Jim Morris is the son of a career Navy man, who moves the family from Hollywood, Florida to Big Lake, Texas, in order to maintain job security. Jim is shown to be a very skilled pitcher, though his father disapproves of Jim's dream of making it to Major League Baseball. It is later mentioned that the town to which Jim's family moved, Big Lake, has lost its love for baseball, preferring football instead. Thus, he was unable to play baseball in high school. He later gets a chance when he is drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, but he tears up his shoulder, ending his hopes of achieving his lifelong dream.
In 1999, Jim, married with three children, is a high school science teacher, as well as head baseball coach. His team, the Big Lake Owls, is very unsuccessful with many of his players skilled, but unmotivated, especially with very little community support. One day after practice, the team catcher offers to play catch with Jim. There, it is revealed that Jim may still have his fastball, and it is soon displayed to the rest of the team. The Owls believe that Jim could possibly pitch in the major leagues and offer him a deal: If the Owls can win district and make the state playoffs, Jim will try out again, which Jim accepts. Furthermore, the team urges him to throw his fastball in batting practice, which immensely improves their hitting.
The Owls end up winning district, and after their final win, the team tells Jim that, since they kept up their end of the deal, it is now his turn to do his part. After the Owls' season ends with a loss in the state tournament, Jim is told of a tryout nearby for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, and Jim goes, without telling his wife, afraid that her fear of him re-injuring his shoulder would keep him from going. After his tryout, the professional scouts discover his ability to repeatedly throw a baseball at 98 mph (158 km/h). The lead scout tells Jim that he could be signed to a minor-league deal. Jim's wife finds out after getting two phone messages from the Tampa Bay scouts and she is at first reluctant to let Jim go, citing his home responsibilities, but after seeing how Jim is inspiring their son, Hunter, she allows him to go. Jim tells his father, with whom he still has a cold relationship, of his situation, and his father once again tries to dissuade Jim from trying to achieve his dream again, telling Jim, "It's OK to think about what you want to do until it's time to start doing what you were meant to do."
He is initially assigned to the minor league Class AA Orlando Rays (now the Montgomery Biscuits) but quickly moves up to the AAA Durham Bulls. Concerned for his family due to mounting bills (the pay in the minor leagues being low), Jim decides to give it up and come home. But his wife Lorri talks him out of it, not wanting Jim to give up again. Jim gets inspired again when he watches a Little League game one night, remembering the same love for baseball he had as a kid.
In September, Jim is told that the Major League club has called him up, and that they will be playing in Texas against the Rangers. Jim calls his family, who in turn informs the town. Advising his wife of the dress code in the majors, Jim finds his sports coat, a necktie, and his St. Rita necklace hanging in his locker. St. Rita is the saint of impossible dreams. His family, high school players, and many townspeople go to the game. Jim impresses many of the coaches in warm-ups with his fastball, and late in the game, with Tampa Bay losing badly, Jim is called into the game to pitch to Royce Clayton and end the inning. Jim ends up striking out Clayton on three straight fastballs. After the game, Jim gets interviewed by the press. During the interview, Jim notices his father had also come to the game. Jim's father finally admits that he is proud of what Jim has done and also apologizes for never supporting him. Jim thanks him and gives him the ball with which he had gotten the strikeout, and the two finally repair their relationship. Jim then meets with his family and all the townspeople who had come to the game, applauding Jim on his amazing success story.
The final scene shows the Big Lake high school trophy case, which has Jim's Major League jersey prominently displayed. It is then mentioned that Jim would go on to pitch in the majors for two seasons before retiring and returning to teaching in Texas.
- Dennis Quaid as Jim Morris
- Rachel Griffiths as Lorri Morris
- Jay Hernandez as Joaquin 'Wack' Campos
- Beth Grant as Olline
- Angus T. Jones as Hunter Morris
- Brian Cox as Jim Morris Sr.
- Rick Gonzalez as Rudy Bonilla (Owls pitcher)
- Chad Lindberg as Joe David Werst
- Angelo Spizzirri as Joel De La Garza (Owls catcher)
- Royce D. Applegate as Henry
- Russell Richardson as Brooks
- Raynor Scheine as Frank
- David Blackwell as Cal
- Chris Sheffield as Snow Covered Catcher
- Blue Deckert as Baseball Scout Dave Patterson
- Danny Kamin as Durham Manager Mac (as Daniel Kamin)
- Mike Smith as Fan
- Kyle Christensen as Baseball Player
- Robbie Bigelow as Beefcake Bigelow
- Jim Morris as Orlando Umpire #2
The movie received generally positive reviews, with Dennis Quaid's performance receiving praise. Review aggregation site Rotten tomatoes reports an 83% "Certified Fresh" score from critics, with the consensus reading: "A heart-warming sports flick, The Rookie greatly benefits from understated direction and the emotional honesty Dennis Quaid brings to the role of Jim Morris." Critics on Metacritic give it a 72 out of 100 based on 31 reviews.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
The Rookie was filmed almost entirely in North and Central Texas. Apart from scenes filmed at The Ballpark in Arlington, locations included the following:
- The city of Thorndale, Texas, was used predominantly in the opening half of the film as the small town of Big Lake. Thorndale High School's interior, exterior parts of the building and baseball field were used for Big Lake High School's campus. Thorndale's Main Street and downtown area was also used extensively in the film.
- Neighboring Thrall High School in Thrall, Texas, was dressed for several differing scenes, including scenes of several different "away" baseball games filmed on the school's field. Thrall's then-recently completed football stadium stood in as Big Lake's. Thrall's old football field, dressing rooms and recreation pavilion were dressed as an oil refinery's outlay in a deleted scene viewable on the DVD's special features.
- A scene shot in front of a motel supposedly in Florida was actually filmed in front of what is now a Best Western in Taylor, Texas.
Most of the population portrayed in this movie of Big Lake, Texas were fictional. Only the baseball team and those directly connected were based on real people.
The Bulls game was shot in Round Rock, Texas at the Dell Diamond.
The tryout scenes were filmed at Taylor High School in Taylor, Texas.
The Orlando Rays game was shot at Austin ISD's Nelson Field.
The oilfield scene was shot on the Heep Ranch south of Austin.
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