Pitcher turned producer back in win column

Second-chance theme of 'Rookie' is one this ex-Terp knows firsthand


April 28, 2002|By Jonathan Pitts | By Jonathan Pitts,Sun Staff

Some things are meant to happen.

Mark Ciardi was a right-handed high school pitcher. Pretty good stuff, they say -- good enough that the University of Maryland came calling with a full scholarship. He would be a mainstay of the Terps' rotation for four years. The big-league Milwaukee Brewers signed him to a minor-league deal. After innumerable camps and teammates and rookie-league games, he would work his way up to the majors.

He stayed there for one resplendent month, fulfilling his lifelong dream. But at age 26, his arm blew out and he had to quit.

It was just the break he needed.

Ciardi and his buddy, Gordon Gray, liked movies, so after some years of thinking about it, they packed up their stuff and moved to Hollywood to be producers. A few years of networking later, Ciardi read a magazine piece about a 35-year-old pitcher -- a high school teacher / coach who had never pitched above A ball and had been out of baseball for 10 years -- who was making a comeback worthy of Field of Dreams.

"Wait a minute!" said Ciardi. "I played with that guy for two years!" A few hectic days later, he and Gray had beaten out 250 other producers and directors to acquire rights to The Rookie, Disney's current box-office hit. The Sun caught up with Ciardi for a chat last week.

How do you morph from major-league prospect into Hollywood mogul?

God! Good question. My partner and I took a strange route. About five years ago I was trying to plan what to do next in my life. We moved to Los Angeles, and all our friends were in the business -- writers, directors, agents. We just decided to become producers. We both loved movies, and we thought we could do it. I started reading the trades, asking questions. Really, in this business, it's about relationships and getting quality material.

How did you find "The Rookie" story?

I was sitting in my doctor's office, and I came across this article in Sports Illustrated. I looked it over and couldn't believe the story, really. At that point, Jim [Morris, the main character] was still in Triple-A. It told of how he had been a teacher two months earlier. They gave a little background on him. He'd had a brief minor-league career, in A ball, and he'd signed in 1983 with the Brewers. I thought, "Hey, that's the year I signed!" I looked at the picture and said, "Oh my God, I played with this guy for two years!"

I called his team's clubhouse, and the PR department got us in touch with Jim's agent, who happens to live in L.A. The agent called Jim, and Jim said, "Absolutely, I remember Mark," and [the agent] sat us down, and we said, "Why don't you let us set up the project at Disney?" Our friend was head of production.

Disney gave the go-ahead the next day. The very same day we got the rights, Jim was called up to the big leagues.

What does a producer do?

First we had to get the right screenwriter. We read so many scripts. We were inundated. And Mike [Rich, a former Portland, Ore., DJ] faxed us a two-page treatment. He just nailed it. It brought tears to our eyes. He got the job. At age 40, he had a sort of second chance in life, too, like us and like Jim. Then, after we interviewed dozens of directors, the last guy, John Hancock, was really impressive. It's his first film. Overall, the producer is sort of the head chef, pulling all the ingredients together.

Did the details of the film ring true?

Oh, yeah. So much was really true, stuff you wouldn't know if you hadn't been around baseball. I really stayed on top of the baseball stuff. If you try to do a baseball movie, and you don't get the baseball right, you're dead.

Little nuances make this story special. Jim really did used to go down to his old [American] Legion field at night and pitch in the lights of his pickup truck. He never put the dream away. [The kids on his team] saw that, and they challenged him to put it back in motion.

Then we had Dennis [Quaid, who plays Morris] working for months before the movie. Jim Gott, who pitched nine years in the major leagues, was a consultant. We hired a great baseball coordinator who got together with Dennis. We'd go to his house and throw in the back yard, we threw in parks, we had him throw at Dodger Stadium. He worked hard. It was like spring training for him. And John [Hancock] shot the baseball scenes so well.

It sounds like a lot of things went right.

We were so lucky. There wasn't one problem along the way. We had all the right people in the right places. And everyone was so passionate about this movie.

And Dennis really took hold of the role. He happened to be a lefty [like Morris], he happened to be from Texas -- he just nailed it.

Did Quaid seem like Jim?

Yes. I roomed with [Jim] at spring training one year. He was always very polite, an aw-shucks kind of guy. Good guy.

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