Those of us whose dreams of pitching in the major leagues are, shall we say, in turnaround, can respond to the true story of Jim Morris, onetime kid phenom drafted out of school, whose career was blighted by early injuries and who ended up as a high school baseball coach in small-town Texas. Still throwing after his team's practices, and now in his mid-thirties, he was challenged by the boys on his team: if they won their district championship he had to try out for the majors once again.
They did, he did (his fastball timed out at 98 MPH) and he made it up to the majors, where he pitched for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for two seasons. It's a wonderful story, particularly for alte kockers like me, and it's recounted in Morris's book "The Oldest Rookie," which my very considerate children gave me to commemorate the end of my own softball career.
It's also the story of the new Disney film "The Rookie," with Dennis Quaid as Morris. Disney has tarted the story up with an opening and closing bookend in which two nuns wander the west Texas plains in the 1920s, buy some likely land, and turn it into the oil town of Big Lake (the real town is not identified in the book), where Morris is coaching sixty years later. I'm not sure what that means, or what it's doing in this story, but then I'm just an old ballplayer anyway, and too concrete for mysticism.
The film takes us through Jim's childhood, moving frequently as his Navy-recuiter father (Brian Cox) takes them around the country. This rigid man insists on Jim calling him sir, which he does even as an adult. Cox has a thankless role; he's a caricature rather than a human being, and even the predictable last-minute apology by way of softening his character doesn't add any depth. Jim's wife Lorri (a wonderful performance by the Australian Rachel Griffiths as a strong and secure Texas gal, the high school counselor at Big Lake) is always interesting and persuasive to watch.
Quaid, who was actually 46 when the movie was shot, does an excellent job as Jimmy. He's an obvious natural athlete who knows how to pitch - something Tim Robbins did so badly in "Bull Durham." He has the seamed face and the sudden smile that make him so attractive, and he carries the story well. By the time he tries out for the majors he and Lorri have three young children. The one we know best, the oldest, is Hunter (Angus T. Jones, who does a brilliant job as his dad's best cheerleader).
The film's cinematography, by John Schwartzman, captures the look and motion and momentum of baseball, as well as the dry and dusty field on which the high school team plays; it's very much the best part of the film. But the editing is disgracefully bad. At every dramatic point the film slows down, holding on repetitive shots of Quaid's reactions to whatever he's just heard. The high school team wants him to try out? Hold on his open-mouthed stare. The Devil Rays want him to pitch? Hold on his open-mouthed stare. His father wants to make up with him? Well, you get the point. The film's running time has been stretched by at least twenty minutes, I would guess, with these unnecessary editing lapses. And for a film that edits its baseball sequences so well, this is unforgivable. Particularly as we get to the climax - itself a cliché but completely appropriate - the first pitch in the majors, the whole town turning out to watch, Lorri and the kids showing up, the film seems to have slipped into slow motion. Just waiting for these interminable shots to end and cut to something - anything - else is painful. Is it too much to hope that when the DVD comes out in a 'director's cut' it will in fact be cut, and not lengthened?