The beginning of the baseball season always brings with it renewed hope. This is particularly true for us fans of the Chicago Cubs. There are a number of clichés that have grown up around the team. For the longest time, and their rivals will no doubt still apply this sobriquet, they were the “Lovable Losers.” I like to think that this was dispelled with their claiming of the World Series title in 2016, but what can you say other than, “haters gonna hate.” Given their championship futility that spanned from 1908 to their recent title, such sentiments are at least understandable. Another saying that came to be attached to them is “Wait ‘til next year.” Inevitably, the team would get near the end of the season with first place nowhere in sight, and, with a long-practiced resignation, these words would be uttered by the entire fanbase, young and old alike. This Catholic feels like being a Cubs fan is great practice for the Faith. It is not about getting used to the sting of defeat. Rather, it is about picking yourself back up with the hope that something better is out there waiting to be found. Like Spring itself, when the season commences, there is the promise of better days ahead, eventually. With these things in mind, I decided to watch Rookie of the Year (1993).
The start of Rookie of the Year references the tradition of non-winning baseball by bringing us directly to that cathedral of the diamond, Wrigley Field. On the mound for the Cubs is Chet “Rocket” Steadman (Gary Busey), and in that fine tradition of the Northsiders, he is getting pummeled by the other team. With yet another long ball given up, we then transition to young Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas), on the way to his little league game with best friends. He hopes that he will get to play today, and makes a bet with his mother, Mary (Amy Morton), that he will not only get on the field but do well. We then learn quite quickly that Henry’s baseball skills leave a bit to be desired. Dejected with a play in which he drops a fly ball in the outfield and manages to throw it over the fence, he slinks home in defeat. His feelings are not improved when mom leaves dinner to him for her to go out with her new boyfriend, Jack Bradfield (Bruce Altman), who Henry thinks is moving too fast with his mom. Making matters worse is the teasing he gets from his peers at school the next day. On the way out of class, they challenge him to catch a fly ball one of them hits. Had it not been for his crush, Becky Fraker (Colombe Jacobsen-Derstine), looking on, he might not have made a bee line to attempt the catch, which results in him breaking his shoulder. This puts a cramp in his plans for the summer, but when Mary takes her son to get the cast off and to be re-examined, they find that the muscles and tendons around it have healed extra tight. This means that when he pulls back his arm, it snaps forward in a forceful whip. You can probably guess where this is going. His newfound prowess is demonstrated when he and his friends head to Wrigley to see the Cubs play, and in honoring the custom of throwing the opposing team’s homerun ball back onto the field, ends up tossing a frozen rope (pardon the baseball parlance, but it is used in the movie) from the center field bleachers all the way to home plate. The crowd, such as it is, is stunned. Of particular note is the nephew of the Cubs’ owner, Larry “Fish” Fisher (Dan Hedaya), who wants to sign the kid immediately to play for the team. It is not necessarily to help the team win, but as a gimmick to get people back in the stands and improve the club’s financial fortunes lest they be forced to sell. Unfortunately, Henry gets away from the stadium before he could be tracked down, but it is Jack who alerts the team to Henry’s whereabouts. Dan sends team manager Sal Martinella (Albert Hall) to the Rowengartner residence in order to talk to Henry. They then go to a field, and with Dan and Jack looking on, immediately offer Henry a contract with Jack acting as his manager. I, for one, would have dreamed to pitch for the Cubs at that age, and it appears to be a dream come true for Henry as well. His new teammates do not share this sentiment, particularly Chet. Henry has an inauspicious debut as well, giving up a homerun, hitting a batter, and throwing a wild pitch. Since the Cubs current pitching coach, Phil Brickma (Daniel Stern), is a verifiable lunatic, Sal gives Chet the task of teaching Henry the fundamentals of pitching. Though loath to do so at first, Chet eventually warms up to Henry, becoming a surrogate father to him. This improves Henry’s pitching, and the team’s place in the standings, but alienates him from his friends, and Mary from Jack. In retaliation, Jack conspires with Dan to sell Henry to the Yankees and to get rid of Chet, who is developing a relationship with Mary. What brings everything back down to earth is Jack, who begins missing his friends. When he refuses to do a commercial in favor of hanging out with his friends, an enraged Jack turns on Henry, which brings the ire of an even more enraged Mary. He then informs Cubs’ owner Bob Carson (Eddie Bracken) that he will not be returning after this year. This clears the way for Chet to pitch the game to send the Cubs to the World Series, and for Henry to close it out. Unfortunately, as he takes the mound for the ninth, exactly as he did the first time, he slips on a baseball and lands on his shoulder. He can no longer throw like he once did. Instead, he must rely on guile to get out of the inning, including striking out the batter who hit a homerun off him in his first appearance with an underhanded pitch. He is then free to return to his regular life, playing little league and now coached by Chet, but with a World Series ring on his finger.
There is a lot to like, and dislike, in Rookie of the Year. On the positive side, it was clearly filmed in Chicago, and Wrigley Field. That will always warm this reviewer’s heart. On the negative side is Phil. After about two seconds of his shenanigans, I was tired of him. Luckily, the film finds plenty of ways to lock him away so that his damage to my enjoyment of a movie set in my beloved Chicago is not long disrupted. What is best about the movie though is Henry’s good character. Granted, I was a little surprised by the way he and his friends objectified the girls in their class. And there is some hokeyness to much of the proceedings. In any case, Henry is a good kid, and that should be admired. He does not seem to let his skills go to his head and become prideful. He is genuinely happy to get the opportunity to play for his favorite baseball team, and does not take it for granted. This is evidenced when he turns to admire the homerun he gives up with the awe of anyone who sees first hand an incredible act of athleticism performed for them. Baseball is a kids’ game, like any sport, and Henry demonstrates this quality throughout. It also jives with how the Bible tells us to approach God as children. A young person knows little, and when presented with situations when they are out of their depth, such as a twelve-year-old in the majors, they know intuitively the seriousness of such a case. When you acknowledge this, it allows God to fill in the spaces where you are deficient. Thankfully, Henry is blessed to have Chet. God does work through such mentors. It also leads Henry to the realization that he is still a kid, and needs to grow more before giving a career in baseball his full attention. Knowing our limits is a source of wisdom with a touch of the Divine.
Then again, I can talk all day about how divine it is to watch any movie that features my beloved Chicago so much as does Rookie of the Year. It is on Disney+ in case you are a baseball fan, especially of the Chicago Cubs, and want a film that will help you forget about the long season ahead for the Northsiders. Forgive that moment of pessimism. I know I talked a bit about the eternal optimism of people like me, but we are also coming off an extended period of winning, and it is hard to adjust. Luckily, there is no letdown in the victory that comes with God.