“That’s what I love about what I do,” actor Dennis Quaid explained during a Dallas interview for “The Rookie,” emphasizing the fantasy element of his work. “All the things you get to do that you just wouldn’t get to do in another job.” In John Lee Hancock’s movie Quaid plays Jim Morris, the thirty-five year old Texas high school teacher and coach whose fast-ball briefly took him into baseball’s major leagues in 1999. As Morris, Quaid had to be convincing pitching balls at 98 miles per hour.
Morris, seated beside Quaid, enthused about the actor’s work. “He throws great,” Morris said. “He worked out three months before the filming even started. Dennis is a perfectionist as an actor.” Quaid said that he’d learned to pace himself from the experience of playing a quarterback in Oliver Stone’s “Any Given Sunday.” “Early on I was throwing so much trying to get ready for that,” he recalled, “that I threw out my arm. So I learned from that to take it easy, take it slow, and on this I never injured my arm. The last time I’d been on a baseball field,” he added, “was Little League down in Houston.” Hancock saw something in Quaid beyond his physical ability that made him perfect for the role: “Dennis…has a quality about him, in his quietness and how he plays a role–there’s something really American about him. There’s a likable quotient that’s hard to beat. You just want him to succeed.”
Quaid sees “The Rookie” in terms much broader than the sport. “It’s a baseball movie,” he said. “But it’s really about much more than that. This movie is about second chances.” (Morris, who’d dreamed about pitching in the majors ever since his youth in West Texas, injured his arm during his first try-out after high school, and abandoned his goal to teach and raise a family. It was by fulfilling a pledge made to the baseball squad he was coaching–to try out again if they won the state title–that he got the opportunity to join the minors as an “old man.” He took the chance although it put some stress on his family and his finances.) Director Hancock agreed: “It’s a baseball movie like ‘The Last Picture Show’ is about a theater closing up. It’s just a set-up for something to happen. It’s really about life, and baseball was the vehicle that was going to allow us to tell the stories of these relationships.”
Morris remembered how the failure of his first try-out for professional baseball, after success as a high school star, had affected him. For the first time he faced players that were his equals rather than those he could dominate with a fast ball, and “I got crushed–it crushed me mentally, and then I got injured. It was just a spiraling thing. I couldn’t get my way out of it in my twenties….When I came back when I was thirty-five, I respected the game for what it was. I had to coach kids and teach them the way the game should be played and how it should be approached. And the kids saw something in me I didn’t see.” It was his team’s drive and their faith in him that impelled Morris to risk trying out for the majors again, succeeding that second time around.
“The Rookie” closes with Morris’ first appearance in a major-league game, an experience he still vividly recalls. “I was incredible,” he said. “I just remember when they opened the gate [to the field], how far it looked to the mound, and seeing all the people and hearing just unbelievable noise. And as I got closer to the mound, it just sort of closed in. This was something I’d wanted as a kid, and all of a sudden one day I’m in the locker-room–and I get to pitch!” Quaid was moved to play on film the scene that had been so important to Morris. “It was special,” he said, “recreating this moment that was the culmination of this guy’s lifelong dream. I knew so much about his life at that point, I knew what it meant to him, how much it meant to him–he was in a daze going out there.”
The filmmakers felt that in order to capture the magic of the whole story and of that culminating moment in particular, they would have to shoot the picture in Texas–and the finale at the Ballpark in Arlington, the home of the Texas Rangers, where it actually occurred. “We wanted to make a Texas story,” explained Quaid, a native of the Lone Star state himself, “and shoot for that type of tradition–‘The Last Picture Show’ and ‘Tender Mercies’ and ‘Hud’–where Texas is a character in the film.” Hancock agreed: “It was very important to shoot the film in Texas. You get a certain attitude just from being in a place and hearing the accents, but you also get a sense of place–you feel it. There’s something about Texas that has a sort of mythic quality to it, and if you look at it from afar, it can become too mythic and not real, and hard to play. I think that mistake has been made in a lot of movies that are Texas movies made by non-Texans.”
Getting to shoot on the Rangers field proved easy because of the team’s support. “The Rangers really got, from day one, that this was something not only good for them but good for major league baseball. And they became an ally of ours in dealing with major league baseball,” Hancock said. He was especially proud that they were allowed to film Morris’ first run out to the pitcher’s mound during the seventh-inning stretch at a real game–the only instance, he believes, where that’s been allowed. They had only ninety seconds to get the shot (“It was such a kick to do–we had a guy from the Rangers there with a stopwatch,” Hancock laughed), but the director feels the stress was worth it. “You have that energy,” he enthused. “It makes a difference if you run out on a field in front of 40,000 people, doing something you haven’t done before–I felt it would help [Quaid’s] performance, too, that he would be in that moment.” The remainder of the game footage was done immediately following the actual Rangers contest. “We must have had 15,000 people stay after the game, just to be extras in the stands,” Quaid recalled. “We’d move them around to make the Ballpark look full. They were great.”
The experience of reliving Morris’ triumph, Quaid said, has rejuvenated his love of his own craft: “Doing this movie, being around Jim, has done [it] for me, too–I think it’s really important to keep rekindling and stoking the fire of the thing that you love to do. Right now I have the same burning desire to act and have fun with it that I had back when I was up in the drama room [in college] doing some scenes.” Morris, now a motivational speaker, hoped that the movie would encourage people not just to follow their dreams, but to do it right. “You’ve got to have your heart in the right place,” he emphasized. “If you’re going to go after something, you’ve got to go after it with everything that’s in you.” He recollected on his own early failure, and on how it took a group of high school kids to reinvigorate his dream. “I lost that for awhile,” he continued, “and I have a group of sixteen and seventeen-year old kids to thank for bringing it back in my life. And once that happened, I went at it full tilt and didn’t look back at all. I had to do it to prove to them that what I was preaching, I could practice.”
“The Rookie” is a Walt Disney Pictures release.