Archive for July, 2019

July 7, 2019

#152) Happy 25th birthday to one of baseball’s smartest and under-rated comedies

“Little Big League” was victimized by bad timing. The movie was released in 1994, the year that a strike wiped out half of the baseball season. It entered a market saturated with average baseball comedies: “Rookie of the Year”, “Angels in the Outfield” and its most direct competitor, “Major League II.” The movie is not perfect – it gets preachy in some spots, its 119-minute run time could have been trimmed and some of the characters are one-dimensional.

Still, it’s better than its lukewarm reputation would have you believe.

You have to be a baseball fan to enjoy it, and there are fewer of us now than there were in ’94. But if you are and you haven’t seen this film for a while, give it another look. If you haven’t, you’re in for a pleasant surprise, especially if you are a fan of baseball comedies.

Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards) inherits the Minnesota Twins at age 11 when his grandfather (Jason Robards) dies. After firing unpopular manager George O’Farrell (Dennis Farina), Billy has difficulty finding a replacement (“None of the good guys want to work for a kid.”) One of his friends suggests that he do it himself: “It’s the American League. You have the designated hitter. How hard can it be?” Next thing we know, the young manager is donning a Twins cap at a press conference, telling the reporters, “First of all, I just want to say, this is really cool.”

The Twins are open-minded about the idea of playing for a 11-year old. To put it gently, there’s some skepticism among the Twins about their new skipper, who as one pitcher puts it, “won’t be able to get into an R-rated movie for another six years.” Even those who enjoyed talking baseball with the knowledgeable Billy when he visited them in the clubhouse doubt his ability to run the team. Inevitably, he wins them over, slowly but surely and the team gels, plays solid baseball and becomes a contender for the newly created wildcard playoff position (1994 was the first year in which Major League Baseball used a three-division format for each league, a fact that “Little Big League” integrated while “Major League II” used the obsolete playoff structure in its plot). Underdog stories such as this have to climax in the Big Game – where either the hero loses but it’s still a moral victory (“Rocky”, “School of Rock”) or the little guys win (every other movie ever). It’s hard to be original in either of these plot lines, but the denouement of “Little Big League” – if not unexpected – at least doesn’t come off as cheap.

Besides the underdog arc, the film’s other plot lines are also familiar. Billy starts off as the kid reminding the adults that baseball should be fun but becomes enamored with his power and loses track of his own message (he offers to send his friends a bucket of signed baseballs to apologize for blowing them off so he can have lunch with Reggie Jackson), then rights himself as the team comes together for the final push. Billy also struggles with his feelings about his mother’s budding romance with one of the stars. However, by balancing these threads with the team’s march toward the pennant and the players’ shenanigans, such as the lesson in water balloon physics, the film manages to avoid bogging itself down in trying to make us better people.

“Little Big League” playfully tests the limits of its “PG” rating. In his hotel room, Billy watches an adult film and then blames a player for ordering it when his mom confronts him with the bill. When Billy argues with an umpire, a strategically timed air horn bleeps out words that make veteran Rafael Palmeiro’s eyeballs bulge. Palmeiro is one of several MLB players who appears in the film as himself. Former MLB journeyman Kevin Elster is featured as the Twins’ shortstop. Scott Patterson, who plays the team’s “diva” pitcher, pitched in the minors before becoming an actor. (Patterson’s character is named Mike McGrevey, after an infamous early 1900s Red Sox fan). John Gordon, the actual Twins’ long-time announcer, might not be quite as quotable as Bob Uecker in “Major League” but he is still a strong comedic presence. He dots his commentary with deadpan stats that may have sounded absurd in 1994 but aren’t actually that much farther out than those purveyed by the baseball geeks of the Billy Beane era (“He’s eight for thirteen against left handed pitchers he’s facing for the first time in the seventh inning or later in night games.”)

One quarter century after its release, “Little Big League” isn’t remembered as a turkey; it simply isn’t remembered. To date, it is the only film Andrew Scheinman has directed. Not much has been heard from Luke Edwards recently. We recall Tim Busfield for “Revenge of the Nerds” and Jonathan Silverman for “Weekend at Bernie’s” more so than for their roles in this film. But “Little Big League” does have its loyal fans, including Rustin Dodd of the Kansas City Star, Eric Dodds of Time and “Deja Viewer” blogger Robert Lockard. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review upon its release, praising it as having a “real feel for the game.” (An example of this is when Billy refers to himself in the third person at a press conference following his outburst against the umpire: “I’ve got to do what’s best for Bill Heywood…A Bill Heywood must be allowed to speak his mind; otherwise he cannot do his job.”)

Ultimately, maybe “Little Big League” does come up a little short compared to “Major League” – the combination of Uecker, James Gammon as Lou Brown, Wesley Snipes as Willie Mays Hays and of course Charlie Sheen’s “Wild Thing” is hard to beat. But despite their similar territory, there is room for both. “Major League” may have debated whether Jesus Christ could hit a curve ball, but it couldn’t speculate how the Savior would do on Wednesdays against teams north of the Mason-Dixon line whose home games aren’t played in a dome.