Though often attempted, only a handful of sports movies actually have what it takes to withstand the test of time. Some fade eventually and some flop right out of the gates, one such movie that has stood out amongst the pack as one of the classics is 1993s Rookie of the Year, directed by Daniel Stern.
Rookie of the Year is a family film that actually comes through on its promise of appealing to all ages. It features convincing performances, an original storyline and and an interesting direction throughout, making for 103 minutes of fun.
Henry Rowengartner, played by 13-year-old Thomas Ian Nicholas, is obsessed with baseball. He follows the sport, the players, and especially the Chicago Cubs. He also plays little league baseball and although his skills on the field may leave a lot to be desired, his passion does not. One day at school while on break with friends Clark and George (played by Robert Gorman and Patrick LaBrecque), Henry is the target of a bully who challenges the athletically-challenged Rowengartner to catch a baseball in front of his dream girl. It ends with predictable results and, after flying through the air like a rag doll, Henry ends up breaking his arm.
After having his arm put in a cast for an extended amount of time, one of Henry’s tendons heals tighter than usual. He soon finds out that, as a result, he is able to pitch incredibly fast. Once fictional Chicago Cubs manager Sal Martinella, played by Dan Hedaya, finds out about Henry’s new talent, he starts to assemble a plan in order to milk the young prodigys talent. It is then that Henry is proposed to pitch for the Chicago Cubs.
One of the most intriguing things about this film is that it is Daniel Stern’s feature film directorial debut and surprisingly, still, his only swing at directing a feature film. Stern is able to direct his actors well and pull out fun performances while keeping them extremely detailed. Henry’s relationships with Clark and George feel extremely authentic, drawing the audience into the group of friends. Another relationship that works well is Henry’s close relationship to his mother, played by Amy Morton. The two actors play very well off one another as do all the other actors within the film.
It’s as if Stern provided a very comfortable environment where he wasn’t too strict but still had a vision to provide. That ability to feel close to these characters and be involved with the situations given is constantly present throughout the film. Stern is also able to cooperate with his director of photography, Jack N. Green, and the two are able to present well lit, attractive shots that also help sustain the mood. The shots that take place in the locker room are especially well done and make the audience realize just how much of an outsider Henry really is.
Perhaps the best element of Rookie of the Year, though is the passionate score by Bill Conti. For those who aren’t familiar with Conti’s work, he composed music for the Rocky films and the original Karate Kid films. Conti is a pro at comfortably finding a balance between hard, affecting tones and light, animated moods. He knows exactly what music plays best when Henry hits a home run and when Henry is having arguments with close friends on the baseball team. Conti has the ability to pull at an audiences heart strings and he knows how to directly cheer everyone up again. I suppose it helps that his past work has been with sports films but it works. It’s a little bit of Rocky and Daniel but he does make this music stand out on its own; it’s not an exact rip from his previous films.
The films ability to mix realism with silliness is a very nice blend and even though it may come off as a little too exaggerated at times (I’m looking at you Bruce Altman. Solid performance but some line readings are a little too hammy), the film is still able to make the audience care about the characters and the story.
There are a few jokes that are very child oriented, like Henry hollering to a pitcher that he has a big butt in order to taunt him, but overall the film is a perfect combination of everything, including excellent performances and a very neat directorial vision that it will make any one of any age enjoy Stern’s Rookie of the Year.