A boy's sport, a man's game. Baseball lodges in the American male heart because the fundamentals look easy enough for any Little Leaguer to master. Too soon, men realize that pro ball demands a genius for grace, concentration and magnificent egotism. They may agonize over the career path not chosen, the debt too steep, the woman so close but just beyond their reach. For many, though, a dream of athletic stardom is the one that got away. So they stick with baseball, living and dying with their team, analyzing stats with the rapt anguish of a rabbinical student cramming for a final. To their favorite players they are both sons and fathers -- part hero worshipers, part child psychologists. They become a collective, possessive lover of their idols. Baseball fever: boys catch it, men can't shake it.
Not even movie men are immune, as witness last summer's Bull Durham, Eight Men Out and Stealing Home. And here come two more films, both directed by their writers, that play games with baseball. David S. Ward's Major League is a rowdy, genially cynical comedy about jocks and Jills. Its fanciful Cleveland Indians team is a bunch of rejects from the Mexican, minor and California Penal leagues. Now coming to bat: the veteran catcher on his last legs (Tom Berenger), the Willie Mays wanna-be (Wesley Snipes), the pampered third baseman (Corbin Bernsen). And on the mound, a fastballer (Charlie Sheen) with control problems on and off the field. With this gang, in this comic fantasy, the Tribe can't lose.
Major League doesn't try too hard or aim too high, but it is pretty funny. With its stock characters, breezy dialogue, dense ambience and instinct for easy emotions, it could serve as the pilot for a pay-cable sitcom. The film's tone is acerb, but its climax is as predictably uplifting as Rocky's and as surefire effective as Damn Yankees'.
The hero of Damn Yankees was a pennant-winning natural named Shoeless Joe Hardy. The hero of Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams is a farmer (Kevin Costner) who dreams of bringing Shoeless Joe Jackson back to earth for one more game. The great outfielder may have helped throw the 1919 World Series, but the farmer idolizes him and his Black Sox teammates for their innocence! So with the help of his trusting wife (Amy Madigan) and a crusty black author (James Earl Jones) who doesn't mind that all the old major-leaguers were white, he plows down his cornfield to erect a ball park and populate it with phantoms.
Despite a lovely cameo turn by Burt Lancaster, Field of Dreams is the male weepie at its wussiest. There is poetry in baseball, sure, but it is not shaggy doggerel of the Joyce Kilmer stripe: "I think that I shall ne'er remark/ A cornfield green as Fenway Park." It comes in the concrete poetry of a Bill James statistical analysis, or in the sprung rhythm of a Roger Angell paragraph. Or in the flight of a ball from the pitcher's hand toward the catcher's glove, with a million delicious options at stake.