Rookie of the Year is one of the finest kids’ baseball movies ever created. The 1993 picture chronicling 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner’s meteoric rise from below-average Little Leaguer to dominant Chicago Cubs pitcher inspired countless youths to intentionally break their arms in hopes of the tendons healing a “little too tightly.”
A stacked roster of acting talent including a young Thomas Ian Nicholas, a salisbury steak-loving Gary Busey, a gregarious John Candy and a delightfully eccentric Daniel Stern shine. Watching Wrigley Field transform from a helpless den of despair to a vibrant and victorious house of winning correctly imagined a world that would actually come to be a few decades later.
Baseball traditionalists can still appreciate the way director Stern and producer Robert Harper handled the on-field action — one really buys it when Rowengartner mows down Bobby Bonilla, Pedro Guerrero and Barry Bonds during a montage — the interpersonal relationships in the locker room, and the conflict among team management.
Sure, there are liberties taken because, well, it’s for kids and Hollywood has to make the American pastime dramatic and compelling for the mass market. Like the glossed over problem of Major League Baseball allowing a pre-teen to play and the seemingly rigged way Rowengarnter came to play for his beloved hometown team.
But one thing that has always bothered me — and a question that was brought back via a recent viewing on MLB Network — is how the Cubs snatched victory from the jaws of defeat in the big cinematic final game — presumably for the NL East crown — against the villainous New York Mets.
Upon taking the field for the top of the ninth inning to close things out, Rowengartner slips on a baseball and falls onto his miracle arm, somehow reversing the blessed curse and sapping himself of all talent. It is harrowing.
The 12-year-old, reeling, intentionally walks the first Mets hitter before calling his entire infield to the mound and devising a creative, trickery-fueled strategy which they immediately embrace.
Here’s where things get controversial. Rowengartner calls for the hidden ball trick and sends his first baseman, played by future Scrubs janitor Neil Flynn to the bag with the ball in tow. The suddenly-human pitcher proceeds to grab the rosin bag and step onto the mound. It is unclear but it appears he may also toe the rubber.
This, under Rule 8.05 (i), would be a balk and the runner would be granted second base.
(i) The pitcher, without having the ball, stands on or astride the pitcher’s plate or while off the plate, he feints a pitch;
Rowengartner also violates Rule 8.02 (e) by holding the rosin bag in his glove as a decoy.
(e) The umpire shall be sole judge on whether any portion of this rule has been violated. All umpires shall carry with them one official rosin bag. The umpire in chief is responsible for placing the rosin bag on the ground back of the pitcher’s plate. If at any time the ball hits the rosin bag it is in play. In the case of rain or wet field, the umpire may instruct the pitcher to carry the rosin bag in his hip pocket. A pitcher may use the rosin bag for the purpose of applying rosin to his bare hand or hands. Neither the pitcher nor any other player shall dust the ball with the rosin bag; neither shall the pitcher nor any other player be permitted to apply rosin from the bag to his glove or dust any part of his uniform with the rosin bag.
All four umpires somehow miss both violations and the Mets baserunner is tagged for the first out. As if that weren’t enough, Rowengartner than flaunts another rule to get the second out after a second intentional walk.
The crafty righthander, instead of taking the mound to face feared slugger Hedo, repeatedly taunts the new baserunner by dropping, kicking, and tossing the baseball in the air in an attempt to goad him into taking off for second. The mentally weak runner eventually bites and is tagged out by a sprinting Rowengartner as the Wrigley crowd rises to a fevered pitch.
Brilliant testament to the folly of hyper-masculinity? Yes.
Illegal? Depends on umpire’s discretion, per Rule 8.05 (c).
(c) Intentionally delay the game by throwing the ball to players other than the catcher, when the batter is in position, except in an attempt to retire a runner.
Technically, Rowengartner is a player other than the catcher, although it’s understandable for an umpire to give a little leeway considering the situation.
You know the rest of the story, Rowengartner fools Hedo with a slow pitch, then survives a tape-measure foul ball down the line before some motherly inspiration sets up a dramatic, floating final strike. Definitely a feel-good moment, especially when it’s revealed the Cubs go on to win the World Series.
But none of this does any good for the Mets, who should have played the game under protest after this series of unexplained and egregious missed calls by the umpiring crew.
Still a good movie, though.