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‘Rookie of the Year’ (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 07, 1993

"Rookie of the Year" is a wholly benevolent but banal baseball fantasy aimed at Little Leaguers with dreams of reaching big-time fields. The Chicago-set tale of a 12-year-old pitcher's championship season in the majors, it's the Disneyfication -- though not by Disney -- of "Damn Yankees," on the order of "Those Darned Cubs."

Thomas Ian Nicholas, a child actor who specializes in simulating stupefaction, plays ball-dropper Henry Rowengartner, a klutz who breaks his arm going after a fly ball. And the cutest girls in school were looking too. Then something kind of magical happens: Henry emerges from the cast with an arm to rival Fernando Valenzuela's and becomes a pitcher for the Chicago Cubs.

After a shaky start, Henry starts throwing strikeouts, and the Cubs, who were in a slump prior to signing the whiz kid, start winning games before sellout crowds. Nobody could be happier about this than Henry's mother's boyfriend, Jack (Bruce Altman), who becomes the boy's manager even though his mother, Mary (Amy Morton), a supportive, sensible sort, seems perfectly capable of doing so.

But then Jack's the designated rat in this haphazardly constructed story, which includes a romantic interest for Mary in aging Cubs pitcher Chet Steadman (Gary Busey). Indeed Chet, who has been slowed by a shoulder injury, spends more time pitching woo than balls after Henry replaces him on the mound. Chet's resentful at first, but among other pat developments, he finds he actually likes coaching youngsters in the national pastime.

Meanwhile, Henry's friends begin to resent his spending less time with them in order to endorse athletic shoes and shoot Pepsi commercials with a politically corrected trio of Uh Huh girls -- one black, one white, one yellow. He's also on the road much of the time in the care of an addled pitching coach played with antic desperation by director Daniel Stern, who is making his feature film debut after directing 10 episodes of TV's "The Wonder Years."

"Rookie of the Year," as written by newcomer Sam Harper, has far less substance than that series even in its last, threadbare days. The lesson is that entertainment doesn't have to be inane just because it's meant for the family. Leave out the chewing, hiking and cussing, yes, but not the guts, the gist or the message. You've got to bring the ball if you're going to play the game.

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