Thursday, July 11, 2019

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: MR. BASEBALL

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo with a hole in their swing.

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

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our summer baseball series returns this week with Mr. Baseball, the 1992 comedy starring Tom Selleck as washed-up Big League slugger Jack Elliot. After losing his roster spot with the New York Yankees to a younger prospect, Jack is forced to accept a position with Japan’s Chunichi Dragons. This is heartbreaking for the ex-World Series MVP, as Japanese baseball is considered less competitive and prestigious than the MLB. Cultures clash immediately as Jack’s swagger and contentious attitude frustrate Dragons manager Uchiyama (Ken Takakura) and fellow American expat Max Dubois (Dennis Haysbert), both of whom adhere to Japan’s more solemn and disciplined approach to the game. Jack is insolent and childish at first, unwilling to change his habits even for the beautiful Hiroko (Aya Takanashi). But as more and more Japanese fans embrace the man they call Mr. Baseball, the aging pro realizes that even he has plenty left to learn.

This was my first viewing of Mr. Baseball, and I really enjoyed the hell out of it. It’s laid back, engaging, and incredibly sweet. I’m realizing now that Tom Selleck movies are kind of a blind spot for me. Is that odd? I always thought of him as a poor man’s Burt Reynolds, but he’s really, really great in Mr. Baseball. It’s almost as if he splits the difference between Reynolds and Harrison Ford. I may feel differently when I see him in other roles, but it works in something like Mr. Baseball, which is at once a fun sports movie, a great fish out of water story, and a surprisingly complex look at how two very different cultures approach the same game. It’s a bit long for a comedy (running about 110 minutes), but I’m honestly not sure there’s any fat to cut out. I didn’t want it to be over! It’s just that much fun to hang out with. Adam, what are your thoughts on Mr. Baseball?
Adam: I have to begin by pointing out that Ricky Davis (the prospect who takes Tom Selleck’s roster spot at the start of Mr. Baseball) is played by former Chicago White Sox Hall of Fame 1B/DH Frank Thomas. In other words, I’m glad Selleck lost his job. Go White Sox! Getting back to the movie, Mr. Baseball was a staple of my household growing up. I saw it at the mall, I rented and taped it off of pay-per-view, I remember the trailer had the song “Turning Japanese” because subtle marketing, etc. I’ve always really liked this movie and I was pleased to see that after a long gap between viewings that I still liked it quite a bit. As you said before, it really is about something: the culture clash between an American ball player and the Japanese way of playing the game. The dynamic is fascinating because both sides are right and both sides are wrong and often at the same time. For example, in Japanese baseball, if a pitcher hits a batter and then tips his cap, it means he didn’t mean to hit the guy and the batter can’t be angry or retaliate. It’s honestly a good idea, but also that doesn’t really matter if the hitter still gets plunked with a fastball.

My favorite part of the movie is hearing the Japanese motivation for certain aspects of the game, like how you shouldn’t steal bases because it brings dishonor to the team if you fail to steal the base. Plus, the crowd scenes are hands-down the best ever put in a baseball movie. It’s obviously real crowds from real games and the energy the Japanese fans bring to baseball (and the film by proxy) is infectious. This is one of the reasons the World Baseball Classic is so popular. The American way of cheering at a baseball game is almost muted compared to how amped up other cultures get at the games. It’s a small thing but adds so much to the in-game scenes in Mr. Baseball.

Rob: I sympathized with Jack’s frustration that a Japanese baseball game can end in a tie. I mean, I get it, but the whole appeal of baseball (for me, at least) is that there’s no clock on it. I also read that Nippon Professional Baseball games will only go up to three additional innings after the ninth. Most NPB teams also employ a six man pitching rotation, as opposed to the MLB’s typical five. I bring these things up because so much talk around the MLB in the last few years has been about speeding the game up to increase audience appeal. I disagree with almost every proposed change (I like my baseball slow and boring), but it’s interesting to see how much precedent already exists for some of these ideas.

Adam: My biggest gripe with this movie has been and remains Tom Selleck, who is a paradox for me. He’s perfectly cast in this role, but I don’t find him appealing in general. Jack Elliott is supposed to be an “Ugly American” stereotype for half of the film and Selleck is almost too good at that where I don’t have enough time to turn around and care by the third act. Besides the Three Men and a Baby movies, I don’t have a long history watching Selleck’s work, so I didn’t come into this movie with any built-in audience affection. I think that would have been key to me liking Jack Elliott more. If it were 1992 Kevin Costner or Bruce Willis, I would have loved this performance. Selleck is very good in the role, but he reminds me too much of jerks I met playing baseball as a youth (coaches, dads of other kids) that I can’t get totally behind him.

I really took to many of the other performances, though. I loved Dennis Haysbert as the other American player on the Dragons. He has the thankless task of being the character who explains Japanese baseball to the audience, but he does it in such a relaxed, nonchalant way that it feels effortless. It’s also cool seeing him as another baseball player after he portrayed slugger Pedro Cerrano in Major League. My favorite performances are from Ken Takakura (who I read is known as “the Japanese Clint Eastwood”) and Aya Takanashi. Takakura is very commanding and, in many ways, the center of the movie. He has to give permission to the movie to embrace progress. Takanashi is beguiling. I’m stunned she didn’t go on to a long film career (her IMDB credits are few) because she’s super charismatic and humanizes Selleck to the audience primarily because she likes Selleck. I wish the movie didn’t pipe in “wisdom score” every time she says something insightful, but that’s not her fault.
Rob: Haysbert is the best. I knew I was in good hands as soon as he showed up. Piggybacking off of your “ugly American” comment, I was impressed with the time Mr. Baseball takes to treat the Japanese characters — and by extension, their culture — with quite a bit of respect. They’re shown to have their eccentricities, sure, but the story is more than just the “confident Westerner shows Easterners how to relax” tropes we’re used to seeing. They’re not low status caricatures; they’re complex and granted as much agency as any character in a comedy of this kind. Even the jokes at their expense (the slurping scene comes to mind) aren’t really mean-spirited because, at that point, Jack sees assimilating with Japanese culture as a personal gain.

You’re right to point out Ken Takakura, who does the “wise, inscrutable Asian authority” thing without diluting it down to recognizable acting tics. I love what you said about him “giving the movie permission to progress.” We really want him and Jack to find a mutual respect for each other.

What did you think of the actual baseball content in Mr. Baseball? We usually like to comment on how these movies approach and depict the game itself.

Adam: I enjoyed the baseball philosophies quite a bit. I alluded to it before, but this is one of the rare baseball movies that seems to have genuine curiosity and specificity about the sport. It feels unique. I like how even in the package of a fish-out-of-water comedy that the filmmakers were respectful of the game itself. For example, I really like the mention of the gaijin (foreigner) strike zone being different than that of Japanese players. Little details like that display that people cared to get it right.

Also, we have to mention the sound effects for pitches and hits. They’re Indiana Jones punch quality. Describe how they sound.

Rob: It’s like if Indiana Jones punched a guy in a Shaw Brothers movie. With a chainsaw. It’s incredible.
Adam: A few random thoughts about Mr. Baseball:

1. What is going on with the poster for this movie? It’s like someone really needed it to be a Godzilla parody no matter if it fits or not. There’s a helicopter by Selleck’s head!

2. Do you like the score to this movie? Apparently it’s controversial (per Wikipedia) with some people (Siskel & Ebert) praising it and others saying it’s among the worst scores of Jerry Goldsmith’s career. Have you ever noticed how bad most baseball movie scores are, especially the comedies? It’s like the composer is saying “Uhhhh...I dunno...what do I do? You like circus music? WHIMSY! WHIMSY! WHIMSY!

3. I wish this movie’s reveal is it’s the origin story of the Big League Chew man. Jack Elliott is a character straight out of that gum or Nintendo’s Bases Loaded.

4. How many sorority girls did Elliott sleep with in the opening scene? Are they friends of Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham? Does the one woman he woke up next to always speak in baseball puns for post-sex hangovers? She was all “Major League hangover!” Does she ever say “Check swing, you’re out!” to a guy she’s trying to get rid of?

5. Fun Fact: There’s a scene where Elliott is eating a steak with Hiroko and he says how good Japanese steak is and (I’m paraphrasing) “It’s even better than the ones in Kansas City.” For years, my sibling and I would say this any time my parents cooked steak and my parents eventually were like “You’ve never been to Kansas City. Why are you saying that?” It became such an inside joke with us that we’d eventually just say “Ooh Kansas City” when food was good. We watched Mr. Baseball a lot.

1. What’s even better than the helicopter is Uchiyama’s expression and hand gesture. Totally Godzilla. I think they might have photoshopped the hand backwards, too.

2. I have to be honest, I didn’t notice anything about the score aside from the whimsy. The only baseball movie score I ever really remember is A League of Their Own. Favorite Goldsmith score off the top of my head (I know you didn’t ask)? Probably L.A. Confidential or Star Trek.

3. No joke, I tried to design a player that looks like Selleck in MLB The Show ‘19. I couldn’t get the mustache thick enough, though.

4. Maybe something about a bunt, since he’s so averse to them? Also, a question from a National League baseball fan to an American League baseball fan: Are bunts frowned upon in the AL? I guess it makes sense, considering the DH rule, but I’ve never had a problem with a hitter laying down a bunt. It’s way harder than it looks.

5. I’ve never had real Kobe beef. First thing on our to-do list when we take our trip to Japan.

Anything else on Mr. Baseball? Mark Ahn, for me.

Adam: Mark Ahn for me too. To answer your bunting in the AL question, it’s not frowned upon, exactly, but it’s usually seen as an inefficient out. AL players often aren’t good at laying down effective bunts, so it makes little sense to take the bat out of their hands unless they’re a speedster/defensive specialist/utility type who can’t hit. Especially in 2019 with the juiced baseball resulting in comical hitting success, it seems odd when you see a manager calling for a bunt in an American League game. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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