By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Believe me, when I heard Disney was making a baseball movie starring Dennis Quaid, I thought the same thing you did:

Dennis Quaid
In "The Rookie," Dennis Quaid reclaims his career from Kevin Costner.

"That's gonna stink."

For one thing, Hollywood has pumped out too many baseball movies over the past 25 years. We've seen ragtag Little League teams, ragtag minor-league teams, ragtag major-league teams and even ragtag female baseball teams. We've seen kids managing baseball teams and throwing 160 mph fastballs. We've seen veteran pitchers trying to survive in The Show, rookie pitchers trying to make The Show, and fledgling pitchers being scouted for The Show. We've seen movies about Cobb, Ruth, Mantle & Maris, the Negro Leagues and the Black Sox. We've even seen baseball-playing monkeys and baseball-playing golden retrievers.

It's all been done, it's all been said. Six baseball movies covered every possible angle as well as they could be covered -- "The Natural" (drama), "Field of Dreams" (the surreal), "Bad News Bears 1 & 2" (Little League), "Major League" (comedy) and "Bull Durham" (life in the minors) -- leaving us with imitators, regurgitators and pretenders galore. You knew Hollywood was running out of ideas when they started remaking the same baseball movies, like when "Bad News Bears" was given a racial makeover as "Hardball."

So that was one problem. Then there was the whole Disney thing. Hey, nobody loves Disney more than me -- they send me a big fat paycheck every two weeks. But I couldn't imagine a worthwhile G-rated sports movie; it just seemed too improbable. No nudity? No violence? Not a single swear word? Even if it worked, I never thought "Rookie" would succeed beyond a "Cute movie for the kids/OK way to kill two hours" scenario.

And if that wasn't enough, Dennis Quaid hasn't had a hit since ... honestly, I can't even remember. "The Big Easy"? The biggest thing that happened to Quaid's career over the past 10 years was when Meg Ryan dumped him for Russell Crowe, which he parlayed into some sympathy mugambo at the Playboy Mansion and that's about it.

(I always thought Kevin Costner stole Quaid's career. Think about it. They basically play the same guy in every movie, they look alike, they resonate with the female population, they lean toward sports movies ... and yet Costner emerged as one of the major stars of the past two decades, while Quaid was headlining HBO movies or popping up in supporting roles in splashy movies. Is Costner really more or less likable than Quaid? Couldn't Quaid have played the guy from "Field of Dreams," or "Bull Durham," or even "The Bodyguard"? Luck of the draw, I guess.)

Needless to say, I didn't have high hopes for "The Rookie." The pre-release buzz was strong ... I ignored it. The reviews ranged from "Thumbs-up" to "Excellent" ... I looked the other way. Readers started sending me "Hey, you should see 'The Rookie'!" e-mails ... I brushed them off. But when my dad called me just to say, "Go see 'The Rookie,'" that was the final straw. I relented.

And now I'm telling you this: Go see "The Rookie."

***** ***** *****

Dennis Quaid
Quaid does a good job as a lefty who can throw in the 90 mph range.

"Rookie" tells the tale of former Devil Rays pitcher Jim Morris, a high school science teacher from Texas who improbably made The Show at age 35. As with any biographical tale, they took some creative liberties -- check out Page 2's "A Closer Look" for the nitty-gritty details if you've seen the movie -- but remained relatively faithful to Morris' story.

And it's an amazing story. Elbow problems derailed Morris (a minor-league prospect) in the mid-1980s, so he settled into an Average American Family Man life (schoolteacher, baseball coach, wife, three kids, small house in Texas). Of course, he always wondered what could have been. Classic Hollywood set-up. The only thing it was missing was some sort of "One of his children needed an organ transplant and Morris needed to raise $50,000 for the operation in four months"-type hook.

Still, this scenario wasn't bad: Whenever Morris (now 35) played softball or threw batting practice to his players, his arm felt pretty good, so he started airing it out ... within a few weeks, he was topping 98 mph at a major-league tryout camp. Within a few improbable months, he passed through Double-A, then Triple-A, before getting called up in September 1999 by the Tampa Bay. Maybe the call-up was a publicity stunt more than anything, but the fact remains Morris hung on for two seasons (21 games, 15 innings, 13 K's, 4.80 ERA) before returning to his Average American Family Man life. The end.

You knew somebody would eventually turn Morris' story into a movie. As it turned out, it only took three years. Hollywood's version (spruced up and somewhat fictionalized) twists the facts a little -- like Morris' father putting down baseball during his childhood (Villain Alert! Villain Alert!), or Morris trying out for the Devil Rays in a pair of jeans (puh-leeze), or even Morris striking a "You guys win the district championship, I'll try out for a major league team" deal (you can guess how that one plays out) -- but never really goes overboard. Everything rings true; everything seems believable enough.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, here are the things I liked about the movie, in no particular order:

1. Dennis Quaid

Dennis Quaid
Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) gives his high school team the old pep talk.

He absolutely nails the part. Sure, he's basically playing Dennis Quaid, and he looks a wee bit old to be playing Morris ... but as a left-handed pitcher, he's competent enough that you believe he's throwing in the 90s. And all the things that happened to Quaid over the past few years (fading career, trouble at home, drug-alcohol problems) actually help him here. When the Morris saga was unfolding, you pictured him as someone who was weathered by life, yet finally stumbled upon some good fortune. Well, that's Quaid, isn't it? At this point of his career, he wears those "weathered by life" years on his face -- every wrinkle, every grimace, every tired laugh.

The only other actor who could have worked as Morris? Ironically enough, Quaid's nemesis, Costner, who should be kicking himself for choosing the semi-excruciating "For Love of the Game" instead (it only took 15 years, but Quaid finally got the upper hand). In retrospect, Quaid made more sense than anyone from the predictable Costner/Cage/Travolta A-list, and not just because of budget concerns. If he nailed the part, that would invariably lead to a round of "Dennis Quaid is back!" stories to build buzz for the movie, much like Travolta helped "Pulp Fiction" back in '94. And that's pretty much what happened.

(Note: I can never understand why Hollywood doesn't try this more often -- find fading, likeable stars who haven't struck oil in awhile, show a little faith in them, cast them in the plum part of a sleeper hit, then ride the subsequent publicity wave. It's a no-brainer. And just for the record, if this formula worked for Travolta and Quaid, it should definitely work for Michael Keaton some day. Could somebody jostle his agent out of that coma, please?)

2. The baseball scenes

Dennis Quaid
"The Rookie" would have done well to pan out more often.

Pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. There wasn't a single baseball scene in the movie that made you wince or think to yourself, "That's just not working." My only beef was that the baseball scenes were filmed wayyyyyyyyyyyy too tight, probably the biggest flaw with modern sports movies right now (worst offenders: "Remember the Titans" and "Any Given Sunday"). You don't need dramatic close-ups to make a sports movie scene succeed; wide-angle camera shots work better than anything.

For example, I didn't like "He Got Game" all that much -- too much happening, too preachy, too far-fetched, suffocating musical score, horrendous ending -- but the one-on-one game between Denzel Washington and Ray Allen worked better than just about any recent sports movie scene I can remember. The reason? Spike Lee relied on wide-angle shots, which made us feel like the game was really happening.

And it was happening. Maybe you didn't know this, but Allen and Washington actually improvised that entire game. The original script called for Washington's character to lose, 10-0, but Washington surprised Allen with some early baskets, leading to both guys ad-libbing some impromptu, "We're in character, but I'm taking this personally" trash-talking. Best scene in the movie, bar none. And yet I digress.

3. The supporting cast

Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths
Instead of a Wet Blanked Wife, Rachel Griffiths was a refreshing change from typical females in sports films.

Everyone was great, everybody worked well and blah blah blah. You don't need a laundry list; there wasn't a subpar performance in the movie (the high school kids were especially likable). We even had three token That Guys (the owner of the shop, his buddy with the mustache, and Morris' father -- you know they're That Guys when you can't even remember where you've seen them).

The one real standout was Rachel Griffiths, rising above the Token Wet Blanket Wife role as Mrs. Morris. Watching the movie, you know that when Morris rediscovers his fastball and mulls over a comeback, his wife will emerge as the Wet Blanket. It's inevitable. In real life, she would say, "Cool! Do it!" In Hollywood, Morris hides the comeback from her and tells her white lies, and she pulls the "Are you sure you want to open yourself up to getting hurt if it doesn't work out?" routine. All we were missing was Mrs. Morris standing on the top of the stairs, wearing Adrian Balboa's nightgown and screaming, "You can't win!"

But Griffiths' character quickly redeems herself, keeping Morris focused during the two to three times he contemplates calling it quits -- especially during those inevitable, "Field of Dreams"-type scenes when he's calling home and hearing how the mortgage bills are piling up -- keeping him motivated and actually adding something to the "I'm so proud of you! You did it!" scenes. That's right ... it's a worthwhile female character in a sports movie! I feel like they invented the cure for polio or something.

(This harkens back to a little-known rule in Hollywood: "If you're writing a sports movie, make sure that wives and girlfriends make our hero as miserable as possible, stand in his way, make him question himself and basically suck the life out of him." Call it the Adrian Balboa Complex. I'd throw in the old standby line here -- "The lesson here, as always: Women ruin everything" -- but it's a little more complicated than that.

First of all, women don't really have a place in sports movies. If they aren't playing overprotective wives/girlfriends, groupies, bimbos or hookers, that means they're actually involving themselves in the plot ... which raises the Chick Flick potential. We wouldn't want that. And as the putrid Kelly Preston proved in "For Love of the Game," you can singlehandedly ruin a sports movie by focusing on a female character -- unless they're the focal point of the movie, like "A League of Their Own" and the superb "Love & Basketball." So you have to be careful. Anyway, "The Rookie" handled this dilemma pretty adeptly. No small feat.)

4. The little nuances

The Rookie
It's getting a little dusty in here.

And this movie was full of them. Morris being so dumbstruck after his showing at the Tampa tryout, he wipes his face with a hand that's holding a dirty diaper. Morris calling his house to tell his family that the Devil Rays called him up, then having an off-the-cuff conversation with his son about "What's a Devil Ray?" That kind of stuff. And they strung Morris' comeback along wonderfully. Instead of devoting extra scenes to Stage Two of his comeback (Double-A, Triple-A), they built the foundation for the comeback itself, manipulating us into saying to ourselves, "Man, I hope this works out for him" (even though we knew it would).

For instance, in one of my favorite scenes, Morris -- still mulling over a comeback --stops on the highway and hums a fastball by one of those "You are going this fast" radar screens, which registers "76" (mph) for the pitch. Disappointed, Morris walks by the screen to retrieve the baseball ... just as the dead lightbulbs on the "7" flicker into a "9" (the sign was broken). It was actually "96" ... but he doesn't know it. When subtle touches augment a story that way, the inevitable payoff feels more substantial.

(It's amazing how most movie-makers don't realize this. For instance, in "Hoosiers," there was the famous scene with Coach Dale coming to visit Jimmy Chitwood, Jimmy nailing every shot, Coach Dale telling him, "I don't care if you play for me or not" and walking away ... and then Jimmy missing the next shot. I'm telling you, it's all about the subtle nuances and the chill scenes. Which reminds me ...)

5. Chill scenes

Dennis Quaid
Quaid's "The Rookie" is good enough to belong in the second tier of quality baseball movies.

As I always preach in this space, it's not officially a good sports movie without at least one to two chill scenes, those scenes where your goosebumps have goosebumps, those scenes you can watch again and again, those scenes that remind you why you love sports movies in the first place.

(Note to reader: Scroll down if you haven't seen the movie and want to be surprised. I'll tell you when to come back.)

Here were the three scenes, in order:

  • The scene after Morris' team wins the district championship, when they hand him a signed team baseball, then each of them goes up to him individually and tells him, "It's your turn, Coach." Tremendous stuff -- ranked right up there with all the Notre Dame players turning in their jerseys so Rudy could play the final home game. That scene reminded me of the old joke during any lump-in-the-throat scene that make your eyes threaten to tear up: "It's getting dusty in here." It definitely got a little dusty in my theater during that scene.

  • Morris calling his family, telling them that he made The Show. Very dusty in the theater at this point. Lots of pollen, too. And people cutting onions.

  • Morris getting the bullpen call to enter his first major-league game ... I liked the part when they showed the closed bullpen door, then it swings open dramatically as everyone cheers. Enjoyable scene. When this thing starts running on cable, and I'm flicking channels, I'll hang around waiting for that scene every time.

  • One scene didn't quite make it for me: The final, final scene, when Morris comes out of the clubhouse and practically his entire hometown is waiting and cheering -- it was the most forced "I can't believe you guys are here!" scene this side of the goodbye party in Mr. Holland's Opus. Just seemed a little contrived, like Hollywood had to leave its mark on a true ending (in this case, Morris striking out his first batter in his first major-league game). Whatever.

    (To everyone who skipped that part: OK, come back!)

    So where does "The Rookie" rank among the best baseball movies of all-time? For now, it belongs in the second tier of quality baseball flicks -- behind "The Natural," "Field of Dreams," "Bull Durham," "Major League" and the first two "Bad News Bears" films -- but right at the top of Tier Two, with the potential to climb even higher if it passes the "I Just Watched This But I Think I'll Watch It Again" on cable next year test.

    And then there's this: "Brian's Song" was the last worthwhile G-rated sports movie, and that was a TV movie, released more than 30 years ago. That somebody made a quality sports movie in 2002 and made it palatable for anyone and everyone ... I mean, that's pretty impressive. I wasn't even sure it could happen in this day and age.

    Then again, you could say the same thing about Jim Morris pitching for the Devil Rays. It happened. And they made a helluva movie about it.

    Sports Guy's final grade: A-minus.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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