Friday, October 13, 2023

Insight: A sentimentalist at heart

By Ed Pierce
Managing Editor

Those who know me best are aware that I sometimes tend to wear my emotions on my sleeve. I’m a sucker for sentimental movies about the protagonist persevering through challenges and overcoming obstacles to ultimately achieve their dream.

With my schedule these days, it’s hard for me to find the time to sit down and watch some of these tear-jerkers but that’s exactly what I did earlier this week when I was drawn to a film called “The Hill.” Screenwriter Angelo Pizzo has written true-life sports films previously that harpooned me and took me on an emotional roller coaster ride such as his classics “Hoosiers” and “Rudy.”

Those films closely follow the script of triumph over adversity, so even though I originally missed seeing those movies at the theater on the big screen, I nevertheless watched them for the first time on videotape in the 1990s and now it’s a tradition for me every year before the start of basketball season in November to screen “Hoosiers” and every September I rewatch “Rudy” for the 40th or so time prior to the launch of another college football season.

In choosing “The Hill” this week, I noticed actor Dennis Quaid was listed in the credits as the star of the movie. I recalled Quaid’s performance in another moving sports film I had watched a few years ago called “The Rookie.” Like “The Hill,” that movie is about baseball too, but in “The Rookie” Quaid portrayed the real-life Jim Morris, a high school science teacher who had hurt his shoulder when he was younger and gave up on his goal of pitching in professional baseball. Morris was convinced to try out again and he made his major league debut at age 35 appearing in a game against Texas for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Quaid’s role in this new movie “The Hill” is much different. He’s no longer playing the star athlete, rather in this film he’s a stern and strict preacher father who struggles to overcome abject poverty in rural Texas in the 1960s. With a wife, three children and an aging mother-in-law to feed, Quaid’s character finds himself at rock bottom when he’s fired from his job as a church pastor, losing his church-provided home and is forced to pack up everything and hit the highway searching for work. Along the way he runs out of gas and has a flat tire with no spare tire because he’s traded it for a tank of gasoline.

But Quaid’s struggles are just part of what hooked me on this film. This genuine and true story is about the family’s youngest son, Rickey Hill, who was born with degenerative spine disorder and must wear braces on his legs just to be able to stand. As played by actor Colin Ford, Rickey Hill falls in love with the sport of baseball at a young age and dreams of playing some day. His father, however, disapproves of his dream and has a strained relationship with his son because of it.

Behind the church where his father preaches, young Rickey Hill spends hours every day hitting rocks with a stick and develops a talent for batting, which leads him to remove his braces and try to play Little League and high school baseball over his father’s objections. In the film, Rickey Hill’s friends and supporters raise enough money for him to have corrective surgery so he can pursue his dream, but the surgeon delivers devastating news to him and his family. The damage to his spine was irreversible and will continue to worsen leaving him struggling to walk, let alone play professional baseball.

But true to form, Rickey Hill does earn a tryout and signs with the Montreal Expos as an outfielder and first baseman. His first roommate in the minor leagues was Andre Dawson, who was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2010.

Hill’s talent was evident over four seasons of playing in the minors from 1975 to 1978. He hit .298 in 201 games with 26 home runs and 116 runs batted in but when his physical condition worsened significantly, he was forced to abandon his dream of someday suiting up for a major league baseball team. He’s now a Little League coach, a preacher, and a motivational speaker based in Texas.

By the end of “The Hill,” I was wiping away tears once more and my wife Nancy handed me a box of Kleenex. She told me that I really am a sentimentalist at heart, and I guess she’s right. This type of sports film gets me every single time, whether it be the tragic ending of Jared Leto’s character in “Prefontaine,” about U.S. Olympian Steve Prefontaine or “Glory Road” about Texas Western’s college basketball team capturing the 1966 NCAA college basketball championship with an all-black lineup defying the segregationist attitudes of that time. Then there’s “Brian’s Song” about the real-life friendship of Chicago Bears running backs Gayle Sayers and Brian Piccolo which is tested when Piccolo is stricken with cancer.

If you haven’t seen “The Hill” yet, I recommend you do. But be forewarned, bring along plenty of tissue for this one.

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