Playing out the dream

“Reckon I can hit that oil derrick from here?”

“Reckon I can hit that oil derrick from here?”

Rated 4.0

A great story gets a sweet treatment with The Rookie, featuring a mammoth performance from Dennis Quaid as major league pitcher Jim Morris. Rank this one as an all-time great baseball movie, alongside gems like Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out and The Natural. It’s that good.

This is not only a powerful baseball movie but an emotionally uplifting one as well. The film is made all the more entertaining and substantial in that it is based on the true story of Morris, who made his major league debut in 1999 as a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

What made his story so unique is that he was a high school science teacher three months before that debut, and well into his 30s. His achievement is truly miraculous.

As the film depicts, Morris always had aspirations of big league stardom, even though his father (played by Brian Cox) would often relocate the family to areas where the schools did not have baseball programs. Morris manages to find ways to play and eventually gets within a hair of pitching in the major leagues.

Tragically, Morris’ baseball career seemed to end due to an arm injury while pitching in the minors. Forced to put his dreams behind him, he settles into life as a science teacher, coaching a high school baseball team with a seemingly unbreakable pattern of losing. The kids challenge Morris, proposing that he must try out for the majors again if their team makes it to the state championship. Morris accepts the challenge, probably believing his team will fall somewhere significantly short of its goal.

The team comes through, and Morris finds himself trying out for the Devil Rays with kids half his age. When he gets up to throw, shortly after changing his child’s diaper, the scouts are convinced that their radar guns are busted. Morris is throwing otherworldly heat, and he’s called back to throw again. When he proves that his heater is no fluke, he finds himself riding buses in the minors, and soon thereafter, pitching at Arlington Stadium against the Texas Rangers.

Quaid is a marvel as Morris and physically convincing as a man capable of throwing a 98-mph fastball. He puts his trademark smile to use here, in what amounts to a first-rate “feel-good” movie.

This film is one of those movies that feels like it’s going to end numerous times but keeps going to give a near complete story of an extraordinary man. The first part of the movie deals with young Jim and his unsupportive father (a portion of the film that feels slightly rushed), and then moves on to high school coaching days. The movie thankfully proceeds to Morris’ short minor league career and his big league debut, giving this portion of the movie the time it deserves.

Director John Lee Hancock certainly could have made a sappy movie here, but he eschews sentimental garbage, allowing the wonders of the story to come through without being manipulative. Rachel Griffiths is very good as Morris’ supportive wife, and Cox delivers a typically effective performance as the dad.

If the film has a slight flaw, it is that it fails to flesh out the subplot involving Morris’ dad. The movie never truly explains his poor attitude towards his son’s dreams, although Cox is one of those performers who excels even when his role is a touch underwritten.

The Rookie is an amazing story, beautifully told. Quaid is an underrated actor, and probably won’t garner the accolades he deserves for this film. For me, the movie serves as a reminder of what a fine actor he is, while providing a nice primer for the upcoming baseball season.