Reel Baseball – Major League: Back To The Minors (1998)

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I wonder how some movies get made. Like, there’s a room full of producers, and they reveal they’ve got X million dollars left to spend that year. They pull out a book full of all the franchises they’ve got the rights to, several suggestions are made and rejected, until they get to “Major League”. So what that it wasn’t a particular hit, and the last instalment was four years ago? And that the biggest names from the first two would be too old or require too much money?

 

Gus Cantrell (Scott Bakula) is a down-on-his-luck pitcher in the independent leagues, playing his last season before retirement, until he’s approached after a game by Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen). If you’ve seen part 2, you’ll know Dorn had to sell the Cleveland Indians because he was losing money, but in the intervening four years he’s clearly done quite a bit better because he now owns the Minnesota Twins. Dorn wants Cantrell to come and manage his AAA team in South Carolina – for British readers, AAA is like the second division of baseball, but one where all the teams are owned by teams in the first division.

 

Anyway, despite having zero coaching experience, he agrees, leaving his sort-of-girlfriend (doing a passable Rene Russo from part 1 impression) and heading off. Now, sport these days is a very big money business so there’s no room for wacky personalities, which is partly why the first two movies always felt ever so slightly off – but when you go down the food chain a little, there’s more room for oddballs. The South Carolina Buzz are a loveable bunch – they’ve got a hippie pitcher, a couple of Mexican twins with the same name, a former ballet dancer, and a relief pitcher who’s the sort of comedy movie type to ask for fancy sauces in a greasy roadside diner. There’s also one legit superstar-in-waiting on the team, Billy “Downtown” Anderson (Walton Goggins, a long way from his star-making role on “Justified”), who just doesn’t have the right mindset to be in the big leagues yet.

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Because Corbin Bernsen does not a franchise make, we need to have some more guys back from the first two movies, so catcher Rube Baker is back in the minors after suffering a recurrence of the “yips” which were cured in part 2; plus, Bob Uecker is now commentating for the Buzz, presumably after being fired for his rampant alcoholism. It’s at this point that the movie waves farewell to any sense of reality – Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert) and Taka (Takaaki Ishibashi) from part 2 are also hired, with the explanation being they dropped out of baseball for a few years. In Taka’s case, this was to run a crazy golf course, which the team happens to be driving past one day. Sure, why not?

 

So, this rag-tag bunch (featuring three World Series winners, lest we forget) starts tearing up the competition in AAA, while at the same time the Twins – led by Leonard Huff (Ted McGinley) – are not exactly doing great. An exhibition game between the two teams halfway through the season ends with the Buzz poised to win because Huff turns the ballpark’s lights off, and the feud between Cantrell and Huff powers the rest of the movie, sort of, with “Downtown” used as a pawn between them.

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I don’t need to tell you any more about it, really, as if you needed poorly written synopses you could just go to IMDB. I wanted to discuss sport comedies a little, and how this film fits in that tradition. Coincidentally enough, the all-time highest grossing sport comedy was released the same year as this – Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy”, with his 2005 “The Longest Yard” close behind (with a couple of Will Ferrell movies following them). What the best (or highest grossing) sport comedies do is keep the drama on the back burner as much as possible, because twist endings and failure don’t really fit the genre. You know, pretty much, how things are going to end up, so it’s always best to have a laugh or two in there.

 

“Back To The Minors” doesn’t do that, though. Well, the the home stretch is as predictable as ever, but there’s great swathes of this movie that aren’t funny at all, and aren’t even trying to be. It’s much more a drama with a few over the top characters in it than a comedy, even down to the always-reliable Bob Uecker acting like a real sport commentator for most of the running time. I’ve nothing against that in principle, I suppose, but when it’s sold as a comedy there’s a disconnect in the brain of the viewer.

MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS, Kenneth Johnson, Thom Barry, Peter Mackenzie, Tim DiFilippo, Ted DiFilippo, Eric Bruskotter, 1998. ©Warner Bros..

MAJOR LEAGUE: BACK TO THE MINORS, Kenneth Johnson, Thom Barry, Peter Mackenzie, Tim DiFilippo, Ted DiFilippo, Eric Bruskotter, 1998. ©Warner Bros..

The slightly bigger problem then becomes that it fails as a drama too. I’ll give a few examples, firstly that Cantrell’s relationship is told, not shown. At the beginning, we’re not even sure that they’re together at all, but then halfway in they’re sharing a hotel room and getting flown on a private jet together. It’s all very odd. Secondly, there’s no real arc to Cantrell’s story – he goes from failed pitcher to super-successful coach immediately, without missing a beat. It feels like we’re being told the beginning and end of a lot of stories, without bothering with that middle bit. Turns out the middle bit is important when it comes to making movies!

 

If you like baseball (or just the first two Major Leagues), it’s a pleasant, gentle, unsurprising way to spend a couple of hours. If not, then feel lucky that its almost complete disappearance from the public eye (end of a dead franchise, as even Charlie Sheen’s breakdown-era fame couldn’t resurrect it) means you’re unlikely to happen upon it one night. Scott Bakula looks like a broken-down former ballplayer, and there’s lots of fun performances in it, just…it needed to be funnier or more dramatic.

 

Rating: thumbs down

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Reel Baseball – Major League (1989)

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Adding to the long list of series the ISCFC will never finish, baseball movies! After years of not really being bothered by sport, I find myself a huge fan of the St Louis Cardinals in particular and baseball in general. So, what better way to combine my love of film and baseball than to do a series on baseball films? There’s going to be comedies and dramas (mostly dramas) and documentaries and insane Japanese horror films, so strap in! Also, anyone who can think of a good name for this series of reviews will win a prize. Best so far – “Reel Baseball” (which I think I subconsciously ripped off from somewhere else).

If you saw “Major League” when you were a kid, as I did, and then watched it now, I guarantee your hazy memories of the film will be wrong. The knockabout comedy about the scrappy misfits who go all the way is actually a drama about Tom Berenger, a washed up former player who has a chance to make one last run at the big leagues, desperately trying to rekindle the relationship with the woman he loved but treated badly; the comedy seems to be a bit of an afterthought, like they hired Charlie Sheen at the last minute and did some 11th hour rewrites to add some laughs.

The Cleveland Indians are a terrible baseball team, and their new owner, a former Vegas showgirl who married into money, has an idea. If the team tanks and their season’s attendance drops below 800,000, she can cancel their contract with Cleveland and move the team to Miami, which has a climate more to her liking. To this end, she lets all the good players go, hires a bunch of has-beens, never-weres and raw rookies (along with a gruff coach who was working in a garage while managing some minor-league team part time), and waits for the blissful time ahead in Miami.

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And that’s it, a nicely simple premise for a film. The personalities – “That Guy” legend Chelcie Ross as (very) old veteran Eddie Harris; Dennis Haysbert as voodoo-practising Cerrano; Wesley Snipes as super-cocky Willie Mays Hayes; Corbin Bernsen as wealthy underachiever Roger Dorn; and Charlie Sheen as Ricky “Wild Thing” Vaughn, bounce off each other and make most of the laughs in the film. It works, too! They seem like real characters, and the only reason they feel a bit over the top is the corporate behemoth baseball has become in the last 25 years, with personalities being ground into the dirt. These guys would have been the most normal player on any team of the 1970s.

Add in Berenger as the dramatic lead and sport legend Bob Uecker as the commentator, and you’ve got yourself a sport movie. As the team starts coming together and winning matches, Berenger and former girlfriend Rene Russo’s relationship begins thawing. To be fair, as this is starting to read like a love-in for this movie, we never really see any evidence of him reforming his philandering ways, and he attempts to even play down the bad things he did, which indicates they’ll be having the same old problems a few minutes after this film finishes. But as we all know, women are prizes for being good at your job or being really brave! Oh Rene Russo, you beautiful beautiful plot device!

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It’s a great film, really, and nails the beats of the classic sport movie well. It’s also weird seeing Cleveland in its industrial prime, given what a horrible mess the city apparently is now, with jobs leaving the city in droves…but here’s the boring film reviewer bit where I talk about why it doesn’t work. Never take your eyes off the main cast members, because when the coach is giving his rousing speech, the extras playing the other members of the team don’t respond at all. At least smile or cheer or something, you guys! It’s really quite off-putting at times. As I’ve alluded to above, the addition of flat-out comedy to the gentle drama is a bit odd, but once you get used to it, it’s fine. A sort of mix you don’t really get too much these days, like with the buddy-buddy cop drama now being the preserve of straight comedies like “The Other Guys” and “21 Jump Street”.

There are two more films in the “Major League” franchise to look forward to – a sequel five years later, then a Sheen-less part 3 a few years after that. And so much more! Stay with us, ISCFC readers.

Rating: thumbs up