From The Making of Major League, by Jonathan Knight
This excerpt from the chapter “Major League Strikes Back” (about the movie’s first sequel, Major League II), looks at how the Cleveland Indians’ real-world success in the 1990s reflected both movies’ onscreen action.
At the dawn of the 1990s, whenever the Indians did anything of note, local and national reporters couldn’t resist drawing parallels with Major League.
In 1990, to promote the first full Indians season since the release of the film, the team introduced a new marketing slogan, which would be printed on pocket schedules and incorporated into a radio jingle: “A Major League Good Time.” The word choice was subtle, but not coincidental.
“We were having fun with it,” [Indians vice president] Bob DiBiasio says with a smile.
There was more allegorical fun that summer. A comically optimistic prediction for Indians success in 1990 by columnist Mike Downey in The Sporting News provided 90 reasons why the Tribe would make the playoffs. Number 11 was: “Cleveland’s pennant success already has been recorded for posterity on film, which saves the club a lot of time and money. Trust me, by the year 1991, they’ll be listing the movie Major League as a documentary.”
That sentiment was reflected in mid-June when the Milwaukee Brewers came to town. Before the opening game of the series, Bob Uecker walked up to the cage to watch batting practice, and Indians rookie catcher Sandy Alomar spotted him.
“Hey,” Alomar said, pointing at Uecker, “Harry Doyle.”
A month later, few, if any, Indians fans noticed when the team traded for an obscure minor-league outfielder named Alex Cole. But when he stole five bases in his eighth big-league game and led the Tribe to a victory over Kansas City, the rail-thin, goggles-wearing Cole became the talk of Cleveland, not only for tying a team record that had stood for 59 years, but for becoming the real-life personification of one of their fictional heroes, right down to the out-of-nowhere, “we-don’t-know-where-he-played-last-year” detail.
When Cole returned to his locker after the game, he saw that his teammates had taped “Willie Mays Hayes” across his nameplate and attached five sliding gloves beside it, just as Hayes had done with his own gloves after each successful stolen base.
“Yeah, I saw the movie,” Cole replied when reporters asked the obvious question. “I can identify with him.”
Although Cole turned out to be a solid player in his seven-year career in the majors, his sudden, explosive debut—and perhaps his conspicuous connection to the movie that had cemented so many fans’ allegiance to the team—did more harm than good.
After Cole batted .300 and stole 40 bases in 63 games to round out the 1990 season, the Indians’ front office decided to build the team philosophy around Cole’s speed. They moved the Cleveland Stadium outfield fences back for 1991 and vowed to win with pitching and speed, rather than power (not that they had all that much of any of the three).
The plan backfired. Despite playing in nearly twice as many games as in his debut season, Cole managed only 27 steals, and the Indians hit a mere 22 home runs at home in a franchise-worst 105-loss season.
It was a great example of why David Ward becomes a bit nervous whenever parallels are drawn between his team and his movie. “It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “It’s fun, but if it goes south, does it give people a negative association with the movie? Sometimes you want the movie to stay in the movie realm and the baseball to stay in the baseball realm.”
But the year of the disastrous Alex Cole experiment also marked the arrival of the primary core of players who would lead the long-awaited resurgence.
Up-and-coming sluggers Carlos Baerga and Albert Belle became full-time starters. Scrawny third baseman Jim Thome made his big-league debut. Charles Nagy evolved from a minor-league prospect to the most promising young pitcher on the staff. In June, the team used its first-round draft pick to select promising slugger Manny Ramirez, and in the next few months, the Indians would trade for athletic center fielder Kenny Lofton and pitcher Jose Mesa, soon to become the most dominating closer in franchise history.
With a new ballpark on the horizon, the team had the financial security to lock down all of these players to long-term contracts, and the Indians showed flashes of promise over the next two seasons. The team was poised to take off in 1994.
* * *
After a slow start, the ’94 Indians caught fire in May and surged into first place with a 10-game winning streak in mid-June. They won a franchise-record 18 straight in their new home, which was now rocking with 40,000-plus in the stands for every game. The lonely nights at Cleveland Stadium were quickly becoming a distant memory. The Tribe was neck-and-neck in a tight division race with the White Sox as a new rivalry emerged, giving Major League II credit for a prescient glimpse into the future.
Then the players went on strike in mid-August, wiping out the remainder of the season. It was heartbreaking and difficult to get over. But 1995 made up for it.
The Indians picked up where they had left off, then found another gear, cruising to a 100-44 record and their first postseason appearance in 41 years. No longer were the Indians the plucky overachievers comparable to their Major League counterparts. They were a behemoth out to avenge four decades of abuse.
“It was nice to see the Indians get good and to feel that, in a way, we were a good-luck charm for them,” Ward says.
The weekend after they clinched the division title, Chris Chesser came to Cleveland to visit Sister Mary Assumpta. As they strolled around town, Chesser was amazed by how many people were proudly wearing Indians gear.
“I can’t believe it,” he said, astonished. “It’s just like the movie.”
Sister Mary smiled. “No, Chris,” she replied, “the movie was so popular because people knew that this is what it would be like if we ever got there.”
Still, the allusions were impossible to miss. Once the playoffs began, Tribe fans couldn’t help but smile when switching on the NBC television broadcasts of the games to see Harry Doyle himself calling the action. Technically, it was Bob Uecker serving as the color commentator alongside play-by-play man Bob Costas, but Uecker’s presence only helped to fuel the imagination and fantastical landscape of this golden turn of events.
“Every time there was a pitch that was way outside,” Uecker says, “Bob would say, ‘Uke?’ And I’d say, ‘Juuuust a bit outside.’ It went on through the whole series.”
Even on the field, there were similarities. In the first game of the Division Series with Boston, the Indians were on the brink of defeat in the 11th inning before Albert Belle smashed a Pedro Cerrano-esque tying homer. Citing Belle’s suspension for using a corked bat the year before, the Red Sox asked that the umpires examine Belle’s bat, and it was eventually sawed in half by baseball commissioner Bud Selig and found to be cork-free. In the heat of the moment during the game, the irascible (and, this time at least, justified) Belle responded by glaring into the Boston dugout while flexing his right biceps and pointing to it—all of it feeling like a deleted scene from Major League.
After sweeping the Red Sox, the Indians stumbled to a two-games-to-one deficit to upstart Seattle in the ALCS, and Belle was out of the lineup with an ankle injury. With the dream season on the verge of collapse, the nervous crowd—wondering whether the ’95 Indians were following the same course as their 1954 predecessors—began to perk up when scenes from Major League were flashed on Jacobs Field’s giant scoreboard prior to Game Four. Then, moments before the first pitch, the Indians’ bullpen door popped open and, as X’s “Wild Thing” exploded over the speakers, Rick Vaughn came marching out, wearing a vintage 1989 Indians jersey with his name on the back and a fresh chopper haircut.
The remaining tension in the ballpark vanished in a heartbeat as the sellout crowd roared to life in a realistic depiction of the ending of Major League. Although technically it was neither Rick Vaughn nor Charlie Sheen—rather, a Sheen impersonator from Dallas—it was exactly what was needed. Tipping his hat and acknowledging the adoring audience as red and blue streamers were blasted into the air, “Vaughn” took the mound and fired a hard ceremonial first pitch that again sent the fans into a state of delirium. Nobody was going to beat the Indians in this kind of an atmosphere. The signature scene Bob DiBiasio had read on that memorable winter day almost eight years earlier had been brought to life.
“It was just awesome,” DiBiasio says. “I never would have thought we’d be recreating this someday before a playoff game with 43,000 people.”
With Jacobs Field electrified, the Indians crushed the Mariners 7-0 that night.
Ironically, Sheen himself made an unscheduled appearance at the Jake the following evening when he adapted his trip to see his beloved Cincinnati Reds after they were swept in the National League Championship Series. “The amount of love and Wild Thing shouts and all the stuff on the scoreboard,” he recalls. “I just couldn’t believe it.” With the real Rick Vaughn on hand, the Tribe won Game Five to take a three-games-to-two lead back to Seattle.
Facing intimidating pitcher Randy Johnson in Game Six, the Indians took a wafer-thin 1-0 lead into the seventh, then clinched the game and the pennant on one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. With runners on second and third, a wild pitch by Johnson allowed a run to score, but to the surprise of everyone in the ballpark, speedy Kenny Lofton motored home from second, sliding just beneath the tag of Johnson to make it 3-0 and put the Indians in the clear. In that moment, and in all the replays that followed in the years to come, some would equate Lofton’s daring baserunning and evasive slide with Willie Mays Hayes’s streak across the plate in Major League’s climax.
Although the Indians lost the subsequent World Series to the Atlanta Braves, the most memorable period in team history had begun. Throughout it all, Major League hovered in the background like a friendly specter, coming to the forefront again when the Indians and Yankees met in the postseason for the first time two years later.