"The Rookie" (John Lee Hancock, 2002) With all the fuss being made over "The Blind Side," attention must be paid to the director's previous sports-film that proved popular, like "The Blind Side," also based on a actual story that's just this side of incredible and told with a clear-eyed lack of pretension. Jim Morris' baseball card
John Lee Hancock's first film in the Majors* is a double-header of a sports film that manages to tell its male-weepie "dreams do come true" stories, both of them essentially true, with a minimum of sentimentality—the principals are actually quite bitter throughout the film, weighed down by the burden of "what might've been," and to a certain extent paralyzed by it. Coach Jim Morris, a former Big League prospect makes a deal with the High School team he coaches he'll "re-up" if they win their division. It then moves on to top itself to tell the consequence of that first story to the coach who must fulfill a promise to his team...and himself...to try out—again—for the Majors at the age of 39, a time when most pitchers are eyeing retirement, not opposing pitchers.
And because it's situated in Texas (for the most part), there's not an awful lot of talking about it, but, instead, there is a lot of scowling and stewing and time spent in solitude beating themselves up by transference in the form of hurling a baseball in frustration as fast as can be at some woe-be-gone target.
It might have been that baseball abuse added a few feet per second to Jim Morris' pitch, or it might be an arm strengthened by scar-tissue that can top his fast-ball at two ticks shy of a hundred mph. Whatever the reason, the science teacher/baseball coach in the arid football town of Big Lake, Texas must put-up or shut-up to his high-school team after his exhortation to pursue their dreams (and some batting practice with his blazing fast-ball) sharpens them up to become division champions.
That's story one. Story two is Morris' old-man hoofing it through try-outs and the farm system at the off-chance of being called to "The Show." It is an unlikely scenario, but Morris manages to do it, the film ending on the fairy-tale night that he must pitch in his first Major League game in his home state in front of his team and friends and family.
The movie could have been a sob-fest, but instead Hancock hinges it on dark nights of the soul and doubts about responsibility. This isn't some up-beat "Rudy" story where "wishing makes it so," (despite being produced by Disney). Morris (Dennis Quaid) must make a personal journey of dealing with a lifetime of disappointment and what might-have-been to accept the result of his efforts. After a life of compromise and making-do (and blaming others), he has to learn the grace to accept the gifts he has been given and the opportunities he's been afforded. Whatever pain goes behind each pitch, he must also put behind him.
Grace? Sacrifice? Forgiveness? Where do you go to learn such traits? Such inspiration usually is found at the Cathedral, the Temple, or the Mosque, but in the sports-world the big stadium is the source of humility. Hancock stages Morris' first walk into the Texas Rangers stadium as if he was walking into the Vatican, the high-arched entryway with the sun streaming through that stretches to a vanishing point that evokes a long journey, but also the long history of a game that, more than any other sport, is a competition with the ghosts of the past as well as the Boys of that particular Summer. The arches reach to the sky to define the goal but also press down with the weight of tradition, dwarfing the new recruit, challenging him to fill the space. In the distance, his fellow rookie, half his age, looks on in amusement at the old duffer hanging back in awe, anxious to start his journey and not thinking he may be looking at a flash-forward to a future of regret. It is a poignant moment of film, that says volumes in a single image and no words.
It's a good story told well. The characters are not larger than life, merely as large as they need to be. And no decision is made with a self-serving speech and heraldic trumpets—decisions and their consequences are agonized and fretted over. It's a story of people who not only have a lot to lose—they know it—but take the chance anyway for whatever amount of time it may last. "The Rookie" manages to make it look not quixotic, but essential.
* After writing two quirky off-beat films for Clint Eastwood: "A Perfect World" (1993) and "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" (1997).
Jim Morris' baseball card