“Rookie of the Year” aspires to be a pint-sized “It’s a Wonderful Field of Dreams,” and largely succeeds in minor league fashion. A warm, comic “what if” yarn, it’s rife with humor and sentimentality but is just one run away from the game-winning score. As such the film is solidly played and should rank among the summer’s top second-stringers without quite reaching Hall of Fame status.
The premise is engaging. Preteen Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) is your typical single-parented, enthusiastic baseball-playing Chicago kid who’s unaware of life’s crueler realities. He’s an OK student with plenty of school chums and a game personality.
Then the accident happens. When a school bully goads him into going for a high pop fly, in his headlong zeal Henry fails to notice a loose baseball in his path. Tripping on the orb, he’s sent skyward, falling with a thud and breaking his arm.
Months later, when his cast is removed, Henry discovers the fracture has healed in a curious way. His tendons have tightened, allowing him to hurl a ball faster than a speeding bullet. Circumstance brings this to the attention of his beloved Chicago Cubs — the sad sack team of the majors. Soon the contracts are signed and the pee-wee player is rapidly on his way to delivering his franchise a berth in the World Series.
Essentially a one-gag premise, Sam Harper’s screenplay valiantly attempts to enhance the yarn by fleshing out the characters and injecting broad splashes of madcap comedy. It connects more often than it fans in the hands of rookie helmer Daniel Stern, who lacks the seasoning to ground the fantasy in a realistic setting.
Requiring deft sleight-of-hand more than sincerity, the saga nonetheless wears its underdog uniform well. Henry’s arrival in the bullpen is a media sensation and, after a few false starts, he more than proves up to the hype.
But the film isn’t merely about the game. We get a fair sampling about Henry’s maturation. There’s also a subplot involving his mother (Amy Morton) and a creepy new boyfriend (Bruce Altman) who inveigles his way into the boy’s management and has dollar signs for pupils. This nicely segues into management treachery in which Henry is seen as the means to sell off the sagging franchise.
Stern and Harper, however, fail to make the team coalesce dramatically. Most of the players get scant screen time, with the exception of the team’s former pitching star (Gary Busey) who’s forced to take Henry under his wing and slowly warms to the boy and his mother.
Obviously made by people who love the game, “Rookie of the Year” manages to convey that joy honestly.
First-timer Stern has adroitly chosen his technical team, with ace credits throughout, especially Jack Green’s gliding camera and Bill Conti’s big, emotional score.
The principal cast also shines. Youngster Thomas Ian Nicholas has a winning personality. He effects the role of a good kid without being cloying. There’s plenty of the bratty and brainy in his character to provide a well-rounded performance.
Also strong are the ever-reliable Gary Busey as the pitcher edging into over-the-hill status, and Amy Morton, who, with little script help, provides the modern mom with old-fashioned warmth and new-era independence.
Supporting roles, including an uncredited turn by John Candy as an announcer, fall pretty much into archetype.
Some, like Dan Hedaya’s as a manipulative suit, are too on-the-nose, while Albert Hall’s team manager finds a novel edge.
Eddie Bracken, as the dotty team owner, would suggest a tip of the hat to Sturges comedy and characters.
However, the most obvious role of that mold, the Cubs’ inept pitching coach, played by Stern, is a total misfire.
Recalling the emotion of “The Karate Kid,””Rookie of the Year” is a die-hard upbeat opus. To its credit the fantasy-comedy breezes right along to home plate with so much goodwill that audiences will unabashedly cheer it on to the finish.