Like other “baseball movies”—”The Natural,” “Eight Men Out,” “Field of Dreams”—”The Rookie” is only superficially about America’s game. It’s really about dreams, second chances, family and faith. Baseball—a sport where you can strike out one time and hit a homer the next—simply provides the context for this true story from Walt Disney Pictures.
Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, baseball player turned science teacher turned baseball player again.
When arm injuries forced Morris out of baseball in the 1980s—before he ever made it the major leagues—he married, had kids and taught physics and chemistry at a high school in Texas.
He also coached the baseball team and never completely lost sight of his childhood dream of making it to the majors. One fateful day, Morris and his team struck a bet: if the team won the district championship, Morris would try out again for the major leagues.
The rest is not only history, but also a fantastic movie for every member of the family.
“The Rookie” begins in West Texas, with the legend of an oil well sunk in Big Lake and in the belief it would strike black gold. The well and its land were blessed by nuns who prayed to Saint Rita, “Saint of the Impossible.”
Cut to little Jimmy Morris, loving baseball but living a rootless life with his military family. They move from state to state in a story already being told with economy and humor by screenwriter Mike Rich (who also wrote audience favorite “Finding Forrester”).
By the time Jimmy’s family settles in Big Lake (but small town), Texas, he’s drifted from his father, whose cold shoulder to Jimmy’s baseball dreams and shiftless childhood don’t help. Neither do his words of advice: “There are more important things in life than baseball. The sooner you figure that out, the better.”
But it’s also in Big Lake that Jimmy makes a few friends and finally puts down some roots. And at this point the story transitions from little Jimmy to big Jimmy, who’s still throwing baseball, still dreaming of his first love.
Director John Lee Hancock places Jimmy against the remains of the legendary oil well symbolizing dreams and, most of all, belief in the face of others’ incredulity. And his fading dream is brought back into the light by high school boys who still believe in the impossible.
They make the bet, and the stage is set.
Audiences have seen this kind of underdog story before. But proof of its importance is found in its allure every time it’s told well. “The Rookie” is a well-told story.
It’s textbook storytelling in terms of structure: what’s set up is paid off, what’s put in Jimmy’s way is knocked down.
“The Rookie” offers lots of laughs, but never turns silly. It delves into relationships, but never fakes sentimentality. It embraces baseball, but never confuses Jimmy’s priorities.
Quaid is convincing as Morris. Not only has Quaid played athletes before (“Everybody’s All-American,” “Any Given Sunday”), but his smile is wider than the West Texas sky, and it’s the perfect visual for a man chasing down a dream.
“The Rookie” is a family movie, but not just because the whole family can see it together. It’s also a family movie because it deals with family. From little Jimmy’s strained relationship with his father, to big Jimmy’s relationships with his wife and children, the movie never tucks family under the rug so Jimmy can live his dream at all costs.
Embracing both dreams and family creates tension. But that’s part of what makes “The Rookie” true, appealing and definitely worth seeing.
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director.
MPAA Rating: G
Director: John Lee Hancock
Cast: Jimmy Morris: Dennis Quaid; Lorri Morris: Rachel Griffiths; Jim Morris Sr.: Brian Cox; Olline Morris: Beth Grant.