I’m not much of a baseball fan. I’m not much of a Disney fan. But The Rookie surprised me. Not only is it the best Rated-G movie for grownups since The Straight Story… it boasts what will be remembered as one of the best performances of the year.

Dennis Quaid plays Jim Morris, a middle-aged Texas schoolteacher who tried to turn turn pro-baseball pitcher long after most men would have given up. Endearing, understated, full of humor and angst, Quaid’s performance may be the highlight of his impressive career.

Director John Lee Hancock, whose most significant work previous to this was the script for the uneven drama A Perfect World, has done everything right with this film. He’s walking a well-worn path, daring to tell yet another tale about a guy who never thought he could make the big leagues. But this adaptation is grounded in facts, and Hancock is careful not to embellish things to make the crowd happy. He moves us without sending Hancock to the World Series and without giving him any bottom-of-the-ninth victories. The tears and the thrills come from moments of character development, not moments on the scoreboard.

Hancock gets strong work out of cinematographer John Schwartzman and the editors. They avoid quick-cut action and give community baseball the light, pace, and feel that it really has. After the movie, I found myself itching to take some friends to the park with a baseball and gloves, just for conversation and catch. When the camera goes to the big leagues, Hancock’s perspective gives us the right feeling of awe at the vast stadium, the hot white lights, and the size of that green green field. He even takes time to show us how long it takes to run from the bullpen to the pitcher’s mound. I’ve never been to a professional baseball game, but I’m pretty sure now that I know what it feels like.

Jim Morris’s story deserved to be told, as likely as it was to become a sappy, sentimental button-pusher. The guy dreamed of the big leagues all through his childhood. He got close with some impressive 85 m.p.h. pitches, but then hurt his shoulder and was told by the doctors not to pitch anymore. So, disillusioned but not self-centered, Morris humbly went to work, like so many Americans, at jobs that weren’t part of his dream. And he built a rewarding life, one that would have been rich and meaningful even without the miracle.

But the miracle was quite a bonus. Morris, encouraged by his students to give his dream one more shot, discovered that surgery had somehow improved his arm. And what happened post-40 was so unlikely that he almost turned back out of fear… fear of what success might do to the life he had built brick by brick.

I was deeply moved by The Rookie’s honesty and grace — not words I would usually use to describe formulaic Disney product. The term “formulaic” is not a compliment. Many films (especially Disney films) are lazily produced because the filmmakers are banking on the success of a predictable formula, which they follow without bothering to enhance it. It takes the touch of an artist to invigorate a familiar outline with fresh ideas, or to use metaphors that make the work resonate on different levels. The Rookie is one of those rare, wonderful “formula” films that tells its story with earnestness, believability, attention to detail, and fully developed characters. It favors understatement over exaggeration, subtlety over sentimentality (although occasionally it lets the syrup flow.) Even in the “familiar” moments, the filmmakers restrain the music, effects, and close-ups that routinely command us to weep. Instead we have that uncomfortable feeling of watching real people in quiet, intimate, life-changing moments.

My thanks to whoever it was that let Hancock take his time, spreading this relatively simple story over two-hours-plus, so we could become acquainted with all of the supporting characters. Rachel Griffiths makes Morris’s wife a believable, tough, hard-working, naturally sexy woman. Bryan Cox brings a rough likeability to the role of Jim’s father, even though he comes closest to filling the stock role of a villain. And the kids are believable too. These aren’t the perfect, always-happy never-a-problem cabbage patch dolls that played Mel Gibson’s kids in We Were Soldiers. The Morris baby bawls and tries their patience. And Hunter, Morris’s young son, is given a unique sense of humor when his wide-eyed admiration might have quickly become the stuff of cheap television drama. Hancock’s patience with his actors allows them to find moments of convincing humanity. We feel we could travel to Texas and meet these people, browse antiques in their dusty shops, and pull up a chair in their warm meat-and-potatoes homes.

There is a startling moment near the film’s conclusion when Morris grabs hold of his wife’s hand and looks at her with an expression of amazement and gratitude. We’re looking at him, waiting for permission to celebrate his achievement. But no. He doesn’t say a word. He just looks up in amazement. The credit for this miracle does not belong to him. It belongs elsewhere… with those who coaxed him and helped him get there. It is in no way the Hollywood moment you’d expect — it turns our attention away from Morris and reminds us of the powers and miracles that brought him to that place. It rings true.

Morris is not a big screen hero in the “I did it my way” tradition. His achievements are the result of a cooperative effort that emphasize how we are all role models for each other — parent to child, husband to wife, teacher to student … and sometimes even students to teacher.

The Rookie, against all expectations, is one of the finest family films to come along in the last decade. (It will have to be a rather incredible year to push this one out of my year-end Top Ten list.) One can only hope that the folks who gave this one the green light will recognize why it works so well. If they do, then hopefully we can look forward to more films as finely crafted as this. And I’d add this request for any filmmakers out there: Would you please continue offering Dennis Quaid parts as rich as this one? He deserves them.