There are two kinds of baseball films, epitomized by a pair released in 1989: Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. The latter represents the larger-than-life heroes of the game, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and even Roy Hobbs. Bull Durham represents the flip side of the coin: the workaday jock. It is in this category where The Rookie falls. The Disney release, about the true story of pitcher Jim Morris, is also the best baseball movie to come out in the last ten-plus years.
Don't worry if you're a baseball fan and have never heard of Morris' on-the-mound exploits. His stats were not the reason they made this movie. It was because, at age 35 with no big-league experience, Morris was signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
For every Derek Jeter--who fulfilled every childhood diamond dream by 26--there are countless Jimmy Morrises. Growing up with a father in the military (Brian Cox), young Jimmy (Trevor Morgan) has a hard time satisfying his lust for baseball. Before he knows it, his family settles in a small West Texas town and Jim is teaching high-school chemistry. Jim, played by Dennis Quaid, also coaches the baseball team.
As incentive to get his kids to play better, he offers them a deal: If they make the local championship game, he'll try out for the majors. The bet doesn't come from nowhere. Jimmy, we learn, did play minor-league ball, but was permanently sidelined after shoulder surgery. During batting practice, his players notice he is throwing ungodly heat. Before Jim knows it, he's packing his gear and his three kids in his pickup truck, heading to the Tampa Bay tryouts. In jeans, Morris takes the mound, and the scouts clock his fastball at 98 mph. Before Jim even gets home, there are messages on his answering machine. After discussing it with his wife, played sweetly by Rachel Griffiths, he decides to once again join the minor leagues to fulfill his dream of playing in the bigs.
The story is earnest and, like any good baseball movie, The Rookie is about family, specifically the relationships between fathers and sons. Helping to legitimize the account is Quaid's terrific performance. The natural athlete, who played footballers in Any Given Sunday and Everybody's All-American, is compelling as a down-to-earth everyman.
Morris does eventually make it to the big club. It's far from a "SportsCenter" occasion (he throws one inning in a meaningless game), but the events leading up to that day, as depicted in The Rookie, are what baseball dreams--and movies--are made of.
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