‘Rookie of the Year’ turns 20: Remembering Henry Rowengartner, striking out Barry Bonds and more

Mike Oz
Big League Stew

Henry Rowengartner lived a child's dream. Because of a surgery gone awry, he was able to pitch at speeds upward of 100 mph at age 12. He was signed by the Chicago Cubs and took baseball by storm, eventually helping the Cubs win a World Series.

If you weren't already sure this was fiction, then last part is the clincher. This, in fact, is the plot of "Rookie of the Year," the 1993 film starring Thomas Ian Nicholas as Henry Rowengartner with Gary Busey, Daniel Stern, John Candy, Amy Morton and Albert Hall in supporting roles. Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla and Pedro Guerrero even show up for quick cameos.

"Rookie of the Year" turns 20 years old on July 7. It joins "The Sandlot" in the the class of early '90s baseball movies that are now 20.

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Stern, who directed the film and played the role of bizarre pitching coach Phil Brickma, noticed that "Rookie of the Year" was on cable a few weeks ago and clicked record on his TiVo. It had been a while since he watched the film.

It was still sitting there waiting to be watched when Yahoo! Sports asked him to talk about the film. Until then, Stern — who is now a sculpture artist in addition to an actor best known for his roles in "Home Alone" and "City Slickers," as well as narrating "The Wonder Years"— didn't know that the 20-year anniversary was coming up.

"I gotta watch that," he said last week.

Thomas Ian Nicholas, who played Rowengartner was well aware of the anniversary. He threw out the first pitch recently at a Chicago Cubs game. Even though he never actually pitched for the Cubs, he's regarded as something of an honorary Cub all these years later. It's his probably his second most famous movie role, next to Kevin in the "American Pie" movies.

His band — The Thomas Nicholas Band — played a show recently at bar where Cubs fans hang out, a nod to "Rookie of the Year's" anniversary. He's playing a few more in Illinois this week.

"It's crazy to me that it's lived on," Nicholas, now 32, told Yahoo! Sports. "Now people who are my age are showing their kids."

There's a lot people don't see if they watch "Rookie of the Year" on cable. Like the story of Busey — who played Chet "The Rocket" Steadman — having a breakdown outside of Wrigley Field. Or what it was like filming scenes with Barry Bonds.

Yahoo! Sports talked to Nicholas and Stern to get behind-the-scenes stories and memories about "Rookie of the Year" on the eve of its 20-year anniversary.

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Does it seem like it's been 20 years since "Rookie of the Year?"
Nicholas: Yes and no. It's kind of hard to fathom. It seems like a lifetime ago, but at the same time I just went there recently to throw out the first pitch, which I've done a couple times. When I'm out there on Wrigley Field, it does feel like yesterday. I decided to pay respect to the film for the first pitch and I floated it. I would say that 95 percent of the fans understood and 5 percent booed me. The funniest thing was when I finished the pitch, the Cub who was catching it said, "I ain't seen a floater like that since Scuffy McGee." Cool, at least someone got it.

Stern: I did not even know. I went "Holy crap," that's a long time ago. Forget "Rookie of the Year" — the whole life is spinning by way too fast. "Rookie" is just part of it. My son is now 31. I was going to cast him at one point as Henry Rowengartner. He was 11 or 12 at the time.

Did you think that by the 20-year anniversary of the film that the Cubs would have actually won a World Series?
Nicholas: I thought they were going to win a few times over the past two decades. I'll run into people when I'm on tour with my band or when I'm with my wife who is from Chicago — people are more into "Rookie of the Year" and less into "American Pie" there. I always tell them that I was the last time the Cubs won the World Series.

Did you get to keep that World Series ring at the end?
Nicholas: I want to say that ring was actually the pitching coach's ring. I know that it didn't fit my finger. They had to put duct table underneath it. So, no, I did not keep the ring. The pitching coach [Tim Stoddard] in the film, I think he used to pitch for the Cardinals. This is what happens 20 years later, I forget all the details and cool stories. [Editor's note: Stoddard never pitched for the Cardinals, but did play on the 1983 World Series champion Baltimore Orioles]

How often do you get still get recognized as Henry Rowengartner?
Nicholas: It really varies. It only happens in the state of Illinois. It's almost like this bubble, where to the rest of the world, it's "American Pie." In the state of Illinois, in that bubble, it's Henry Rowengartner.

Do you kinda have to be Cubs fan for life now?
Nicholas: I wasn't a fan of anybody before the movie. Do I have to be? Maybe. But am I? Yes. My wife is from Lincoln Park in Chicago and if I wasn't a Cubs fan, she wouldn't have married me.

What's your favorite behind-the-scenes memory from the movie?
Stern: There were some crazy good experiences. If you love baseball, you get a month of shooting at Wrigley Field. You get to play against the ivy every day, take some infield during lunch, pitch to Barry Bonds. It's every [baseball fan's] fantasy. You get to go in the locker rooms, in every nook and cranny of the field. My son would come visit. His name is Henry too. Shagging flies with your son, it was pretty awesome. It brought out all my love of baseball. I turned into a kid.

Nicholas: The very first time we went to Wrigley. We hadn't even started filming the movie yet. We were doing pre-production, but we weren't going to be shooting at Wrigley until baseball season was over. There was a doubleheader and we had a chance to film for the first time Henry comes to the mound. We had 10 minutes to get the shot. The very first time I stepped foot on Wrigley, it was filled with 35,000 people. I remember Daniel Stern getting on the mic and walking into the outfield and telling the story of what "Rookie of the Year" was going to represent. And the stadium went bananas. He asked them all to chant "Henry!" as I went to the mound. For that 30-second walk, my name was Henry. Talk about the ultimate way of getting into a role — 35,000 chanting your name will do that.

What do you remember about shooting at Wrigley that day?
Stern: We got to go out in between games. It was a well-planned shoot, because it was such a great opportunity. There was no CGI or anything like that, so to have that opportunity to have 30,000 free extras was was astonishing. We were a well-organized machine. Some of it was a blur in that sense.

My biggest memory of that day is our lovable crazy man, Gary Busey. I wanted to get as many big wide shots as I could. I had Thomas get out there and throw. Of course I wanted to get Gary out there to throw the ball in front of the crowd. So we have our makeup trailer in the parking lot and we're watching the game. With baseball you don't know when it's over and when you're going to get on. It was just waiting and waiting.

So the game ends, they shoot the gun and we go out there. I have my shot list. We get shots of Thomas. And I say, "OK, bring out Gary." I'm told Gary won't come out of his trailer. "What?" Gary is having a problem. I say, "Are you kidding me?" No, he's having a bit of a breakdown. I said, "Put the walkie talkie up the trailer door." I say, "Gary you get the [expletive] out here right now."

Gary comes out on the field. We have about 10 minutes left. In the movie, he's wearing a mustache, but it's a not real mustache, it's a prop mustache. He's carrying the mustache. He doesn't think he can do the shot because the mustache is bothering him. I shook him, grabbed the mustache, put it on his face and said "throw the [expletive] ball." I still run into Gary. He still talks about that. He says it was the greatest moment of his life. He gives me a hug and say, "You changed my life, man, you changed my life." It was this perfect moment with this Gary Busey monkey wrench in the middle.

Do you have a Gary Busey story?
Nicholas: I'll put it to you this way: Gary was really nice to me during the filming. I remember one time he carried me by my pants across the lunch room in front of 100 crew members. Again, Gary was really nice to ME. That's a representation of the nice Gary Busey.

When you were filming did you guys know that "funky butt loving" was going to become a thing?
Nicholas: I'm pretty sure we did. It was making us laugh when we were shooting. I didn't know it was going to be so closely associated with the film. The funny thing to me is that my character actually didn't say it. People will come up to me and they'll say, "What's your favorite quote, is that the one?" I'll say, "I didn't say that."

How long did it take you to master that weird throwing motion Henry had?
Nicholas: That was something that Daniel Stern really wanted for the character. He wanted to do something weird with the arm so it seems supernatural. The biggest problem with that, it's all about the actual mechanics of pitching — you want to have a nice long straight arm, but the entire way that I was throwing was wrong. So that gave me tendinitis, which was awesome.

Did you model your character, Brickma the pitching coach, after anybody in particular?
Stern: It was such an afterthought. I wasn't even going to be playing that part. Sam [Harper, the film's writer] and I did a lot of work on the script. At the end of the day the studio said, "Can't you be in it?" I said, "I don't know, there's not really a part." Sam and I said, "Let's do Brickma." I just wanted to look as much like an old-timey 1890s baseball player as I could. Just wacky and funny. I thought it would be a good place for physical comedy. Mostly, though, I didn't want to be in the movie. I wanted to focus on all the work I had as a director. I kept trying to get myself wrapped up in things so I didn't have to be at the games. That's how I thought of the door thing — what if I got caught between those doors at the hotel? Or the cage at the end? That was all so I didn't have to be in the background shots. That's how deep I work as an actor. I wanted to look like an old-time baseball card and I wanted to not be in the movie.

Henry striking out Bobby Bonilla, Pedro Guerrero and Barry Bonds was neat — did you actually get to play ball with Barry Bonds?
Nicholas: When they came, Barry was the coolest. At the time, he was the most famous and he was the one who stayed the longest. He stayed and watched me shoot a scene. I think I even plagiarized his autograph. When he signed my autograph, he signed it "God bless, Barry Bonds." I start doing "God bless, Thomas Ian Nicholas."

Do you ever say that you got to direct Barry Bonds?
Stern: Hell yes, and he was a sweetheart. I love Barry and I'm rooting for him to get in the Hall of Fame. I know the politics of it. I'm not for juicing or any of that, but he was a tremendous sport. It's scary as hell to stand in and pitch to him. Not many guys can say they directed Barry Bonds.

Wait, did you actually pitch to Barry Bonds?
Stern: For fun, yeah. And the thing was, they were required to miss. Because the shots would be them swinging and missing. I said, "I'll throw a couple." I'm a professional, but at the same time I'm not going to waste an opportune for a personal triumph.

Did the role of Henry Rowengartner earn you any cool stories about famous baseball players?
Nicholas: I remember one of the coolest: During the press campaign when the film had already been out for a year, I ended up doing something at Fenway Park for the Red Sox. I remember trading autographs with Roger Clemens. It was one of those things where I said, "Hey, can you sign this baseball?" and he said, "Hey, can you sign these pictures for my kids?"

What's something people may not know about the movie?
Stern: We shot the movie. I edited the movie. The studio was very excited about it. They gave us a little extra money and we built that set and hired John Candy [to be the announcer]. We did that months after the movie was already edited. We built a grandstand and shot John for like three days just calling the games. We had a three-day laugh fest with John Candy.

What do you think is "Rookie of the Year's" place in baseball movie history?
Nicholas: The thing I really appreciated about it, I kind of related to the storyline myself. Growing up with a single parent, just my mom, that's the other thing that "Rookie of the Year" probably has — there are probably a lot of kids who are our age that grew up with divorced parents and single parents. There's a different kind of heart to the"Rookie of the Year" story than the other baseball films. I'm just amazed that 20 years later, the thing is still playing on cable every other day and people are still into it. There are so many films that come out every year and only a certain amount of them stay on the shelf.

Stern: I have to say it's the best baseball movie ever made, but you're talking to the guy who directed the film. It holds dear places in my heart. I love sports movies. I love the sports structure to a movie. It's so clear for the audience. They're clear it's your job to figure out how to overcome these unbelievable obstacles. This one took that to an extra step— the underdog trying to win, but it brought that cool fantasy with the arm. We couldn't do that if we didn't get the rights from Major League Baseball. If we didn't see that kid in the Cubs uniform. And he loses it in the end and he has to rely on himself, his smarts and his mom. He plays chicken on the base paths. It brings the kids game to the big leaguers.

If you see someone wearing a Rowengartner jersey — which still happens — how does that make you feel?
Nicholas: It's pretty crazy. I remember someone mentioning to me that the poster for the film is in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I see tweets from fans saying they should bring Rowengartner into close the game. This is the honest truth: If that had been the only film I did, with the success of it, I probably would be jaded and on "Celebrity Rehab." Because of the blessing of the "American Pie" franchise, I'm able to see it from a standpoint where it's cool that you can make art that will affect people so much that they will wear a jerseys to a game. I'm flattered. I wish that Henry did exist, because the Cubs deserve to win the World Series.

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