Tom Selleck is likably gruff and charismatic, and the baseball and culture details stand out in this underrated ’90s era baseball gem. If you haven’t seen Mr.Baseball yet, now is as good a time as any!
Mr. Baseball opens with a nightmare sequence, as aging Yankees star Jack Elliot (played by Detroit Tigers superfan Tom Selleck) whiffs at strike three—four, five, six, and so on until he jerks awake in the bed of a lady friend. The aging Yankee star is unexpectedly put on the trading block during spring to clear the way for an up-and-coming phenom, briefly portrayed by Chicago White Sox star Frank Thomas. Unfortunately for Jack, only one team shows any interest in him: the Chunichi Dragons of Nippon Professional Baseball. A prideful Jack insists he won’t play in Japan, but soon realizes he has no other options and relents.
Jack immediately clashes with Japanese culture and chafes under the strict management style of his manager, Uchiyama. He befriends the only other American on the team, Max Dubois (played by Dennis Haysbert, who also appeared in the Major League franchise). Jack continues to struggle to adjust, as he resists the “Japanese way” of playing baseball and the requirements placed on him as a member of the team. Max, a veteran of NPB who still longs to return to the Majors, even tries to guide Jack and help him adjust, but Jack is resistant and refuses to compromise in his battle with the iron-willed Uchiyama.
Jack soon meets an attractive Japanese woman named Hiroko who gets him involved in filming commercials for the many product endorsements that are required of his NPB contract. Jack and Hiroko develop a romantic relationship that is tested when the struggling slugger learns that Hiroko’s father is the manager he can’t stand.
After Jack throws one too many tantrums, the final straw coming when he punches out his own interpreter during a brawl he himself started, Jack finds himself indefinitely suspended from play. Faced with an indeterminate amount of down-time, Jack goes with Hiroko to meet her family and is startled to find out her father is none other than his manager, Uchiyama. Angry and feeling cornered, Jack accuses his new girlfriend of setting him up and storms off, but he ends up staying and trying to fit in with the Uchiyama family.
Jack has a heart-to-heart with Uchiyama, learning that the manager advocated for signing him and even pulled some strings to bring Jack to the Chunichi Dragons, against the objections of management. Now, Jack’s subpar play has put Uchiyama on the hot seat, and Jack’s own future in baseball is in doubt. After the revelation, Jack swallows his pride and admits his struggles to Uchiyama, who decides to take the player under his wing and mentor him. Jack immediately dedicates himself to becoming a better teammate, apologizing to the team for his prior behavior. He also attempts to be a better boyfriend to Hiroko, apologizing to her for his immaturity during the family dinner, leading to the two making up.
This dinner serves as a turning point for Jack, leading him to a newfound respect for his strict manager and causing him to finally buy into the Japanese style of baseball. Now that Jack has opened himself up, and revealed his struggles and deficiencies to his team, the team rallies around him and teaches him how to be a team player. Naturally, the Dragons begin playing a better brand of baseball and soon find themselves competing for the pennant.
Mr. Baseball is, at its core, a fairly predictable sports comedy. Jack Elliot is a familiar, well-worn character who populates both the foreground and background of many sports-themed comedies (and even dramas, too). Unlike many of those other baseball heroes we’ve come to expect from the genre, though, Tom Selleck gives Jack a shot of personality and loads of charm this type of character often lacks. Jack is a ballplayer cut from the Stan Ross mold, a jaded self-centered star used to doing things his way, at his own pace, with no regard for the concerns of those around him. Like Stan, Jack soon realizes he has to show some humility and accept that his way isn’t the only way—or necessarily even the right way—to do things.
Also, the attention to detail—both baseball and Japanese culture-related—helps Mr. Baseball to stand out amongst its peers, and makes it a movie worth watching, as it smartly depicts the culture clashes both on and off the field. (The only blatant artistic license the filmmakers appear to have taken is having Jack unknowingly traded to Japan; in reality, this wouldn’t have been able to happen without his consent.) The baseball scenes are also well-choreographed and look realistic, and everyone on the field looks like a legitimate ballplayer.
Additionally, the gruff Selleck is believable—and, perhaps most importantly, likable—as the prideful former MLB star who’s forced to become a team player after he’s knocked from his pedestal and asked to show some humility. There’s also a little nod at the end of the film to Selleck’s Michigan roots and his Detroit Tigers fandom, as his character eventually retires and becomes a coach for the Tigers. It was undoubtedly a thrill for the life-long Tigers fan—who famously had Tigers legends Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker appear on his TV show, Magnum P.I.—to pull on the jersey of his favorite ballclub. (Selleck also participated in spring training with the Tigers, during his preparation for this movie.)
Unfortunately, the familiarity of Jack Elliot and the scenario in which he finds himself works against Mr. Baseball’s favor, taking this movie from a fall classic to an admirable but not exceptionally notable effort that perhaps pales in comparison to other better-known films like Major League, Bull Durham, and Little Big League, to name a few. Granted, it’s a tall task to reinvent the sports film genre or breathe new life into it—and I don’t expect that to be something filmmakers aspire to—but a little more ingenuity would have gone a long way. As it stands, Mr. Baseball is a fun, light-hearted film populated with likable characters.
As consumers of media, we often fall into a trap of asking and expecting our entertainment to constantly reinvent the wheel. When a music act “fails” to evolve from album to album, we chide them for being safe and boring. When a filmmaker isn’t constantly trying newer and bigger things from film to film, we call them staid and uninventive. But genre films are popular for a reason. Viewers know what to expect from them, and the characters that give them life. Audiences know that the gruff, jaded, self-centered sports star will soften his stance by the end of the movie. The irresponsible playboy will get his sh*t together by the final act, the conservative librarian will learn to let her hair down and live a little, and so on. Genre movies like Mr. Baseball, and its ilk, are reliable and comforting, sports films especially so. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.