The ’90s were the golden age for kid friendly baseball movies. With Little Big League, viewers could imagine themselves as the manager and owner of your favorite baseball team. Angels in the Outfield allowed you to team up with real angels (and a real Tony Danza) to turn around a season, and The Sandlot honed in on the happiness that comes from playing hardball with your friends. As Thomas Ian Nicholas, the star of Rookie of the Year, points out to us, though, only his film allowed kids to vicariously live out their dream of playing in the big leagues.
It’s been 23 years since 12-year-old Henry Rowengartner took the bump at Wrigley and hurled blazing fastballs past Major League superstars like Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds thanks to a freak arm injury. In honor of the film’s anniversary, we reached out to Nicholas via email to talk about the experience of growing up on the Wrigley Field set, working with Gary Busey, and how fast his own fastball is.
Were you a baseball fan growing up? Did you play in Little League before the movie?
Just like Henry, I grew up in a single-parent household and being raised by my mom, I didn’t really watch sports. After the film, of course, I became a fan of the Cubs and I still am.
How about your fastball? Have you been clocked? Just a touch slower than Henry’s?
My fastball is a change up. I think I was clocked once at a whopping 47 mph.
Can you talk about the experience of working with Daniel Stern and Gary Busey?
Working with Danny was amazing. He was incredible and a lot different than the characters that he plays. I ran into Danny and his son Henry in 2006 at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Would love to see him again. Gary Busey was crazy, but he was the nicest to me. In fact, one time on set he carried me by my underwear for 25 feet in front of 100 crew members and again, I repeat, he was the nicest to me.
John Candy filmed after us. But I met him later and he was the nicest guy ever.
Speaking of the set, what was the experience of filming at Wrigley Field like? Is everything roped off or were you guys able to go where you want and explore a little?
When we filmed at Wrigley Field, it was during the off-season, which meant it was really cold, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to do too much exploring while just trying to stay warm. Not to mention that the schedule was rather busy. I worked 54 out of 55 shooting days and, when I wasn’t filming on set, I had to go to school on set for at least three hours per day.
Is there any scene from the film that was particularly challenging to film?
The most challenging scene was something that didn’t end up in the movie. After Henry threw the ball from the stand, we go to the El train station and his friends give him a rock and tell him to do it again. Henry throws the rock and it ends up going faster than the train. It was difficult ’cause the rock was hollow and apparently I couldn’t get the rock going fast enough by the camera. You try throwing a hollow rock fast… after 30 takes, I think I gave myself tendinitis.
When was the last time you watched the film?
I actually haven’t watched the film for at least a decade, though I’ve seen bits and pieces on television while flipping channels and watched it for a couple of minutes before changing the station. My son is four and I plan on showing him the film at some point in the near future.
How would you rank Rookie of the Year against other ’90s kid baseball movies like Little Big League, Sandlot, and Angels in the Outfield?
Each one of those films had fantastical elements to it, but I think Rookie of the Year resonated with every little boy who loves to play baseball that dreams of one day playing for the majors. Plus, I think the film also resonated with single moms. I’m married with two kids and, as a parent, I can’t imagine how it would be to raise even one kid on my own. I give super props to single parents — especially my own mom.
What have you been up to lately?
Recently, I portrayed Walt Disney in the film Walt before Mickey that can be seen worldwide on Netflix. I have a band [Thomas Nicholas Band] and we are currently doing a pledge music campaign for our new Frat Party album and raising money for the Living the Dream Foundation, an awesome charity organization. The album is comprised of all our favorite songs from the American Pie soundtracks, including our original song “My Generation” that appeared on the American Reunion soundtrack album.
In fact, we’re playing five tour dates for the Frat Party tour presented by Captain Morgan at the end of July, which includes two shows in Chicago at HVAC (July 27 and 28). On the 27th, my band will be playing a few songs on the WGN Morning News and, on the 28th, I’ll be throwing out the first pitch for the Cubs vs. White Sox game.