The Rookie surprised me. Though it’s G-rated, and contains no cussing, violence, or sexual “situations,” and though it might appeal to kids, it’s about adults and, I think, for adults. After all, its tagline reads, “It’s never too late to believe in your dreams.” This hardly seems a pitch for the 12-and-under crowd.
Based on Jimmy Morris’s autobiography, The Oldest Rookie: Big-League Dreams from a Small-Town Guy, co-authored with Joe Engel, the film tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher from Big Lake, Texas, who at 36 tried out as a major league baseball relief pitcher and made it. Jimmy had played major league ball earlier in his life, but quit because of repeated injuries to his pitching arm. The film begins as Jimmy (wonderfully portrayed by Dennis Quaid) is living a “responsible” life, raising his family, teaching, and coaching the baseball team. When he notices that his players tend to give up when they are losing, he gives them a rousing (if typical) pep talk, culminating with the admonition, “If you don’t have dreams, you don’t have anything.” The kids turn Jimmy’s words back on him, accusing him of giving up on his own dream to play major league ball, then make him an offer: if they make it to the state playoffs, he’ll try again.
The outcome of this deal is no mystery (it’s not called The Rookie for nothing), but it’s entertaining and exciting, much like Rudy or The Replacements. Even if there’s never any doubt the underdogs will win, it always seems like a close call. And in The Rookie, we get to experience this tension twice, first as the Big Lake Owls make their State Championship bid, and then when Jimmy tries out and plays for the minor leagues, before he makes it all the way to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The conflicts here are familiar, but The Rookie presents them admirably and resolves them without sap overload. Throughout, Jimmy is torn between desire and responsibility, his past dream and his present reality. What type of father should he be? Will he be more of a hero to his family if he’s on a baseball card or home every day, helping with homework? Should he teach his adoring young son Hunter (Angus T. Jones) by example, to go for his dreams whatever the cost? Or should he be like his own father, Jimmy Sr. (Brian Cox), who admonishes, “It’s okay to think about what you want to do, until it’s time to start doing what you are meant to do”? The Rookie complicates all this when it becomes clear that Jimmy Jr. is, at least to some extent, “meant” to be a major league pitcher.
While he’s appropriately torn when it comes time to choose between his baseball career and a better paying science teacher job in Fort Worth, he’s (temporarily) off the hook when his wife, Lorrie (Rachel Griffiths), makes the decision for him. At first, she aligns herself with Jimmy Sr., but one night she has one of those supportive movie wife revelations. Looking at Hunter as he sleeps, his bedroom wall plastered with baseball cards, she decides that Jimmy should pursue his dream, and she’ll hold things together at home while he is on the road.
It’s worth wondering about the film’s treatment of Lorrie. All its attention to Jimmy’s dreams might make her look like an altruistic superwoman, capable of shouldering all the family responsibilities so that he can recapture his youth. When she asserts that she’s “a Texas woman” and so, doesn’t need a man around, her teary smile suggests she’s only saying this to ease Jimmy’s guilt. And if we recall Jimmy Sr.’s motto, Lorrie’s position is further complicated: the question isn’t simply about what are we are “meant” to do, but also, who means for us to do it and who might be affected by our doing it.
This layering of responsibilities inevitably leads to crisis. Despite unwavering love from the wife and kids, Jimmy never seems 100% comfortable with his decision, appearing somewhat sad and homesick. This, naturally, makes us like him all the more and serves to convince us (or maybe him) that, at bottom, he’s a devoted husband and father, even if he is on the road for three months at a time. That tagline — “It’s never to late to believe in your dreams” — is not so straightforward as it might sound.
In the end, both fathers — Jimmy Sr. and Jimmy Jr. — have to come to terms with the complications of their choices. Jimmy Sr. shows up at his son’s first major league game and Jimmy gives him the game ball as a gesture of forgiveness, maybe, or a new beginning. Pretty typical stuff, admittedly, but the interaction between the two is awkward (and I mean this as a compliment). Thankfully, The Rookie doesn’t insult us by solving all their problems with one big tearful hug, showing us instead that the two make a move in the right direction, i.e., toward eventual reconciliation. Despite the promise of healing, Jimmy Sr. still walks off alone and isn’t instantly elevated to “good dad” status just for showing up at one baseball game.
The film notes at the end that Jimmy played major league ball for two years before retiring and moving back to Texas. Both Quaid and the real Jimmy Morris appeared on Larry King Live recently to promote the film. After poor Dennis endured still more questions about his split with Meg Ryan, the real Morris explained that he actually left the game because, one night, his son asked him, “When are you coming home?” At that point, he told King, he walked away from his life-long dream (this despite the fact that his old injuries flared up again, and he was unable to continue). The film doesn’t give any reason for Jimmy’s leaving the game, perhaps because doing so weakens the idea that Jimmy is meant for baseball and raises the possibility that maybe his father was right, and playing baseball was just something Jimmy wanted to do.
Ultimately, The Rookie is a fairy tale, vaguely moralistic and overtly inspirational, with the requisite happily-ever-after. We are meant to love and admire Jimmy, to see him as an awesome husband, teacher, coach, father, and teammate, maybe even to look up to him like his son does. More than that though, we encouraged to ask if, in the end, our desires are what we are meant for after all.