Here's the feel-good part: Hardball is not as bad as it sounds, and at its best it's charming. Wooden, uncertain Keanu Reeves is no Walter Matthau, the memorable curmudgeon who led The Bad News Bears to the top of the all-time kiddie-baseball-movie standings 25 years ago. But Reeves's self-conscious stumbling as an actor actually works in his favor here. As Conor O'Neill, the gambler-turned-surrogate-father, he comes off as an overgrown preteen himself, a guy who doesn't know how to act until his players show him who he really is. Meanwhile, director Robbins (the former Head of the Class star) has every sports-movie trope known to man waiting in the on-deck circle. No surprise there: His credits include the high school football comedy Varsity Blues and the equally lightweight wrestling farce Ready to Rumble.
As for the boys, all of them unknowns, most of them from Chicago, they are uniformly cute, likable and heartrending. Only one kid, the second baseman, is playing with a doctored birth certificate. They include Michael Perkins as Kofi, star slugger for our ragtag Kekambas (named for an African tribe); Julian Griffith as plump, sweet-tempered Jefferson, who suffers from asthma; A. Delon Ellis Jr. as Miles, who can't get his heater over the plate unless the Notorious B.I.G. is blasting through his headphones; and little DeWayne Warren as G-Baby, the Kekambas' loyal mascot. That half the roster doesn't yet have much acting skill doesn't really matter. We want them to hit line drives, win games and wise off, not recite excerpts from Othello. Let Keanu do the heavy thespian lifting. Or somebody.
The movie's genesis lies in Daniel Coyle's 1993 memoir, Hardball: A Season in the Projects, about the author's experiences coaching a youth baseball team in Chicago's rough Cabrini-Green housing project. Screenwriter John Gatins has tinkered with Coyle's book, presumably to up the emotional ante and provide more opportunities for redemption. The protagonist is no longer a yuppie stockbroker but Reeves's down-at-the-heels desperado, and the obligatory Hollywood love interest has been duly inserted, in the person of Diane Lane as an idealistic schoolteacher who comes to see the potential for sweetness and light in lost soul O'Neill.
Apart from setting career highs in the cliche column, Hardball's overseers have some very peculiar ideas about sports betting and bookmakers. But they get at least one crucial thing exactly right: Kids don't just love baseball, they think the game is magic, and the sheer joy Robbins conjures up as the Kekambas take the field is as real as anything you'll see in any baseball movie -- from It Happens Every Spring to Field of Dreams. Kofi and Miles and the others may not exactly be angels in the outfield -- angels don't call each other "bitch" -- but these terrific kids clearly come under the spell of the grand old game. And when their coach, converted at last to the innocence of their belief, hauls the whole team off to Comiskey Park (the old Comiskey, it turns out) to see the White Sox play the Cubs in an interleague game, the movie hits an emotional peak.
Despite living in Chicago, none of these ghetto boys has ever seen big-league ball in the flesh -- much less dared to imagine a wave and a smile from Sammy Sosa. When that happens, we forget all the movie's missteps. The moment is pure. It's true. Unless you're John Rocker, it's a home run struck for the good guys. After this, the Kekambas don't even need to take home the league trophy. Like the Bad News Bears, they've entered the secret realm of baseball where what Shoeless Joe Jackson once called "the thrill of the grass" counts for eveything.
And what of the movie's tragic shock? Truth be told, it feels like manipulation, like the moviemakers' failure to resist their own worst impulses -- and Hollywood's demand for blunt melodrama. Likewise Hardball's emphasis on the troubled coach rather than the troubled kids. Oh, well. Even in a championship season, you can't expect to hit everything out of the park.