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A win for the Rays

[Photos: Walt Disney Picture]
Dennis Quaid, right, picks up a few pointers from Jim Morris (left), upon whose life the film The Rookie is based.

By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 28, 2002

The story of former Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris combines wholesomeness with maturity - and manages to succeed.

The Rookie is a nice way to spend a matinee, a true-life story of baseball, hot dogs and Dad's sour grapes that, to its credit, is rated G, as in "gee whiz." That's about the harshest thing anyone says in John Lee Hancock's movie, yet the maturity of its drama is several cuts above the antics of most live action films for the whole family.

Like My Dog Skip a couple of years ago, The Rookie proves that a good story with sensitive issues can be told in relatively wholesome terms, sanitized but not shortchanged. There are plenty of bypassed chances to spice up the material; this must be the cleanest movie in 40 years featuring baseball players and military lifers. But that restraint is part of the film's charm; the longer it succeeds clean, the more willing we become to overlook the glitches.

The life of former Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris is a movie producer's dream. Morris was drafted by the Rays at the ripe age of 36 after clocking 98 mph fastballs at a tryout. Morris, married with children, was only there because of a promise made to the high school baseball team he coached. Right away, you sense the possibilities: a Rocky-style comeback, Mr. Mom shenanigans, the big game(s) and a solid youth market for the prep scenes.

Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, a high-school baseball coach and chemistry teacher who makes one last try to achieve his dream of pitching in the major leagues in The Rookie.
But Hancock isn't entirely interested in hunks, hijinks and late rallies.

This is a story of middle-aged rebirth, physically and professionally, but also with regard to the designated bitter in any good baseball movie, the father-son relationship. Morris' father showed little regard for his son's pitching skills until each of them got a second chance. Making the big leagues means more in The Rookie.

Dennis Quaid is a good choice to play Morris, with decent left-handed pitching mechanics and a Texan's sincerity. Playing athletes on the way down is nothing new to Quaid (Any Given Sunday, Everybody's All-American). But this role shows something miraculous occurring past an athlete's prime, obviously perking the 47-year-old actor's interest. Quaid's everyman appeal and some clever touches by Hancock turn Morris into someone easy to cheer along.

The dependable character actor Brian Cox (L.I.E, Kiss the Girls) plays the senior Jim Morris, making the most of his handful of scenes. Screenwriter Mike Rich (Finding Forrester) is also attentive to Morris' wary but supportive wife Lorrie (Rachel Griffiths), adding an economic-based tension to the story. Quaid's scenes in various combinations with Cox and Griffiths are the soul of The Rookie, although Disney's publicity squad is playing up the film's weakest component to attract young viewers.

Too much time is devoted to Morris' high school team winning the bet that sends Morris to that tryout. Hancock's depiction of rural Texas life is vivid, with dusty ball fields and cordially eccentric gossips. But an hour passes before Morris gets his major league shot and the movie starts being about a rookie and not amateurs. It's a smart marketing move to include up-and-coming actors like Jay Hernandez (crazy/beautiful) but giving them something to do is a distraction.

The result is a movie about 30 minutes too long for its own good. Around here, moviegoers will be more patient knowing that the Devil Rays will show up sooner or later. Seeing their logo on a scout's cap or browsing through lockers where uniforms hang with such names as Canseco and McGriff is admittedly a kick. The Rays become one of a handful of major league baseball teams to be immortalized on the silver screen, although perhaps the only one that doesn't wind up as a winner. That's another movie, maybe science fiction.

The Rookie

  • Grade: B
  • Director: John Lee Hancock
  • Cast: Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths, Brian Cox, Jay Hernandez
  • Screenplay: Mike Rich
  • Rating: G; brief alcohol use
  • Running time: 130 min.

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