that she can move the team to warmer climates in Miami, Florida. Manager Lou Brown (walking cigar James Gammon) hopes to wrangle misfits like aging catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger), fireballer Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), showboat Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes), pompous douchenozzle Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), and Cuban mystic Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) into a team that can, at the very least, climb out of last place and keep the Indians (sorry, again) franchise in Cleveland. Meanwhile, Taylor fights to win back his old flame (Rene Russo as Lynn Wells) and figure out life after baseball.

Major League was never one of my favorite baseball movies, but it was a reliable enough cable TV presence that I’ve come to know it quite well. In short: It’s Fine. There are all kinds of little nitpicks for us to nitpick, and I’m sure we’ll get to that, but it’s about middle of the pack as far as baseball movies go. It’s not really story-driven, nor is there much in the way of character arcs or complex dramatics. Nothing really bothered me. A few bits made me laugh. It’s a decent series of gags, some of which have become iconic. That’s more or less where I’m at. What are your thoughts on Major League?
Adam: I used to think that Major League was one of my favorite baseball movies. This revisit is leaving me questioning that thought. I still believe Major League is an upper-tier baseball film, but that’s more because maybe there aren’t that many good baseball movies. As you mentioned, Major League was on cable a lot during our formative years, so critiquing it nowadays is like reviewing Burger King. I think twenty minute stretches on cable is the way to watch Major League. When I sat and watched it straight through this time out, the aspects of the movie I’m not a fan of stuck out more than they ever have. First some positives: the movie rides on the charm of its cast, who all mostly elevate the material (there’s a cool Platoon reunion happening with Tom Berenger and Charlie Sheen in very different roles this time around), some of the one-liners are really funny (my favorites being when Lou Brown asks Roger Dorn what’s with his olĂ© bullshit defensively and when Vaughn complains in the fancy french restaurant that he looks like a banker while he’s wearing a sleeveless leather jacket and a necktie) and the baseball action, specifically the final game, is more exciting than most baseball films. Plus, Major League has Bob Uecker, and every baseball movie should be so fortunate. He is so my brand of absurdist, self-deprecating humor. I think my big issue on this rewatch is it’s a dumb baseball movie. By that I mean, the baseball details drive me crazy. So many of them make no sense. It’s a specific problem that probably wouldn’t bother me if I just was sitting down to watch it as a non-baseball fan.

Rob: When you say “dumb,” do you mean the actual logistics of the games they play?
Adam: Correct the logistics, but also the details about the team itself. I’ll give you one as an example. No one would try to score from second base on a bunt to third base. But in the biggest at-bat of the season, Wesley Snipes does just that while Tom Berenger is legging out the bunt. The sequence of shots show that Snipes is rounding third as the Yankees third baseman is picking up the ball. The third baseman could throw it to home or cut off Snipes and tag him out, but instead he throws it to first base forcing the first baseman to have to throw home on the off chance they don’t get Berenger out at first (which is what ends up happening). It’s such a bullshit play on which to end the movie. I have a list of other examples like this that pop up throughout the film. For a guy who obviously loves baseball, writer-director David S. Ward (who I’m sure is a very nice person) seems to have little interest in the attentiveness of baseball fans watching his movie. Or the studio made him dumb it down. I apologize in advance to Major League fans who think I’m being a grumpy asshole. Maybe I’m just in a bad mood.

Rob: No, I think it’s hard for people who love baseball as much as we do to stomach a baseball movie that puts the minutiae of the game itself on the backburner. There are tons and tons of little things that don’t track. The stuff you mentioned didn’t bother me that much in this case because I just wasn’t invested in these guys enough to have a strong stake in how the final game shook out, but I understand why they’re getting stuck in your craw. I’m also aware of how silly I sound when I say that a movie with such colorful characters (including Bob Uecker, who I agree is a goddamn treasure) is light on characterization, but the drama in a team sports movie tends to live or die by their interplay and growth, and save for a few bits in that last game, there’s not a whole lot here. And I’m not judging a light comedy too harshly, either. A League of Their Own has it. Even Rookie of the Year has it. That’s what I mean when I say the movie feels mostly like a series of gags set next to each other. I know this sounds completely ridiculous to a lot of people who love Major League. I’ll go ahead and hop on your apology train.

Yeah, I’m definitely being a grouch about this. Major League is totally fine. It’s charming and there’s some good (if nonsensical) baseball action. Speaking of which, I like way baseballs sound coming off the bat in ‘80s movies. It’s like an Indiana Jones punch. They don’t sound like that in every movie. Anyway, I just don’t think all the pieces of Major League come together in as satisfying a way as other baseball movies we’ve covered. That doesn’t make it bad.

Adam: It was one of those awful revisits I know everyone has had where you realize you should have just let a movie live in your brain as good and you caused yourself irreparable damage by watching it again. I found myself rallying around Tom Berenger and Rene Russo on this watch because the baseball stuff was bothering me. Berenger and Russo have great chemistry together and Berenger, in particular, is way more charming than usual on screen. It feels like one of those performances where the actor is born to play that part. The two of them are such an appealing couple that for some reason I can ignore that Jake Taylor is an asshole (he cheated on Russo’s character, causing their pre-film breakup; he just breaks into people’s houses like that’s okay to do) and he’s trying to steal her away from her current fiancee who we (as viewers) are primed, by the genre and the writer-director, to think is a total douchebag when his biggest crime is he’s a wealthy lawyer and doesn’t like that an asshole ex-boyfriend is honing in on his fiancee. What can I say? Berenger reminds me of Carlton Fisk and that goes a long way.
I also liked James Gammon’s performance as the gruff manager. He most consistently makes me laugh mostly by his delivery. I adore when he chides Wesley Snipes after his basket catch and says “Nice catch Hayes. Don’t ever fucking do it again.”

Rob: That was the one note I made! I loved that line. The movie needed more of that. I agree that while Berenger and Russo have good chemistry, our sympathies in the love triangle feel sort of forced. Jake admits he cheated (for a completely ridiculous reason), he’s about to age out of baseball, and he has zero plans for the future. What a catch! You have to earn the snobs-versus-slobs thing, and do we ever really get that? I mean, once they all make the final cut, no one on the team is all that concerned with their performance until Gammon tells them that they’re all out of a job next year. It’s not an ethos thing; it’s not like they have that soul, that special sauce that elevates them above the other teams. They just get it together after a little practice and start kicking the Yankees’ ass. There’s nothing creative or interesting about that. It makes me like them even less. You know what? Let’s just lean into the nitpicking. What else have you got?

Adam: I’ll preface the rest of my part of the review by saying that if you think I might ruin Major League for you, then you’re probably right and should stop reading. I don’t want to ruin a movie for anyone and I know some people struggle with others nitpicking a movie they like; so...yeah. How about crowd size? You don’t have to be a genius to know that even the shittiest teams at least almost sell out on opening day, but in this movie no one is in the ballpark. Conversely, their game to win the division has an attendance so high that (I checked) it would be the seventh highest attendance in MLB history with the six games ahead of it being World Series games in the 1940s and 1950s.

Rob: Where is Cleveland’s farm system? They lost “two of [their] best players,” sure, but what happened to the rest of the big league squad? What were those roster moves like? Arbitration? Was there a Rule 5 draft? Like, Willie Mays Hayes literally shows up in his car and decides he’s on the team. He can run, sure, but we all just let that slide? Where the hell is the Player’s Association?

Adam: Speaking of Hayes, how does he have like 15 steals, but then in the final 40 games has about 50 more? This isn’t hyperbole. He nails his batting gloves on a wall as proof.
You mentioned the farm system and tangentially the owner as well. I don’t get her. She wants to move the team to Miami, sure, but she makes a point that she wants to be part of a country club? Hello! You’re an owner of a baseball team! How exclusive is this Boca Raton country club? And why does Cleveland winning mean she will send these guys down to the minors or release them as a punishment? Why wouldn’t other MLB teams be interested in the core of (especially young) players that led their team to a division win? During Spring Training, how bad are the guys being cut if the GM keeps a catcher that can’t throw to second, a pitcher that can’t throw the ball over the plate and a third baseman who can’t field? These are basic things. It’s not believable that professional baseball players would be this incompetent. I could go on but I’m not an asshole, so I don’t want to go on. I’ll still give Major League a Mark Ahn. This is one time I watched it where I felt this way and that shouldn’t erase the last 29 years with the movie. I really am in a bad mood tonight apparently.

Rob: Same. I think everyone reading this can agree that Major League is a good movie, and none of our weird little nitpicks should erase that. In fact, if I can piggyback off something you said earlier, I think we should all just remember Major League being a good movie and let it live in our memories that way. Mark Ahn.

Next week, we’ll finish up our summer Jaws series with Jaws: The Revenge. Something tells me you’re not going to want to miss that. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved.


  1. This was a really fun read, even though you took apart one of my favorite movies of all time.

    I'm coming to Major League from a slightly different angle. I've never seen an actual baseball game, so all my knowledge of the game is from American movies and tv. Mainly Major League and that one Goofy cartoon.

    For me, Major League is one of those movies I just fell for as a kid (for some unknown reason) and no amount of nitpicking or totally valid criticism will turn my head. I love this movie. It's not a good movie, but I love it.

  2. My older brother had this movie on VHS from a HBO free preview weekend (our parents would never pay for premium cable) so we had the unedited version on tape with a scrolling “HBO free preview weekend, call to order” intermittently. This is one movie that I know I’m on the nostalgia train for. I absolutely know I can’t watch it critically.

    For reasons I can’t articulate, I love the scene when Jake walks on to the “Municipal Stadium” field and hits his mime home run and Ricky and Willie catch him and Ricky says “what was that, a slider?” It’s such a dumb joke and I enjoy it.

    Anyway, as someone who followed Kansas City for a long time, it is not impossible for a team to have a MLB roster that’s “has-beens and never-will-bes ” and a completely empty minor league system and a GM who sticks around for unfathomable reasons (cough- Herk Robinson. Cough- Allard Baird).