Conor O'Neill (Keanu Reeves) is a gambler who secretly bets $6,000 on his (dead) father's account and is now severely in debt with two bookies. In order to repay the debts, he is told by a corporate friend that he must coach a baseball team of troubled fifth grade kids from Chicago's ABLA housing projects in exchange for $500 each week, for ten weeks.
Worried only about getting his $500 check, Conor shows up at the baseball field to a rag tag bunch of trash-talking, street-wise, inner city kids who live in the projects, where people have to sit on the floor in their apartments to avoid stray bullets. Conor's efforts are hindered from the onset by the fact that he does not have nine kids to make up the team—one kid, having altered his birth certificate to be younger and another, "G-Baby" (DeWayne Warren), who is far too young to play. The kids tell Conor it is because their teacher, Elizabeth "Sister" Wilkes (Diane Lane), is making several boys finish a book report. Conor visits the teacher, but his life is threatened repeatedly by his bookies for not paying his gambling debts. He is visited by the mother of three boys that are allowed to play in exchange for his tutoring them.
Conor works to get the team to support each other and stop trash-talking each other's bad plays; but the team nevertheless, loses its first game 16–1, which fosters hostility between the players. Conor brings them together by buying them pizza (trading sports tickets for the pizza) and leads the team to win their second game 9–3. The team starts to come together as Conor tries to kindle a romance with Wilkes.
Conor risks everything and makes a $12,000 bet with a new bookie to cover the $12,000 debt he owes to the other bookies. His stress, already high from his gambling debts, runs higher at the baseball field because one of his players is pulled from playing after a competing coach questions the boy's age. Conor takes offense to the league president's threat to be removed, after he voices his objection to his team having to wear ratty T-shirts while the other teams have full uniforms. In protest, he announces it was his last game which draws dissension and resentment from his players.
Conor barely wins his $12,000 bet, pays off all his debts, and is pressured into making another bet for $24,000 using his $12,000 winnings. Conor connects with the kids and finds it harder to leave than he thought it would. He surprises them with second row seats (behind Sammy Sosa's dugout) to a major league game. He stops gambling; his relationship with Wilkes grows; he gets new uniforms for the players (sponsored by one of his bookies); and he assumes a fatherly role in leading the team to the championship game (called, "going to the ship" by the boys).
Just after Conor drops the kids at home after winning the pre-championship game, G-Baby is struck and killed by a stray bullet in a gang fight which leads Conor to want to forfeit the championship game. After an emotional funeral service, the team rallies together to win the championship game in the name of their fallen teammate.Keanu Reeves as Conor O'Neill
Diane Lane as Elizabeth Wilkes
D. B. Sweeney as Matt Hyland
John Hawkes as Ticky Tobin
DeWayne Warren as Jarius "G-Baby" Evans
Bryan C. Hearne as Andre Ray Peetes
Julian Griffith as Jefferson Albert Tibbs
A. Delon Ellis Jr. as Miles Pennfield II
Michael Perkins as Kofi Evans
Brian M. Reed as Raymond "Ray Ray" Bennet
Michael B. Jordan as Jamal
Kristopher Loft-on as Clarence
Sammy Sosa as Himself
Sterling "Steelo" Brim as Sterling
The film received a 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Keanu Reeves's performance in Hardball earned him a Razzie Award nomination for Worst Actor (also for Sweet November), but he lost the award to Tom Green for Freddy Got Fingered.
A soundtrack containing hip hop and R&B music was released on September 11, 2001 by Columbia Records. It peaked at #55 on the Billboard 200 and #34 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums.