Program Notes: The Rookie (2002)

No matter how old and creaky he gets, no matter that the last time he wriggled his fingers into a mitt was a lifetime ago, just about every American male harbors the dream, however faint its glimmer, of playing Major League Baseball.

Hey, I don’t even care much about baseball, and even I have been known to pipe dream about slamming a bases-loaded home run.

That near-universal yearning drives The Rookie (2002), a real-life baseball yarn that feels like fiction.

Written by Mike Rich and directed by John Lee Hancock (who would go on to sports movie immortality with The Blind Side), The Rookie comes by its dreams and its sentiment honestly.

It’s the true story of Jimmy Morris, a one-time minor-league player who in middle age found himself the science teacher and baseball coach at a small Texas high school.

Film Screening:
The Rookie (2002)
Saturday, June 30 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

Then in 1999 at the age of 35, Morris became the oldest rookie Major League pitcher in 40 years when he was signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Had The Rookie’s plot sprung directly from the mind of a Hollywood screenwriter, we’d laugh it off as just so much Dream Factory hokum.

Consider the central conceit: Morris’ teenage players, who almost never win but revere their coach, make a bet. If they can make it to the state championship, then Morris must try out for a Major League team.

He reluctantly agrees. After all, what are the odds that the kids can turn around their long losing streak?

And then, amazingly, his team does just that.

Sounds too good to be true. But the knowledge that the story is true makes the cliché reality.

“As averse as I usually am to feel-good, follow-your-dream Hollywood fantasies,” wrote New York Times critic Stephen Holden, “this one got to me.”

No apology needed. This film gets to everyone.

It’s not just that the movie offers confirmation that wishes do come true. Hancock, a native Texan, absolutely nails the ethos of a small town, from the trio of old timers who keep a never-ending card game going in the burg’s musty dry goods store (in our family these groupings, a feature of virtually every rural town, were known as “spit-and-argue clubs”) to the not-particularly-special kids on Morris’ team.

It’s a world where your sports coach is also your teacher, your neighbor, and one of your parents’ friends.

In fact, The Rookie is a truly celebratory film.

It celebrates family and an astonishingly healthy marriage.

It celebrates the Texas landscape, finding beauty even in the searing heat of summer.

It celebrates community.

Of course it celebrates baseball. Not big-paycheck baseball. This film celebrates people who love baseball.

And it manages to be dramatic without the usual narrative tricks. The film has no villain ... unless it’s time, that slow, relentless leveler of youthful hope.

The acting – particularly from Dennis Quaid as Morris, a nice guy torn between his dreams and his good if unspectacular life – is unforced and natural.

And it’s a lyrical film, delicately paced as if keyed to the slower life of a tiny burg on the prairie ... or to a game of baseball.

Other films in the series “Hollywood Homers”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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