By Michael Clair
You may have noticed that during the first week of baseball action this year, not a single player has been beaten to death on the field. That's a good thing.
At the same time, not a single player has broken an ankle after leaping 50 feet into the air, thrown a pitch that broke through time and space, or had a baseball bore through their body.
Again, probably for the best.
But if those are things you'd like to see happen, preferably in a fictional world with no consequences, then Team Astro is the series for you.
Based on a semi-popular manga from the mid-70s, Team Astro follows the story of, well, Team Astro, a group of nine men with magical baseball birthmarks that destine them for glory. Their birth was foretold by Eiji Sawamura, the Japanese Cy Young who died during World War II (actually true), who prophesied that nine magical baseballs would fall from the heavens at nine seconds after 9:09 on September 9th, 1954 (probably not true).
Eiji's dream was that through these "Astro Men," Japanese players would one day get to face Americans on the ballfield instead of the battlefield. That's a beautiful sentiment, one that is lost in the madcap, nonsensical, bloody action that follows in the nine episodes of this mid-2000s Japanese series. As baseball looks to limit injuries and chaos, instituting instant replay and outlawing home plate collisions, this series revels in pure anarchy and brutal fights.
Despite nearly nine hours of drama, the show remains firmly rooted in a first act for the whole series, with episodes structured around the team slowly gathering players by besting the reluctant "Astro Men" in baseball games. It's like if The Avengers ended after they put the team together, but before they actually fight to save New York. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
We first get a taste of the weirdness to come when Astro One arrives on the mound for the Hanshin Tigers, disguising himself as their starting pitcher by wrapping himself in bandages, with Team Astro manager Shuro (played by the immortal Sonny Chiba) looking on smugly.
With Team Astro's mission for baseball dominance now on the record, the two head out into the world to find the rest of the Astro Men. Astros 7 and 8 (the numbers corresponding to their position on the field), two brothers, are found in the circus. They'll soon patrol the outfield, Astro 7 being hurled high into the air by Astro 8 to track down fly balls.
Astro 5 is found in a bizarre training camp with the Giants; his skill is the ability to remove his shirt and look into a mirror that, for some reason, has been placed in foul territory.
Astro 3 is a blind racecar driver, who, before he can officially join the squad, dies in an auto accident. Fortunately, he's brought back to life the way anyone is brought back to life: by getting dropped out of a helicopter.
Astro 2 runs away from his temple to join the team. He is then killed during a baseball game by the future Astro 6, the team's batboy taking on his powers with a bolt of lightning. The game only briefly halts, picking up once he finishes his death throes.
And Astro 9 is...just some guy in a suit, whom we don't meet until the end of the show. We can only assume the writers miscounted the number of baseball players and, instead of re-writing an earlier episode, just squeezed him in at the end.
Of course, like all good sports dramas, you need good enemies. So while Rocky had Apollo Creed, Michael Jordan had the Monstars, and Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams had the inevitability of death, Team Astro has their future teammates to contend with.
There's Kamiso, who will one day become Astro 6. Born with a hatred of baseball, Kamiso spends his days hitting baseballs at stone statues in the shapes of humans, injuring (and sometimes killing) anyone foolish enough to face him. He also has amazing hair.
Astro 4, Team Astro's greatest rogue and lover of sexy black jackets, puts together his own club called Team Victory, leading to a literal deathmatch between Team Astro and Team Victory. Take that, Hunger Games.
The game, seemingly played in real-time, taking up a total of three episodes, represents the dramatic climax of the show. Naturally, because it takes up three freaking episodes, its emotional punch is somewhat lessened.
But that's fine. The show is less interested in an emotional push and pull, and more interested in having wacky things happen every few minutes -- not unlike Three's Company. Fortunately, Team Victory is stocked with only the greatest of ballplayers. There are three roller derby players, a tennis player, a bowler, and a wrestler...
...a boxer who punches baseballs:
...and a genius of "baseball philosophy" who gets naked in the dugout:
Naturally, he later dies after diving for a ball and smashing his head on the dugout bench. After watching players have baseballs literally burn through their bodies and be fine, his death underscores the uncertainty of day-to-day life. Or something like that.
And speaking of people who die, let's not forget the wonderful Taemun, the brother of Astro 3, and murderer of their father. Taemun, a long scar running down his face, is one of the greatest characters in TV history, mostly because he bats with nun chucks and possesses the power of Human Nature, one of the greatest visual jokes I've ever seen:
Soon, though -- realizing the folly of his heinous crime from years ago -- Taemun goes into the clubhouse to commit suicide. Before he dies, Taemun gets one more at-bat, hitting a home run before he's unable to move, a single tear dripping down his face. This is drama:
If all of this isn't enough for you -- if the fact that players routinely have to crawl their way to first base or back flip to second base to compensate for broken ankles, or that there are multiple instances of nude male butts, something that we won't see on NBC for at least another three generations -- then just marvel at the baseball action that we're treated to. Not only does this show feature a "3-stage ball change" (a ball that breaks twice on its way to the plate), but it also offers up The Lover's Pitch, a pitch that requires the hurler to step into the space between universes to throw it towards the plate:
There is also the "phantom pitch," an "amazing pitch," and a pitch that ages the pitcher decades on one toss. I'm guessing this is the opposite of what Jamie Moyer was throwing.
But don't think the batters are ignored. Astro One has the meteor strike, where his bat shatters into multiple pieces, confusing the outfielders so that they can't catch it.
And Astro 3 transports himself into another universe, where swords swing down upon him before he can hit the ball.
But Team Astro reserves its greatest move for the climax, in which Team Astro defeats Team Victory with a bottom-of-the-ninth, tie-game, bases-loaded...check-swing walk.
That's right, in a show featuring dead bodies, nudity, and more blood than your average Quentin Tarantino film, it all ends with a walk-off walk. It's the show's greatest reverse: after nine hours of seemingly consequence-free pain and death, where players can leap 100 feet into the air, throw pitches that literally catch fire, and bat balls through fielders' gloves, you would assume that the final out would involve a batter's arm being torn off with two or three men decapitated on their way to the plate.
Instead, it's a pitch that just skirts the outside of the plate. The creators' apparent message: Chaos Reigns. (For those curious, there has only been one playoff series decided on a walk-off walk, the Braves benefiting from Kenny Rogers' 11th inning walk in the NLCS.)
After Team Astro disappears in a ball of lightning, we are brought into modern times, the nine superstars missing for over 30 years. A newspaper is then opened, with the headline announcing an international competition between the baseball-playing nations of the world, meaning that, yes, Team Astro created the World Baseball Classic.
The show, with its chili-before-bed combo of MMA fighting, Grand Theft Auto, and MLB: The Show, straddles a strange line. On one hand, it has complete reverence for the "old school" attitudes of grit, gumption, and leaving everything out on the field -- three players die during games, and no one even considers a postponement. At the same time, the real villains are those unwilling to adapt the sport to modern times. The Baseball Association tries to block Team Astro from changing the game, not wanting to be embarrassed when tradition loses out. And that may be the larger point -- that baseball can be stretched and morphed (and even have metaphysical pitches and kick fights on the way to first base) and still be baseball. Just as, in our actual reality, baseball can add instant replay, institute drug policies, and outlaw catcher collisions, the sport modifying along with the times.
Team Astro is a show of pure chaos and consequence-free, anything-can-happen freedom, with a narrative that's hard to follow. Kind of like real baseball, its six-month schedule of random events is eventually distilled into something that feels like a story. The sport is bizarre, and the rules are arcane, and nothing is as it should be. Mike Trout has 10 WAR seasons; knuckleballs softly float to the plate, dancing around bats; and Hunter Pence somehow makes contact despite a stance that looks like a child's misshapen action figure.
As long as we stay away from the tank-top jerseys and spiked helmets, the sport will be okay.
Team Astro is available for viewing on Hulu.com or DramaFever.com and is ready for you to watch it now. Like, right now.
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