Rookie, The (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's very easy to wax poetic about the sport of baseball, and I'm not just talking "Mighty Casey has struck out." Baseball may not be the most popular sport in North America, but it has a history and mythology like no other. The giants of past eras tower above reality, standing as tall as Paul Bunyan. At times, it's hard to remember that there were real men named Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Cy Young. A good baseball movie embraces the magic of baseball, and uses the game as a metaphor for life. Such is the case with The Rookie, and, while this outing will not challenge the likes of The Natural for the title of the best baseball movie ever made, it's a solid effort in its own right.

Jim Morris is a southpaw who spent parts of two seasons in the bullpen for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. His career statistics - a 4.80 ERA, 15 IP, 13 K, and 9 BB - are hardly the stuff of which legends are made. Yet, in spite of that, Morris is the subject of Disney's The Rookie - not because of what he did once he reached The Show, but because he reached there in the first place. The unlikeliest of heroes, Morris became the second-oldest rookie ever to play Major League baseball when he stepped on the mound at the age of 35. A longer-than-long-shot with a story to inspire the most blasé individual, Morris' tale is a testament to the age-old saying that dreams can come true if you fight hard enough for them.

The Rookie is faithful to its source material - the novel co-written by Morris and Joel Engel. It starts out in the 1970s, as a young Jimmy Morris (Trevor Morgan) arrives in the small town of Big Lake, Texas. Jimmy's a baseball fan, but football, not baseball, is king in Big Lake. Flash forward to 1999: Jim (Dennis Quaid) is now married and has three kids. He's the coach for the local high school baseball team, the Big Lake Owls - a post he took after an arm injury ended his quest to break into Major League Baseball. However, while Jimmy is throwing batting practice, his players notice that his fastballs have a lot of zip on them, so they make a deal with him - if they win the district, he'll attend a big league tryout. Sure enough, when the season is over, the Owls have fulfilled their part of the bargain, so Jim throws in front of some scouts for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. When his velocity reaches 98 mph on the radar, Jim suddenly becomes the hottest prospect around - even at age 35.

The Rookie's lead, Dennis Quaid, belongs to the Kevin Costner school of acting, which is to say that he can be effective in a role as long as he isn't required to stretch beyond the strong, silent persona. And, much as the part of an overachieving baseball player has proven to be a fit for Costner, such is the case for Quaid, who settles nicely into Morris' shoes and presents him an affable man who is trying to balance his responsibilities as a father and husband with the need to take one last shot at his lifelong dream. To complicate matters, Morris' sour relationship with his own cold father (Brian Cox) factors into every decision he makes. In supporting roles, Cox is good as the aging man who regrets his inability to be there for his son, and, as Morris' wife, Lorrie, Australian actress Rachel Griffiths adds another impressive turn to a varied resume. The genuine Morris has a cameo as an umpire.

In real life, major league baseball has lost it innocence. Too often, the sport seems to be defined by big-market teams buying high-priced free agents, acrimonious labor negotiations, greedy owners crying poverty, and crybaby players wanting their way. Only in the movies, it seems, can we re-discover the magic and majesty of the game. In The Rookie, there's a wonderful scene in which Morris first sets foot in Arlington Stadium as a player and regards his surroundings with an awe normally reserved for the Cistine Chapel. He's here for the love of the game, and, in competing, to finally reach the end of the rainbow.

As inspirational stories go, this one is top-notch. It satisfies without becoming cloying or going over-the-top. Director John Lee Hancock has a sense about how far he can take the formula without making The Rookie seem too overfamiliar. Sure, we've seen this kind of story before, but perhaps not told in exactly this way with these people. From a technical perspective, the film's baseball sequences are virtually flawless. This doesn't guarantee a good movie, but it helps. The game action is rigorously accurate, and Morris' first real-life major league strikeout victim, Royce Clayton, re-creates history by playing himself. More important than the film's verisimilitude, however, is its structure. It manages to be uplifting without forcing us to endure a ninth-inning, come-from-behind victory. Because, when it comes down to it, The Rookie isn't as much about wining in a game as it is about winning in life.

Rookie, The (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2002-03-29
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1