Fire and Baseball

For each of us, there are things that seem to come into our lives at various stages, offering insight, encouragement, or inspiration to our present situations. Sometimes it’s a new friend, or a new home, or maybe a new career. Other times, it’s merely a change or a growth in the people or places around us, such as with our family, or with lifelong friends, or with our hometown. Oftentimes, a subtle change can prove to be just as monumental as an extreme change. For just as we ourselves are changing, so too are the people and the places around us, even if we never part from them. I’ve had no shortage of these revelatory arrivals in my own life, but for me, they have often come from an unlikely source—baseball movies.

For every stage of the life I’ve lived up to this point, there seems to have always been a baseball movie that came around at some point and carried me through a threshold. I’ve already written about the impact that Angels in the Outfield had on me as a child, and at some point, I’ll probably find a way to write about some of the others—Field of Dreams, Moneyball, For Love of the Game, Hardball, The Sandlot, just to name a very small few. But in 2002, it was The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid as a high school teacher and baseball coach who becomes a major league pitcher at 35 years old, based on the real life story of Jim Morris.

When I first saw this movie, it had a tremendous impact on me. I’d never seen a baseball movie quite like it. While most of the other baseball films I’d seen at the time focused mainly on the big leagues, The Rookie brought baseball home. To me, the best baseball movies are the ones that capture the “spirit” of the game and not just the look of it. Baseball has always seemed to have a mystical quality to it. If magic really happens in this life, it happens as much in baseball as it does anywhere else. At least, that’s the way I’ve always felt about it. If you’ve ever paid much attention to baseball, and especially if you’ve played it yourself, you know that there is an excessive amount of superstition in the game. Relief pitcher Turk Wendell had several superstitions and rituals, such as jumping over the baseline, chewing black licorice while pitching, and brushing his teeth in between innings, among many other things. Nomar Garciaparra always unstrapped and then re-strapped his batting glove between pitches, and he always swung his bat in a full circle toward the pitcher several times before setting up to hit. Babe Ruth always touched second base on his way in from right field. And that’s just naming a few. That’s not mentioning the tens of thousands of players from the Majors all the way down to the Little Leagues who have hit their bat on home plate for no other reason than it just felt like the right thing to do.

The Rookie embraced this aspect of the game. Early in the film, Jim (as a young boy) moves to Big Lake, Texas and learns about a story that is told of two nuns who walked the ground of what would later become the town of Big Lake. As they walked, they scattered rose petals across the ground, consecrating it in the name of St. Rita, the saint of the impossible. Later on, oil was found there, and the town of Big Lake was born.

As a boy and a young man, Jim was a rising star in baseball, but eventually, a shoulder injury shattered his hopes of ever making it to the big leagues. The majority of the film shows Jim as an adult, coaching a seemingly hopeless baseball team in a town that has long since lost it’s love for baseball, focusing instead on football. The story of his team only begins to change when Jim himself begins to change. The desire the pitch again begins to grow in him, and when his team finds out how fast he can pitch, they talk him into going to a tryout on the condition that they win district, which they do. The scene where they come to this agreement is perhaps my favorite scene in the entire film.

After a tough loss, Jim gives a speech to his team, telling them that they not only quit on him, but worse, that they quit on themselves. One of the players responds by saying, “What difference does it make? I mean, it’s not like any of us are getting scholarships.” To this, Jim replies, “I’m not talking about college. I’m talking about wanting things in life. I’m talking about having dreams. And all that starts right here, [points at his heart] right here. If you don’t have dreams, you don’t have anything.”

Jim’s words soon get turned around on him, when his players start to question him about his own dreams. Soon after this moment, Jim starts to realize that his players were right. He sees that he still has potential, and he starts to believe in himself again as he decides to pursue his own dream.

Albert Schweitzer wrote:

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”

To me, these words get to the heart of the story told in The Rookie, and they also speak to why the film still reaches people like myself even today. A fire without fuel will soon be reduced to ashes, but when a fire is raging, it can spread all around, burning so fierce and so hot that even dull hearts can be set aflame once more. And these fires can come from anywhere—even baseball movies.

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