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Durham Bull 

In The Rookie, a middle-aged man throws heat, but leaves us cold.

The eternal beauty and constant surprise of baseball are always getting sabotaged by Hollywood's urge to reduce the grand old game to a set of clichés as tedious as spring training drills. The ghost of Shoeless Joe Jackson elevated Field of Dreams, the Wild Thing's errant fastball gave momentary charm to Major League, and no one with a heartbeat can forget the preteen pluck of The Bad News Bears. For the most part, though, baseball movies have a lot less to do with baseball -- the soul of the sport -- than with safely touching all the bases in the stock emotions department.

That brings us to The Rookie, a Dennis Quaid vehicle that's being released just as the 2002 major league season gets under way. It's a paint-by-numbers job of the worst sort, stuffed with more tired old baseball baloney than Harry Caray and about as dramatic as shagging flies in St. Pete.

Quaid's version of Jim Morris, a high school science teacher from West Texas who got a shot at pitching in the bigs late in life, will put diabetics in grave peril. This Jim is so spotless and selfless that Lou Gehrig would retch. Jim plugs away like a monk and finally makes his major league debut at age 38 or 40 or whatever -- we're never told. Of course, "major league debut" is a relative term in this case: Morris pitched relief in 1999 for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who are to other major league teams what phone sex is to fornication.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves here. Prior to Jim's big moment, he (and we) must endure the preliminaries, which is to say a mass disinterment of baseball-movie clichés. We've got the starry-eyed 12-year-old dreaming of World Series glory, while his stiff-ass Navy father (Brian Cox) insists that "there are more important things in life than baseball"; the abrupt fast-forward to dusty Big Lake, Texas, where our Jim is now a chemistry teacher, the beleaguered baseball coach at a podunk high school. He's also the husband of a devoted woman and the father of some cute kids. When his team suddenly reverses its fortunes and wins a sectional championship, the coach must fulfill his promise to go for a big-league tryout. When his heater clocks in at 98, hope surges.

Need we say more? After a tiff, the wife bravely supports the dream. Dad still disapproves, but Jim's little son is aglow. Jim Morris plays Double A at Orlando and Triple A with the Durham Bulls. With a struggling family and a stack of bills at home, he considers quitting, but a glimpse of Little Leaguers at play reminds him of baseball's purity, and he perseveres.

And when it's over, Jim is, well, happy. Meanwhile, some of us, squirming in our seats at the sweetness of it all, find ourselves almost pining for the days when sports movies were considered box-office poison, and the only thing we could do was slip out to the ballpark and enjoy the real thing.

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More by Bill Gallo

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