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Baseball is and will remain America’s pastime. Though professional football is the country’s most popular sport – its championship game a ratings sensation – baseball is tradition. Just look at the history behind the game: Wrigley Field and The Green Monster, “The Great Bambino” and Mickey Mantle. Opening day is like being a kid again. Going through the turnstile, the aroma of hot dogs and confected treats nearby, the vendors shouting, “Get your programs, here!” The sights and sounds are indelible. The sport has even produced a number of good flicks over the years. Major League could be best described as the Caddyshack of baseball. The Natural and Field of Dreams are critical darlings. Of all the baseball films though, The Rookie is one of those easy-to-overlook gems.
This family film tells the story of Jimmy Morris (Dennis Quaid), a once promising minor league pitcher who retires after blowing out his shoulder. In the years that follow, Morris is both a chemistry teacher and a baseball coach at a small, west Texas high school. For a number of years now the team has failed to win more than a single game in a season. So the morale is low. To resolve this problem a wager is made: If the players make the playoffs, he’ll attend tryouts for the majors. Never did Morris believe that his team would reach that goal. Being a man of his word, however, Morris reenters the arena he had put behind him so long ago. Amazed at his pitching proficiency, throwing fastballs upwards of 98 miles per hour, this chemistry teacher soon finds himself on the roster of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as the oldest rookie in the majors.
The Rookie is formulaic in the sense that it is an inspiring tale of lofty goals and perseverance, something that is all too common with sports dramas. But the subject matter is relatable to anyone who has ever dared to dream. Dennis Quaid, a native Texan, gives the character heart and echoes those same frustrations that Morris had had. The aging lines in Quaid’s face tell a story of a man whose confidence extinguished long ago. Yet with each pitch that confidence re-emerges; a face of dejection lights up and becomes a face of confusion. Phrases like, “This can’t be happening?” and “Is this for real?” are etched in Quaid’s perplexed expressions.
Rarely do live-action films get a G-rating, but this is one of the exceptions. There are times I had wished director John Lee Hancock explored some of the darker moments of Morris’s life – his life right after the injury, most notably – but the general audience rating prevents such scrutiny. Still, it may be better that way. This is a sentimental film that both children and parents can watch together and enjoy, and it is a refreshing break from the usual goofball humor and tired pop culture jokes found in most family fare.
It’s easy to label this baseball movie as being clichéd, but you can’t fault the source material. The Rookie is based on a true story after all. Now, based in the hands of Hollywood means that facts are altered to heighten the story’s impact. In one of the featurettes included with this release, someone who witnessed the Morris-coached baseball team firsthand recalls that sometimes the team scored thirty-plus runs in a single game. By having the team comes from behind it makes for a more compelling drama.
In a day where steroids and HGH have stained the sport of baseball, films like The Rookie are an inspiration. You don’t have to hit the ball a mile or throw fifteen-plus strikeouts a game to be successful. Just making it to the majors is an achievement. Jim Morris has an incredible story that is as astonishing as crushing the ball seventy-two times in a 162-game season. John Lee Hancock’s film is entertaining, a little syrupy at times, and the cast is well represented. But it is Dennis Quaid who anchors the production. He gives a remarkable performance in the role of Morris, a man whose fifteen minutes of fame starts twenty years too late – but not a moment too soon.
A 2002 release, The Rookie has a good-looking 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, and it is another beauty from Disney. I never caught the film on DVD, only its theatrical release. I can only assume that the standard quality DVD release had a nice transfer, but nowhere near high-definition quality. From the opening moments of winds blowing dust across the west Texas plains to the lush greenery associated with a baseball field, the PQ is lush and vibrant. Fine details in the clothing and objects in background give the picture some depth. There were times I noticed some specs on the print, only minimal but still present in a couple of scenes.
The uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track (48 kHz/24-Bit/6.9 Mbps) included with the Blu-ray release is serviceable, but the soundfield is not dynamic like a big budget popcorn movie. Rear speakers are sparingly used, giving priority to the front channels. But the dialogue is clearly heard, and the clarity is not interrupted by compression noise. It’s a good audio mix despite its limited capabilities.
Disney has ported all of the supplemental features from the DVD to the Blu-ray edition of The Rookie. There behind-the-scenes material isn’t much, but the content is more substantial than that you would find in discs loaded with EPK fluff featurettes. Note: all extras, except for the audio commentary, are presented in 480i/p.
The audio commentary has Dennis Quaid and John Lee Hancock delivering a basic talk about brining Jim Morris’s life to the big screen. This track is heavy with Hancock on the mike, and Quaid adds little to the discussion. He often agrees with Hancock and answers a few questions directed towards him. The factual information included is good, but spending two hours listening and trying to get bits and pieces is not the best way to go about it.
The Inspirational Story of Jim Morris is a nice, 22-minute biography on the pitcher turned coach turned pitcher. Combining archival footage of photos and home movies, and interviews with family and friends, this is a candid feature is a nice companion to the movie itself.
Spring Training: Baseball Tips from the Pros is a series of brief featurettes that offers advice by the film’s baseball expert. Definitely intended for children, as they would get the most out of information contained with each short feature. Total running time is eight minutes.
For the deleted scenes portion (18 minutes) with get a total of seven, each accompanied by an introduction from Hancock explaining why they were cut. The trims weren’t missed in the final product, but each adds something to the overall story.
Under “sneak peeks” we get a number of Disney trailers, all presented in HD. Previews are for Enchanted, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, Sleeping Beauty and the upcoming Pixar release Wall-E.
The Rookie may get overlooked in the annals of baseball flicks, but it manages to appeal to many audiences. The G-rating is an inherent stigma, unfortunately. But don’t let the rating fool you: this is not a kids-only feature. Further exposition of Morris’s life in the wake of his shoulder injury would have enhanced the story, but it is a solid drama as is. The Blu-ray edition is a worthy upgrade from the standard DVD, with an impressive video transfer, a well-suited PCM audio track, and the inclusion of all the supplements from the standard release. The Rookie is definitely worth stealing second for.
Walt Disney Pictures presents The Rookie. Directed by John Lee Hancock. Starring Dennis Quaid, Rachel Griffiths and Brian Cox. Written by Mike Rich. Running time: 127 minutes. Rated G. Released on Blu-ray: March 4, 2008. Available at Amazon.com.