Deftly constructed to stoke the baseball-phenom fantasies of coulda-shoulda-woulda middle-aged guys and fields-of-dreaming young diamond studs, “The Rookie” is poised to score major league jack as an out-of-left-field sleeper hit. Disney definitely is swinging for the fences with heavy-hitting promotion — beaucoup word-of-mouth previews, national sneaks and multi-media ad assaults — doubtless hoping to repeat the success of Mouse Factory’s “Remember the Titans,” another fact based, feel-good sports drama. New pic should post equally impressive stats during theatrical innings and ancillary play-offs.
Smoothly directed by vet scripter John Lee Hancock (“A Perfect World,” “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”) from a well-crafted screenplay by Mike Rich (“Finding Forrester”), “Rookie” celebrates the unlikely achievements of Jim Morris, a small town Texas high school baseball coach and chemistry teacher who, in 1999, became the oldest rookie MLB pitcher to take the field in 40 years.
Pic is divided into two segments. Brief prologue sets the scene in the West Texas oil town of Big Lake, and limns the itinerant childhood of young Jimmy (Trevor Morgan), son of taciturn Navy CPO James Morris Sr. (Brian Cox). When father is transferred to post in Big Lake, a town where football is preferred, Jimmy’s budding Little League career is rudely interrupted.
Flash-forward finds adult Jim (Dennis Quaid) still living in Big Lake, coaching the Big Lake High School Owls. Most of the school’s sports budget goes to the football team, and Jim’s under-funded, under-equipped baseball players are chronic losers.
Anxious to boost his players’ self-esteem, Jim extols them to “follow your dreams.” Some of the players — chief among them, Joaquin “Wack” Campos (Jay Hernandez of “crazy/beautiful”) — respond in kind: Why doesn’t Jim take a second shot at realizing his own ambitions?
Turns out that Jim had a brief run 10 years earlier in the minors, but blew out his shoulder. Fully recovered — and, more important, still able to throw heat like a man 10 years his junior — he claims he’s too old, and too burdened with family responsibilities, to consider another major league job. But his players press, so Jim accepts their challenge: If they win the district championship, Jim will try out for the big leagues.
The Big Lake Owls fulfill their end of the bargain with a rousing come-from-behind win. So Jim attends a tryout camp, where he amazes the scouts with a fastball that clocks at 98 mph.
In short order, and despite serious misgivings on the part of his wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), he’s back in the minors and getting lots of press as the most highly publicized over-age Minor League rookie since Michael Jordan. Everything leads to a shamelessly heart-tugging but undeniably potent climax in which Jim, called up as a relief pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, sees his first major league action in the Ballpark at Arlington (Texas) while half the population of Big Lake cheers in the stands. Closing credits reveal Jim went on to enjoy a two-year MLB career before retirement.
Quaid and helmer Hancock are native Texans, which may explain why “Rookie” is refreshingly free of buffoonish behavior and twangy stereotypes so common to Hollywood dramas set in the Lone Star state. If anything, leisurely paced pic errs in the other direction by striving a tad too obviously for sober-sided mythos and all-American iconography.
John Schwartzman’s attractive color lensing is splendid, but there are a few too many beautifully composed widescreen shots of Quaid standing against dry West Texas landscapes and starlit night skies. Worse, some glimpses of small town Texas life have the too-perfect look of calendar art.
Still, Quaid’s effortlessly compelling and engagingly earnest performance keeps pic grounded in down-to-earth reality. He’s actually about a decade older than Jim Morris was at the time of his baseball comeback, but he’s in sufficiently great physical shape to pull off the part without straining credibility.
More important, Quaid never hits a false note while illuminating various facets of Jim’s character. All in all, another superlative job by one of the most reliable and under-rated actors working in contemporary cinema.
Griffiths (“Six Feet Under”) works quiet wonders within the limitations of the familiar role of a supportive but not infinitely patient spouse, while Cox does his best to hide his character’s soft heart behind an intimidatingly harsh exterior. Angus T. Jones (“See Spot Run”) stops far short of kid-actor sickly sweetness, and offers a genuinely affecting performance as Jim’s idolatrous young son.
Filmed on Texas locations in and around Austin and Arlington, “The Rookie” offers an attractive tech package to enhance its straightforward and (except for a few moments of overstatement) intelligently sentimental storytelling. Aptly chosen pop and country tunes on soundtrack run the gamut from Elvis Presley to Nat “King” Cole to Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.