Romanticizing the Catcher
Last night Steve and I had an Off-Night Movie Double Feature, comprised of the two DVDs I bought the other day. Borders, for me, is like a bar for an alcoholic--I went on one of my spending benders there again recently, and in the process picked up the DVDs of Major League and Bull Durham, both of which (try to contain your disbelief) I hadn't seen.
What both of these movies have in common is that they romanticize and heavily stereotype the character of a baseball catcher. Both Tom Berenger's Jake Taylor and Kevin Costner's Crash Davis are roughneck, battle-scarred straight-shooters who seem to exist to counsel others on a path in life they themselves can't seem to follow. I have no doubt that part of a catcher's duties at any level is playing psychologist to a stable of pitchers, but I wonder how an actual catcher would feel about being portrayed as lifelong second fiddle to other, more charismatic ballplayers.
That said, now that I've seen them, there's a reason both of these movies are baseball classics, though the reasons are very different. Major League is refreshing because it refrains, for the most part, from the kind of smarmy, over-the-top, Win-One-for-the-Gipper mood that characterizes many other sports movies. Of course, it's easy to ascertain from the moment you see the Cruella Deville-esque owner of the ersatz Cleveland Indians that the ragtag band of misfits she has assembled as part of her evil, female plot to destroy the team will defy all the odds just to spite her. But what makes Major League work is the way it gets to its predictable ending, with an assemblage of caricatures so bitingly accurate that each makes you point and laugh at the screen on several occasions.
Take Pedro--the Cuban defector and self-styled voodoo priest, whose locker quickly becomes an altar to Jobu, a god he feels will help him hit a curveball. Or Dorn, the cocky shortstop who can't field a ground ball to save his life. Or Willie Mays Hayes, the base-stealing, fast-talking Token Black Guy, and of course, Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn, the ex-con fireballer who is finally tamed at movie's end by a pair of horn-rimmed glasses and a wayward shortstop's wife.
What's great about the movie is the unapologetic way it parades out every professional athletic stereotype, only to reinvent them. The best example of this is in the pivotal playoff game against (of course) the Yankees, in the showdown between Taylor and the mutant reliever known only as "The Duke", a potbellied monster who, the announcer informs us, "once threw at his own son in a father-son Little League game". "The Duke" is so monstrous and over the top that you can't help but laugh. And then Taylor uses "The Duke"'s aggression against him, pointing arrogantly out to center field in a way that raises "The Duke"'s ire and informs the audience that this particular movie won't be insulting our intelligence that way, thanks very much.
When Taylor's pointing makes "The Duke" come inside on him, Hayes steals a base. That and a bunt laid down by Taylor win the game, 3-2. Thank God it wasn't a walkoff--that would have ruined the whole movie.
Major League also earns points for any number of memorable lines that I plan to use liberally in this space when commenting on games, especially the manager's Brillo-throated bawl at Charlie Sheen's character to "Forget the curveball, Vaughn, give'm the heater!" or shortstop Dorn's exhortation to Vaughn on the mound, "I only got one thing to say to you...strike this motherfucker out." And of course, Pedro's "Straight ball, I hit very much."
The final bonus with this movie is that, somehow, it secured permission to use an impossible number of actual major league team names, logos, uniforms and even stadiums. By my count you see or at least hear of the Indians, Yankees, A's, Angels, White Sox, Brewers and Braves in the movie. The uniforms the actors wear are the real deal. It's nice given that in most movies you are treated to teams like the Cleveland Tribe, or some weak approximation of the actual name, and expected to suspend your disbelief when they play the New York Dominators, or something.
Still, of the two I found I had a soft spot in my heart for Bull Durham, because it at least tries to make a serious point about baseball (in between Susan Sarandon sleeping with people, that is). Tim Robbins is absolutely brilliant as a ridiculous young pitching prodigy whose unassuming manner--"so is someone gonna go to bed with somebody here, or what?"--takes the edge off his arrogance. His relationship with Crash is a far, far more compelling one than any of the chick-flick romantic intrigue going on off the field. Every time Crash walks out toward the mound, another brilliant dialogue follows, and it carries the whole movie.
Crash's character is, for the most part, remarkably well portrayed by the unlikely Kevin Costner. He's a lifer in the minor leagues, allowing himself to be bought and sold like chattel, along with various other nobly endured indignities, and you get the point without any Oscar Scene (tm) speeches: Crash simply loves the game. He may want to bed Susan Sarandon, but the love of his life is baseball. The fact that this comes through without any cheesy expository dialogue is the true strength of the movie.
Which brings me to the movie's major weakness: the ending. In the end, of course, the young prospect Robbins is sent up to "The Show", freeing up Crash Davis to finally sleep with Susan Sarandon. Which he does. Quite a bit. In fact, their multi-phase sex scene goes on for at least fifteen minutes, traversing the entire interior landscape of her house from the kitchen table to the bathtub. Crash then leaves, however, and is shown groggily heading toward another one-horse burg to suit up behind the plate for another dead-end single-A team. Susan Sarandon is shown waking up to find his "Dear Jane" note. Tim Robbins is shown repeating the cliches Crash taught him one day on the bus for the cameras at the big club's stadium. "Like a friend of mine once said, this game is simple," he says "You throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."
Period. End of movie. END OF MOVIE. Had it ended there, it might have cracked my All-time Top Five Movies Ever. But it didn't. It insisted on the indulgence of Crash Davis quitting baseball to shack up with Sarandon and instead of ending with any type of philosophical resonance whatsoever, rolls credits over the two of them dancing in her living room in their pajamas--badly.
But the great thing about DVD is that there's a "stop" button, which I plan to push next time, emphatically, as soon as Robbins' speech is done. Because that's what the movie should be showing--the Kid goes to the Show, the Woman gets Left, and the Tough-Luck Minor Leaguer Keeps on Truckin'. The loves story between Crash Davis and baseball continues. He keeps chasing that low-down bitch all over the backwoods of the Deep South, and he'll never stop. That's how I'm going to watch that movie from now on.
As I was watching these movies, my eyes wandered occasionally to the Boston Globe photographs of various Red Sox players frozen in various action shots: Pedro, tongue poking through his lips, in mid-delivery; Curt Schilling striking a perfect follow-through arabesque; David Ortiz with his hands in the air after jacking one out; Jason Varitek with the ball gripped in one brawny hand, ratcheted back behind his head in preparation for a put-out throw; and Manny's twisting torso just after his moment of connection with the ball. I watched these movies and as I got invested in their fictional characters, it only made me wonder, looking at these stations of the Red Sox cross, what the real stories are.