Rookie of the Year (1993)

26 Jan

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Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Rookie of the Year” is a pleasing family sports picture that plays to every Little League baseball player that would love to be the star player, but is mostly benched because he’ll screw things up if he plays. This movie is the story of one of those boys who has a miraculous change of skill that ultimately gets him to pitch for the Chicago Cubs. Of course, it’s not a true story; it’s pure fantasy wish-fulfillment. What kid obsessed with baseball doesn’t wish they could play in the major leagues?

“Rookie of the Year” is about a kid named Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas), who is probably the worst Little Leaguer in history. He gets called out to right field and tries to catch a fly ball—but he trips, stumbles about trying to find the ball with his cap rim covering his eyes, and then throws it over the fence behind him when he finally grabs it. That’s it—this kid is bully meat for the rest of his life…or is he?

Things start to change for Henry once he trips in the schoolyard and breaks his pitching arm, forcing him to spend the summer in a cast that lifts his arm likes he’s always raising his hand. When the cast is off, the arm is healed in such a way that his tendons are actually tightened closely to one of the bones. When Henry and his friends Clark (Robert Gorman) and George (Patrick LaBrecque) attend a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where they catch a home run ball in the bleachers. Henry throws it back and everyone is amazed to discover that Henry’s arm is so powerful that Henry is actually able to throw the ball from the stands to home plate.

The kindly Cubs owner (Eddie Bracken) and the slimy General Manager (Dan Hedaya) want to sign Henry onto the team, as it seems he can throw the ball faster than anybody else. Manager Sal Martinella (Albert Hall) gives the kid a tryout and immediately is called upon to play for the Chicago Cubs. Henry pitches several games and becomes an immediate celebrity.

One of the strengths of “Rookie of the Year” is Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner (his last name is constantly mispronounced by Sal as a running joke). Nicholas gives Henry an appealing personality. He’s openly curious, bright, and excited, and his reactions to almost everything that happens to him is priceless. And then there’s the way he deals with certain games where he’s put on the spot. He has many schemes and tricks up his sleeve that come in handy in two particular game sequences that are both funny and bright. One is when he’s actually called up to bat, and tricks his way around running the bases (he has a small strike zone, causing him to take the base in the first place). Another is the obligatory Big Game—this one, in particular, can’t only be praised for the young actor, but also for the script. It starts out the usual way that all Big Games are supposed to be, but then something happens—I won’t give away what—that forces Henry to rely on his wits to help the team win the game. He plays it like a smart-aleck kid, mocking the other players and at one point “daring” one of them to run.

The whole movie is bright in that way, and has a good amount of clever, funny moments. Most of the comedy comes from a loopy pitching coach, played by Daniel Stern (who also directed the movie). He has an unusual way of speaking and a tendency to hit himself in the head with baseballs after practicing hitting them. The funniest bit in the movie—Stern gets himself caught in a tiny, cramped little closet area in a hotel, and no one is around to help. We see an above shot of just how tight the area is, as Stern looks straight up and says, “Little help now.” That was hilarious.

But the movie also has its dumb moments too. The final pitch, without giving anything away, is handled in a too-corny way. And John Candy, uncredited as a Cubs announcer, tries way too hard to imitate the appropriate voice for a Harry Carey type. I don’t like to criticize John Candy, but I was hoping for something more from him. Other stuff is obligatory, but kind of overdone—the basic example is not the Big Game, but the faltering relationship between Henry and his friends when Henry becomes too busy to hang out with them.

However, there are quite a few nice parts too. Gary Busey is very good as an over-the-hill pitcher who starts out grumpily with Henry, but eventually gives him advice and encouragement. There’s also another appealing character on Henry’s side—Henry’s strong, supportive mother, well-played by Amy Morton. And the scene in which Henry steps onto Wrigley Field for the first time captures the magic that a kid would feel if living this position.

“Rookie of the Year” is unlikely, which is the point for a fantasy. But it’s entertaining, funny, creative, and features a nice leading performance by Thomas Ian Nicholas. It’s a nice film for the whole family to enjoy.

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