- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 6, 2002

The plot of "The Rookie" is simple: Jim Morris grows up as an Army brat, moving from town to town as his dad is transferred before settling in West Texas. After failing as a minor leaguer because of a shoulder injury, he returns to Texas, marries, has kids and becomes a science teacher at the local high school.
Morris also serves as baseball coach, but his perennially losing team fields only 10 players. So he agrees to a wager of sorts: If the team wins its district, he must attend a major league tryout. Of course, the team storms to the title, and Morris wows the scouts and himself at the tryout with a fastball that zooms in at 98 mph. Three months and two minor league teams later, Morris is in the majors.
The best part about this tale? It's all true.
The folks at Disney know a good story when they see one. And Morris', well, it proved irresistible.
In the too good to be true department, the 35-year-old Morris went from science teacher to major league pitcher in a matter of months in 1999.
With a fastball in the high 90s his weapon of choice, he pitched 15 innings in 21 games over parts of two seasons with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, retired and put out an autobiography. Disney quickly snapped up the rights, and "The Rookie," which recently was released on DVD, became the latest in its library of family-friendly sports films (like "Remember the Titans").
The G rating and little "based on a true story" blurb might scare some viewers into thinking "The Rookie" is childish fiction, but the movie is far from it. The script sticks to the essence of Morris' life but embellishes it with details and an unnecessary Hollywood frame, a sort of mythical tale about how baseball played a part in the origin of his little oil town.
There are little plot devices the father who never thinks Morris (Dennis Quaid) is good enough until the end, the wife (Rachel Griffiths from "Six Feet Under") who sacrifices so her husband can follow his dream that are played up so much they tend toward the cliche. But Quaid is so winning as Morris the coach, as Morris the parent, as Morris the dreamer, that the movie's faults are forgotten. He gets the character down so well that when the movie first hit theaters, the real Morris said Quaid picked up on mannerisms he didn't even know he had.
The DVD offers an audio commentary with Quaid and director John Lee Hancock and seven deleted scenes cut mostly for length. There's also a Spring Training section for kids in which the movie's baseball coordinator provides various tips on different aspects of the game. For instance, in the pitching section, he details how to throw a four-seam fastball and a two-seam fastball.
The most interesting special feature here, however, is the 20-minute featurette on the real Jim Morris. The featurette delves into details that didn't make the movie; for instance, after failing at baseball, he became an All-American punter at Division II Angelo State and shows actual game footage of Morris' first appearance.
"Pride of the Yankees"
The best baseball picture of all time? Many people nowadays will pick either "Field of Dreams" or "Bull Durham." Those with a little more scope might say "Pride of the Yankees," the Lou Gehrig biopic that earned 11 Academy Award nominations when it was released in 1942.
Sure, the movie seems dated. Few movies in the 21st century would canonize Gehrig the way "Pride of the Yankees" does. Gary Cooper, while excellent in his portrayal of the humorless, workmanlike first baseman, looks a bit too old through much of the movie. (And don't forget that despite earning a best actor nomination the right-handed Cooper shows little baseball acumen and couldn't bat left-handed. Hence, he wore his uniform backward and ran toward third base on a hit, and the film was flipped.)
And there are several lines dripping with cheese. For instance, Gehrig begs the doctor to tell him the diagnosis (but the movie never mentions amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the disease that was later named for him): "Is it three strikes, Doc?"
Still, for everything wrong, there's two things right. Even if they couldn't act, several of Gehrig's teammates, including Babe Ruth (whose first appearance shows him downing a hot dog almost in one bite), give the film a sense of credibility. Best of all, the movie, made only a year after Gehrig died, realizes something fans today don't: His "luckiest man" speech is the most poignant and important moment in major league history. (Sorry, Cal.)
The DVD, released last month by MGM, features a pristine black and white transfer. But as with many titles from the MGM library, "Pride of the Yankees" contains no special features, which is a shame because stats and a biographical featurette or two would have been easy to include.
"Prefontaine"
It's no surprise that Steve Jones, the writer and director behind the acclaimed documentary "Hoop Dreams," performed the same duties for "Prefontaine," one of two movies made about U.S. distance runner Steve Prefontaine from the late 1990s. Jones sets the movie up as a faux documentary. The characters, identified by captions at the bottom of the screen, speak directly to the camera and come off as so believable that it's not until Ed O'Neill of "Married With Children" fame appears as an Oregon assistant track coach that it's clear they are actors. Jones also mixes in vintage running footage of Prefontaine (actor Jared Leto looks enough like him that it's hard to tell the difference) and newspaper clippings.
Just for the style alone, the movie, recently released with no special features on DVD, is worth checking out. But the story of Prefontaine, perhaps the most influential American distance runner, is compelling. He goes into the 1972 Munich Games as the favorite in the 5,000 but loses his focus after the massacre of the Israelis (or so the movie supposes) and fades down the stretch into fourth. And during his training for the 1976 Montreal Games, he dies in a car crash.
The movie also provides a nice look at the founding of Nike; Oregon coach Bill Bowerman, who later starts the company with Phil Knight, makes waffle shoes for Prefontaine in his garage.
"The Program"
Just about every negative stereotype about college football players appears in "The Program," recently out on a featureless DVD. Steroids. Boosters paying players. Cheating in school. Violence. Drinking. Sure, that stuff exists on the Division I-A level, but if it were as obvious as it is at the fictional Eastern State University, there would be no schools free from NCAA probation.
The characters are pretty much stereotypes, too. Omar Epps is the cocky freshman running back trying to prove his worth to Halle Berry. Craig Sheffer is the quarterback touted as a Heisman Trophy contender who hits bottom because of a predilection for booze. And James Caan plays the coach whose ethics are just weak enough that he will break his moral code to save his job.
At least "The Program" doesn't skimp completely on realism; ESU plays games against all real schools, including Michigan and Georgia Tech, and the action comes across as fairly legitimate until the final, ridiculous play.
"Hardball"
This one looked like a dud from the start. Let's face it: Keanu Reeves doesn't have any special effects to hide behind in "Hardball." And the cliche plot down-on-his-luck white man goes to the 'hood to redeem himself by aiding a bunch of underprivileged black children doesn't help matters. But Reeves manages not to rot here, and the kids are endearing, especially after a devastating plot twist helps the movie escape from its doldrums.
Extras include a commentary with director Brian Robbins, who also directed the underappreciated high school football movie "Varsity Blues," and a few deleted scenes.


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