Given my Ohio and Cleveland sports fan lineage, it’s surprising that I had actually kind of forgotten about David Ward’s “Major League.” But when it was name checked in the ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, “Believeland,” back in May, the memories of the comedy about a misfit Cleveland Indians team who goes from worst to first came rushing back. This summer, as the Indians hit a hot streak while the Cavaliers broke the city’s 52-year championship streak, I felt the need to watch it again, and the result is a reminder of how much fun this is as an underdog sports movie, one of my favorite genres of late.
The film starts with a montage of Cleveland set to Randy Newman’s “Burn On,” about the Cuyahoga River catching fire, before settling in on the Indians woes since winning the 1948 World Series. We then catch up with the team after a losing 1988 team. Their longtime owner has died, and his attractive wife, a former showgirl named Rachel Phelps (Margaret Whitton), has taken over the team. The thing is, she can’t stand Cleveland, and her ideas for the team are motivated by the possibility of moving the team to Miami. She wants to build a team so inept that attendance will drop to a level so low that she can facilitate the move. Her manager is an International League coach who also works at a repair shop (Lou Brown, played by the gruff James Gammon), and her players include washouts (Jake Taylor, played by Tom Berenger), flawed vets (Corbin Bernsen’s Roger Dorn and Chelcie Ross’s Eddie Harris) and rookies like Pedro Cerrano (Dennis Haysbert), Willie Mays Hayes (Wesley Snipes) and Ricky Vaughn (Charlie Sheen), who could have a lot of upside, but have some quirks that make it difficult to see when the team struggles to find it’s groove. They do manage to get some wins, but they are still struggling by midseason. They get wind of Phelps’s plan, though, and resolve to show her up. Can they win in the end? Do you really need to ask that question? How many times have I said that in a review for one of these movies?
Though the film was made in Milwaukee, it gets the sports culture of Cleveland over the years effortlessly. That undying love of the teams, even when it is struggling, comes through in entertaining fashion, best exemplified by Bob Uecker as color commentator Harry Doyle, who gets all of the funniest lines while the players and coach work on grounding the film on an emotional level. Don’t expect a semi-serious film, though- Ward has a sharp ear for comedy and sports and a way to combine the two. Vaughn has enviable speed on the ball, but his eyesight means he has no control, resulting in him wearing glasses. Cerrano (played by Haysbert, as far away from his “24” president days as you can get) has power, but can’t hit anything besides a fastball, and his worship of voodoo doesn’t always help. Dorn is a big free-agent, but his focus on after baseball means not really focusing on the field. And Taylor has wisdom he can give to the likes of Vaughn and Hayes, but his struggling knees make it difficult for him to play catcher anymore, and his affection for old flame Lynn (Rene Russo) is what motivates him to make this work. This is a cast that just works, as well as epitomizes the late ’80s/early ’90s with names like Berenger, Sheen and Bernsen in the lead roles. All the actors mentioned here have high points, and they all culminate in the final effect of us being completely on this team’s side when they are in a one-game playoff with their rivals, the New York Yankees. I’ve been more of an Atlanta Braves fan over the years than the Indians, although I still have loyalty for the Tribe. When the Braves had their own worst-to-first run in 1991, it was hard not to see parallels with this film. I love underdogs, mainly because I feel like one myself. “Major League” has some of the craziest, but really is one of my favorites.