The Final Season

I don’t like being the bad guy. Why do I have to be the one to tell you that “The Final Season,” a perfectly wholesome, American, corn-fed film about high school baseball, is amateurish and hackneyed? It makes me look like a jerk.

“What?” people say. “You don’t like inspiring sports dramas — based on true stories, no less — about our national pastime? HAVE YOU NO SOUL?!”

Fine. You want to see it? Be my guest. But it is my duty to inform you that it practically bursts at the seams with the same stock characters and clichés you’ve seen in countless other Inspiring Sports Dramas.

In fact, even within the genre of mediocre Inspiring Sports Dramas, it’s not particularly good. For example, it is a baseball movie, yet it has curiously few scenes of people playing baseball. It starts with a three-minute montage of a team doing infield practice drills, which is even less interesting to watch than it sounds. Later, there are two scenes at school board meetings that are every bit as exciting as, um, school board meetings. (Thrill as a board member tells someone to “file a petition for a feasibility study”!)

This is the true story of Norway, Iowa, where the high school baseball team played its last season in 1991 before being consolidated with a larger school 20 miles away. High school baseball is what that town (pop. 586) lived for, and the team consistently defeated teams from schools 10 times its size.

The film begins in 1990, with the team winning its 19th state championship. Most of those trophies have come under coach Jim Van Scoyoc (Powers Boothe), a beloved and kindly leader who does not want to see his team swallowed up into another school any more than anyone else in town does. It’s a school board decision, prompted by things like budgets and studies and government funding. The board, led by the sinister, suit-wearing Harvey Makepeace (Marshall Bell), is all for the change, even though the whole town is against it.

To keep him quiet, they put Coach Van Scoyoc out to pasture and bring in Kent Stock (Sean Astin) to coach the team’s final season before the high schools are combined. Stock is a girls’ volleyball coach who assisted Van Scoyoc for a couple months but otherwise has no real baseball experience. Makepeace figures he’ll be a lousy coach and lead the team to a humiliating final season. His reasoning is that if the Tigers went out with another championship, it would make the town hate him (Makepeace) all the more for pushing the merger.

The team consists mostly of farmers’ sons who stay out of trouble. They’re shaken up by the appearance of a new student, Mitch Akers (Michael Angarano), a rebellious teen — complete with a leather jacket — whose father (Tom Arnold) has dumped him at his grandparents’ house in Norway in the hopes that living in a small hick town will terrify him into better behavior. Turns out Mitch is whiz at baseball, but how will he ever fit in with his straitlaced teammates?!!!?!

The director is David Mickey Evans, of “The Sandlot” and two straight-to-video “Beethoven” sequels (you know, the movies about the big St. Bernard), and his affection for baseball is evident even if his skill for directing it is not. The characters are all hastily formed, their relationships and conflicts with one another sloppily addressed. I cringed to watch a dead-eyed Rachel Leigh Cook, playing a state government representative, converse with Sean Astin, because I knew it was leading to a perfunctory, unconvincing romance. It’s like the screenwriters (Art D’Alessandro and James Grayford) weren’t even trying. And with hokey lines like “We grow ballplayers here like corn,” how much effort is evident?

When the movie finally gets down to the real business of showing the team play its final season — i.e., the last 20 minutes of the film — it’s passable, though not the least bit suspenseful. All of this has been done before, and in a more polished and exciting manner.

Don’t hate me! I’m just the messenger.

C (1 hr., 57 min.; PG, a little mild profanity.)