“It’s your turn, coach.”
The most unforgettable scene in The Rookie doesn’t happen on a baseball diamond. It happens on the side of a road. High school science teacher and baseball coach Jimmy Morris is driving home from practice one night when he comes across one of those radar-powered road signs that allows drivers to track their speed. Jimmy was a minor league pitcher once upon a time until numerous arm injuries ended his athletic career, and although he promised himself he wouldn’t throw hard anymore, recently he’s been bringing heat at batting practice, much to the delight of his players. Somehow, some way, Jimmy’s arm feels like new again. But is it? The radar road sign gives him a chance to find out. Standing next to his truck, Jimmy comes to the set position, grimaces and unleashes his best fastball, which goes whizzing by the sign. In his minor league days, Jimmy could throw in the mid-80s, but according to the sign times have changed: 76, it flashes. Dejected, Jimmy drops his head and goes to retrieve the baseball. As he walks past the sign a few tardy light bulbs flicker to life, turning that 76 into 96 and making Jimmy’s arm stronger than he dared to imagine.
That Jimmy doesn’t see the correction says quite a bit about The Rookie, which is one of the few sports movies to accept that sometimes athletic ability just happens. Inspired by a remarkable true story and written by Mike Rich, The Rookie isn’t about the challenge of succeeding so much as it’s about the challenge of dreaming – in particular, the challenge of dreaming as an adult. A younger man? He wouldn’t have accepted 76. He’d have fired heaters past that sign until he ran out of baseballs, determined to prove to himself, and to the sign, that his fastball is as good as it used to be. But Jimmy isn’t young. He’s 39 with a wife and three kids. For him, even a one-pitch test on the side of the road is an foolish indulgence, and so he walks into the night in search of the missing ball so he can get back in his truck and go home and pretend like the whole thing never happened. The scene tells us what Jimmy can do physically, but it’s an even better reflection of his state of mind. Just before Jimmy unleashes his fastball there’s a telling moment when a car comes driving down the road from the opposite direction and Jimmy quickly turns toward his truck to shield his glove and ball from view – embarrassed by his own curiosity about his arm strength and ashamed to let anyone else know that he’s daring to dream again, if only for a moment.
Dennis Quaid plays Jimmy in a masterful bit of casting – an actor who is better than people give him credit for playing a pitcher who is better than people give him credit for. Technically, he’s a bit old for the part – a guy in his late 40s playing a guy in his late 30s who is based on a guy who was 35 when he became the oldest rookie in Major League Baseball history. But Quaid is youthful enough to look crispy around the edges but not altogether overcooked. He’s also left-handed, just like the original Jim Morris, and although the movie makes no mention of that, it’s a big deal for baseball fans craving realism. While right-handed flame-throwers are a dime a dozen, left-handed hurlers are prized commodities, so much so that a southpaw specialist who comes into the game solely to retire the opposition’s power-hitting lefty has a name: “LOOGY” – a Lefty One-Out GuY. While Morris is unique in terms of the age at which he became a left-handed specialist, it isn’t unusual for LOOGY pitchers to have long careers. (Jesse Orosco pitched until he was 46, for example.) In the few times that director John Lee Hancock dares to show one of Jimmy’s pitches traveling from rubber to home plate in a single shot, it’s glaringly obvious that Quaid doesn’t have the stuff to light up a radar gun, but his mechanics are superb and his mannerisms – flipping the ball in his pitching hand or digging out the dirt in front of the rubber – are even better. In a story that requires us to believe in a guy’s athleticism, Quaid sells the illusion – with a little help from the sound effects crew, which makes each fastball sound like a passing F-14.
Jimmy is the star of Hancock’s film, no question, but The Rookie is a tribute to togetherness. Jimmy couldn’t have made it to the big leagues without the encouragement of his players, the excitement of his son, the understanding of his wife (Rachel Griffiths, in various tight-fitting shirts) and the embrace of his entire little Texas town. When Jimmy steps through the bullpen gate at the Ballpark at Arlington to make his first Major League appearance, Hancock goes heavy with jubilant reaction shots from Jimmy’s family and friends in the crowd not in celebration of him but in celebration with him; his achievement is theirs. Credit to Disney, which is known for taking too-good-to-be-true stories and making them waaaaaay too good to be true, for going by the book in its portrayal of Jimmy’s first appearance – mop-up duty in a meaningless game with his team several runs behind. The real Jim Morris struck out the real Royce Clayton in four pitches in his MLB debut. The Rookie’s Jimmy Morris notches his strikeout in three pitches – a forgivable exaggeration given that the outcome is fairly meaningless. The strikeout validates that Jimmy belongs in the majors, that he’s more than a publicity stunt. But that isn’t the victory. The victory is just getting to that mound, and having the courage to dream of being there.