Much like the game itself, there are a thousand little threads that tie your favorite baseball movie to you. From those that make you feel nostalgic (The Sandlot) to those that unlock that father/son thing (Field of Dreams), or speak about romance as it pertains to life and baseball (Bull Durham), you have your reasons. But, while I’d probably agree that many of those choices are great baseball movies (especially Bull Durham), there’s one that I’ve come to believe may be perfect.
1989’s Major League — starring Charlie Sheen (who turns 50 today), Tom Berenger, and Wesley Snipes — understands the game in a way that some baseball movies don’t, or don’t bother to attempt, and that makes it special.
Major League is not about one legendary player from history (42) or some momentous event (61*). It’s about the bonds that are established by a team full of losers and legitimate (and unique) characters that eventually become, not lovable, but the kind of group that you would want to root for because they have nothing to lose, and they are scraping to keep the embers of their dreams orange and hot for as long as possible.
We all wish that we could, for one summer in our lives, have the thrilling distraction of a team of players like these fictional — but 100 percent authentic-seeming — Cleveland Indians to lift us up and make baseball seem blue-collar and innocent again with players who you could find at the local sports bar after a hard day at work. But while the Indians’ slow march toward becoming a real “team” feels as though it is a part of the charm of this film (thanks to writer/director David Ward, who allows us to feel the character and length of the odyssey that is a baseball season), those same players and their relatability date the movie.
In 1989, the average baseball player made $488,000, and the median household income was about $30,000. At one point, Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) says that he makes the league minimum, which at the time was about $65,000. Now, the league minimum is $507,500, the average baseball player makes $4.25 million, and the median household income is around $51,000. So, clearly, the massive pay gap has put some distance between the field and the seats… and some distance between a lot of fans and being able to even afford those seats.
For all its flaws, Major League II does a nice job of illustrating the divide between the dream of the baseball players from our youth and the flashier, more brand-conscious versions who play the game today, but that dose of cynicism may be part of why that film doesn’t enjoy as much adulation as the original.
There’s also something to be said for the virtue of “one” magical season. When the 2004 Red Sox “won the whole f*cking thing,” it was special, but the interest and enthusiasm wasn’t as high when they did the same thing in 2007 and again in 2013. Their previous success had attached an expectation to everything that they did, and that can stifle the love felt for a team. The surprise of it all is half the thing. That’s what makes a city seem two feet taller.
Cleveland is another character in Major League, with shots of the city intercut with a group of pessimistic fans who can sense that a season of dread is on the horizon, after wicked team owner Rachel Phelps spends the offseason stocking the roster with dead weight. Slowly, the tide changes, though, and the fans begin to rally and fall in love with Willie Mays Hayes, Pedro Cerrano, “Wild Thing,” and all the rest.
The culmination of everything is, of course, a dramatic one-game playoff with the hated New York Yankees, a team with whom the Indians have a rivalry that has been well-seeded throughout the film. The Yankees are the defending champs (no doubt riding the bat of Ken Phelps all the way to glory), the guys who should be there, and Rick Vaughn’s dreaded tormenters. There was never any other way things could have ended, but that predictability doesn’t take away from the film.
Drama is an indelible part of baseball, but it’s not just the slow burn standoffs between ace relievers and All-Star sluggers in the ninth inning with everything on the line, there are almost always other layers, because the Gods write artful prose when they write the story of each baseball game. Look at Derek Jeter’s last game at Yankee Stadium. Of course the fading legend gave the home crowd one last thrilling moment with a walk-off hit. And, of course, Major League ends with a bat in the hands of Jake Taylor, the Indians’ unquestioned leader and a player enjoying “one more good year in the sun.”
There’s a moment, early on, that sets up Jake’s last at bat perfectly. Back from exile in the minor leagues, he returns to the show and regresses to childhood, pretending that he has just hit a game-winning home run. But with the stage set for him to turn his dream into a reality, he instead decides to lay down a bunt after playing the Yankees (and us) by pretending to call his shot.
In one way, it almost feels like Ward is mocking a film like The Natural, with Roy Hobbs literally swinging his guts out to hit a light-exploding home run, but Jake’s bunt is also a keen way of demonstrating that Jake had fully changed into someone who could put his team first. He rose, he fell, he emerged victorious — the story of that last at bat and Jake’s arc throughout the film. Pretty damn perfect.
As I said before, the relatability of the players dates Major League, but, despite that, it has withstood the test of time due to the absence of kind of cheese that is laid on thick atop most other baseball movies. Major League isn’t precious about the way it treats baseball and baseball players, and those players aren’t revered like mythical Gods — it’s about a team of individuals coming together, despite their individual failings. Misfits, wild things, baseball players.