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Rookie of the Year (1993) - Does it hold up?

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The last of the big three kids’ baseball movies from my childhood.

Thomas Ian Nicholas around the time he was in Rookie of the Year
Thomas Ian Nicholas around the time he was in Rookie of the Year
Photo by The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

When I was a kid, I distinctly remember watching five baseball movies: Mr. Baseball, Major League: Back to the Minors, Angels in the Outfield, Little Big League, and Rookie of the Year. Of those films, I only remember enjoying the first and third. As I’ve detailed, Mr. Baseball is still amazing, Little Big League was far better than I had remembered, and Angels in the Outfield is actually oddly traumatizing. I was not looking forward to revisiting this film, however, which I did not particularly at all the first time I watched it. The only good news was that I couldn’t remember why.

It didn’t take me long to figure it out, though. The movie is Daniel Stern’s (famous for his role as Marv the Wet Bandit in Home Alone) sole directorial endeavor and he also co-stars as a wacky, incompetent, accident-prone pitching coach. That slapstick humor drives most of the film for the children, and it has never appealed to me, but it’s far from all the film contains. It also tells the story of a budding mentor relationship between Henry (Thomas Ian Nicholas) and Chet “The Rocket” Steadman (Gary Busey.) Steadman is supposed to be some kind of fill-in for Roger Clemens, even taking the same nickname, but in 1993 Clemens was only 30 and still a very good pitcher while Steadman had more in common with Tony Danza’s Mel Clark from Angels in the Outfield: both were aging pitchers who never recovered quite right from arm injuries that occurred prior to the action of the film. They even were both beloved by the child protagonist even though they weren’t any good anymore.

In Angels we saw the kid develop a close connection with the manager, in Little Big League we saw him develop a connection with the star first-baseman and the pitching coach. In this film, it’s with his fellow pitcher. Steadman is angry at the world at the start of the film because he knows his career is almost up. But after he gets over his initial dislike of Henry he begins to soften toward the kid. And, of course, because this was the 90’s, he also falls for Henry’s mom.

One thing this movie did that was so much better than so many other movies, especially those aimed at families, was it skipped right past the trope of having the “good guys” get into a fight with each other right before the climax. Yeah, Henry’s friends are a little annoyed when Henry is late to help them fix up their boat but he doesn’t do it because he’s selfish - his job called him away and they eventually understand. There’s no massive argument with his mom or teammates, either. Instead, the only fight is with the man his mom was dating at the beginning of the movie who has arranged a deal to send Henry to New York. And it takes only a few moments to resolve; Henry’s mom, Mary, punches the jerk right out the door and down the front steps. A few minutes later they speak to the team owner and everything is magically fixed.

All I knew about Gary Busey going into this movie were the memes about him being insane. I didn’t expect to see him be quite so charming in his relationships with the other characters. And, ultimately, it’s the gentle, loving relationships between all of our heroes that makes this film enjoyable to watch.

As with most kids’ films, there are all kinds of logical holes. There’s no way that the Yankees would send the Cubs $25 million for a 12-year-old relief pitcher, and no reason the Cubs should take that deal. John Candy serves as an uncredited team announcer in the film but, honestly, he doesn’t add much, especially given he’s a comedy legend. What he does add is the context of the final game being the “division winning” game which would allegedly send the Cubs to the World Series. Even in 1993, that’s not how it worked. The Cubs still would have had to beat the NL West division winner in the National League Championship Series. Finally, when the owner’s younger relative comes to Mary’s boyfriend with the deal to send Henry to New York the boyfriend demands the team get rid of Steadman. He was about to go to New York in part because it would get him and his girlfriend away from Steadman; Why would he care if Steadman was still pitching for the Cubs? Further, the way that Steadman is “gotten rid of” is to be told he’ll be benched for the rest of the season and then released after. Which is...not how you get rid of a player.

And yeah, for those of you who want to see some sound mechanics, you’re not going to find them with either pitcher. I could swear I saw Henry jump off the rubber as he was delivering a pitch in one scene. I don’t know how much it would bother anyone else, but it also seemed like Mary’s boyfriend was too tall for his tiny sports car. In a scene at the beginning of the movie he seems to struggle to get into it.

I want to talk about the end of the movie for just a moment. After Henry re-injures his arm and realizes he can’t pitch he discovers that there is a piece of tape on the inside of his glove and he peels it off to discover that the glove - which had allegedly belonged to his missing father - actually once belonged to his mother. She was the former pitcher she’d always described Henry’s father to be. The reveal doesn’t do much for the story of the movie; it doesn’t impact their relationship or the story, it’s just a small easter egg about their relationship and who she was. And it adds a little something to her character because it gives the audience just a few more warm fuzzies as the film comes to a close.

Ultimately this was never a cinematic masterpiece and it still isn’t. But it has enough heart to be worth watching if you’re in the mood to turn off your brain and just soak in some feel-good vibes. It’s also one of the safest to watch with your children. It’s not the best movie in this series, but it might be the most relaxing. And there’s definitely some value in that.