'Rookie' dusts off plate of old plots for trivial flick

July 07, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Did "Rookie of the Year" fall out of a time capsule? The only year in which its rookie could have pitched was 1954.

That was a period in Hollywood history when baseball gimmick movies enjoyed a brief, silly vogue, the most famous being "It Happens Every Spring," where chemistry professor Ray Milland develops a wood-repellent potion that gives him the spitball from hell.

Such an anachronistic triviality is Daniel Stern's "Rookie." The slight difference is that the untalented chap who is suddenly gifted with major-league abilities is a 12-year-old kid. The device that gets him to the Bigs is patently absurd: Henry (Thomas Ian Nicholas) breaks an arm playing Little League because he's a menace to society on the ball field. But the arm heals with a ligament reattaching itself to the bone uniquely, giving him a reflexive arm snap that translates into a 100-mile-an-hour heater.

Thus, quicker than you can say either "Shazam!" or "Greg Olson!" this scrawny non-starting, no-hit, no-field Little-Leaguer is throwing short relief for the floundering Cubs. And by dint of enthusiasm, more than a little luck, a fastball that smokes and a sympathetic screenwriter, he's soon got the team headed toward its first pennant since '46.

Other subplots intrude and it's amusing to see where they've been stolen from. There's the one about the unsympathetic baseball executive who is secretly working against the team, pilfered from "The Natural," which stole it from the reality of Charles Comiskey's Stalinesque stewardship of the 1919 White Sox. There's the regeneration of the old pro through love (Gary Busey whose fires are rekindled by Henry's mom, Amy Morton); this is also out of "The Natural," borrowed previously by Robert Ward in his "Major League" where Tom Berenger and Rene Russo were the partners. The ending is straight out of Douglas Wallop's "Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," though not as good -- it turns on the magic masquerader losing his stuff and having to get the last out on his own pedestrian abilities.

Underneath all this nonsense there's a kind of poignant awe that we of the athletic proletariat feel for the sublimely gifted professionals who so engage our passions. Why are they different? Twenty-five young men otherwise undistinguishable from any 25 other young men -- they don't look better, they don't talk better, they don't smell better. They probably smell worse. Yet by some genetic freakiness, they can throw a ball so wickedly hard it seems to arrive by short circuit through the wall of the universe or . . . track and intercept that same wicked, hard shot and crush it into the stratosphere, feats utterly beyond our capacity to comprehend.

Thus pieces like "Rookie of the Year" or "It Happens Every Spring" or even "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" ("Damn Yankees" in stage and film version) represent the common clod's fantasy of somehow, magically or accidentally, tasting the pleasure of world-class hand-eye coordination, giving us entree into an otherwise forbidden and undiscovered realm.

But somehow those stories worked better in an age before ESPN dominated coverage and took us so far inside baseball we feel like we're sitting on the bench spitting 'baccy lungers at the flies. Worse, we're simply too intimate with the squalid aspects of the sport to truly let go and indulge in this adolescent fantasy.

We now know that too many ballplayers aren't gods off the field, but high school bullies who spend their adult lives playing Gameboy in hotel lobbies and looking for Baseball Annies.

The mild pleasures of "Rookie of the Year," such as they are, are largely anthropological: It takes you into the Cubs locker room (the Cubs appear to have participated wholeheartedly) and onto the diamond at a crowded Wrigley Field (which is the prototype for our own ball yard and not a bad place to spend some time). Some of the jokes are amusing -- Henry, acting like a kid on the base paths and really getting on the pitcher's nerves. It's stupid but it's funny. Sometimes it's just stupid: Henry strikes a player out with a lob pitch, when any major-leaguer -- pitchers even -- and any high school starter (in any sport!) would park such an offering in one of the moon's farthest craters.

And director Stern gives himself too much time in an overextended cameo as the team's addled pitching coach, resorting to ancient slapstick routines that grow progressively tiresome. Say it ain't so, Daniel!

MOVIE REVIEW

"Rookie of the Year"

Starring Thomas Ian Nicholas and Gary Busey

Directed by Daniel Stern

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated PG

**

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