There’s nothing more relatable than the shrug off, and that’s the majesty of Major League. David S. Ward’s 1989 baseball comedy is all about contending with that existential malaise: the lingering regrets, the bruised doubts, the crumpled dreams we’ve slipped in our back pockets next to pieces of gum. It’s a feeling you see on the faces of every beleaguered has-been in his dugout; men so had they’re willing to just take the bruise and roll with the quip. That is, until they start to try — or “win the whole, fucking, thing.”
That feeling extends beyond the ballpark, though, which is why Major League works so well. There’s so much economy to Ward’s screenplay, which has a batting average of .366 from beginning to end, all of which he matches with his equally economical direction. Look no further than those opening shots: As Randy Newman wheezes though his Midwestern ballad “Burn On”, we watch Cleveland unfold, under smoky skies and over tranquil city streets. You can feel its history, but also its years of dread.
This isn’t an opening that distills the story down to its essentials; these are the essentials. Without sounding pedantic, Cleveland is the main character, and Ward never loses sight of that scope. All throughout the film, we see the city’s reactions to nearly every step of the Indians’ unlikely Cinderella story. Sure, it’s mostly played for laughs — particularly, the recurring bits involving Neil Flynn’s foul-mouthed construction worker or the two cynical groundskeepers — but there’s a world being built.
Within that world, however, are a rogue’s gallery of characters that are all going through similar motions. Tom Berenger’s fortysomething Jake Taylor wants that unlikely fourth chance (and not just at the plate). Both Charlie Sheen’s bad boy Rick “Wild Thing” Vaughn and Wesley Snipes’ speedy Willy Mays Hayes want their first fair shot at life. Rene Russo’s Lynn Weslin wants to grow up and move on. And, yes, even Corbin Bernsen’s yuppy scum Roger Dorn wants something more than interior decorating.
This is an ensemble of starving heroes, and they’re never alone in that hunger. What’s more, they’re all leaning on their own vices, which Ward paints to varying degrees of insanity. Dennis Haysbert’s heavy-hitter Pedro Cerrano seeks answers from his voodoo idol Jobu, Bob Uecker’s wise-cracking broadcaster Harry Doyle treats whiskey like a cologne, and Chelcie Ross’ aging pitcher Eddie Harris resorts to anything from Vagisil to jalapeno to even snot to get his curveballs over the plate.
The struggle is real in Major League, but that’s why so many of us can sit back and laugh. We’re all in the shit together, and Ward never suggests otherwise, consistently reeling back and forth in scope, from the nearby bars to the downtown districts to the industrial outskirts of town. There’s this assuredly American feeling coursing throughout this movie, one that suggests we’re all in this great big ol’ melting pot of disappointment, and that mutual discontent is ultimately what binds us together.
It’s a timeless feeling for every American out there, no doubt aided by the fact that Ward delivered the most adult comedy possible. Because really, despite what its embarrassing PG-rated sequel may suggest, Major League isn’t really for the yawning kids in the grandstand. (Although, as this writer can attest to, it’s quite a crash course in cursing.) No, this is a comedy born out of the bruises of life — the mean age in this cast is, what, 40? — and that veteran outlook is paramount to its success.
There’s just so much dilapidated wisdom in every scene, and that wisdom speaks volumes as we age: scenes change, characters shift into focus, and newer themes emerge with each passing watch. There’s less humor and more humility with rebels like Vaughn and Mays. The Sam and Diane chase between Jake and Lynn feels more earned. Dorn being shaken down in his living room by Jake holds even more significance. That’s the timeless muscle of Ward’s community, all of which he flexes at the very end.
By then, the weight on everyone’s shoulders is also on yours. That’s why the second Taylor bunts, you’re also sitting there with baited breath, even if you’ve seen how it goes down a thousand times. You lose yourself in James Newton Howard’s hypnotic blend of synths and piano. You wince with Taylor as his knees shatter on first base. You swing your legs up as Mays slides home. You jump up and down in tears like Doyle. You laugh with Dorn and Vaughn. You get up and rewind it all again.
Rest assured, this one’s got the distance.