Thursday, September 30, 2021

Reserved Seating Swings for the Fences: THE ROOKIE

 by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino

The review duo who wanted to pitch for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

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

Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.

Rob: Our summer baseball series wraps up with 2002’s The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid as high school baseball coach Jim Morris, whose Major League dreams were dashed after a shoulder injury ended his pitching career before it ever started. Though he’s tried his best to put that life behind him, a gutsy wager from his underachieving team re-energizes him: If they work hard and win their state championship, he will attend a local tryout held by the MLB’s Tampa Bay Devil Rays. They do, he does, and — wouldn’t you know it — the former failed prospect finds himself pitching relief on the road to The Show.

The Rookie
is Field of Boring Dreams, a saccharine family drama that seems to go out of its way to avoid dramatizing the most interesting points of its story. After spending nearly half an hour on Morris’ lonely childhood (Brian Cox plays his father, a Marine recruiter who resented his son’s affinity for baseball), the narrative picks him back up at age 40+. We learn that he was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, that he got injured, that his parents divorced, and that he became a teacher in rural Texas (Hey, movie: Show us that stuff!) His young students (specifically Rick Gonzalez as Rudy) go above and beyond to support him for reasons we’re never privy to, and barring a few jokes from his Minor League teammates, the central conflicts relating to his age and ability are largely sped through and glossed over. It’s a movie that wants to capture Heartland culture and American dreams without actually creating or developing any conflict. It’s a movie made for dads to fall asleep to. It has one nice, romantic baseball moment (I teared up when Morris came bursting through the bullpen door to face the Texas Rangers), but it’s little else than fluff. You can count the specific, tangible dramatic turns on one hand.

Adam, what did you think of The Rookie?
Adam: I think I liked the movie more than you did but agree with just about all your criticisms. I have a bit of an aversion to heartland poetry on film and The Rookie ladles that on thick. I can only take so much from “I’m the barber but also the peanut gallery and I sing the National Anthem and do the play-by-play” characters. I think Dennis Quaid holds the movie together by sheer force of will. He’s very good in a role that fits him comfortably. Though he’s a bit problematic off-screen, I’ve always found Dennis Quaid easy to sympathize with on screen. This was right in the middle of a career resurgence spurred by Any Given Sunday and Frequency and continued after The Rookie with movies like Far From Heaven and In Good Company and he seems ready for another shot (as an actor) similar to his character, Jim Morris, is ready as a pitcher. It’s great casting.

Rob: He’s definitely earnest and holds the screen as well as ever, but I could also feel how much of it is “Do it like Costner.” Might just be me.

Adam: I agree with you, especially on the point of what the film chooses to dramatize. You brought up the childhood scenes and there’s also bookends about St. Rita and nuns blessing the land the baseball field sits on, etc., followed by at least an hour concentrating on the high school baseball team Quaid coaches getting their shit together. Like, who cares? That’s not why I’m watching The Rookie.

Rob: Exactly. The movie is structured in this strange way where there are like three second acts and no third act.
Adam: I understand we need to know the team a little to set up their deal with Coach Morris, but an hour?! I would have much preferred the film focused on the experience Morris had in the minor leagues (although maybe not after the Double A Orlando Rays sequence ---WTF was that?) and especially his run as a pitcher in the majors. I get that the filmmakers wanted to end the movie with the big moment of him making his MLB debut but that sort of romanticizes Morris’s situation in a way that makes it unwarranted hagiography. The story about his age is a curiosity and I would have preferred to see his story framed over his short (September 1999 to May 2000) MLB career. Was it everything Morris had hoped for? How was the experience playing in the big leagues different from his childhood dreams? How did it feel going back to his normal life as a teacher after he was done playing Major League Baseball? Take me through the g-damn rookie season, movie! You can find a lot of romanticism in playing the material straight; just look at Moneyball. I’ve seen the movie about the guy achieving his dream a million times. I want to see the movie about the guy who got his dream to come true and then must do the hard work afterwards.

This is your reminder that Moneyball, a movie about math, is one of the most romantic and authentic sports movies of all time.

Adam: You made a funny observation yesterday about the big get with Morris being that he throws in the upper 90s. Can you talk about that some more and how different baseball has become in the last 20 years, where guys are throwing 102 mph and upper 90s is pretty standard? Also, what do you think about Jay Hernandez? I have nostalgia for the era (era) when he was in every single movie. I thought that guy was going to be a huge star and then it just never really happened.
Rob: This is 100% because we are baseball people, but movies built around protagonists who become pitchers because they realize they can throw fast are almost always written by people who don’t understand baseball. A modern Big League pitcher needs a repertoire of at least two distinct pitches that compliment and contrast each other. A 98 MPH fastball is great, but can Morris throw a 89 MPH slider or change-up to keep batters on tilt? If a pitcher has one speed, the league will eventually adjust and start clobbering him. Even guys like Mariano Rivera, who built their careers on one pitch, were dominant because they could spot and move it with pin-point accuracy.

Adam: Yep. Nearly everyone has to change pitch selection, speed, and location over and over and over.

Rob: Again, I know this is (literally) inside baseball nonsense, but he needs to do more than throw fast. It also bothers me that the movie isn’t interested in investigating anything about his mechanics or how his age affects it. He doesn’t lose it or overcome any kind of injury. It’s just, “Some arms get faster as they get older,” and that’s it. Ugh. This movie.

And good ol’ Jay Hernandez. I wish he’d had Jeremy Renner’s career.

Adam: We’ll be back next week with our first video Reserved Seating to kick off Scary Movie Month. The topic: three horror movies each of us need to see for the first time this October. Until next time…

Rob: These seats are reserved.

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