Jim Morris pitched for one year in the major leagues. He was 35 years old when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays baseball franchise saw him throw 98 mph at an open tryout in the summer of 1999. He hadn’t pitched in 10 years.
This is the wondrous true story behind the latest sentimental G-rated feel-good film from Disney (Remember the Titans). For Devil Ray fans in Tampa, we saw Morris pitch firsthand for the young struggling franchise. But fortunately, The Rookie chose to only dramatize Morris’ ascension to the big leagues and left his short-lived playing career to the history books.
The film – at its core – is about dreams and second chances. (If this were fiction, I’d be puking.) In fact, the film begins and ends in Disney-fashion with a hokey magic spell subplot with nuns and rose petals about the history of Big Lake, Texas – “the town where miracles come true.”
But beyond the cheesy bookends, it’s the heart of The Rookie that makes it worth a look.
Dennis Quaid plays the middle-aged man with a dream and a fastball. Quaid – whose latest turn as an aging sports star came in Oliver Stone’s football-as-war 1999 spectacle drama Any Given Sunday – brings a quiet yet endearing persona to the father, science teacher and high school baseball coach who holds the respect of his family, students and team.
It’s his team that he makes a bet with to inspire them to play better. After they see him pitch one day in practice, they say he should try out for the majors. However, his wife knows that if he pitches again he could re-injure his back – the reason he never made it further than the Single-A minor league team in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system. So when his team wins the district championship, he gives it the old try. And he brings his eight-year-old son and infant along for the ride.
The Rookie could have veered into the worst kind of schmaltz imaginable, complete with the subplot of his own father never believing in him. But instead, somewhere between his “Bad News Bears” team starting to win and the chill-inducing phone conversation where Jim tells his kid he’s going to play for the Devil Rays, The Rookie becomes one of the most inspirational dramas this side of It’s A Wonderful Life.
It’s easy to forget this actually happened to somebody. It’s not like getting to the major leagues is easy by any standards. But not only does The Rookie eloquently remind us of the magnitude of Morris’ feat, it follows his story from the beginning, so by the end you are his biggest fan.
Again, his reign as a reliever in baseball was a short one, and he played for two less-than-stellar franchises.
Many will say that is why this movie is an overblown excuse for Disney sentimentality to attract housewives to the theater. Some will say this role was made for Robin Williams, in the tradition of Patch Adams and Jakob the Liar.
But The Rookie actually delves into the compelling story of what it is like for a man chasing a second chance at a one-time unattainable dream.
The last great movie that centered on baseball’s minor league system focused on the Durham Bulls. Coincidentally, the team made famous in Bull Durham is now the AAA farm team for the Devil Rays. Through Jim’s progression in the Rays’ farm team system, we see what it’s like for anyone who dreams of making it to The Show, not just for an aging family man.
First-time director and Texas native John Lee Hancock brings a subtle narrative to a Disney film, which usually hits you over the head with its message. Here, he focuses more on what’s not said as Jim faces the internal conflict of supporting his family or following his dream.
Although the G-rating is suspect – there are some adult scenes between Jim and his wife Lorri played by Australian Rachel Griffiths – this film truly is for all ages. But it may help to be a baseball fan, especially since half the film either takes place at a little league diamond or a major league park.
Contact William Albritton at email@example.com