Cast: Zach Galifianakis, Andy Samberg, Keanu Reeves, Jason Biggs, Dwayne Johnson, Ashton Kutcher. Producer: Rob Reiner; Director & Cinematographer: Kevin Nealon. Screenplay: W.P. Kinsella.
“We know we’re better than this, but we can’t prove it.” – Tony Gwynn
The 1899 Cleveland Spiders were terrible. They lost 101 games—on the road. (Considering that current major league baseball teams play 81 games at home and 81 games on the road, this is a record that will likely never be threatened.) They played in a 9,000-seat stadium, yet drew only 6,088 fans—the entire season. Their 20-134 record remains the worst record in major league baseball history. They were so bad, in fact, that they were relegated to the minor leagues.
They were not, however, the 1989 New York Cleetz.
Stuck Under the Cleetz follows a painfully terrible baseball team throughout the 1989 season, from the early days of spring training, into the dog days of summer and, finally, the pennant race and the World Series. The Cleetz finished with a 22-140 record—the second-worst record in major league baseball history—and ended the season 77 games behind the World Series Champion Oakland A’s, a team loaded with All-Stars and memorable players, including Billy Beane, the subject of the Oscar-nominated movie Moneyball.
Were it not for major league baseball’s tradition of having one player from each team represented in the All-Star game every summer, the Cleetz would not have had even one All-Star on their roster; in a purely merit-based contest, none of their players would’ve been remotely under consideration. Thanks to those arcane MLB rules, the consensus least-deserving All-Star in history became Cliff Fuzzing (Galifianakis), the Cleetz’s hirsute second baseman—who was batting a team-leading .184 when the midsummer classic rolled around.
The opening scene in Stuck Under the Cleetz reminds you of the start of pretty much any other baseball movie you’ve ever seen. It begins with the camera panning the outfield of a medium-sized minor league baseball stadium, on a cloudless, 82-degree day in Tucson, Arizona in March, where players are stretching, playing catch and shagging fly balls. It’s the kind of day for which people in the Midwestern and New England states pay hundreds of dollars to experience every spring when their own states are mired in a polar vortex, and everyone, player or coach, is reveling in the perfect weather. It’s a good two minutes into Stuck Under the Cleetz before any actual words are spoken, which is fine, because Kevin Nealon’s cinematography during the opening scene is nothing short of spectacular. Then the film jump-cuts across town to the Cleetz facility.
The film focuses largely on the Cleetz’s “star” players: Fuzzing, left fielder Lars Larsmobile (Jason Biggs), first baseman Rigor Clovis (Andy Samberg), right fielder Dummy Hoyt (Keanu Reeves), ace pitcher Chief Bigbottom (Dwayne Johnson) and closer Kermit Gamble (Ashton Kutcher). The first dialogue begins with those six sitting in the locker room after the first day of spring training, discussing their optimism about the upcoming season. You can’t help feeling optimistic along with them. Every team begins the season 0-0, after all.
The optimism fades quickly, however, after the Cleetz begin the regular season with seventeen straight losses, and soon you find yourself hoping these increasingly depressed young men just win a game. The Cleetz’s manager, who is never named nor seen, but instead appears sporadically throughout the film as a shadowy figure with his voice altered, utters: “I’m telling my players to play the best that they can. And the sad thing is, most of them are.”
There’s a scene about fifteen minutes into Stuck Under the Cleetz that’s been hard for me to un-see. Do you remember that part in The Naked Gun where they showed the baseball bloopers between innings of the Seattle Mariners-California Angels game? Specifically, the part where a player is sliding into second base and he gets mauled by a tiger? Well, that actually happened to Fuzzing during a game. Since The Naked Gun was released in 1988, it wasn’t a case of art imitating life—it was a case of life imitating art, or perhaps confirmation that we live in godless entropy. The scene is needlessly graphic and several minutes long—Nealon proves his mettle as an impresario of viscera, to rival H.G. Lewis—yet you can’t turn away. Nor are you even the least bit confused as to how or why a fully grown, 500-pound Bengal tiger got into a major league baseball stadium. You just keep watching, agape, hoping Fuzzing survives the attack.
The film slows down a bit after that, but it’s just as heart wrenching when you watch as Larsmobile gets the news he’s been traded to the Minnesota Twins. For a left-handed batting glove. (There’s even a short scene where callers to Minnesota sports talk radio shows complain about how the Twins got screwed in that trade). Biggs’s performance controls the screen here. When Clovis tries to console Larsmobile by telling him to keep his chin up, and reminding him that it’s a top-of-the-line left-handed batting glove, Larsmobile loses it. He completely snaps. Like the Fuzzing tiger attack, it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s akin to when you see a bearded lady selling bananas outside of an elementary school: you want it to stop, but you can’t seem to be able to do anything about it, so it just goes on.
Shortly afterward, Clovis himself gets traded. This scene itself isn’t nearly as emotional as the previous one—unlike Larsmobile, Clovis is traded for an actual player—but the impetus behind it is flustering. Clovis had recently raised his batting average over .200, and the Cleetz were worried he’d be too expensive to re-sign in the offseason, so they trade him to the Los Angeles Dodgers for a minor league first baseman and cash considerations. The film follows Clovis to Los Angeles, where on his first day in town he’s eating alone at the Koo-Koo-Roo in Santa Monica. It’s pathetic in its own way.
All-Star weekend arrives, and Fuzzing, despite still being in the hospital, is named as the Cleetz’s lone representative. Gamble, feeling more deserving than Fuzzing, visits Fuzzing in the hospital and punches him in the face. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Stuck Under the Cleetz has more uncomfortable scenes than any sports film in recent memory.
As the season progresses, the film suffers from a lack of a romantic subplot, much as the Cleetz did themselves. Only one of the Cleetz players goes on a date the entire season, and for legal reasons, it can’t be dramatized in any medium.
Fan Appreciation Night sees Bigbottom strike out a major-league-record twenty-six batters in one game, a record that still stands to this day. Of course, it also sees the Cleetz lose 10-2 to the Detroit Tigers, in part because Bigbottom also walked eleven batters, hit six more, and gave up five home runs.
During the final weekend of the season, Hoyt suffers a career-ending shoulder injury. Injuries happen in sports, but usually not like this: Hoyt injures himself while chasing a fly ball and running into Jarry Park’s 30-foot high right field wall. Forty-seven times. Needless to say, it’s a disturbing scene. Arguably more disturbing than the Fuzzing tiger attack.
The film ends as most feel-good baseball films end: with a World Series victory.
Just not for the Cleetz.
Nathan Gratz lives in Tucson, Arizona. This is his first published work.