Jim Morris only pitched two years in the majors as a reliever with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, accumulating a 5.79 earned run average in 1999 and a 4.35 ERA the following year. Those are okay numbers at best, especially if you consider his total innings pitched during that brief career was just 15. So why is he a real-life hero who's inspired a Disney film?
Because "The Rookie" was an "old man"--35 years, to be exact--when he finally walked to the mound in a major league game and threw at a batter. And he got there because of a deal he made not with the Devil, like some old bluesman at the crossroads, but with the Reagan County High School baseball team in Big Lake, Texas.
Morris, a chemistry teacher and baseball coach who thought that his big chance had passed him by, was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983 and subsequently picked up and released by the Chicago White Sox. He never made it because of arm problems. But life can be funny, and dreams have a way of reoccurring just when you least expect them to.
As we see in this film, when Morris tried to inspire his players to dream big instead of just going through the motions and letting life deal them whatever hand it felt like, they got the message. But his players added a condition. If they dreamed big and won their district championship, then he would have to try out for a major league ball club. They had seen him throw in batting practice and they had heard about his attempt to break in, so it seemed like a fair deal.
Well, like "Hoosiers" or any sports story that involves unlikely odds, you know from the outset that somehow the team or main character is going to beat those odds. But the appeal to these kind of films is the same as with any biography of a famous individual. We may know the accomplishments, but we don't know what went on behind the scenes. It's that part-the-curtain voyeurism and cause-behind-the-effect narrative that make stories like this so compelling to watch. You know they're going to win their district and you know he's going to get his big chance, but it's still fun to see how it all comes together.
Of course, that puts a tremendous burden on the actors to bring a lot to the table, just as it weighs on the screenwriter to deliver substantial subplots and for the director to somehow skirt the melodrama that's never very far away from stories like this. But everyone pulls it off. Relative "rookie" director John Lee Hancock, himself a Texan, makes the decision to partly make this about small towns in general and West Texas in particular. He begins with the legend of how the first oil well was discovered in the area and what two nuns had to do with it, he allows the camera to leisurely travel across the landscape in order to make it another character, and he lingers over the locals, whether it's old-timers playing dominoes or the owner of a dry goods store taking his time with young Jimmy Morris, a Navy brat who had moved 14 times by the age of 12. Where his stern and never-approving father ended up as a recruiter was where Jimmy could finally call home, and Hancock takes great pains to show that.
Be warned, though, the while Hancock captures the feel of a small West Texas town, he also captures the pace. "The Rookie" is a slow-moving film that invites you to just relax and experience the real life of real people in what seems darned close to real time. But I think that this approach is partly responsible for why this film doesn't just feel like another formulaic Hollywood Cinderella story. It's Hancock's matter-of-factness that goes a long way to combating the clichéd storyline and focusing our attention on quiet realities. Case in point? The day that Morris is supposed to fulfill the promise he made to his players and attend an open-camp try-out for the Devil Rays, he's on kid duty and has to pack up the three of them and drive almost a hundred miles just to get there. And he's the only would-be rookie who shows up with a stroller and has to change a diaper on his tailgate before jogging out to the mound for his big chance. Hancock could have played it up, and so, for that matter, could Dennis Quaid, who does a fine job as Morris. But they kept it real, and that's the film's chief strength.
The closest we come to melodrama and cliché is the situation between Morris and his father, played here by Brian Cox. But stock characters and clichés are such because they really are common, and it turns out that the real-life Morris was indeed feeling like he could never please his father, whose own dreams of a major league career were scuttled by injury. But Rachel Griffiths hits just the right tone as Lori Morris, and little Angus T. Jones as the Morris's "little man" comes across as endearing and not some overly cutesy kid. Again, I think you have to credit Hancock's direction and Mike Rich's script, which stays clear of overselling anything and just gives you a product that makes you want to buy. "The Rookie" is rated G, and that's another thing that sets it apart. How many G-rated movies for adults are out there these days? This quiet little gem has full family appeal, but again, be warned that the littlest members might squirm a bit because of the leisurely pace.
This paean to Texas small-town life was filmed near Austin, where we learn on the commentary track the original oil derrick from the first strike is now located. Though the film has a dusty palette, it looks very good in 1080p HD. There's plenty of detail, which you can really see and appreciate when light streams in from a single source and you can see dust particles. Black levels seem strong, and there's detail even in shadows. As for color saturation, let's just say that the colors look natural. But that's another baseball film, isn't it? "The Rookie" is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Though this isn't much of a film for effects, the rear speakers do come to life when there's a crowd scene at a baseball game. Otherwise, this dialogue-driven movie stays front and center, with a decent balance between treble/bass and dialogue/music. The featured soundtrack is a hefty English PCM 5.1 uncompressed audio (48kHz/24-bit), with additional options in English, French, and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 and subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish. The PCM is probably more audio than a film like this needs, but the clarity and purity of sound is a nice complement to the video.
A few carryovers from the DVD: An audio commentary with director John Lee Hancock and actor Dennis Quaid (another native Texan!) is low-key but as "real" as the film. The two men chat about a wide range of subjects, including locations, the real Morris story, and filming decisions. Two featurettes are also included, one for the kiddies on "Spring Training: Baseball Tips from the Pros" which offers some abbreviated how-to advice on gripping baseballs for different pitches and other position tips. It's awfully basic and superficial, but kids who don't know this already might find it useful. The same shallow treatment applies to "The Inspirational Story of Jim Morris," where I expected more details about his failed dream than I got. It too felt like a fluff treatment, light on information and details. If you want to learn things like how younger teammates called him "The Unnatural," you have to get it from Morris's biography, co-written by Joel Engel.
The only other bonus features are seven deleted scenes, each with an extensive introduction. I have to say that Hancock's introductions are heartfelt and informative, some of the most substantial I've ever seen. As a result, these deleted scenes feel more substantial as well, and we can almost feel for Hancock when he talks about why he couldn't include them in the film. This isn't crap on the cutting room floor. There are scenes here where he felt he really accomplished something, but had to let it go anyway, for a variety of reasons . . . all of which are explained in detail. It's a really nice bonus feature.
As Morris and his wife sit on the porch, he takes a sip and says, "Ahh, nothin' like wine bought on a Chevron credit card." "The Rookie" is a screw-top kind of film, not a pop-the-cork affair. It's quiet, slow-moving, and unpretentious--all of which really make this real-life story feel authentic. And it sure looks good in Blu-ray.