The eternal beauty and constant surprise of baseball are always getting sabotaged by Hollywood's urge to reduce the grand old game to a set of cliches as tedious as spring-training drills. The ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson elevated Field of Dreams, the Wild Thing's errant fastball gave momentary charm to Major League, and no one with a heartbeat can forget the preteen pluck of The Bad News Bears. For the most part, though, baseball movies have a lot less to do with baseball -- the soul of baseball -- than with safely touching all the bases in the stock emotions department. If your new diamond-dust epic doesn't feature an aging vet trying to make a comeback, a long-lost or disapproving father, a cute kid, a hopeless team that rises up to glory, or a combination of them all, it's going to strike out with the public. When in doubt, stick a pair of cleats on Kevin Costner and have him recite badly written speeches like a hardware salesman doing community theater.
Or so goes the thinking of the bush-league dopes who make most baseball movies. To them, those who buy tickets to baseball pictures are infantile, weak-minded or simply jock-obsessed -- not the kind of people worthy of a thoughtful, original piece of work. For seamheads, softballs will do.
That brings us to The Rookie, a Dennis Quaid vehicle that's being released just as the 2002 major-league season gets under way. It's a paint-by-numbers job of the worst sort, stuffed with more tired old baseball baloney than Harry Caray and about as dramatic as shagging flies in St. Pete. The tagline "based on a true story" amounts to no recommendation, either. If good ol' Jim Morris, a high school science teacher from West Texas who got a shot at pitching in the Bigs very late in life, had this much Disney goo on him during his actual playing days, he would have stuck to the bench out there in the bullpen.
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As it is, Quaid's version of Jim Morris will put diabetics in grave peril. This Jim is so spotless and selfless that Lou Gehrig would retch. Halfway through his big-screen canonization, you may find yourself hoping for Darryl Strawberry to show up and drag the poor guy off to the nearest crackhouse. Instead, Morris plugs away like a monk and finally makes his major-league debut in his home state, against the Texas Rangers, at age 38, or 40, or -- who knows? Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) and director John Lee Hancock don't bother to tell us. Of course, "major-league debut" is a relative term in this case: Morris pitched in 1999 for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are to other major-league teams what phone sex is to fornication. Still, Morris struck out Royce Clayton with three fastballs. On the soundtrack, you hear each of them hiss loudly out of the southpaw's hand and whump into the catcher's mitt, while Carter Burwell's music swells in triumph.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Prior to Jim Morris's big moment at The Ballpark in Arlington, he (and we) must endure the preliminaries, which is to say a mass disinterment of baseball-movie cliches. We've got the starry-eyed twelve-year-old dreaming of World Series glory while his stiff-ass Navy father (Brian Cox) insists that "there are more important things in life than baseball," then the abrupt fast-forward to dusty Big Lake, Texas, where our Jim is now a chemistry teacher, the beleaguered baseball coach at a podunk high school where football rules, the husband of a devoted woman (Six Feet Under's Rachel Griffiths) and the father of some cute kids. Years earlier, he ruined his arm, but now he's throwing again (harder than ever, it seems), and when his team suddenly reverses its fortunes and wins a sectional championship, the coach must fulfill his promise to go for a big-league tryout. Jim arrives in blue jeans and, instead of warming up, changes his daughter's diaper. When his heater clocks in at 98 mph, hope surges.
Need we say more? After a tiff, the wife bravely supports the dream. Dad still disapproves, but Jim's little son Hunter (Angus T. Jones) is aglow. Jim Morris plays Double A at Orlando, Triple A in Durham (yep, Crash Davis's old club), where the kids start calling him Old Man River -- "Riv" for short. With a struggling family and a stack of bills at home, he considers quitting, but a glimpse of Little Leaguers at play reminds him of baseball's purity, and he perseveres.
Then Durham's crusty manager -- all baseball managers are crusty, haven't you heard? -- gives him the word. He's being called up. In Arlington, he sees his jersey hanging in a locker next to Jose Canseco's and Fred McGriff's. His wife is at the game. His high school players are at the game. Even grumpy Dad is at the game. And when it's over, Jim is, well, happy. Meanwhile, some of us, squirming in our seats at the sweetness of it all, find ourselves almost pining for the days, not long ago, when sports movies were considered box-office poison, the studios refused to make them, and the only thing we could do was slip out to the ballpark and enjoy the real thing itself.