I saw The Rookie last night for the second time. I liked it a ton the first time, and it still holds up. It still moves the viewer. John Lee Hancock directed this 2002 biopic starring Dennis Quaid as Jimmy Morris, who made his major league baseball debut at the age of 35.
Drafted out of high school in 1983 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Morris bounced around the minors for six years, then chucked it all in 1989. He then became a high school teacher and coach in Texas. In June 1999, he gained an unlikely pro tryout, impressed scouts with his live fastball, and, before the season was over, was called up to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (a team with woeful pitching), with whom he finished the season.
Morris made the Rays roster in spring of 2000, though he only lasted about five weeks into that season, returning to oblivion, but not before he struck a blow for dreamers everywhere. In two very partial seasons, Morris compiled modest numbers: no wins or losses, 15 IP, 4.80 ERA, 13 Ks.
Morris’ story is inspiring, even without all the Hollywood melodrama, of which there is a fair amount in Hancock’s film. Yet despite the hokum—which, on balance, is probably handled as well as any director could—Hancock also does wonderful things with the camera, which bring to life the dusty Texas setting and exhibit particular strength in the critical relationship scenes between Quaid and Rachel Griffiths, who, as Morris’ wife, exudes an earthy sexuality and a subtle appeal. Hers is a fine performance, but so is Quaid’s, and watching him one wonders why he isn’t (or wasn’t) a bigger star. He handles all the baseball stuff like a champ, with convincing athleticism and a sense of determination that reads as credible without once getting mawkish. He also manages understatement in the scenes in which he coaches the high school baseball team to a surprise successful season. Scenes played with Brian Cox, as his dark-spirited father, are also very affecting.
If only director Hancock hadn’t indulged a tendency to over-focus his lens on kid actor Angus T. Jones, known now as the obnoxious tween-child on the TV series Two and a Half Men. Jones plays Quaid’s son, and this bit of thematic schmaltz (fathers and sons) becomes tiresome, even though it does have some logic in context. It doesn’t help that Jones isn’t charming. Luckily, it doesn’t kill the film.
The movie’s musical score, with the exception of some overly sentimental recorder motifs, is terrific, a fun blend of rockabilly and Americana and country that keeps us mindful of the rural surroundings.
But maybe what The Rookie achieves beyond excellent filmmaking is the evocation of a sincere regard for baseball at any level. I watched the flick remembering how much I loved the sport as a kid, even though my own achievements never extended beyond grammar school leagues or softball fields. Hancock’s careful direction successfully reminds us what a great game baseball is.
The irony is thick, then, when Quaid as Morris, finally inside a major league locker room, strolls past the hanging jersey of Jose Canseco, who, in actual fact, was then having the last quality year of his steroid-checkered career (.279, 34 HRs, 95 RBIs). At that point, the movie just as easily reminds us what an awful business the pro game has become at its highest rung. Dopers and liars among players, weak-sister executives, perversely bloated salaries, ticket prices affordable only to the well-to-do, an overextended season that becomes mind-numbing and loses its meaning, plus a playoff season that drags nearly into November, when, at some games, teams dress in winter underwear and fans freeze their nuts off. Meanwhile, television (and, by extension, the New York Yankees) calls all the shots.
The Rookie has the power to re-instill devotion to baseball. It’s well-crafted sports story-telling that never overstates its case and often induces chills in those who still have a fondness for baseball’s mythical properties. Too bad money and greed have ruined it all.
Nevertheless, baseball is right around the corner. Joe Torre is managing the Dodgers, the fabulous Ryan Howard of the Phillies gets a fresh start on the season, and the Washington Nationals open a brand-new ballpark, Nationals Park, on March 30, against the Atlanta Braves.
Somewhere, Jimmy Morris will be watching. The rest of us will have blinders on.