The Royals will be screening the classic baseball film “The Sandlot” after the game today up on the big, big, big screen, to celebrate the 25th annniversary of the film. “The Sandlot” didn’t do well at all when it was released, but it found a big following on VHS (ask your parents what those were) and became a cult favorite. The classic line from the film “You’re killing me, Smalls” became a catchphrase among baseball fans, and the movie inspired the Milwaukee Brewers to film a re-make.
Film: The Sandlot (1993)
Starring: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna, Denis Leary, Karen Allen, James Earl Jones
Box Office: $33.8 million
Cringeworthy moments: One of the male characters dupes a female lifeguard into giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, only to kiss her without her consent. “You play like a girl” is considered a big insult.
Bad language: They do drop in two “sh**s”, nothing major though.
Baseball scenes: Pretty good - hey they’re kids. Bennie “The Jet” Rodriguez looks pretty smooth out there.
As pointed out by famed film critic Roger Ebert, the movie has the feel and the same narration-style as A Christmas Story. The protagonist is Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), a smart, but kinda nerdy kid who has just moved to a new California town in the suburbs during the 1960s. The backstory seems to be that his mom (Karen Allen) has just re-married, and the move is part of their new life with Scotty’s new dad Bill (Denis Leary).
Smalls seems more comfortable with his books and erector sets, but his mom urges him to go outside, make some friends, and “get into trouble, for crying out loud.” Smalls notices a group of kids play baseball every day at a nearby sandlot, so he awkwardly inserts himself into the game. Smalls is a complete novice to baseball and embarrasses himself badly, but Bennie “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), the clear star and leader of the group urges him to return and helps smooth out his integration with the rest of the gang.
While Smalls tries to get his new step-father Bill - who happens to be a huge baseball fan - to teach him how to play, it turns into a failure (a literal black eye from a missed catch), but it is Benny who steps up and teaches Smalls how to play and serves as a mentor. The step-father is sketched out very thinly - he seems to be like many fathers of that generation, a bit distant, closed-off. You would think he would want to make a connection with his new step-son through the one shared interest they both have, but this movie is more about the bonds baseball builds among friends, rather than fathers and sons.
One of the characters - Ham (Patrick Renna), who literally is the ham in this film, stealing many of the scenes - hits a home run over the chain link fence and into the junkyard of a forboding home. When Smalls tries to retrieve it, he is warned about “The Beast” an apocryphal creature that allegedly consumes children.
Much of the movie just shows the boys of summer - getting kicked out of a pool for the forced kiss stunt, beating the rival rich kid baseball team in a pickup game, and trying chewing tobacco for the first time with disastrous results. My ten-year old son ABSOLUTELY loved this film - it is probably his favorite movie - and I think it is because the kids seemingly roam all over this town with complete independence and freedom. This is not an era of helicopter parents or arranged play dates or travel teams (as far as we know, the kids play no organized baseball, their only baseball actitivies seem to be these pickup games). The kids play baseball because they want to, no coach yells at them (aside from a few tips from Benny), and as Smalls puts it, the sandlot “was like their own little baseball kingdom.”
When the gang loses their only ball during a game, Smalls decides he can just use the autographed ball sitting in his step-father’s collection. The ball is signed by “Babe Ruth”, the most-revered player to all of the gang, but someone Smalls is completely unfamiliar with, and thus, is unaware of the ball’s value. When that ball goes over the fence and he is made aware of just what he has done, the boys scramble to find a way to retrieve the ball.
After several failed plots, Benny has a vision of Babe Ruth telling him to achieve greatness, giving Benny the idea that there is only one way to retrieve the ball and foil “The Beast” - he must enter the junkyard and get it himself. Once he jumps the fence and confronts “The Beast” (which we find out is just a large English mastiff), he engages it in a game of “pickle”, his trademark move from baseball.
After a madcap chase throughout town, “The Beast” is felled by a collapsed fence, causing its owner, Mr. Mertle (James Earl Jones), to emerge from the house inside. He takes the boys inside and it turns out that the legends of Mr. Mertle and his dog were complete nonsense, and Mertle was in fact, a former Negro League Baseball star, now blind, who has a wealth of memorabilia inside his house. He offers Smalls a signed ball to replace the destroyed Babe Ruth ball, so long as the boys return to talk baseball on a regular basis.
The movie completely sidesteps the issue of race, although it does give a tip of the cap to Negro League players and how they were just as good as white players of the day. DeNunez (played by Brandon Quentin Adams), the pitcher of the sandlot team, is African-American growing up in a largely white suburb in the 60s, but the issue of his race never really comes up aside from the fact he wears a Kansas City Monarchs cap.
And in a way, that’s kinda fits this saccarine account of the 60s, because it is a story told through a child’s eyes, and to kids, issues of race just aren’t issues at all, especially if you throw a bender like DeNunez. Make no mistake, this is a nostalgic, white-washed tale, the kind that never really happened, but this is a kid’s movie. The important lessons are inviting others to join your group, even if they seem like a “total square” at first, and the bonds of friendship that can last a lifetime.
At the end we see the characters fading into the sunset, as we are given an account of each of their destinies. The movie ends with a grown-up Smalls - who is now a baseball broadcaster - giving an account of Bennie - who is now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, presumably near the end of his playing career - while he engages in one more pickle, a rundown where he evades the tag and slides home with the steal, giving a triumphant thumbs up to his friend in the booth, the one he taught to throw a baseball all those years ago.
Aside from perhaps the Wendy Peffercorn kiss scene, the movie holds up very well, as its 1960s setting allows it to be a bit more timeless than the many other baseball films of the 90s. The humor is aimed pretty squarely at kids, but it is not the kind of slapstick silliness of say, Rookie of the Year. Adults will like the trip down memory lane free of any of the strife that actually impacted the 60s. It is very much a baseball film, but at its root, it is one of the better films about childhood friendship and camaraderie you can show your kids, and it is easy to see why it has emerged as a baseball classic, still beloved 25 years later.