The Rookie (2002)

Directed by John Lee Hancock. Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Jay Hernandez, Angus T. Jones, Brian Cox. Walt Disney.

Decent Films Ratings

Overall
Recommendability
?B+
Artistic/
Entertainment Value
?
Moral/Spiritual
Value (+4/-4)
? +2
Age
Appropriateness
?Kids & Up*

External Ratings

MPAA ?G USCCB ?A-I

Content advisory: A few objectionable expressions.

By Steven D. Greydanus

The Rookie tells the true story of two minor miracles, possibly attributed to the intercession of St. Rita, a patroness of the impossible. If the G-rated film isn’t itself quite miraculous, it’s still sweetly appealing, inspirational, and wholesome — a story you’re glad to learn really happened, more or less as the movie presents it, without the problematic historical footnotes that intrude upon films like A Beautiful Mind. This is the kind of old-fashioned biopic that makes you want to go out and read the book.

The story: Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), a Texas southpaw, was a baseball fan from the time he was three. As a boy, young Jimmy (Trevor Morgan) he had dreams of Major-League glory, but it wasn’t meant to be: Recurring shoulder pain and a string of surgeries ended his career in the minors, and Morris ended up settling down in Big Lake, Texas, getting married, and teaching high school. "You had a chance, and you got hurt," his mother (Rebecca Spicher) reminds him.

No longer able to play, Jim settles for coaching his school’s spiritless ball club, but is unable to inspire them to play better — until they discover that their coach, in spite of his old injuries, has a blistering fastball. That gets them thinking that he should try out again… but Morris is sure he’s too old for a young man’s game, and it would take the impossible to convince him otherwise.

Of course the impossible does happen — twice. The movie hints there these amazing events may have something to do with an old connection between the town of Big Lake and St. Rita of the impossible. According to a story young Jimmy learns from a Big Lake storekeeper, the ground on which the town would be built was consecrated to St. Rita by a pair of nuns scattering rose petals (a symbol of the saint) in the hope of discovering oil — a hope that was realized, and gave birth to the town.

On this consecrated ground, under a St. Rita holy medal suspended from an old oil well, young Jimmy practices his fastball; and on this same soil adult Jim’s lackluster high-school team stages their amazing turnaround. It’s an edifying twist on a familiar sports-movie pattern — a pattern that also benefits from the likability of the characters, as well as from the knowledge that the basic events weren’t contrived by some screenwriter but really happened.

Morris, by all accounts a modest, good-natured guy, is engagingly portrayed by Dennis Quaid, also apparently a genuinely nice guy, as well as a natural athlete and even a left-hander from Texas to boot. (Quaid, recently seen in another wholesome baseball-themed movie, Frequency, has only one drawback: He looks his 48 years, more than ten years older than Morris during the events depicted in the film. Wisely, the movie is ambiguous about its hero’s age: One of his new teammates calls him "the old guy," but no one ever says just how old.)

Rachel Griffiths (Blow, Blow Dry) is appealing as Lorrie, Morris’ supportive but concerned wife, who doesn’t quite say all she thinks until a key scene that provides about the only ambiguity in the film. As the Morrises’ young son Hunter, Angus T. Jones (See Spot Run) plays the cute card for all it’s worth, giggling unaffectedly and grinning ear to ear.

There’s an easygoing, folksy charm to this film, accentuated by a country-themed soundtrack and characters who say such things as "I’m gonna need a longer street for that talk" and "Lord knows I’m ready for both sides of the bed to be warm again." In one scene, Coach Morris and his team gather matter-of-factly for a pregame locker-room prayer, and the player doff their caps. The film also benefits from nicely observed touches, such as the sheepishness of the scene in which Morris, furtively looking this way and that, feeling like a fool, tests his fastball against a roadside radar display.

Most of all, though, this is a movie about baseball. Bad baseball, good baseball, team practice, solitary practice, minor-league tryouts, major-league luster — it’s all here, lovingly photographed in golden sunsets, dramatic silhouettes, and headlight-illuminated rain. Fans of the game will find the film a knowledgeable, impeccably accurate valentine to the national pastime; you don’t have to be a baseball fan to enjoy The Rookie, but it definitely helps. (Fans may be interested to know that the real Morris has a cameo as an umpire, and Royce Clayton, Morris’ first major-league strikeout victim, sportingly agreed to strike out again for the movie’s recreation of the moment.)

Baseball has never looked so athletic as in the scene at the tryouts, with young men leaping and crouching, catching and throwing, making Morris seem older than ever. When Morris unleashes his fastball, though, watch out. First this look of frightfully intense determination washes over his face. The ball twitches back and forth between three fingers behind his back. Then there’s a whooshing roar and a satisfying thwack as the ball slams into the catcher’s glove (it always slams into the catcher’s glove). It doesn’t do that when anyone else pitches.

Brian Cox (For Love of the Game) plays Jim Morris Sr., the hero’s military father: a distant, chilly figure who’s unsupportive of his son’s baseball dreams. Jim has a lifelong habit of calling his father "Sir," and there’s never any physical affection between them. Unsurprisingly, by the time we meet Jim as an adult, his parents are divorced. Jim Sr. seems to make a marginally better grandfather than a father or husband, but the conflict between him and his son runs deep, and isn’t easily put aside. The portrayal of the father seemed to me a bit one-sidedly unsympathetic, and made their eventual rapprochement less than satisfying; but of course life doesn’t always provide us with satisfying resolutions, and we must take what we can get.

Is the St. Rita part of the story true? Was the town of Big Lake built on devotion to the patroness of the impossible? I don’t know, but there does seem to be a connection: I visited the town’s website, and it makes prominent mention of an oil derrick called Santa Rita #1.

Either way, I predict an upswing in baseball fans praying to St. Rita for their favorite teams.

Tags: Biography, Drama, Family, Religious Themes, Sports

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