Field of Schemes 

Deception takes the mound in John Grisham’s baseball tale “Mickey.”

Grisham and Wilson themselves were in town April 19 for an advance screening, where they played host to many of the local Little Leaguers who feature as extras. According to the writer and director, making “Mickey” has been a labor of love, which goes to show that a parent can lavish affection even on the most unpromising and sour-tempered of offspring. If your child is not on display in this picture, you will find little here to tempt you. “Mickey” manages to suck the poetry and camaraderie out of the baseball-movie formula, and what’s left over is a mean-spirited hunger for victory at all costs.

At the core of film is a “Courtship of Eddie’s Father” style relationship between recently widowed Tripp Spence, attorney-at-law, (Harry Connick Jr.) and his pitching phenom son, Mickey (Shawn Salinas). As the film opens, Mickey savors his Little-League swan song; he’s 12 and must now graduate to a full-sized field and compete with bigger, more experienced players. Naturally he wants just one more year on the miniature diamond, and this, it turns out, is a wish that Grisham finds irresistible: to blow fastballs past little kids, by fair means or foul. The path to the fulfillment of this wish is fraught with implausibilities.

Dad, it turns out, is a tax evader, and when the Internal Revenue Service gets on his trail, he and his son take it on the lam, fully equipped with new identities and fake documentation that make Mickey out to be younger than he is. They set up shop in Reno, Nev., where Little League is something of a civic religion. In a more pleasantly sentimental film, Mickey would put his talents at the service of underdogs. Instead, he, his father and an amiably crooked coach (Mike Starr) conspire to get him on the winningest team in the state.

Between games, Tripp finds time to fall for his boy’s guidance counselor (Michelle Johnson), whose bubbleheaded devotion and tolerance of fraud and deception by her man speak volumes about Grisham’s idea of the perfect woman.

If you like seeing kid after kid unfairly overmastered by a ringer, you’ll love the hymn to cheating that “Mickey” becomes in its second act. There’s hardly a shot of fielding or teamwork in this movie, just Mickey relentlessly steamrolling anyone foolish enough to step up to the plate. As his team positions itself to appear in the Little League World Series, it dawns on Tripp that Mickey’s appearing on national television might not be the best way to preserve their anonymity. (For the record, Grisham wrote his screenplay before the appearance of over-aged Dominican pitcher Danny Almonte in the actual 2001 Little League World Series).

Faced with exposure, Tripp decides it may be best to call an end to the charade and “do the right thing.” In a line that perfectly captures the code of behavior endorsed by the film, Mickey icily replies, “It’s too late for that.”

To this point, “Mickey” is merely contrived. In its final moments, it veers into almost hallucinatory idiocy. As the feds close in, Mickey’s team is set to play the Cubans in the final game of the series. A showboating Florida senator suddenly enters the scene. He suspects that the Cuban team is filled with teenagers, and when the IRS informs him of Mickey’ s age problem, a fiendishly complex deal is brokered that will maximize the humiliation of the dirty offshore commies. (Nowhere is the pre-9-11 setting of “Mickey” more evident than in this now-very-dated bit of post-Cold War posturing.) This film thus has the distinction of being the only baseball movie whose conclusion hinges on interagency turf wars.

To be sure, there’s a (small) price to be paid at the end for all the deceit, but it’s only for show. Ultimately, “Mickey” neither teaches a lesson nor buoys the spirits. It’s just a joyless exploitation of one boy’s talent. *1/2 S

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