Maybe it's just the recently-ended baseball season or the lack of wonderful bicycling weather talking, but upon watching Major League several times in order to write this review, I noticed that the classic baseball flick is starting to grow on me. That's not to say I no longer believe it to be overrated. It has a lot more growing on me to do before I start running around comparing it to the incomparable Paul Newman/George Roy Hill flick Slap Shot, the gold standard of raunchy sports comedies. The difference is that these days, Major League compare to Slap Shot more favorably than it did the first time I saw it.
You already know the archtype story here. A group of ragtag misfits, through some set of odd circumstances, gets thrown onto the same team and, through differences thick and thin, brings out each other's best and wins in an unwinnable year through grit, pluck, and a little good old-fashioned teamwork! Although Major League spends the whole story with a smarmy grin on its face, it plays through this whole story completely straight. This time it's about the Cleveland Indians, one of baseball's premier teams during the first half of the 20th century and about the AL equivalent to the Chicago Cubs during the second half. The Tribe won the World Series in 1920 and 1948, traded their keystone player Rocky Colavito in 1960, and hit the skids pretty much forever. The Curse of Rocky Colavito is actually considered well-known curse lore in baseball circles, as the team sucked balls for 34 years before a brief reprieve brought them back as one of the American League's most dangerous teams. They won the 1995 Pennant but lost to the Atlanta Braves in six games despite being heavy favorites. In 1997 they won it again and lost a classic battle in seven games against the Florida Marlins, who staged a ninth-inning comeback with Cleveland just two outs away from the title. As far as fans are concerned, the team is still cursed. Back in 1989, Indians fan David Ward got so upset with his beloved team's recent performances that he had to do something about it. Unfortunately, he was a movie guy, not a baseball guy, so the best he could do was write a fan fantasy script in which the Cleveland Indians overcame long odds to... Make the playoffs.
Yeah, there's that weird situation in this movie where a filmmaker is for some reason reluctant to give them something worth bragging about - the World Series title itself or at least the Pennant. Guess that wouldn't matter too much given the plot: A former Vegas showgirl named Rachel Phelps apparently married rich, and the hubby croaked, leaving the team to the wifey. Phelps wants to move the team to Miami, where she's being offered a nice new stadium, but contractual agreements are preventing it: In order to enable the release, the Indians have to draw under 800,000 fans. Rachel has a fierce business acumen and knows people won't go to Cleveland Municipal to watch losers, so she finds the worst players possible to see that the Indians fall to 1899 Cleveland Spiders-like levels of suckitude. See that? Nothing about so much as a division title there. It's all about the draw. But the movie ditches that pretense because it's not very convenient to the worst-to-first plot, and besides, everybody knows the good teams are the ones that draw!
No one ever heard of the players Phelps is bringing in, of course. The ones they've heard of aren't exactly past their primes - as one board member points out, most of them never had primes to begin with. One of them is dead, a fact to which Phelps's response is "Cross him off the list, then!" upon being informed of that fact. Who's there? There's catcher Jake Taylor, who's aging and a serial womanizer dying to get back with his ex. Third baseman Roger Dorn is more concerned about his pretty pitchman's face than about any goings-on in the hot corner. Ricky Vaughn is nicknamed Wild Thing, a name no doubt picked up in his last league, California Penal, for stealing a car. Pedro Cerrano is a slugger who practices Vodun and can't hit a curveball to save his life. Willie Mays Hayes wasn't invited to training camp. He just kind of shows, where his speed is thought to be useful stealing bases.... IF he can get on base!
Toledo Mud Hens manager Lou Brown is promoted to The Show to fail. Lou has been around, seen it all, heard it all, and done it all, and in spite of his crusty shell he refuses to believe this team is hopeless. Is there anything I can spoil?
Well, the Indians start out bad, but not quite bad enough. Phelps begins to get a little upset, and she starts trying to screw with the team. First, their whirlpool and hot waters are cut. Their charter plane is replaced with a rickety prop job, which is in turn replaced with an equally rickety bus. No matter what she does, the team keeps getting better.
Major League attacks full force with cliches, but most of them are at least done in an entertaining way. I laughed constantly at Dorn, always looking for ways to preserve his fancy mug but getting shot down all the time. In one scene where Lou tries to get him to do situps, he waves his contract - which says he doesn't have to do exercises which might be uncomfortable - in front of Lou, whose response is to throw it on the ground and whiz all over it. Later, after flubbing an easy ground ball, Jake visits Dorn and asks him about it. When Dorn responds with brutal honesty, Jake straightens him out by threatening to beat him up. Unfortunately, one of the cliches involves ultra-meaningful slo-mo during the final game. Another is an insufferable subplot in which Jake begins pining for his ex. Will he ever win her back? Of course! What kind of sports movie do you think this is?
Major League also scores major points for not catering to the family-friendlies. The big rallying point even involves a stripper cardboard cutout of Phelps, with removable clothes. This echoed a similar real-life rallying point for the Chicago White Sox nearly 20 years later, when the team brought inflatable dolls into their locker room after a slow start and ended up winning their division. Ozzie Guillen, of course, got in trouble for that. That's kind of his thing. But since Major League doesn't delude itself into believing baseball is full of family men, Ward points the script in a direction and hits the throttle full blast, and the result is some of the funniest scenes and dialogue heard in a sports movie. Nothing is off limits for Ward - one player's wife hitting on Vaughn, superstitions, Jake catching opposing players off guard by distracting them, snot balls... In doing this, Major League avoids the supreme mistake of the jock movie and is free to, you know, be funny.
The story is cliched and has been done a million times, but it has rarely been this much fun. Unfortunately, I can't give it as high a rating as I'd like, because the story between Jake and his ex gets in the way too much. But if you tire of visions of picket fence, head-in-sand baseball glorifying an American past that simply didn't exist, Major League is a breath of fresh air.