If sports are a metaphor for life, then baseball must depict the moments where we dream. No other contest between opposing athletic squads has ever been romanticized quite as much as America’s game, with its naturally built-in opportunities for both team and individual glory, including the duel between pitcher and batter, the support and coordination of fielders working together, and the walk-off no-doubt home run victory. It’s no wonder that for well over a century, kids have been imagining themselves up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to single-handedly win the game, or on the mound facing the most fearless hitter in the league, with the fate of the World Series on the line. It’s also no wonder that filmmakers have capitalized on such fond notions to create genuinely moving movies, classics that cover a wide breadth of topics relating to both the sport, and life itself. Still, no matter the story, be it seedy or nostalgic, within each is always a sense of the dream, the love of the game, and no baseball movie warmly embraces that idea more than Disney’s The Rookie.
While it may sound like a kiddy vehicle starring an obnoxious tween or maybe a fun-loving chimp, and despite its G rating, The Rookie is actually the very adult-relatable story of growing older and believing your youthful aspiration lost to responsibility. Dennis Quaid plays real-life former minor-leaguer Jim Morris, now a high school science teacher and local baseball coach in the Texas town of Big Lake (evidently ironically named, as nary a drop of water is to be seen in the dusty desert surrounding them). There is little life to be had in this arid wasteland – nothing exciting, at least – and it’s not exactly a place where hopes are expected to come true, something reflected in the student players’ attitude on the field. Once you’re in Big Lake, you’re stuck there; so why bother trying? All you’re bound to get is hurt, the results of your hard work possibly being several surgeries to a dead pitching shoulder while you’re slowly forced out of a game you love without ever having had the chance to really prove yourself worthy of The Show. However, in an effort to spark some verve into his team, Morris makes a pact: if the Big Lake Owls can make the state playoffs, then despite being too old to be seriously considered, as well as ten years from facing any sort of competition, he will attend open tryouts nearby for a major league team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
There wouldn’t be much of a story to these true events if the Owls didn’t uphold their end of the deal, so Jim is forced to swallow his pride and risk embarrassment in front of a host of strapping young professional ballplayers, ones whose aspirations and seemingly limitless futures he envies and admires. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that in the ten years since his last injury, his shoulder has not only completely healed, but actually has grown stronger, and now in his mid-30s Morris is capable of throwing a fastball the likes of which neither he nor the professional scouts could have possibly imagined. This revelation sets Jim down a path toward something everyone thinks about from time to time but few rarely do anything about: living out a childhood dream.
Director John Lee Hancock understands perfectly the mythology he is working with, both with baseball and Texas, and he populates The Rookie with the kind of imagery that strikes the right romantic chords. The sun glistens around the silhouette of a ball cradled like an egg, like the light of a middle-aged man’s ambition not quite ready to set; a lone star on a flag flaps over the field of an important game the same way it does at the Alamo, a last stand for honor; little leaguers in oversized uniforms awkwardly field grounders, gangly arms somehow hitting their targets, the smiles on their faces projecting everything wholesome and ageless about this sport; a door emerges into a massive professional stadium, with a capacity crowd towering over a pitcher running out to the mound for the first time, a near-religious rite of passage taking place in one of the largest “cathedrals” in the world. These are archetypal moments recognizable by any fan, as well as familiar to those who may have just absorbed a bit of baseball culture through osmosis, and they go a long way toward promoting the fairy tale aspects of the story.
Still, a good fairy tale has to contain enough believability to inspire, and Hancock also gets the realism right, from unfashionable small-town teens, to swirls of dust kicking up around home plate, to filming footage with actual major leaguers taken at a real-life Rangers/Rays game to simulate the story’s climax (which works infinitely better than a group of uncoordinated actors clumsily faking their way through a double play), ensuring that enthusiasts won’t be taken out of the experience by obvious falsified ridiculousness, and other viewers are treated to the poetic athleticism of the sport at its finest. The world is also populated with believable blue-collar types that for once don’t feel like caricatures, but people born out of a mind that has experience with – and affection for – these out-of-the-way places and folks, including ones whose fates are sealed, and others expecting to leave the boondocks in their dust. There are some whose confidence is justified, and others who mask a deep-down lack of belief in themselves. Throughout The Rookie there are reminders of the different things people expect from life, the variety of situations they can be happy with. Not everyone’s hopes come to fruition, but there are worse things; one could lose them altogether.
The crack of the bat, the thump of the catch, the whizzing pop of the pitch; these all contribute to an authenticity that evokes nostalgia, making me want to lace up my cleats and dig into the batter’s box again. The gritty sweat under the hot Texas sun, the worry over bills, and the changing of diapers off the bed of a pickup truck may remind me that there is more to a full existence than being a hero in the bottom of the ninth, but baseball is still pure, still fun. What makes The Rookie work so well is how it perfectly captures the balance between the growing weight of the burdens and obligations that comes along with maturation into adulthood, and the emotional pull to the simple pleasures of playing this game.
With spouses and jobs and mortgages and kids, it can seem like we just don’t have the time or disposition to partake in innocent fun anymore; adults must step aside, lest they be pushed, to make way for the next generation of idealists. But when you feel the stitches of the baseball along your fingers, inhale the leather of a well-worn glove, or wrap your hands around the grip of a wooden bat, everyone is the same age, everyone is a kid again – even if your knees can’t quite steal a base like they used to. You can remember what it was like to imagine, to dream. By embodying this, The Rookie not only loves baseball, but does a heartwarming job of expressing why so many others do too.