There’s a moment when you’re walking into Yankee Stadium as you’re coming up the ramps toward the tiers and all of a sudden the concrete bunkerness of the stadium falls away and you’re staring at bright green grass and rich brown dirt that’s been neatly combed and new white lines outlining it all. And that moment, always, no matter how many times you’ve walked it, is like a religious revelation — all your cares fall away and the next couple of hours are just about The Game. But that moment, standing at the railing, gazing at the diamond, ripe with potential and promise, is still the best moment of the day.
There’s a moment like that in The Rookie, too — though this moment occurs at a stadium in Arlington, Texas, and maybe this moment happens at stadiums everywhere (except Shea). The former students of high-school chemistry teacher and baseball coach Jim Morris have come to see him pitch his first game in the majors, the oldest rookie in decades, and they walk up that ramp and the diamond appears before them and the moment is perfect. After all that we’ve come through with Jim, the promise and the potential in the moment is no longer something nebulous: it’s all about him, and what he can do, which is throw 98MPH fastballs at the ripe old age of too-old-to-play-ball-especially-for-a-pitcher.
If this sounds like the biggest load of baloney you’ve ever heard, then, my sorry friend, The Rookie is not for you. But if you’ve been moved by that religious experience of seeing the diamond, if you damn near cry when the national anthem gets played over a tinny loudspeaker at a Little League game, if a beat-up glove gets you all choked up, then you must bring a whole damn box of Kleenex with you to the theater. Even men can cry over this one, cuz it’s about sports.
Except, of course, that like all movies about baseball, The Rookie is really about life, about losing a dream and finding it again and passing that dream along to others. Jim Morris — this is based on his true story — had pitched in the minors as a much younger man but was forced to give it up when he blew his shoulder out. Now, years later, he discovers that his pitching arm is even better than ever, and that he can pitch faster than ever. And he makes a bet with the high-school team he coaches in Middle of Nowhere, Texas, that if they make the playoffs, he’ll try out for the majors. Since his kids are rather Bad News Bearish, he agrees — whatever inspires the team to do better is a good thing.
The baseball fairy tale here isn’t just Morris’s road to the majors and the Owls trip to the playoffs (of course they make it — there’s nothing surprising about The Rookie except how unexpectedly moving it is) but the love of the game in general. Self-reliance, pride, team spirit — the sports-movie clichés are handled with a light, deft touch by director John Lee Hancock and screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) and the perfect cast. No one could be better than Dennis Quaid (Traffic) as Morris, his beat-down weariness slowly turning to boyish excitement as he contemplates actually following through on his reborn dream. And Angus T. Jones (Simpatico), as Morris’s young son Hunter, never stops grinning throughout the entire movie. And why should he? His dad plays baseball. It’s an exhilarating thing, even when Dad is merely coaching a high-school team no one cares about in football country. It’s why even Little League games are so fun, why when Morris stops to watch a kiddie game when the hope of rekindling his dream is flagging, it’ll leave a baseball-sized lump in your throat.
With touches of the magical that capture the essence of baseball, The Rookie is funny and gentle and inspiring and unspeakably wonderful. It’s pitch perfect.