Jake, Wild Thing, and Willie Mays Hayes

Nothing lasts forever.  Even losing streaks.

Major League, a 1989 film, depicts a fictional version of the Cleveland Indians, a team which, like the real Indians ball club as of the film’s release date, has not won an American League pennant since 1954.  It centers on three characters—veteran Jake Taylor, a former All-Star catcher in the sunset of his career; rookie Rick Vaughn, an ex-con with devastating speed on his fastball; and Willie Mays Hayes, a cocky but amiable outfielder who claims to “play like Mays and run like Hayes.”

At the beginning of the film, the players’ battles emerge—Jake has bad knees, Rick has no control, and Hayes is not fast enough to beat the throw from the catcher when he tries to steal second.  Indians manager Lou Brown, the former manager of the Toledo Mud Hens for 30 years, deduces that Rick’s lack of control emanates from nearsightedness; wearing glasses solves the problem, though it does not shed Rick of his “Wild Thing” nickname, inspired by his initial inability get the ball in or near the strike zone.

Cleveland’s roster also includes Roger Dorn, a third baseman oozing arrogance; Pedro Cerrano, a voodoo-worshipping slugger with the power of Zeus and a weakness against breaking balls; and Eddie Harris, a veteran pitcher resorting to putting substances on the ball, including mucus.

Rachel Phelps, the ex-showgirl widow of Indians owner Donald Phelps, has no interest in winning.  Rather, she wants the team to lose so attendance plummets below 800,000 for the season, a benchmark allowing her to break the contract with Cleveland requiring the Indians to remain in the city.  Then, she will move the team to Miami.  To execute her plan, Rachel hires misfits like the aforementioned trio, reduces team luxuries, and observes the destruction.

When Lou discovers Rachel’s ploy, he reveals it to the team.  Initially depressed, the team rallies behind Jake’s admonition—”Win the whole fuckin’ thing.”

Once barely mediocre, the Indians steamroll through the American League, resulting in appearances on the covers of Sports Illustrated and People, an American Express commercial, and a string of headlines boasting victories.  Their season ends in a tie with the Yankees, forcing a one-game playoff for the American League Eastern Division championship.

Major League exemplifies Chekhov’s Gun, a literary theory positing, in the words of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story.  If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.  If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

With the game on the line, Lou calls in Rick from the bullpen to face Clu Haywood, the Yankee slugger dominating American League pitchers.  Three straight fastballs notch a strikeout for the Indians, leading to the bottom of the ninth.  Hayes gets on base by running out a ground ball, and then promptly steals second base.

As Jake steps into the batter’s box, he has a brainstorm—rather than hit away, which everyone from the Yankee outfield to the ushers expects, he wants to bunt.  After clearing it with Lou through sings, Jake points to center field, thereby drawing cheers from Cleveland’s faithful fans and deep ire from the Yankee pitcher, who throws at Jake’s head.  Without dusting himself off, Jake does it again.

His bunt surprises the Yankee third baseman and allows him the time to run it out, providing his knees hold out.  Jake’s grimace as he runs to first base and slow motion filming emphasize his pain. Barely, he beats the throw, and then collapses on the ground.  Hayes scores, the Indians win, and Cleveland celebrates.  Rachel, in turn, remains in Cleveland.

Jake’s ploy has additional significance—at the beginning of the film, when he stands at home plate in the empty stadium, he imagines hitting a home run to win a game and rounds the bases.

Providing comic relief in Major League is Bob Uecker as broadcaster Harry Doyle, a possessor of puns, jokes, and sarcasm.  When an opposing player hits a home run, Doyle says of a Cleveland outfielder, “Tomlinson’s gonna need a visa to catch this one.”

Jake’s romantic interest is Lynn, a Cleveland librarian and a former girlfriend harboring resentment for past indiscretions.  Though engaged, with a wedding date of October 3rd, which happens to be the same date as the playoff game, she has a tryst with Jake.  At the end of Major League, she catches his attention in the stands, waves her left hand, to indicate no wedding ring, and embraces him.

Somewhere, Chekhov is smiling.  Maybe he’s even an Indians fan.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on May 31, 2016.

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