- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Disney should find many fans for "The Rookie," an inspirational gem from deep in the heart of small-town, baseball-playing Texas.
The movie also demonstrates that a G rating and savory entertainment are not mutually exclusive. ("The Princess Diaries"first implanted this suggestion in the summer.)
A fresher title might have been contrived for this new baseball classic, the most satisfying fable of its kind since "The Natural." It is arguably more satisfying than the latter because it is based on an authentic comeback case.
Jim Morris, once a left-handed pitching prospect for the Milwaukee Brewers, experienced an astonishing resurrection of throwing speed while coaching and teaching chemistry at a high school in the little town of Big Lake, Texas. Dogged by arm injuries, he had left organized baseball in 1989 without reaching the majors. Roughly a decade later, he had intimations of being a phenomenal late bloomer.
To help motivate an undermanned and struggling team, Coach Morris (portrayed by a well-cast and conveniently left-handed Dennis Quaid) agrees to a locker-room deal: If his underdog squad becomes the district champion, he will swallow his pride and attend a tryout camp for the major leagues.
The boys come through, obliging the coach to reciprocate. Coach Morris conceals the potential embarrassment of it all from his wife, Lorri (Rachel Griffiths), who has vivid recollections of the low points in his athletic career. He furtively lugs their three children, one still an infant, to a Tampa Bay Devil Rays tryout camp in San Angelo, Texas. In the company of considerably younger aspirants and between baby-sitting chores he confirms the improbable: He could make himself useful to a team as a left-handed reliever with exceptional speed.
Reluctantly but successfully, he makes one last bid for the majors. His debut comes in a game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. The difference in emphasis between "The Natural" and "The Rookie" may be suggested by the nature of the challenge facing Mr. Quaid's character. Unlike Robert Redford's wandering slugger, he doesn't have to wallop a dramatic homer while still bleeding from a serious injury. Morris can justify the faith of Big Lake by striking out one batter.
There's even a sharp pictorial distinction between the two movies, with the gorgeous and magical lighting schemes of "The Natural" supplanted by an emphasis on dusty, wide-open spaces in "The Rookie." The "dry" virtues of the new movie are reflected even in the sense of Morris' abiding estrangement from his father, Jimmy Sr. (Brian Cox), a stiff-necked and nomadic military man who never found the time or inclination to be interested in his son's athletic skills.
The Morris saga doesn't exclude Jimmy Sr. from the ultimate joys of a comeback redemption. Coach Morris' parents are divorced, but both remain residents of Big Lake. In one funny interlude, the son asks his mother, Olline (Beth Grant), about the circumstances that led to the split. They're strolling toward her house at the time, and she says, "I'm gonna need a longer street to tell that story."
Director John Lee Hancock may permit himself a little too much leisure while telling the story, summarized and presumably fictionalized where expedient by screenwriter Mike Rich.
The plot needs to double-clutch a bit because the initial episodes concentrate on the comeback exploits of the high school team. Many a movie could end with their vindication as district champs. "The Rookie" has to append Coach Morris' return to the pros and build momentum toward a second emotional high point while the hero is physically isolated from hometown and family surroundings. Mr. Hancock allows the pace to slacken, often while lingering over close-ups of Mr. Quaid in self-doubting or agonized poses.
Miss Griffiths, however, is such a gritty and affectionate treasure as Lorri that we probably should inquire about whether there's a way of hastening honorary U.S. citizenship for this rangy Australian actress.

***
TITLE: "The Rookie"
RATING: G (Fleeting comic vulgarity; episodes involving domestic conflict)
CREDITS: Directed by John Lee Hancock. Written by Mike Rich. Baseball adviser-coordinator: Mark Ellis.
RUNNING TIME: Two hours
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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