by Chris Foss
Most successful athletes have a pretty similar career trajectory. They find a game that they love, they work hard at it, and along the way, they discover that they have some sort of talent that distances themselves from their peers. They go on to a big-league career, and then eventually the gift disappears, and they fade away. All of this happens in a single summer to precocious 12-year old Henry Rowengartner (played by a pre-American Pie Thomas Ian Nicholas) in the 1993 comedy Rookie of the Year, one of my favorite childhood films.
Henry is a typical young ballplayer—indifferent toward his schoolwork, awkward with girls, best buds with a couple of guys who are also Little Leaguers—until he falls and breaks his arm during a spring game. Condemned to six weeks in a cast, Henry bums around much of the summer, his dreams of baseball glory seemingly put off for at least a year. But when he goes in to have his cast taken off, Henry, while moving his arm in a motion not unlike a pitcher’s throw, smacks the doctor so hard in the face that he just about breaks his nose (“Funky buttloving!” the doctor exclaims, in one of the film’s unforgettable lines, to which Henry’s dumbfounded buddy George can only respond, “Did he just say ‘funky buttloving?”)
After apologizing to the flabbergasted doc, Henry and his buddies shrug off this seemingly isolated incident and head out to see their beloved, but struggling, Chicago Cubs. With John Candy providing the hilariously over-the-top play-by-play in the background, their fading star pitcher Chet Steadman (Gary Busey, in a great turn) gives up a deep one. Following a scramble in the stands, Henry ends up with the ball. Urged by the crowd to do the Wrigley staple and “throw it back,” Henry doesn’t just throw it—with his newly-healed arm, he launches a missile straight into the Cubs’ dugout.
Later on in the backyard, Henry very nearly decapitates his friends with another window-shattering fastball. This piques the curiosity of Henry’s otherwise-useless stepfather Jack (Bruce Altman, fresh off a turn in the cult classic Glengarry Glen Ross). Jack knows Cubs manager Sal Martinella (Albert Hall), who comes over to the Rowengartner household and clocks Henry’s fastball at 100 mph in a tryout. “The next Nolan Ryan!” exhalts Jack, always anxious to make a quick buck (he later tries to sell Henry’s contract to the Yankees--to much consternation, understandably). Henry’s initiation is rough—upon introducing himself to the team, Henry gets the cold shoulder from everyone, especially from Chet, whom Henry replaces on the pitching staff. As you might expect, Henry soon vaults to stardom as their improbable rookie pitcher, while Busey’s Chet graciously, albeit with a touch of pathos, settles into the role of mentor and father figure.
All good things have to come to an end, however. Henry’s stardom alienates him from his friends, ultimately culminating in a nasty fistfight. Mary Rowengartner (Amy Morton, in a “noble mom” role) and Jack struggle for power over “The Kid”, as Martinella calls him (when he’s not forgetting his name and hilariously calling him “Roozenferter” or “Snotnoser”). And eventually, in a plot twist that’s not really that unforeseeable from an adult perspective, Henry loses his power mid-game during his quest to win the pennant for the Cubs and has to rely on his wits—as well as a rejuvenated Chet—to get out of a big jam. By the end of the film, Henry’s big-league career is over, but his life has just begun—and fame has finally won him the ladies.
In some ways, oddly, this is an epic film, when you consider the arc of Henry Rowengartner. For example, when Henry goes to Wrigley for the first time as a Cubs player, the little security guard (credited, appropriately, as “The Wizard of Wrigley”) who peers out from inside the wall at first won’t let him in, thinking he’s just a fan. But when Henry introduces himself as “the new pitcher,” the amiable old guy says, “Well, that’s a horse of a different color,” echoing the same line spoken to Dorothy and the gang when they step into Oz for the first time. Just like Dorothy, Henry encounters wonders and dangers beyond his wildest dreams in his adventure.
Unlike The Wizard of Oz however, Rookie of the Year is a rollicking good time, and is even today at times a nearly side-splitting comedy. Henry’s first road trip is a good case in point, with one goofy scene after the other. Pitching coach Phil Brickman (in a small role for director Daniel Stern) exhorts that “the key to being a big league pitcher is the 3 R’s: readiness, recuperation, and conditioning!” Later Phil makes good use of his barf bag on the plane ride over to wrap up a cake for breakfast, advising Henry that this is all part of “conservation, managing resources…that is the key to baseball.” But does the advice rub off? Henry later on is so engrossed in his Game Boy to care for what his older teammates are saying (for those of you wondering what a Game Boy is, by the way, I shudder and think about how old I am now.) Chet says “That’s going to make you stupid,” to which Henry doesn’t reply. Chet then goes, “Maybe it already has.” Definitely a relatable scene to many a parent and teenager in the Nineties.
In some ways, the film has not aged well, and I doubt it would have anywhere near the same resonance to the current generation, as evidenced by the Game Boy scene. The sight gags and bad dialogue do grow tiresome after awhile, and the film’s Wizard metaphors become increasingly heavy-handed. It’s still a great watch, though, for baseball/sports fans 30 years of age and up. The film has a stellar cast, and even features a young and very lean Barry Bonds as one of Henry’s strikeout victims.
In all, Rookie of the Year is a hallowed addition to baseball’s cinematic pantheon. It wasn’t even the sole baseball classic of 1993, joining The Sandlot in general release that very year. As Alex alluded to in his earlier article, these films remain a couple of the classics in a golden era for baseball on the silver screen. At a time when Major League Baseball struggled with labor disputes, dwindling attendance, and the Pete Rose scandal, films like these kept the sport on the cultural map until a real-life golden age of baseball began in the wake of the near-disastrous 1994-95 strike. I’ve never been a big baseball fan, but for me as a young kid, Rookie of the Year hooked me not because of the action on the diamond, but because it helped me to dream big, and encouraged me to laugh a little along the way. I hope many of you reading this who have seen the movie had a similar experience.