Of all baseball movies, none will have a higher nostalgia factor for 90s kids than Rookie of the Year. It brilliantly takes a gangly middle schooler and chucks him right into the big leagues. For 103 glorious minutes, we get to live vicariously through Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) as he becomes an ace pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. In the end, this movie isn’t so much about baseball as a study on our innocent love for it. As kids, we all imagined ourselves on the mound in the 9th inning, with two outs and 20,000 fans chanting our name. With Rookie of the Year, we see a boy get to live that fantasy.
The story begins exactly as it should, with Henry fumbling his way through little league. He has a mountain of heart, but only a molehill of talent. Even worse, he’s a huge dork with the ladies. Henry’s humdrum life gets shaken when he lands weird on his throwing arm and suffers a gruesome injury. He spends weeks in a cast positioned in such a way that nobody should allow him near an auction. When the doctor peels off the cast, Henry’s arm springs like a loaded slingshot. Damn it all–those tendons have healed too tight!
Despite this setback, Gardenhoser settles back into his tween routine. His mother (Amy Morton) surprises him and his rascally buddies with tickets to the Cubs game. This means the boys get to see Chet “Rocket” Stedman (Gary Busey) take the mound for their favorite team. Ol’ Chet is a paunchy, grizzled pitcher with only a few ounces left in the tank. Opposing hitters feast on Chet’s saggy fastball, sending one after another to Henry and his buddies in left field. When Runnamucker tries to toss the ball back to the field, it zips like it was fired from one of those t-shirt cannons.
Cubs execs quickly get dollar signs in their eyes, and attempt to sign Henry to a novelty contract. The fans are intrigued; players, including Rocket, are visibly irritated. Meanwhile, his mom’s scuzzy new boyfriend (Bruce Altman) spots an opportunity to exploit Henry for his own gain. Before we know it, Henry becomes the team’s newest pitcher.
Things get dicey at first. Henry grows rattled on the mound. Big league hitters are not intimidated by Henry’s fastball. The locker room overflows with gnarly, grown-ass men in naught but towels. A long baseball season means extended road trips from home. And then there are those cute girls in the school cafeteria! The pressure mounts until Chet becomes a mentor to the boy, helping him focus his blazing speed and manage the stress of being a pint-sized professional athlete.
That’s pretty much all the plot info ya need. (I love this movie, but Remains of the Day, it ain’t.) Most of what follows is a lot of fun, especially for Rookie‘s target audience. A lot of the laughs come out of left field, whether that’s John Candy as the overzealous broadcaster, or Daniel Stern as the team’s bizarre pitching coach. (Seriously, it almost seems like Stern is ported in from a totally different movie. His character resembles a cross of the dim-witted Wet Bandit from Home Alone and a grizzled prospector from the 1840s, trapped in a Chicago Cubs uniform. Mark this as one of those performances that must be seen to be believed. Busey wouldn’t be my first choice for a romantic lead, but sometimes offbeat casting only adds to the charm.
As with The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year offers a glorious escape. Baseball movies don’t just evoke the sport, but also the carefree summer days of childhood. That’s why these films offer such strong doses of nostalgia. It’s impossible to grow up with Rookie and not feel something. Sure, it holds up surprisingly well. But more than anything, I love it now because it reminds me of the boy who loved it then.
103 min. PG. Disney+.