My son has reached an age where he loves sports and has outgrown Pixar movies, so I have been introducing him to the slate of 90s-era kids sports movies. There were a ton of these kind of movies from about 1990 to 2000 and then they kind of stopped for some reason, although you can still find a few direct-to-video features these days like The Perfect Game, A Mile in His Shoes, and the Kirk Cameron film Mercy Rule.
These forays into baseball films are a real treat for me, since I missed some of these films (see kids, back in the day you had to go all the way to a theater or your local video rental store to see a film) or completely mis-remembered what happened in these films (wait, a kid ran the Minnesota Twins????) Anyway, the first film we watched together was the 1993 film Rookie of the Year.
Film: Rookie of the Year (1993)
Starring: Thomas Ian Nicholas, Amy Morton, Gary Busey, Daniel Stern, John Candy
Box Office: $56.5 million
Cringeworthy moments: Henry’s buddies say a female classmate is “stacked”, mimicking pre-teen breasts.
Bad language: “Funky buttlover” is about as bad as it gets.
Baseball scenes: Pretty weak. I mean Nicholas is a kid, so he gets a pass, but Gary Busey is pretty rough as a pitcher. Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Pedro Guerrero make brief cameos.
The movie stars a very young Thomas Ian Nicholas, who would later star in those American Pie movies as “Horndog #2”. You probably know the general outlines of the plot. Kid loves baseball but stinks at it. He breaks his arm, and when it heals, some spurious science (the tendons heal even stronger, due to midichlorians) allows him to throw the ball 100 mph. He goes to a Cubs game, and when he gets his hands on a home run ball, he follows the Wrigley Field tradition of throwing it back on the field. Only now with his bionic arm, he whips a fastball that lands straight in the catcher’s glove at high velocity. The Cubs quickly sign him and we have our plot.
So the first thing I had to explain to my kid, was that the Cubs used to be known as losers (you see son, there was this guy named Jim Hendry). The early part of the film portrays them as extraordinarily hapless, although in real life the Cubs were just a few seasons removed from being a division title winner in 1989. Early in the movie, there is a subplot that the old (senile?) owner of the Cubs is transferring control of the club to his nephew Larry, played by the great character actor Dan Hedaya.
Since the club is so terrible on the field, attendance has plummeted (which is contrary to Wrigley’s reputation of always being packed, no matter how poorly the team is playing.) Larry’s numbers guy drops the hammer though - if they don’t sell out every single game, Larry will have to forfeit the team! What does that mean? He would be forced to sell like Frank McCourt with the Dodgers? Or the team would be run by MLB like the Montreal Expos? Eh, don’t think about it too hard, the main thing is they need a miracle.
That miracle is Henry Rowengartner, the 12-year old who wows everyone with his 103 mph fastball. The Cubs seek him out and sign him after a short tryout. There is another subplot, where Henry’s single mom is dating Jack, played by actor Bruce Altman who has made a career playing characters you just don’t trust (I last saw him getting tossed off a building in the show Ozark). Jack has dollar signs in his eyes and becomes Henry’s “manager”, talking up how Henry is a winner who is always prepared and is ready to take the Cubs to Playoffville.
Everyone thinks the signing is a publicity stunt - and it is! If the Cubs were serious about developing Henry’s talent, they would have sent him to the instructional leagues, or at least the low minors, to learn to harness his 100 mph fastball and throw strikes. Instead, they ticket him straight to the big leagues to work out of the bullpen.
Once he is in the clubhouse (there is a nice tribute to Wizard of Oz they stick in there, minus the whole actress burning), he is in awe in the presence of Chet “Rocket” Steadman (played by a sane Gary Busey), a veteran pitcher near the end of his career. He is also befriended by pitching coach Jack Brickma, played by Daniel Stern (who wrote and directed the film). Brickma isn’t really there to instruct Henry in pitching, he just serves as comic relief with his slapstick foibles, like getting trapped between two hotel doors for adjoining rooms. Hilarity ensues!
Rowengartner does not really live up to the title of the movie at first. In his first outing, he is destroyed by a Mets hitter named “Heddo” who feasts on fastballs. In his second outing, he plunks the first guy, but gets out of it with a double play and a strikeout to end the game, giving him his first Major League save. In L.A., manager Sal Martinella apparently does not conform to modern closer usage, as he has Henry not only pitch the eighth, but he allows him to bat for himself in the top of the ninth. A terrified Henry walks on four pitches, then advances to second after the pitcher (played by real life big leaguer Tim Stoddard) throws it away after being mocked for having a “big butt.” The smallball pays off as Henry scores, sparking a rally.
Anyway, the Cubs start winning, and are soon in the hunt for the division title. In the meantime, Henry’s mom starts spending some time with Steadman, who has begun taking Henry under his wing. The coach/older player hooking up with a player’s single mom seems to be a recurring theme in 90s sports kids movies - Little Big League and Mighty Ducks have the same subplot. Disney movies have dead moms, sports movies have absent fathers and single moms hooking up with coach.
There absent father storyline does have a nice twist here, however. Henry repeats to everyone that his father - who he never met - was some great player. But he admits late in the film to his mother than he knows the truth - his dad was just some deadbeat. In his final game on the mound, Henry peels back the glove that had been passed down to him and sees a name written - his mother’s. She was the great ballplayer. Cue this used to be my playground....
The Cubs are about to reach the playoffs, but owner-to-be Larry wants to pull off a head-scratching transaction. He says he has a deal to “sell” Henry to the Yankees for $25 million, he just needs to get a signature from Henry’s mom, with his agent, Jack, getting a 10% cut. So, is this a trade for $25 million? Do the Cubs get the $25 million? Henry gets the $25 million? Why are the Cubs giving up on him if he’s supposedly this cash cow? Jack says he’ll get the mom to sign but on one condition - the Cubs get rid of Steadman, now his romantic rival. So the Cubs tell Steadman he’s benched, and getting released - but not until the end of the season! That’s just poor 40-man roster management.
Henry has an argument with his buddies over a very contrived conflict - they’re upset he didn’t help them with their boat because he was at a photoshoot. Anyway, this proto-Jonah Hill and McLovin tandem get mad that Henry is getting a big head, which makes Henry realize that living his dream of playing for the Cubs and earning millions of dollars and fan adulation just isn’t worth it, because he could be building a boat with two guys he’ll probably lose contact with after high school.
Henry’s mom finds out she was tricked into signing the contract by Jack and kicks him out, which I guess voids the contract, at least from what I remember from contract law, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense the Cubs still have Henry playing for them as they play the Mets for the division title that night. Steadman (who was supposed to be benched and released) starts the game of course. He turns in a gritty “Quality Start”, but the Cubs turn the game over to Henry to get the final outs. In the ninth, Henry slips on a ball and falls on his arm, which causes him to magically lose his abilities. Of course, he should admit he is hurt and pull himself from the game, but he is selfish and has to be the big star, so he stays in the game.
He walks the first guy on four 40-mph pitches, but hatches a plan to get the guy out on the “hidden ball trick”. Henry stands on the rubber with a rosin bag, a blatant violation of Rule 6.02(a)(9) that should be a balk, but these umpires are clueless. He gets the second out by intentionally walking the second batter and then baiting the runner into taking off for second by daring him to go when Henry tosses the ball in the air, you know, that old ploy.
That brings up Heddo again, and now that Henry can’t throw fastballs, ol’ Heddo is hopeless against a 40 mph pitch that Henry literally throws underhand like a softball pitch. The Cubs win, clinching the division, ending a post-season drought of almost five seasons.
Basically everything goes to normal after that, with Henry playing outfield in Little League as he was for the outset of the movie. For a second, I thought this would be the clever plot twist - this was all a fever dream. Henry crashed into the outfield fence during his Little League game at the beginning of the movie, and the ridiculous plot we saw was just the insane hallucinations of a child suffering a concussion. But we see Steadman coaching the team, looking longingly at Henry’s mom, which gives us an indication that no, this was real. Then Henry drops the reality bomb by flashing his World Championship ring, ending the movie and any hopes of a M. Night Shyamalan-plot twist.
So yea, the plot is kinda silly, but this does give fan service to every little boy or girl that dreams of playing big leagues, while sending the message that baseball should be fun. My son enjoyed the baseball scenes and laughed at the slapstick stuff. The movies holds up reasonably well, mostly because it never took itself all that seriously, and there’s plenty of room for a kids baseball movie that doesn’t take itself very seriously.