When 'Major League' was released in 1989, Cleveland was only halfway through an epic championship drought. Surprisingly, the movie still feels fresh.
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The 2016 Cleveland Indians snuck up on the American League, at least to the extent that a 94-win team can sneak up on any baseball fan. On the backs of such mainstays as (checks Wikipedia) Jason Kipnis and (consults 2014 fantasy team) Corey Kluber, the Indians have won their first division title in nine years, and with (looks at cereal box) Coco Crisp and (listens to "Smooth") Carlos Santana in the mix, Cleveland could make a deep run in the playoffs.
Cleveland sports fans are still recovering from 50-plus years without a major professional championship, and the Browns are still the Browns (forever and ever, amen), but somewhere between LeBron James leaving town six years ago as "the Whore of Akron" and his triumphant return as municipal savior and pilot of the "Believeland" bandwagon, things have changed in the city. And if the Indians shake off the injuries that have recently decimated their roster and win their first World Series in 68 years, the transformation will be more dramatic.
But even with the Cavaliers overcoming a 3-1 deficit to defeat the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals earlier this year, it's still a stretch to imagine Cleveland, Ohio, as a City Of Champions. And in this sense, the core joke of Major League still holds up, 27 years after its release.
When it came out in 1989, Major League was a bright spot for a fan base that had suffered decades' worth of heartache (and had decades more in store). It had been just two years since Sports Illustrated naively predicted a playoff run for a 1987 Indians team that went on to lose 101 games instead. It was an age in which heartbreaking AFC losses were the worst a Browns fan had to fear. The Drive and The Fumble already had occurred (to be followed, eventually, by The Shot, The Decision, and a host of other traumatic "The" moments).
Many years and heartbreaks later, Major League remains a very funny movie, which bodes well for its legacy even if the Browns ever finally get their shit together.
Margaret Whitton is Rachel Phelps, a former showgirl, recent widow, and, most important, the new owner of your Cleveland Indians. Seeing that Municipal Stadium is too old, too large, and too located-in-Cleveland to be successful, Phelps comes up with a late-1980s version of Sam Hinkie's "The Process," tasking her GM with building a team so bad that attendance falls low enough to void her lease with the city and move the Indians to a brand-new ballpark in Miami. Unlike real life, where such a process will only result in broken big man after broken big man and it's so much easier to blackmail a city into building your shitty team a new ballpark, the Indians swiftly become too successful for Phelps' tastes. The anti-climactic comeback and title are given real stakes here, because we grow to love the team, and see that Cleveland—in the film it's actually Milwaukee, Wisconsin, convincingly playing Cleveland—is doing the same.
The Cleveland Indians of Major League are the textbook definition of "ragtag." Longtime minor league and tire outlet manager Lou Brown, played by the late, great character actor James Gammon, thinks the Indians general manager is some yahoo busting his balls, but Brown's no-nonsense demeanor and actual managing are exactly what the team needs. Brown's charges include the leathery catcher Jake Taylor (Tom Berenger) and the leathery second baseman Roger Dorn (Corbin Bernsen), whose love of a good suntan is just about the only thing they have in common. A young Wesley Snipes is awesome as flashy speedster Willie Mays Hayes, creating a character whose balance of braggadocio and bullshit would make him a superstar in any league, and mitigating the obvious Eric Yelding parallels. Charlie Sheen is similarly magnificent as ex-con Ricky Vaughn, the badass reliever with Mitch Williams' arm, Brian Bosworth's hair, Rod Beck's impulse control, and Vance Worley's eyes. Rounding out the team are a nearly unrecognizable Dennis Haysbert as Cuban refugee and stereotypical voodoo practitioner Pedro Cerrano, sports movie icon Chelcie Ross in an actual playing role as a Phil Niekro/Gaylord Perry–type veteran and hypocritical Christian, and the legendary Bob Uecker as equally legendary announcer Harry Doyle.
In defiance of the soft bigotry of low expectations, the Cleveland Baseball Team wins in spite of themselves and their spiteful owner. As the Indians improve, Rachel Phelps forces them to first fly in an ancient DC-3, and then travel in a dilapidated Scenicruiser for the back half of the season. Eventually the team uses Phelps' plans (and sexy likeness printed on cardboard) against her, leading to a one-game playoff against the early 1980s Milwaukee Brewers disguised as the 1989 New York Yankees. First "Wild Thing" Vaughn strikes out the immortal Clue Heywood, as played by actual 1982 AL Cy Young Award winner Pete Vuckovich, and then Taylor and Hayes combine to defeat "The Duke," the Yankees' final boss reliever as played by former Brewer Willie Mueller. The Indians win the fifth or sixth greatest one-game playoff in MLB history, and if Major League II is any indication, go on to bow out quietly in the ALCS.
A lot of what made Major League popular in its time—and, honestly, in its long afterlife—would be considered problematic in 2016, from the Indians mascot itself to its portrayal of Cuban baseball players as future insurance pitchmen. But there is more than enough in the movie that is still enjoyable as to make it endure. The vision of writer/director David S. Ward is nearly complete, and was almost ruined by the ending he was originally going to use, in which Rachel Phelps makes an unnecessary face turn, revealing that she acted like a stereotypical bitch to motivate the players into winning. Ward, who won an Oscar in 1973 for writing The Sting, would later write and direct Major League's first sequel and The Program, but these later movies lack most of what made this one so special, while retaining most of its flaws.
Chief among Major League's strengths is its depiction of Cleveland as a sort of character in the film, rather than as the punchline or hellscape it was in films like Howard The Duck or American Splendor. No matter that most of the film was shot in Wisconsin and another good chunk was filmed in Arizona; Major League pays a lot more attention to the city its fictional team calls home than Paper Lion or For Love Of The Game ever paid to Detroit. The opening sequence lets you know that you're watching Something About Cleveland; the use of Randy Newman's song about the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire, "Burn On" lets us in on the joke, but still provides some sustaining hope for the next hour and 47 minutes. The exterior shots of Cleveland's landmarks are complemented by a Greek chorus of fans (including a young Neil Flynn as a longshoreman) who use various forms of profanity to describe their feelings regarding the Indians. Hardhats and punk-rock types unite behind this shitty baseball club. In a film that otherwise doesn't have much in the way of serious moments, the tenderness and care Major League pays its city and its fans stand out in the best possible way.
The weakest part of Major League by far is the one-sided love affair between Tom Berenger and Rene Russo. Jake Taylor tries everything to get his ex-wife back, from reading the Classics Illustrated version of Moby Dick to, um, tailing her home after a ball game while driving the bullpen car. All this borderline stalking unfortunately works, which is sad because you feel for Jake but really want him to move on with his life. Cuckolding—the fine art of screwing someone else's lover, which has somehow become a major theme in the online discourse surrounding American politics—is a major theme of Major League, from a throwaway "how's your wife and my kids" line from Clue Heywood to Roger Dorn's wife seeking revenge for her husband's infidelity by coming on to Ricky Vaughn. No wonder a recently suspended alt-right Twitter account used Vaughn as his alter ego.
This year, as Cleveland girds itself against potential disappointment should the Indians lose to Boston in the LDS, Toronto or Texas in the LCS, or (probably) the Cubs or the Giants in the World Series, they have reasons for optimism, too. The window has yet to close on this Indians team, which should be even better next year if it can make it to October with a higher percentage of its pitching rotation not in traction. The Cavaliers look ready to defend Cleveland's first championship since the Johnson Administration. The Browns are already a mortal lock to pick first in the 2017 NFL draft. The Forest City has a lot to look forward to in the near future, but if, in trademark Cleveland fashion, most of it ends horribly, Clevelanders will always have Major League to watch in tandem with Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. It's not enough to erase nearly seven decades of frustration, but it's a decent double bill.
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