Directed by Daniel Stern
Written by Sam Harper
Coming off a baseball movie centered around kids in The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year mirrors much of the same themes and ideas as that film, and borrows also from Major League, and sets the stage for another “kid in the Bigs” film in Little Big League. With the baseball movie market so saturated around this time, the early 90s, it is not all that surprising to find so many commonalities between the films, and in fact finding these things is one of the great things about watching the films in a marathon format. Picking up on the many similar themes, and things borrowed helps to put the films in perspective, and to help parse the truly unique and originals elements of each film. With Rookie of the Year, we get our first real dose of a kid playing Major League Baseball.
Of course, his making the Chicago Cubs roster is a total farce and marketing scam, but the team doesn’t care, the fans don’t care and the league doesn’t care. A rather horrible little league player, Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) has a freak accident where he breaks his arm. When the cast is finally removed, he discovers his tendons have healed too tightly, allowing him to have some kind of super catapult throwing arm, throwing fastballs over 100 MPH. After accidentally showing off his arm from the bleachers at Wrigley one day, the team signs him to put fans in the seats, or else the evil “Fish” (Dan Hedaya) will not inherit the team from the owner, Mr. Carson. Rowengartner goes through his struggles, but the team begins to win, despite the aging veteran pitcher Chet Steadman (Gary Busey) and eccentric pitching coach (Daniel Stern).
Let me be very upfront about this before things get out of hand. The premise for the film is absolutely ridiculous. It’s bonkers. However, this fantasy is not without its charm, almost feeling like the type of B movie premise you might find in films from the 40s and 50s; heck, even in something like It Happens Every Spring. But placed within the setting of the 90s, especially at a time where I myself was a kid dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, the niche plot is actually quite charming. Sometimes I wonder how much influence my childhood has over these early 90s films, the Golden Era for the baseball film in how popular they were, how many were produced, and in my own personal opinion, how great they are. Make no mistake about it, however, Rookie of the Year is not a great movie.
But it never really strives to be that. It is quite comfortable in the realm of entertaining family film, and executes many things very well. The comedy for instance typically works. Thomas Ian Nicholas’ happy-go-lucky Henry creates plenty of funny moments when interacting with the serious adult ballplayers. But the true comedic relief comes from Stern himself, whose Coach Brickma is the type of spaceman who would never be in a majr league dugout, but whose antics provide enough reprieve from the proceedings to be forgiven how out of place he is. John Candy’s announcer character, taking a page from Bob Uecker in Major League also provides a few laughs. Of course, the rest of the film can thank Major League for influence as well. Not only is there a zany announcer, but the film is built around an erratic, but electric, pitcher, a team who has endlessly been in the doldrums (the Cubs), and a miracle playoff run which ultimately comes down to the showdown between said pitcher and his arch nemesis slugger hitter.
While the film borrows generously, one of the brighter spots of the film is in its execution. Rookie of the Year paves no new roads in the Baseball movie landscape, but it does bring up an important element to human relationships, friendship. Thrust into this fame by his mother’s slimy boyfriend Jack, Henry’s friendships suffer as his responsibilities and stardom dominate his time. This tension helps to show how important it is to seek balance in one’s life, whether a kid or adult. Life is always about relationships as opposed to money, fame and greed, whose qualities are fleeting. Friendship are lasting. Admittedly, it’s not one of the better baseball films thus far in the marathon, but it works, and I probably like it more than I should. It’s charming.