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'Rookie, The'

'The Rookie' tells of an ordinary guy who gets a second chance

Friday, March 29, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

To understand how far a man has come, you have to see where he has been. To recognize the magnitude of his dream, you have to know the odds against it ever coming true.

"The Rookie" triumphs because it steeps us in the bitter disappointments of a man's life, his troubled relationship with his father, his ordinary life in an ordinary little town where dreams go to die. Jim Morris was not exactly the George Bailey of west Texas, but he would get a second chance to discover how wonderful -- no, how wondrous -- life can be.

If Morris' story were not true, no one would believe it. But anyone who follows baseball knows of his miraculous tale. For everyone else, "The Rookie" serves as yet another reminder of why we should never take anything for granted in life.

Jim's ultimate destination becomes obvious but the movie's focus is on the more interesting part of it, his unlikely journey en route. The movie starts with a gushy fable about an oil strike in that same west Texas town that came on an unsteady wing and a desperate prayer. It segues to Jim, a boy living in Connecticut, throwing that ball against a wall over and over.

'The Rookie'


STARRING: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox.

DIRECTOR: John Lee Hancock.

WEB SITE: disney.go.com/rookie


'The Rookie'
Bigger than baseball


His dad (Brian Cox) works in the Navy and so they move constantly. In Florida, Jim's baseball talent becomes obvious. But Dad gets transferred to Texas and refuses to let Jim stay behind, even though in Texas, football is king and baseball is an afterthought.

Next thing we know, an adult Jim (Dennis Quaid) is pitching balls into a fence until it gets dark, throwing and throwing with a look on his face that refuses to acknowledge what his mind and body already know. The desire is, as he puts it, stuck in his craw.

The players on the high-school team he coaches knew it better than anyone. They can feel it in the fastballs he throws that sting the hands inside their mitts like a sledgehammer. When he catches them slacking off, he tells them to dream of what they might accomplish and never let go. And they ask, "What about your dream, coach?"

So he agrees to a wager. If they win the district championship, he will try out for a major league team. It doesn't seem like much of a risk. The players don't appear to know what it means to play together as a unit. The coach is 35 years old, a graybeard in baseball years, and hasn't played professionally in 10 years. He's got a wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), and three little kids and bills to pay and hopes of getting a better job in a bigger town. Can he afford to chase the dream one more time? Will his wife put up with it? Is it fair to the kids?

Like both Quaid and Morris, director John Lee Hancock hails from the Lone Star state, and he makes you feel the dust and the wind and the big lonely spaces until you understand how they can drain the hope and spirit from a man. Jim talks to his kids about dreams so they will see more in life than this little town in the middle of nowhere.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie is that it gets the details right. It sticks to the facts and doesn't embellish them with sentiment. Morris did lug his kids along to the tryout. He did throw in the rain when they called him back. He did pitch where it says he pitched, and to whom, in the biggest game of his life. As the late, great Casey Stengel used to say, you could look it up.

The movie glosses over (but does ultimately mention) the fact that Jim spent a couple of years in the minor leagues in the early 1980s before injuries forced him to retire. But the screenplay by Mike Rich ("Finding Forrester") captures the strange, strained relationship between him and his father, a man who never seemed to know what to say to his son and usually chose exactly the wrong thing. It shows him spending time with his own son, trying not to make the same mistakes. It lets us see the strain that the dream has created between him and Lorri.

And in Quaid's hardened face, his burning glare, his desperate obsession, we see the fertile soil from which Jim Morris built his field of dreams.

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