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Fielder's Choice 

Diamonds really are a girl's best friend, especially if you're talking about baseball diamonds and movie-going girls. Nothing beats a good baseball movie -- "good" meaning one that swings for the fence with that intangible mixture of heart, mysticism and Americana that seems to fit the national pastime like a glove. Barry Levinson's The Natural, Phil Alden Robinson's Field of Dreams and Ron Shelton's Bull Durham make up the holy trinity of baseball cinema, but there are plenty of fantastic farm-team films out there capable of capturing America's particular passion for the crack of the bat. Not least among them are The Sandlot, a little-known 1993 charmer that revolves around a neighborhood baseball field and the boys who run its bases, and Rookie of the Year, a flight of fancy about a freak arm injury that sends a prepubescent pitcher straight to the Chicago Cubs.

And now add to that roster The Rookie, a squeaky-clean, based-on-a-true-story heart-warmer that's a good movie to boot. In a day and age when "fun for the whole family" is one wet and sloppy kiss of death, director John Lee Hancock (My Dog Skip) and star Dennis Quaid manage to infuse The Rookie with a combination of craft and charisma not usually seen in a live-action G-rated movie.

It no doubt helps that the story is set in Texas. Like all good stories spun around the Lone Star State, the tale of The Rookie is simple and sweet, tall and true. Who would believe that Jim Morris, a high school baseball coach and chemistry teacher, could shake off what was deemed a catastrophic shoulder injury and pitch his way out of the dusty west Texas town of Big Lake straight to the Major Leagues, all when he was at least 10 years past his prime? But the real-life Morris did -- on a bet -- and that's the stuff movies are made of.

An affable guy stuck in his hometown, Morris willingly coaches his kids in a region that only cares about football, his own childhood love of baseball (set up beautifully in the movie's opening minutes) never far from the surface. He loves his three children and his wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), but sometimes at night he sneaks away to pitch in an open field out under the stars, clueless that he can cannon a 98-mile-per-hour fastball. He's a man living with a big what-might-have-been, something Quaid quietly captures in the way he walks and talks, the way he jokes about bringing home wine bought on a Chevron card, and the way his mouth sometimes smiles but his eyes rarely do. Then, in the fluke of all flukes, the kids on his team hand him the chance to put up or shut up by forcing him to make good on a bet -- he had rashly agreed to try out for the majors one more time if the team managed to go from cellar dwellers to district champs in one season. Of course, the kids win. Morris gamely tries out and just keeps going.

In a perfect bit of synchronicity, Quaid the actor shows how much progress he is making in his own journey back from the minors; The Rookie lives and dies on the strength of his performance and the measure of his likeability, two things he knocks straight out of the park. (This, coupled with a solid performance in Frequency and a memorable bit part in Traffic, hopefully signals more good things to come.)

Hancock does make a few Rookie mistakes. At times, his twangy, fun-loving soundtrack dominates, one song ending only to have another one immediately and distractingly cued up. And, great and interesting actress that she can be, Griffiths somehow fails to convey much authenticity. We believe in the beginning that she doesn't want her husband to try for fear of injury, but once she supposedly rounds the bend, we never quite buy the supportive wife act because that's exactly all it ever feels like.

Luckily, she is counterbalanced by a winning supporting cast, particularly Angus T. Jones as Morris' adoring son and the great Brian Cox (Nuremberg, L.I.E.) as Morris' estranged father, who obviously regrets their strained relationship but isn't capable of taking the steps necessary to repair it.

Next to Quaid, however, the film's most valuable player is director of photography John Schwartzman. In The Rookie, Schwartzman puts to great use the golden hues and lush visuals he created for Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer on such projects as Pearl Harbor, Armageddon and the hands-down prettiest action film ever made, The Rock. Big Lake is every dusty, one-stoplight Texas town you've ever driven through; Schwartzman and Hancock find their beauty in its reality. This is cinematography at its best, giving the ordinary the chance to be extraordinary. And that, at heart, is what Jim Morris' story is all about.

click to enlarge Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) makes it to the big leagues in The Rookie.
  • Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid) makes it to the big leagues in The Rookie.
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