(Turfseer) from NEW YORK, NY
Reviewed on 4/25/2009...
Predictable and Disappointing Baseball Time Travel Fantasy
*** This comment may contain spoilers ***
The Winning Season is a fantasy which initially focuses on a 12 year old Little Leaguer, Joe Soshack, whose parents are always bickering due to the father's lack of success as a breadwinner. While not stated explicitly, Joe's lack of confidence as a Little Leaguer is linked to the family's dire economic circumstances.
Joe earns extra money doing chores for Mrs. Young, an elderly woman in the neighborhood. He hopes to buy a 1971 Willie Stargell baseball card who a local baseball card memorabilia dealer has reserved for him at a discount price. Mrs. Young offers him a few bucks to clean out her attic and when Joe finds an extremely rare and valuable Honus Wagner baseball card, he runs home without telling Mrs. Young he's found the card. When his parents tell him that he must return the card, in a fit of greed, Joe grabs his bicycle and pedals off to the local little league field, presumably now a runaway.
At this point in the film, I'm reminded a bit of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy also runs away because her parental figures don't "understand" her; the same with Joe. But where Dorothy is upset because Miss Gulch has taken Toto away, Joe swipes the Honus Wagner Card more out of basic selfishness. Although he claims he's doing it for his family so they can escape the financial bind they're in, the impulsive act pegs Joe more as a spoiled brat and wholly an unsympathetic character for most of the film. The whole idea is that Joe is simply immature but given the high moral principles the parents live by, I would have thought that he wouldn't have been so selfish.
Time travel fantasies need a clever way for the protagonist to travel back in time. In Back to the Future, Marty travels back in time in a retrofitted DeLorean car. In 'The Winning Season', there's nothing clever in the way Joe goes back in time. He merely stares at the 'magical' Honus Wagner Card and poof, he's back in 1909 right in the middle of the World Series between the Pirates and the Detroit Tigers. And strangely, Joe is no longer 12 year old Joe; he's 25 year old Joe. There's no explanation for the transformation but without it, the film's scenarist will not be able to pull of the clumsy scene in the film's denouement, when Joe takes the place of Honus in the last game of the 1909 World Series.
Whereas the real Honus Wagner was the son of German immigrants and very much a rough and tumble character of his day, Matthew Modine plays him as a generic good guy. Just about the only truly historical fact we learn about Honus Wagner was that he refused to cooperate with a tobacco company who wanted to use his image on baseball cards which they hoped to use in promoting their product. One would have hoped for a more nuanced portrait of Wagner, but the film's scenarist placed him on a pedestal.
In reality, Honus married in 1894 and had three daughters. But in 'The Winning Season', his true love is 'Mandy' who ends up breaking up with him after believing that his true love is baseball. While we find out little about the real life Honus Wagner, we find out next to nothing about the fictional Mandy, a wasted part played by a ditsy Kristin Davis.
The antagonist here is Ty Cobb. While Cobb was known for being overly aggressive on the field and having a bad reputation amongst his fellow ballplayers, he's turned into a virtual criminal when he attempts to blackmail Joe after stealing the Honus Wagner baseball card. Cobb extorts Joe into preventing Honus from playing in the last game of the World Series (it seems highly out of character for the highly competitive Cobb to prevent his arch-rival from competing against him in any game, let alone the World Series!). Joe taking off in the car and leaving Wagner stranded, makes him even more unlikeable (despite the soon and expected redemption!).
Most engaging baseball films involve the focus on one particular moment in a game where the protagonist helps his team go on to victory. In the charming "It Happens Every Spring", Ray Milland, helps his team win the championship by catching a ball with his bare hand; it's an instinctive act of self-sacrifice as he breaks his hand in the process. Unlike that dramatic moment of sacrifice, there's a completely awkward moment in 'The Winning Season' where Joe goes out on the field pretending he's Honus (he can't even fit into Honus's uniform) and no one notices the deception except Ty Cobb.
The ending to 'The Winning Season' is utterly predictable. When Joe returns to the present day 1985, he's 'learned his lesson' and is no longer a self-centered brat. What's more he's become confident (due to the tutelage of the angelic Honus Wagner) and now hits a home run, helping his team win the championship and confound all the kids who've been heckling him as a wimp.
There's a final canard thrown in where Mrs. Young turns out to be the embittered Mandy who on her deathbed regrets breaking up with Honus. Now Joe is willing to make a 'sacrifice' by giving up the magical Honus card which Mandy uses to return to 1909 where she shacks up with Honus. All well and good but if that happened, history would have turned out differently and the young Joe would never have met the spinster Mrs. Young in the first place.
'The Winning Season' admirably attempts to recreate the look of the "Dead Ball" era but as other reviewers have pointed out, little attempt has been made to be historically accurate (yes, why do the Detroit fans cheer when Pittsburgh wins the Series?). 'The Winning Season' could have been something really clever but settles for scenes of predictable sentimentality.