April 18, 2002

Batting Average

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In the real world, middle-aged Jim Morris made national headlines when he left his teaching job and became a major league baseball pitcher for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

In the fake world, The Rookie, Disney’s latest with charmer Dennis Quaid, retells Morris’ story, hoping to invigorate a tale to which we already know the ending. While the task is a difficult one, the film succeeds due to a combination of a little heart and the ingenious direction of relative newcomer John Lee Hancock.

Hancock starts at the beginning with Morris’ troubled childhood. Young actor Trevor Morgan, portrays Jimmy accurately during his pensive-army-brat-that-can-really-throw-a-fastball phase. When transferred for Army recruiting, his father, deftly played by last year’s indie film star Brian Cox, sentences the family to the sleepy Western alcove of Big Lake, Texas. The problem?

Curiously, Big Lake has never much desired America’s pastime.

‘The World Series, what’s that? We have America’s other favorite pastime, football.’

Obviously, our protagonist is not pleased about this but he can’t fight his distant dad. “There are more important things than baseball,” dad tells son to which son looks like he wants to say, ‘um, no there’s not.’

Off-screen Morris grows up and may have a shot at a his ideal career. However, plan A is killed when he encounters a shoulder ailment that requires four surgeries to repair. Plan B is to get married, have kids, and get one of those real jobs.

Here, Quaid takes over and is instantly likeable as the forlorn middle-aged Morris.

While still in Big Lake, he continues to have his little kid big league dreams while coaching the ragtag high school baseball team and relaxing, by throwing some pitches at night by car light in an empty field.

When one of his players witnesses Jim’s relaxation techniques, he realizes that coach could have been a contender. The player gets the other teammates to gang up on Morris and give him an ultimatum.

‘We win the district championships and you try out for the big leagues.’

Jim agrees although he’s kind of scared. They could win and he may have to face his earlier failure. Plus, after the injury, even the word pitching is considered dirty by wife Lorri, played by ‘I’m not American, I just play one on TV’ actress Rachel Griffiths. But after the team makes districts (you knew they would), he decides to give it a try.

He did make a promise. Slowly, he makes it; everyone cheers.

Luckily, Quaid’s and the others’ comfortable performances make you forget about the schmaltz and focus on the story, which is also aided by Hancock’s stunning visuals.

Almost every frame could be paused and made into its own photograph, while the backlighting against Quaid’s face makes him appear less like someone’s father and more like an ex-Abercrombie and Fitch model.

Don’t expect any grit or grime in this sports film a l