Derek Begins...#4 Fred Schepisi's "Mr. Baseball" (1992)
An arrogant aging ballplayer is traded to a Japanese team and has difficulties adjusting to their cultures and customs.
This movie by far has to be the most underrated on my list. Made in 1992, it featured baseball from a Japanese standpoint.
Baseball is big in Japan, but approached and viewed differently there as we do here in the states. This movie does an excellent job portraying that. It has non stop laughs from start to finish.
Originally it was going to be an all out comedy with gags, but the studio and star Tom Selleck had final script approval which made it more conventional.
I have to agree with Mr. Selleck on this one. He worked very hard for this part and I had the liberty of watching him take batting practice at Yankee stadium in 1990 or 1991 I believe.
He hit the ball so well that my expectations were high for this movie. He did not disappoint me at all.
The film takes place primarily in Japan. The 2 teams of focus are the Chunichi Dragons and the Yomiuri Giants. The rivalry is loosely based on the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants long standing rivalry here in the states.
The Dragons are the protagonist team in this film. Their uniforms are scripted much like the Dodgers.
The Giants are their long standing rival that always seem to come out on top. They are Japan's most recognizable team world wide and often times have been nicknamed the New York Yankees of Japan because of the franchises' popularity. Their uniforms are very identical to the San Francisco Giants. this movie explains and displays the cultural differences between the 2 countries when it comes to the game of baseball.
The mid to late 1990's saw a huge surge of Japanese ballplayers playing in the United States, but in 1992 Japanese style baseball and ballplayers were relatively unknown here in the United States. The only American born players that play in Japan are usually the aging washed up ones with one or two seasons left in them. This movie displays that and with the rise of independent leagues here in the states, this will probably continue to be the case for many years to come. This movie should explain why with the work out regimens in Japan.
The game is played differently in Japan. The outfield dimensions are a lot smaller. Even Tom Sellecks character says the following when he first arrives on the field to take batting practice after a long workout regimen that he was unaccustomed to:
"I could piss over that fence!"
Also, they take calisthenics very seriously as they put being in shape first before being strong enough to hit home runs.
This is shown when Tom Sellecks character first arrives and shows how out of shape he really is. We see how Ken Takakura's character manages his team as opposed to the typical American baseball manager who seem to be more player friendly. His character goes strictly by the book and always seems to play things safe to avoid disappointing upper management. In the movie Tom Sellecks Character says baseball is a game and games are supposed to be fun. But Ken Takakura's character seems to think the opposite when he says something along the lines of playing baseball is like going into the battlefield and he is doing what he could to prepare them for it. His players are scared of letting him down and appear to be uptight and humorless like their coach.
Controversies are also brought up between the 2 cultures based on a real life incident. When Tom Sellecks Character is challenging a home run record set by his very own manager years earlier, the opposing pitcher refuses to pitch to him. Instead he intentionally walks him. He turns his bat upside down in protest. This was a homage to a real life incident that took place in 1985 when American player Randy Bass was challenging the single season home run record while playing in Japan. Many American players who have played in Japan have gone on record to say that the Japanese players and managers are very protective of their records, and if they were to ever be broken, they feel it should be done by Japanese players. Whether the pitchers refuse to pitch to the Americans challenging their records, or management benching the players to avoid controversies, this movie pays homage to this claim in those particular instances.
Overall I love the movie for it's theme of 2 cultures over coming their differences and working together to accomplish one goal. Much like the movie's "Gung-Ho" and the original "The Karate Kid", we see amazing character development and change. A phenomenal performance by the cast. They are as follows:
Tom Selleck plays Jack Elliot,
a former All-Star and World Series MVP with the New York Yankees. Jack's knees have given out and his best playing days are clearly behind him. Also, his arrogance and self centering ways does not help further his playing career with the Yankees. At the start of the movie, he is replaced at first base by a younger, slugging first baseman played by current MLB Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. Jack is even more furious when he is informed that the only team interested in his services are the Chunichi Dragons in Japan. His angriest response is
"Last season I led this club in 9th inning doubles in the month of August"
which is an obvious useless stat. Jack decides to play in Japan. Expectations are high when Jack arrives. The press dub him as "Mr. Baseball" and assign him number 54 as they predict he will hit that many home runs. What seems as an easy task so he could end up with an MLB team as soon as possible turns out to be more difficult than Jack thought. He often clashes with his interpreter as he often misquotes Jack so the press and fans will think more positively of him. He is out of shape and refuses pre game calisthenics. Instead he leads his team to do the hokey pokey which they find humorless. Jack's strength is his hitting. After a good first week at the plate, it isn't long before the opposing Japanese pitchers discover Jack's weakness and he begins to struggle at the plate. Things go from bad to worse from there. Jack further alienates himself from his teammates with his arrogant and seemingly humorless ways. They feel he disrespects the game by arguing with umpires, spitting on the field, challenging his manager Uchiyama and teammates to be more aggressive, etc.
Jack's only friend on the team is fellow American Max Dubois played by Dennis Haysbert.
But even Max starts to become increasingly frustrated with Jack's ways. Things hit an all time low for Jack when he is ejected from a game when he charges the mound after being hit by a pitch. Even after the opposing pitcher tipped his cap to indicate that it was an accident, Jack proceeds to fight anyways punching out his own interpreter in the process. Upper management is furious with Jack and they order him suspended indefinitely. Even the American clubs want nothing to do with Jack during a struggle in Japan.
Jack's only solace in Japan is his publicist Hiroko Uchiyama played by the lovely Aya Takanashi.
They eventually become romantically involved. She invites him over to meet her parents where it is revealed that his manager is Hiroko's father. Also revealed is that her father speaks and understands english. Jack had previously communicated with his manager through his translator. Jack feels tricked and betrayed at first, but decides to stay for dinner anyways. Uchiyama tells Jack that he is going to be fired for Jacks antics because he personally selected Jack for his team against managements wishes. Uchiyama tells Jack that he has a good season left in him and that he could help him regain histop game if he works with him. Jack swallows his pride and works with Uchi. After some rigorous workouts, Jack slowly starts to regain his playing form.
After reinstatement, he holds a team meeting and asks for his teammates forgiveness speaking in Japanese. His teammates accept and the new and improved Jack now becomes a team player as the Dragons contend for the title. In an ironic and rather comical twist of fate, Jack's teammates begin to loosen up and Jack tells Uchi about some of his too conservative managing ways over a bottle of scotch and some cigars. Jack helps Uchi loosen up and let his players have a little fun in the clubhouse and on the field. Jack becomes so embraced by his teammates and fans that he turns down a chance to play for the Dodgers as a late season replacement so he could help the Dragons win the championship game against the Giants. With the bases loaded and 2 outs in the 9th inning, Jack is told to swing away. A home run would make Jack the new record holder for Japanese central league breaking a record that his current manager holds. Jack catches the Giants infield off guard and bunts in the tying and winning runs thus permanently implanting himself as a team player and hero for helping the Dragons finally beat the Giants. Uchiyama keeps his job because of Jack's heroics. Jack winds up as a hitting coach for the Detroit Tigers the following season. He is married to Hiroko and she remains his press agent. Jack's players call him chief. The same name he referred to his manager in Japan Uchiyama.
Ken Takakura plays Uchiyama,
manager of the Dragons .His first name is never revealed in the movie, but the team refer to him as chief or Uchi. Uchiyama is one of the pivotal characters of this movie, the other being Jack. He was one of Japan's all time great players before he managed. Management brought him on to beat the Giants, a team that always seem to get the better of the Dragons. He holds the record of most consecutive games with a home run, a record that Jack would challenge towards the end of the movie. He is a very stubborn manager. He has his players bunt often. He never lets his pitchers pitch out of trouble. He orders his players to be quiet in the dugout. His players are not aggressive enough as a result of his style. He is also portrayed as a very stubborn father as his daughter Hiroko constantly clashes with him. When Jack is suspended by upper management, Uch is informed that he will be fired once a replacement manager is found because he personally selected Jack from the Yankees against managements wishes. He saw that Jack still had a good season or two left in him. His role starts out small, but increases as he begins to work with Jack on getting his top game form back. He is also shown to have a sense of humor. As Jack resurges at the plate, Uch starts to loosen his reins on his players at Jacks request. The results are very warming and comical. Knowing that he has nothing to lose in the championship game, he manages the team the way he wants to. He argues with an umpire. He orders his players to retaliate after Jack is hit by a pitch. It is obvious that Jacks resurgence has inspired him to loosen up. His best scene is towards the end when the Dragons have finally beaten the Giants. Management who has been hard on him throughout the movie now show their gratitude and appreciation. With everyone speaking in Japanese, they ask Uch to stay on and Uch thanks them for the opportunity. As he turns around and begins to walk away, Uch mutters in english "It's gonna cost you chief!" Uch also mends his relationship with Hiroko at the end giving her his blessing to move to America with Jack and begin a family of her own. This was Takakura's 200th film. He is by far the most inspiring and uplifting character in this film.
Dennis Haysbert as Max Dubois. Like Jack, Max is an American ballplayer playing in Japan hoping to be signed by a major league team. He has played in Japan for 5 seasons. But Unlike Jack, Max has shown a respect for the Japanese culture and the game of baseball to the fans' liking. He takes Jack under his wing showing him how the game is played in Japan as opposed to the states. He introduces Jack to the other American ballplayers playing in Japan. Despite his kindness and reaching out it isn't long before Max gives up on Jack telling him that the one thing he hated about playing in the states is dealing with hot heads like Jack. Max eventually forgives Jack when Jack apologizes to the team and asks for their forgiveness. In the championship game, it is Max who had the big game. Even though Jack drove in the tying and winning runs with his bunt, it was Max who drove in the other 4 runs earlier in the game to help the Dragons stage a comeback. Max had the opportunity because opposing pitchers refused to pitch to Jack earlier in the game. Even with MLB scouts in the stands to scout Jack, it was Max's big game that got noticed. Max gets signed by the Dodgers at the end of the movie mainly because of his big game. This is the 2nd time that Dennis Haysbert plays a professional ballplayer. His first being Major League. No voodoo magic or JoBu dolls or a heavy Cuban accent in this movie for Haysbert. Just a kick ass performance from the guy who would later go on to be the voice of the allstate commercials. Definitely one of the most likable characters of the story.
Aya Takanashi as Hiroko Uchiyama. Hiroko plays the love interest of Jack and she also acts as his publicist and press agent. Unlike the others who have found Jack to be disrespectful at first, Hiroko is a lot more patient with Jack. She treats him to a fine dinner and performs massage therapy to loosen Jack up and gets him to be a little more open around her. She is also very independent from her father. Eventually she clashes with her father when she brings Jack over for the first time. It is Hiroko's actions that get Jack and Uchi to open up on a personal level as they both begin to change their ways. She tells Jack to "Grow up!" She has a big fight with Jack when he contemplates returning to the United States prior to the championship game. Aya turns in a fine performance, but sadly it would be her only big screen performance in Japanese and American film. Rumor has it that her bath tub scene with Jack was found to be disrespectful to Japanese culture and how actresses could be portrayed. I wish this was not the case.
Toshi Shioya as Yoji Nishimura. Yoji is Jack's assigned interpreter. Yoji is given the difficult task of making Jacks transition to Japan a successful one. At first he misquotes Jack on several instances so the press doesn't come down on him. He tells the press that Jack would gladly turn in his salary for the honor of playing for Japan. Once Jack catches on, Yoji becomes a sitting duck character for a while. His advice is ignored. Even Yoji begins to feel threatened by Jacks early antics. After Jack is reinstated to the team, Jack turns to Yoji for help. Yoji proclaims to be a ladies man and successfully helps Jack mend his relationship with Hiroko. He also helps Jack issue his apology in Japanese. Overall he is a patient character who aims to please everyone possible to avoid any conflicts. His biggest fear aside from Jack is Uchi and upper management.
Overall I give this movie 5 stars for what would happen in MLB in years to come. It did not do as well as it should have in theaters, but it has become a huge cult classic now with the crossover in Japanese and American baseball players playing in each others country. The movie mr. 3000 has a somewhat similar plot and ending to this movie, although it takes place in the states.