What? Another true, inspirational story about a guy who hasn't exactly had his breaks in life, and now, after all these years, is hoping to make his dreams come true? Yep. That would be the story of Jim Morris, a once-promising pitcher who was on the fast track to becoming a pro ballplayer but suffered an injury, had to give it up, went back home to become a teacher and baseball coach, and then, one day, 10 years down the line, had a deal thrown in his face. His ragtag team of high schoolers says to him that if they can get it together enough to make it to the state championships, he has to go try out for the pros.
Uh-oh, sounds pretty sappy. Sounds like one of those by-the-numbers items that would seem more at home on Sunday evening TV than on the big screen. But no, that would be a mistaken assumption. The film is a charmer, but it never steps into areas of sticky sweetness. Dennis Quaid, in one of his finer recent performances (although he's perhaps a bit better in the overlooked Frequency), turns in a well-rounded portrayal of a guy who's accepted his lot in life. He knows he's a good teacher, and he knows that, if given proper equipment and a real field, he'd be a great coach. He has even got a loving wife (Rachel Griffiths of Six Feet Under, an Australian who displays here an extraordinary west Texas accent). He's pretty much forgotten about that baseball dream. The only thing really bothering him these days is that he's never figured out a way to get close to his father (Brian Cox), a man who's always been wrapped up in himself and his work.
Before the film is over, it touches, in a couple of different ways, into father-son relationships, ranging from cold to warm. But this is much more about that dream of baseball. It's first hinted at when Morris' young son asks him why he never made it in baseball -- "Was it because of the pain in your arm?" There's no real answer to that, at least not one he can come up with. It's easier to change the subject. But just for kicks -- or maybe it's that he really is trying to keep the dream alive -- Morris can often be found out on the vast Texas landscape, late at night, all alone, firing that ball. And then that "one day" finally comes around.
Texas is football country, you see, so baseball isn't much of a big thing around there. But the catcher on the team he coaches, knowing nothing about his past or about what he could do with a ball before his arm wore out, nonchalantly asks him to burn a couple in to him. And he does. And he amazes everyone on the team as well as himself. Why, his arm seems to be in great shape.
Not long after, in a great low-key speech that Quaid hits an acting homer on, he tries to fire the team up by talking about having dreams. But the team wants to know what on earth he's all about, what with the pitches he's throwing that they can hardly see. This is quickly followed by the above-mentioned deal.
But this is also where the film takes on some issues, most of them revolving around Morris and his family. At this point it's only an "if," but what if he does get into pro ball? What would it be like for him and for them if he has to go out on the road, not making all that much money -- the dream, at this point, involves the minor leagues -- for extended periods? Can Mom hold the family together? Can the husband-wife relationship still work? Does she understand what all of this really means to him?
Almost any other story could easily dip into melodrama at this juncture, but in the same way it avoids the saccharine, it also avoids that other possible pitfall. These characters are real, and they remain so up on the screen. And the problems they face as people are instantly recognizable as something most of us will identify with. It sure helps that Quaid is so naturally relaxed in the part, most of which can be seen in his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile. And Griffiths conveys even more with facial expressions and body language than with her accent control. Things get laid on a bit heavy toward the end when the father-son business comes up again, but that's only for a couple of minutes, and it does help out in turning this into a good old-fashioned feel-good movie. And it works equally well even if you're not a baseball fan.