Thursday, May 17, 2018

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

by Rob DiCristino and Adam Riske
The review duo who deals from the Have To. That’s where the fear lives.

Rob: Welcome to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Rob: Our summer baseball retrospective continues with 1993’s Rookie of the Year, a movie we both consider a childhood favorite. The sole feature directorial effort of comedy icon Daniel Stern (The Wonder Years, Home Alone), Rookie of the Year stars Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner, a Chicago-area youngster whose love for the Cubs is rivaled only by his ineptitude on the Little League field. Henry juggles baseball, school, and helping out with the chores for his mom, Mary (Amy Morton), whose new boyfriend Jack (Bruce Altman) is a real piece of work (more on him later). When Henry breaks his arm on the schoolyard and his tendons heal incorrectly, he discovers that he can now throw a baseball upwards of one hundred miles per hour. This gets the attention of desperate Cubs GM Larry Fisher (Dan Hedaya), who immediately signs Henry as the team’s new closer. Will Henry energize the Cubs’ dwindling attendance and get the team to the Postseason? Will Mary and the washed-up flamethrower Chet “Rocket” Steadman (Gary Busey) get it on? Will anyone — and I mean anyone — read the MLB’s rules about child labor?

Adam: It baffles me that this is the only movie Daniel Stern ever directed. Whether you like Rookie of the Year or not, I think it’s hard to deny how polished and well-paced the movie is. How did this not lead to a Jon Favreau-level directorial career for Stern? I wonder what happened. Did he just not want to direct anymore? Was there a big “Ron Howard” assist needed by a more seasoned filmmaker during production?

Despite being about the Chicago Cubs (my crosstown rival who I was raised to dislike and/or ignore since birth) and starring Thomas Ian Nicholas (who I met at a convention and was a total bag, complaining about his book controversy while I stood there waiting to pay him to sign something and expecting a fan interaction), I have always liked Rookie of the Year. A lot. Is it the best baseball movie? No. Is it the one I’m most eager to watch if I’m in the mood for a baseball movie? Yes. It survives my trepidations. I saw it at the dollar theater in its original release and loved it then, it became a sleepover movie and cable staple over the years and every time I revisit it as an adult I am impressed by its pacing and ability to remain as funny as it is. Even more than as a kids movie, Rookie of the Year works for me as a straight-up comedy because it has a lot of jokes and broad characters and they are almost all (at least once or twice) saying something amusing or doing something so dumb that I have to shake my head and grin. It somehow takes a premise that is entirely unbelievable and treats it in a way that is completely aware of its ridiculousness and yet blissfully unaware of it, too. You mention the child labor thing. I could go on and on about the real-world baseball inaccuracies (visible injuries from players who remain in games, the financial operations of running a baseball team being day-to-day adventures, GM’s shouting at players THEY SIGNED that they are bums, the kid never getting ejected from a game even with all his bullshit on the base paths and trick plays, every pitcher on the mound stopping the game cold to have conversations with opposing players/their dugout/people in the stands, etc.) but that’s what makes talking about this movie with other baseball fans so much fun. I’m not gonna lie: that abominable closing freeze-frame aside, this movie makes me very happy.
Rob: I was positive that Rookie of the Year was going to break my heart on this revisit. Nostalgia is a powerful thing, as we know, but I expected the movie to stink of ‘90s naivety and be completely undercut by its ridiculous premise (which, we should note, is remade from 1954’s Roogie’s Bump). But it doesn’t. This movie sings, thanks mostly to the sure-handed pacing and tone you mentioned earlier. There’s not a single wasted moment to speak of, and almost every joke is in service of story and character. I was particularly impressed by how well Stern kept his own role — Brickma, the slapsticky, absent-minded pitching coach — minor and incidental, never taking over the action or disrupting the flow of the narrative. This is a huge problem in our current improv-heavy comedy landscape, and it was nice to see it sidestepped here.

Outside of all that, it’s such a stellar baseball movie. We’re likely going to go on and on about all the insane breaches of baseball protocol the movie indulges in, but it’s important for everyone to remember that we LOVE the way Rookie of the Year approaches the game because — speaking for myself, here — it’s exactly how twelve year-old me would play it! This is a case of a movie taking acceptable breaks from reality in order to embrace the novelty of its world. That world is skewed, almost science fiction, in a lot of ways. But, like Bull Durham (to which you favorably compared this movie on Twitter), it’s all about what it means to love baseball. That makes all the difference.

But! I digress. We have a lot to get to. What do you want to talk about first?
Adam: The secret weapon of this movie is Chet Steadman (Gary Busey), the aging pitcher on his last run in the big leagues. When you’re 12 years old, you are there for the kid baseball hijinks, and then as an adult you realize that Busey is the heart and soul of this movie. I’m not even kidding; this is a top five Busey performance. He is so good in this movie despite having the pitching form of a dying goose. I love his gruffness, I love how excited he gets when he sees a talent as young as Henry having the goods, I love how he can’t get enough of airplane Salisbury steak and I love how he reconnects to loving baseball for a short time and finds peace with his physical gift leaving him. Busey taps into the sadness of an athlete’s playing career winding down and it culminates in a moment that I absolutely adore, in which Busey says to his manager “I felt the arm go” after a game-saving play and he gives this little smirk like “It’s been a great ride and I wouldn’t change anything.” It’s so fantastic because people were chiding him throughout the movie and then he changes the narrative and writes the final chapter of his career as a hero. It’s clever how the movie bookends the beginning of Henry’s career with the end of Chet’s, but it doesn’t make a big deal of it. It’s very natural in how their relationship develops. I appreciate how stupid the movie is too (in a good way) when it lets us know Steadman’s arm is gone by playing electric guitar riffs on the soundtrack. He’s a whammy bar personified. Who is your MVP performance?

Rob: Busey is great as Steadman, and I love what you said about the way the movie intertwines their careers. One of the things I really appreciate is that (aside from the on-field bullshittery we’ll cover later on) Henry is never rude or disrespectful to the players or the game. He’s not cocky or ungrateful. He’s not Bryce-fucking-Harper. His arc isn’t about maturity or manhood (again, compare him with Tim Robbins in Bull Durham). He’s friendly and congenial, brave and vulnerable. He idolizes these guys. He knows he didn’t “earn” his talent, so he never lets it go to his head. He understands that he is just lucky to be there, which makes his interactions with Steadman (his hero) that much more meaningful.

I should point out that I’ve always had a strange bond with Thomas Ian Nicholas, if only because I kind of resembled him as a kid. He felt like my Movie Star Doppelganger. Most of the ‘90s kid heroes had a Macaulay Culkin vibe, so it was nice to feel represented. He’s really good in this movie, and I’m really bummed that he was such an ass to you, Adam.
Anyway, my MVP is Amy Morton as Mary Rowengartner. Not only is she fierce and beautiful (you’ll notice that Steadman really takes an interest in Henry after he meets her), but she’s one of the wisest, most conscientious and capable movie moms I can think of. Sure, she leaves Henry alone while she goes out to dinner with Jack, but she drops the asshat (in more ways than one) as soon as he crosses the line, later confessing to Henry that she just wanted him to have someone to look up to. She lets Henry’s friends tag along to his doctor’s appointment and lays celebratory Cubs tickets on them like a boss. She truly respects her son and cares for his emotional wellbeing in a way that’s never condescending. No wonder he’s such a confident kid. I suppose we shouldn’t spoil too many key moments, but there’s an end reveal that brings Mary’s whole character together in a way that made me — as someone who grew up with a single mom — incredibly emotional. Not to mention the fact that she’s totally comfortable dancing up on Steadman right in front of Jack. Mary rolls how she rolls, and you can either get with that or get out of the way. She’s such a badass.

Adam: Two moments of hers I love are when Henry goes out to the mound for the first time and she just blurts out “He is so cute” and when Henry is batting for the first time and one of her customers makes an off-hand comment that triggers her maternally and she threatens the guy with shears. It’s so funny.

This whole cast...I mean, c’mon. It’s so good that I almost forgot that John Candy is the depressed announcer. How great is Dan Hedaya in this as the GM? I still don’t understand how he’s able to just sell a player for $25M as opposed to releasing or trading him or why he’s a hot dog vendor at the end of the film maybe forever (?) as punishment, but his scenes are great. Bruce Altman does a good job as Henry’s scuzzy manager. He’s a fun character to hate with his awful ‘90s silk dress shirts, dumb cigars and gifting of necklaces to Henry’s mom even though they’ve been dating for three weeks. What is he? 15 years old? That’s not how grown-up dating works.

Rob: He’s the absolute worst. I also wanted to shout out Albert Hall as Cubs manager Sal Martinella. One of the running gags is his willful (?) mispronunciation of Henry’s last name, and I wrote each of them down:

1. “Rabbinboozer”
2. “Rosinbagger”
3. “Gardenhoser”
4. “Runamucker”
5. “Rowengrudger”

I think the first is my favorite, if only because it’s the most phonetically playful. Name your favorite in the comments!

Adam: Had to interject: I’m partial to Gardenhoser, with Runamucker a close second. Sorry, continue.

Rob: Anyway, we might as well get into the logistics of an actual twelve year-old kid playing in the MLB. A friendly disclaimer: Adam and I love this movie. These quibbles and inconsistencies do not invalidate the joy we feel watching it. Quite the opposite, actually. This is purely an academic exercise.
First of all: Yes, it is against the rules for a twelve-year old to play Major League Baseball. According the MLB.com, the following candidates are eligible to be drafted:

1. High school players, if they have graduated from high school and have not yet attended college or junior college;

2. College players, from four-year colleges who have either completed their junior or senior years or are at least 21 years old; and

3. Junior college players, regardless of how many years of school they have completed

Considering how crucial it is to the plot (and the fact that the movie doesn’t offer some hand-wave explanation that insults our intelligence), I’ll let that one slide. Henry also goes right to The Show, skipping the Minor Leagues entirely. Given the severity of the Cubs’ attendance crisis, I’ll let that slide, as well.

On the other hand, Henry’s late-movie “floater” pitch is totally legal. I couldn't find anything in the rules that says a pitcher can’t throw underhand (pitcher Chris Hayes made it all the way to Triple-A throwing an underhand “rise ball”), and many MLB hurlers have made use of the “eephus” pitch, a low-velocity junker meant to throw the batter off-balance.

However, there are a few things I just can’t abide: Henry throws his first in-game pitch on his first day, never once throwing a bullpen session, working with a bench coach on signs, or warming up his arm. As Adam and I discussed over text, he’d need Tommy John surgery after one inning! Brickma brings up care and conditioning only AFTER his first game! That’s just bad (not to mention dangerous) coaching.

Adam: And how does throwing 100 mph equate to being able to pitch? That’s some Slamma Jamma logic right there.
Rob: Exactly! Which brings me to my next point: Henry knows one pitch: the fastball. Teach him to throw something with some movement! Just one other pitch! Hell, Mariano Rivera threw a cutter for seventeen years and was the most dominant closer in the game! Henry would get eaten alive if he played long enough for the league to get a damn scouting report on him! Just swing the bat faster!

It’s also bullshit that Steadman blames Henry for distracting him when he gives up that home run. Dude’s a veteran. He should have learned how to tune out hecklers years ago. No wonder you’re getting cut, man. That being said, Henry was being an absolute douchenozzle on the basepaths after drawing a walk in his first at-bat, so much so that he gets the next hitter plunked in the back. This is a common retaliatory measure, and the Dodger pitcher was well within his rights to do it. Henry needs to think about the team next time.

Adam: Not always, but Henry can be a real asshole in-game. He makes a mockery of a late-season game with the division on the line. Why wouldn’t the Cubs take him out and put in a different reliever instead of relying on hidden ball tricks and games of chicken? Again, I love this movie. Don’t get it twisted.

A few questions and topics I want to make sure we address:

1) Do you think after Henry struck out Barry Bonds, that's when Bonds realized he needed to look into illegal steroids?

2) Is this not the best film score ever? Bill Conti brings it, no matter if it’s Rocky or Masters of the Universe or Rookie of the Year. That opening credits theme gives me chills despite seeing so many children led into a life of Cubs fandom that will give them no happiness and only entitlement.

3) Is the kid playing Henry’s friend George deliberately imitating Jim Belushi or is it a coincidence? I say this not as a criticism. It’s the scallions that go perfectly on top of this movie’s omelet.

4) Why do they have a boat? They’re kids. Was I deprived and I’m just realizing it?

5) How long do you think the kid couples lasted? Clark and Edith got married for sure. Like, for sure those two got married.
Rob:

1. Oohhhh. Sick Bonds Burn. I’ve hated the Giants since the 2010 NLCS. I approve of this shade.

2. I love this score. While ROTY did shoot at Wrigley Field (according to Wikipedia, at least), it’s the score that gives the movie its real scale and wonder. It’s terrific.

3. I was telling you earlier that you have to do a “‘90s Movie Best Friends” column, and George had better be on it. His delivery of “Did he say funky buttloving?” is classic.

4. The boat subplot (and the tension aroused because of it) is the only beat in the film that feels false to me. Like, your friend is pitching for the Cubs, asshole. He’s shooting a Pepsi commercial after getting his first (!) save. Your jalopy can wait.

5. I’ll leave most of the romantic speculation to you, but I just want to know if Chet asks Henry to call him “Dad” or if he lets him call him “Rocket.”

I have another page of notes, but this column is already punishingly long. I’ll end by saying I’m Mark Ahn on Rookie of the Year and that I demand a Blu-ray release as soon as possible.
Adam: “We think Henry’s the choice of a new generation” is a line that will never not make me roll my eyes and laugh. Mark Ahn everlasting for Rookie of the Year. What’s on tap for next week?

Rob: It’s your turn, my dude.

Adam: Let’s hit the beach since summer is here (?) and kick off our series on the Jaws franchise with yours and my favorite movie, the original 1975 classic Jaws from the legend himself Steven Spielberg. It’s going to be a big franchise summer at Reserved Seating. Should I tell them? I’ll tell them. Our Pacino series is going All Coppola with reviews of The Godfather trilogy starting in June.

Rob: Here’s to swimmin’ with bowlegged women. Until next time…

Adam: These seats are reserved. We’re holding them with our city hands that we’ve used to count money our whole lives.

4 comments:

  1. Adam, dammit, you hit the nail on the head with a Louisville SLugger about Busey's performance. When I watched this movie the first time after I was done playing baseball in college I legit cried at Busey's arc, and found myself seeing the movie without the story of Henry even existing for a minute or two. Long story short - I had an arm injury my Junior year and elected to hang 'em up instead of having surgery just to play one more year at a small college. I wasn't really that torn up about it because I had a good run, but every single thing Busey goes through here hits me like a ton of bricks more so than any prestigious drama or whatever could. The game goes on.

    -I like Gardenhoser too, still use it sometimes when people are watering things

    -Love when real life sports figures would show up in movies -- baseball or otherwise.

    -The favorite of elementary school movie parties. Great thing about these 90s sports movies is that they work as kids movies first -- kids that didnt even play baseball liked it, and were always into it. That couldnt happen nowadays, everyone is too niche or whatever.

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  2. Let’s do Angels in the Outfield! I like them both but I’m kind of partial to that one.

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  3. Great article guys. This is one of my childhood favorites. Glad to hear it holds up. Speaking of the different rules violations this movie makes, it never really fazed me like it does in other sports movies. For instance, Little Big League, I remember thinking "I can buy a kid playing in the majors, but MANAGING?!?!, this is a bridge TOO FAR." I clearly spoke like a very old man as a child.

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    1. I've come around over the years on Little Big League but you're not wrong on the managing in the big leagues disbelief. That movie feels alien, like it's kind of Earth and kind of how people act but you keep waiting for the reveal that the whole thing was made by Martians.

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