Pieces of Chicken: Notes on the second- or third-best baseball movie ever (“Major League”)
The movie that lifted the phrase "just a bit outside" into the American lexicon turned 25 years old earlier this year. It was broad, shallow, bordering on downright illiterate, the dunce at the back of the greatest class of baseball movies ever made. And somehow it outlasted them all.
Here’s how the second- or third-best baseball movie of all time came to me: 10 minutes here, 15 minutes there, glimpses, cartoonish flashes, Wild Thing leaning on a jukebox that was playing "Wild Thing," Willie Mays Hayes sprinting in pajamas, Pedro Cerrano circling the bases with his newly existentialist bat, more, less, again and again and again, in motel rooms, at in-laws’ houses, in this apartment or that apartment, swear words sometimes unshackled, sometimes blunted to ludicrous approximations, 3 a.m., 3 p.m., drunk, sober, bored, anxious, half-asleep, distracted, compulsive, morose, giggling. I lingered whenever it crossed my path, and thus it accrued within me over a couple of decades until finally it was part of me, like an element of my personality or some sort of internal diet-related cyst. That’s generally how the world comes to us, all manner of aesthetic wholeness pretty much a myth. You want a whole chicken? Well, here’s a chicken in pieces.
A few of the things I’ve googled while failing to impose wholeness on this essay:
How many pieces in a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken?
Exxon Valdez oil spill
Cleveland Spiders 1899
Hudson River School of painting
Muggsy Allenson bunt
Where is Muggsy Allenson now?
First McDonalds in Moscow
Strangulated hernia symptoms
The third-to-last and second-to-last items in the list above weren’t part of my research per se, but am I not a man? If you prick me, do I not bleed? If you give me a task, do I not veer from it? If you give me in my middle-40s a toddler and a newborn, does not my internal musculature slip out of whack, causing a disturbing bulge near the upper fringe of my pubes, plus some discomfort, along with the dread that this discomfort will blossom suddenly into fatal intestinal blockage? And if you give me a few moments alone with a search engine despite or because of all my worries, do I not take a quick gander at the vast virtual catacombs of disrobed feminine pulchritude at my fingertips? Believe me, I’m not proud of this last one. You’d think I’d have advanced at some point beyond the creepy ministrations of adolescence.
It’s not pleasant to realize that the character in "Major League" who best reflects both my limping middle-aged corporeal existence and my lascivious arrested interior development is Chelcie Ross’ sanctimonious, Hustler-perusing, ball-doctoring Eddie Harris. I’m 46 now, the same age as Ross when "Major League" was shot. Unlike me, Ross did not have a hernia, but during the training camp for the cast before the shooting of the film, he wrenched his groin. The graying actor, who had played baseball in college (and who also earned the Bronze Star in Vietnam), had to soldier through, and the injury deepened his already plausible twilit pitching motion, driving home the notion that Harris was all but finished, a crusty vet so profoundly on his last legs that if he had been left in to face just one last batter, Pete Vuckovich’s live-action Gas-House Gorilla Clu Haywood, his body would have disintegrated into a suspiciously viscid puddle of snapped bones. Ross’ agonized exertions also inspired one of the better stories from the set of the movie, according to a 2010 Steve Wulf profile of Ross:
Bob Uecker: "I’ve been watching you hurling out there on the mound, and I have to tell you, you’re a real inspiration."
Uecker: "Yeah, you make me want to hurl."
I have no focus. My life is pieces. This started a long time ago, about when I was entering into adulthood. The Exxon Valdez spilled a huge load of oil into the ocean off Alaska. The pharmaceutically precocious Oakland A’s muscled to the top of baseball. Construction on the first McDonald’s in Moscow commenced. The world was becoming one big balkanized bucket of steroidal chicken. Somewhere in there, "Major League" was released, part of an unprecedented flurry of baseball movies. What was with this flurry? Was it a product of some kind of cultural imperative similar to what happened with the Hudson River school of art? That was the movement in painting in the 1800s that featured sprawling enraptured canvases of the American wilderness just as that wilderness was starting to disappear. The disappearance underway in the late 1980s had to do with the rise of the NFL, which was shoving baseball to the side, along with a proliferation of entertainment options further cutting the world into pieces, ridding it of any center such as the one implied by the increasingly dubious term "the National Pastime." The baseball movie boom of 1988 and 1989 was, in terms of cultural hegemony, baseball’s last gasp.
Three of the four movies of this boom featured a distinct literary bent: "Eight Men Out" an earnest, stinging adaptation of an acclaimed nonfiction book; "Field of Dreams" a lyrical or unbearably sentimental — depending on whom you ask — rendering of the novel Shoeless Joe; "Bull Durham" featuring characters able to recite the poetry of Walt Whitman and critique the works of Susan Sontag. By contrast, the closest thing to a literary note in "Major League" occurs when Jake Taylor, the limping erstwhile Mexican League exile, skims the comic book version of "Moby-Dick" in hopes of getting in the pants of a hot librarian.
You can’t google your childhood fantasies. But I remember mine. They often involved limping. I spent hours on my own, throwing a tennis ball at our roof or at a duct-tape strike zone on the garage and using the ricochets of the ball as a random externalizing factor in my enactment of made-up leagues and teams and, at the core of it all, a team with an aging veteran of many a failed campaign who was, despite a painful-and-almost-completely-debilitating injury, leading his teammates — a ragtag band of misfits, has-beens, and never-weres — to the cusp of an improbable league championship. I always allowed myself to engineer this team into the finals, at which point I would stop subtly tanking the efforts of the team’s various opponents. I did this so that the ultimate victory, if it came, would feel real. If it didn’t, there would be limping and bitterness. If it did, there would be limping and tears. Either way, there would be limping. But it was certainly my preference as a 10-year-old for my hours alone in the backyard to climax with me limping around like a hobbled middle-aged man and weeping with joy.
"Major League" is a comic book fantasy, crackling with the primary colors and unapologetically shallow, dynamic characterizations of that medium. But the light touch needed for a good comic book, that most American of mediums, as American as jazz or movies or baseball, turns out to perhaps be the best touch for baseball movies. The bucket overfloweth with reasons why this touch works in "Major League": the sanctifying presence of Bob Uecker, saint of the dispiriting and hilarious margins of the game; the winking gravelly gravitas of James Gammon; the good-natured preening of Wesley Snipes, whose fumbled bat-flip alone would have been worth the price of admission, had I ever paid one; the real-life franchise used for the film, whose history of losing was mostly just silly rather than, as with some other long-time losers of the time, prone to framing in the overwrought terms of tragedy.
But of all these things the perfectly handled light touch of the movie is best epitomized by the work of Charlie Sheen, who claims to have ‘roided up to play the role of Ricky "Wild Thing" Vaughn. However he did it, he should be applauded, as it was the greatest rendition of a baseball player ever captured on film. Sheen’s ability to simultaneously offer seamless plausibility and larger-than-life entertainment provided the movie its core, anchoring all the goofiness and flaws of its cartoonish world in the actor’s thrillingly realistic presentation of a flame-throwing phenom. Consider by way of contrast "Bull Durham," in which the movie’s realistic milieu was punctured slightly but, over time, fatally by the awkward spasms of the supposed sensation played by Tim Robbins. It’s true that Sheen’s battery mate — at least when footage of Tom Berenger’s in-game body double, Steve Yeager, was unavailable — was every bit as laughably bad at baseball as Tim Robbins’ Nuke LaLoosh, but somehow it doesn’t matter. It’s the man on the mound who counts.
At the time the four movies came out, "Major League" ranked last of the four in terms of critical acclaim (Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t lie).
It’s a little depressing to me that I internalized the gist of this general critical appraisal of these movies to such an extent that I avoided seeing "Major League" upon its release. I was 21, a tightly wound pretentious poetry student and literary blowhard who was also, not coincidentally, still a virgin. I figured "Major League," from the name alone, was too broad to be of any worth. I would have ranked it last among the four without even seeing it.
As the years have gone on, "Major League" has mimicked its own subject matter in my estimation, climbing up from the basement and passing not only the other three movies in its late-1980s division but all other baseball movies with the exception of one or, if you’re me, both of the baseball films featuring Alfred Lutter, the unassuming bespectacled anchor, as Ogilvie, of "The Bad News Bears" and "The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training," which is to say any baseball movie venturing into the problematic area of portraying baseball as played by adults.
Any earnest literary approach to portraying baseball as played by adults will eventually reveal its limitations. Baseball is a kid’s game. Better to render it in a kid’s medium, a cartoon fantasy, something to be devoured like a bucket of chicken.
I’m way over the word count I was kindly given for this task and I haven’t even gotten to Muggsy Allenson’s bunt, let alone pieced anything into a facsimile of wholeness. My two small children are asleep at the same time right now, providing me the slim window I get once every few days to accomplish everything, to vacuum the rugs, to clean the bathrooms, to scoop the cat litter, to take out the trash, to call Mom, Tom, Ian, Bill, Pete, Charles, Matt, Jim, Frank, to apologize and apologize, to write several long overdue thank-you cards for presents for the new kid, to perform miraculous comprehensive revisions on my book, to start two college funds, to figure out what the term "401K" means, to research life insurance, to compose a will, to shave and shower and trim my lunatic-socialist eyebrows, to schedule hernia surgery, to ignore my hernia and go for a jog, to learn and master yoga, to meditate until enlightened, to embark on intensive psychotherapy, to wash the dishes, to attempt a conversation with my wife without the screeching interference of our offspring, to sleep, perchance to dream, and I know I’ll never get it all done, or even anything but the tiniest fraction, and all I really want to do, my fantasy, is to lean back alone on some anonymous motel room bed with a six-pack on one side and a bucket of chicken on the other and on TV by pure dumb luck "Major League."