People will find transformation and transcendence in a McDonald’s hash brown if it’s all they’ve got. – Patton Oswalt
I’m a huge believer in taking your inspiration anywhere you find it. Anything that makes your life better, gives you focus, helps you live, no matter where it comes from is a good thing. Even if it was from something as horrible as Mein Kampf, as long as it doesn’t encourage you to hurt others along the way. The ‘philosophy’ I am going to talk about here is not from anything like that, though it is from a strange place to find inspiration: a crude, dude-ish, unthinkingly-problematic-product-of-its-time 1989 sports movie called Major League.
Major League is in every way an 80s sports comedy movie. A group of misfits wind up on a team together, drive each other insane for a while, get molded into shape by a kindly old mentor figure, and – genre-wide spoiler alert – ultimately defeat the much more professional and well-oiled Bad Guy Team in an exciting last-minute sportsball upset. Along the way there are funny moments and crude moments and touching moments and crude moments that were considered funny when it was made. Major League in specific is of course a baseball movie about a fictionalized version of the Cleveland Indians (years before the mainstream were talking about the problems inherent in that name and logo), and if you can get past the dudebro 80sness of it, it is actually quite a good example of the genre. As a writer, I’m always impressed by how virtually all the main characters each got a moment to be the big hero during the inevitable bottom-of-the-ninth showdown against the New York Yankees, and it is the the one of these who made the others possible whose hero moment has a valuable lesson.
One of the characters, pictured above holding out a lighter, was Pedro Cerrano. Cerrano was a huge muscular black Cuban man who was a powerful batter and practitioner of voodoo (Cuban Vodú to be specific, though the movie of course doesn’t specify). Interestingly, this is actually one of the most reasonable and accurate portrayals of a small personal voodoo practice found in Hollywood, especially in the 80s: Cerrano has no arcane sigils or blood rituals; he has instead a small shrine to the loa he believes will help him, and while he does make sacrifices they are rum and cigars, nothing bloody or overly sensational. One of the movie’s ongoing conflicts is between Cerrano and pitcher Eddie Harris, a older Southern white man who is a religious Christian and occasionally leads the rest of the team in prayer, but Cerrano’s religion is (mostly*) not itself made fun of – rather, Harris’s privileged needling of him comes off as assholish and Harris winds up being the butt of the jokes in that conflict.
It would be possible to interpret Major League as supporting Christianity in a way, but I don’t particularly buy that: the overtly Christian character is not portrayed as a hero, and ultimately both faith’s prayers get “answered” entirely through the hard work of the characters themselves. I would even argue that it’s the closest thing to an atheistic sports flick to come out of the era for this reason. But, I digress: for all Major League‘s unusually sympathetic portrayal of Vodú, Cerrano’s prayers are not answered, and that is what ultimately formed his defining moment.
The loa that Cerrano prays to is called Jobu†. Cerrano’s schtick in the movie as a player is that he “hits a ton” – any ball he gets a piece of is gone out of the park – but he has a hard time hitting curveballs. This is what he prays for: help hitting this sort of pitch. It doesn’t work, and by the time of the grand final game everyone knows it, especially the opponents. He whiffs two breaker balls, and then addresses the shrine figurine (which he has out on the field for unclear reasons):
I’m pissed off now, Jobu. Look, I go to you, I stick up for you. You no help me now… I say fuck you, Jobu. I do it myself.
… and on the third curveball he hits a homer, tying the game and making everyone else’s heroics possible. A cute little comic victorious moment.
Only, think about what is actually going on here. Cerrano needed help, and asked for it; help was (implicitly by the tenets of the religion) promised in return for certain efforts on his part; he did what was asked of him faithfully, but the help never came. The promise was a lie. Cerrano was on his own, and at the last and most important moment he understood this and relied instead on his own abilities.
I’ve had a lot of experiences in that shape. The main one being the mental health industry, with its promises of expertise, accurate diagnoses, and survival if you just do what the therapist says (and sacrifice money to them); whereas what they gave me was nothing but misdiagnoses, neglect, and making the problems worse. Organizations dedicated to performance art are likely to act like this too, accepting volunteering and money but never providing a chance to do the work, and I have experienced plenty of that. Practically any organization in charge of gatekeeping the things people might want or need to do instead of being forced into, same thing. Educational institutions, as well.
They promise: Believe in me, make the sacrifices, and I will help you. Then the help never materializes. What do you do then? Beg them for another try? Call the next phone number in your dwindling list of therapists? Or do you turn your back on the false promises and Do It Anyway to spite them?
I’m a big believer in the latter. At some point you have to be tired of hearing “This time for sure!”. At some point you have to just spit in the dirt, firm up your grip, and say:
“Fuck you, Jobu. I do it myself.”
* Only mostly. There is a moment, one of the weirder product placements I have ever seen, where Cerrano asks to sacrifice a chicken and the team gives him a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken to make do with. In a dudebro sports movie, nobody really respects anything except the sport itself.
† Funnily enough, the popularity of this movie among baseball fans and players has led to a company creating and selling Jobu figurines modeled after Cerrano’s locker display. In my opinion, of course, this is cute but also exactly the wrong lesson to take away…