Though a tad bit over-long and sanitized for the family-friendly Disney crowd, The Rookie is a surprisingly effective dramatic effort. The film is buoyed by Dennis Quaid’s considerable talent, a strong supporting cast, believable baseball sequences, and just enough realness to take off the typical saccharine Disney shine.
Jim Morris, a 35-year-old science teacher at a football-crazed West Texas school, makes a promise to the struggling baseball team he manages. If the team starts winning and advances to the state playoffs, he’ll try out with a baseball team. Morris, who’d been drafted out of college, was forced to give up on his dreams of playing Major League ball after a serious arm injury. When the team makes the state playoffs, Morris keeps up his end of the bargain and tries out in front of potentially interested scouts.
Morris, who’d only thrown in the mid-80s in college prior to his injury, quickly catches the eye of the scouts with an upper-90s fastball. After another tryout, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays make an offer and Morris wrestles with the decision, receiving cryptic advice from his emotionally distant father and facing resistance from his wife, who doesn’t want to see him get hurt. After talking over his options with his wife, Morris signs a contract and soon begins his ascent through the Minor League ranks.
Morris’ climb up the organizational ladder isn’t without its hiccups and missteps. His Minor League teammates are initially resistant to his presence on the team, thinking his signing is nothing more than a publicity stunt. Morris also struggles with life on the road away from his wife and kids, and no certainty that his Minors stint will pay off in a call-up to the big league club.
After Morris makes the difficult decision to walk away from his dream and take another more lucrative teaching job, a phone call with his wife and a fateful visit to a Little League game convinces him to change his mind and keep playing. Soon, Morris’ perseverance pays off and he’s whisked up to the big leagues with a teammate he’s become close with.
Morris makes his debut in his home state of Texas with an impressive strikeout in front of family and friends, including his former students. Morris is surprised to find that his father, with whom he’s never had a close relationship, was on hand to witness his debut as well. The movie ends shortly thereafter, with a brief montage and an intertitle explaining what became of Morris’s short-lived baseball career.
While this could have easily become a sappy, overly buffed, and shined Hollywood version of a rags-to-riches story, the movie knows exactly when to tug the heartstrings and when to let the actors, action, and scenery do the work.
Quaid is strong as Morris, portraying the teacher-turned-pro as a man who’s long since given up on his dreams before having those dreams dangled in front of him tantalizingly. Rachel Griffiths, perhaps best known as Brenda on Six Feet Under, stands out as Morris’ initially resistant wife, who has more realistic concerns than chasing dreams of MLB stardom, like putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her family’s heads. Veteran film and television actor Bryan Cox and Two and a Half Men‘s Angus T. Jones round out the main players. The characters feel like real people rather than stock characters, as sometimes happens in sports biopics, especially family fare like this one. They all complement Quaid nicely in their supporting roles.
The location of West Texas also stands out as a character in and of itself. Filmed on location in Texas, the movie makes excellent use of its locale and atmosphere. The film opens with a somewhat long sequence detailing the history of the formerly baseball-loving Big Lake Texas, before introducing the audience to Jim Morris. It’s an odd diversion and one I wouldn’t have minded losing on the cutting room floor, but it does provide some background and flavor to the story.
Another standout feature of The Rookie is the movie’s baseball scenes, and the actors portraying the athletes. Quaid stands out amongst the cast, not only for his acting abilities but his pitching abilities as well; when Quaid pitches, he really looks like a pitcher. According to the movie’s trivia page, Quaid did much of his own pitching, with a body double (former Minor Leaguer Jeff Dowdy) stepping in when the film required truly fast pitches. The young men portraying Quaid’s high school baseball team were all selected from a camp of more than 800 actors.
Further adding to the movie’s authenticity, the film shot scenes at The Ballpark in Arlington and included the Texas Rangers’ real-life radio voice, Eric Nadel, calling the baseball action. Filmmakers also sought permission from Major Leaguer Royce Clayton to use his name in the movie, and he even played himself in an uncredited cameo. Part of Morris’ Major League debut was filmed in the seventh inning stretch during the actual Texas Rangers game, as well.
Overall, The Rookie is a likable family sports film that’s a bit more in the vein of indie standout Sugar or the character-heavy drama The Phenom than a goofy comedy like Rookie of the Year or a dud like Ed. Combined with good writing, strong direction, realistic baseball sequences, and solid performances from veteran actors like Quaid, Cox, and Griffiths, even an old, oft-told underdog story can seem fresh and new. The Rookie is definitely worth a view.