An old-fashioned baseball fantasy, somewhat reminiscent in its sensibilities of "It Happens Every Spring" and "Angels in the Outfield," Daniel Stern's "Rookie of the Year" is a comedy laced with poignant moments that accomplishes what it sets out to do but only in fits and starts.
The story centers around a 12-year-old Chicago boy who is possibly the worst baseball player in the history of Little League. Henry Rowengartner (Thomas Ian Nicholas) can't catch, can't bat and can barely run. His pitching is somewhat better, but he has no strength in his arm.
Until the accident. When Henry slips on a baseball and lands badly, he breaks his arm, which is in a cast for four months. When the cast comes off, Henry suddenly finds he has an amazing pitching arm and his fast ball is not to be believed.
He's so good that the owners of the ever-sagging Cubs sign him up to play in the majors, hoping to win some games, as well as utilizing an obvious publicity gimmick.
Henry is most anxious to meet Chet Steadman (Gary Busey), the team's humorless pitcher whose own injuries have ruined his pitching arm, and, naturally, he's not too pleased about sharing the mound with a kid. But as time goes on, they come to a mutual understanding and Chet, whose nickname is "Rocket," becomes young Henry's mentor.
Young Nicholas is very good as Henry, anchoring the film with a believable performance. And in the second leads, Busey and, as Henry's mother, Amy Morton, are also quite good. Jack Bradfield, as Morton's sleazy boyfriend, is less impressionable.
There are several good supporting players who turn in lively comic performances, including Eddie Bracken, as the team's aging owner; Dan Hedaya, as the heir apparent who doesn't always play on the up and up; Albert Hall, as the team's frustrated coach; and Daniel Stern as the wacky pitching coach. An unbilled John Candy also turns up as a radio play-by-play announcer.
Stern, the lanky comic actor best known as one of the "Wet Bandits" in the "Home Alone" pictures and one of the tenderfoot trio of "City Slickers," makes his feature directing debut here. (He has directed several episodes of TV's "The Wonder Years," for which he also provides narration.)
Stern shows a good comic sensibility but lets the film's natural excesses get away from him too much slow motion, lengthy sentimental scenes and a tendency to overplay his own comic character.
The first third or so of "Rookie of the Year" is hysterically funny, but then the film settles into a sentimental rut, only to pick up again here and there with amusing bits. The performances are also wildly uneven, ranging from rooted and realistic to goofy and over the top.
Still, youngsters and their parents will probably find enough here to enjoy, if not a full-bodied film in which to revel.
"Rookie of the Year" is rated PG for some comic violence, a couple of profanities and some mild vulgarity.