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Little Big League (1994) - Does it hold up?

There’s something a bit ironic about the sheer volume of baseball movies that came out the last year baseball was shortened by strike.

Star Luke Edwards attends the premiere of Little Big League.
Star Luke Edwards attends the premiere of Little Big League.

Another 1994 movie about baseball for kids. Angels in the Outfield didn’t fare so well, here, so why did I go to the same well again? Well, there was a bit of confusion. I remembered that Little Big League is about a kid who inherits a baseball team. But I thought he chose to become general manager, not field manager. I thought I’d watch this and then next week I could watch Moneyball and I’d kind of get a one-two punch of baseball movies focused on the front offices.

So, that’s my bad.

That being said, Little Big League was actually kind of good! I mean, it’s not a cinematic masterpiece but it’s a solid film. It follows the same formula as Major League and Angels in the Outfield. There is a baseball team with the talent to “win the pennant” but they have a problem, things aren’t quite coming together. This movie has the player personalities fall somewhere between the goofy shallowness of Angels and the deeper, flawed characters in Major League. None of these guys practice voodoo but they add more to the movie than a couple of slapstick laughs, too. And while the catalysts in the other movies are spite and belief (I think you can figure out which is which) in this one the desire to have fun serves as missing element that brings all the players together to become more than the sum of their parts.

Since this is still a kids movie, you’re going to have to work a bit harder to suspend your disbelief than you might for the ones aimed at a more mature audience. The odds that MLB would allow a 12-year-old to be named operating owner seem slim. I’m also pretty sure there are labor laws against a 12-year-old working the kind of hours a manager has to work. Also, it’s a bit bizarre that the pitching coach serves as the right-hand man to the manager when that has traditionally been the job of a bench coach. Finally, I can’t imagine any 12-year-old being nearly as composed as Billy is for the majority of the film. It’s one thing to know a lot about baseball but it’s something else entirely to be able to speak confidently and knowledgeably in front of a gaggle of reporters or pro baseball players. Even as he begins facing more difficulties as the stress piles up and he begins to act immaturely later in the film he handles it all very coolly without any of the outbursts you’d expect from someone his age.

However, as unrealistic as it is, the movie is better for it. If the second act of the film included a series of 12-year-old tantrums it would probably be unwatchable. Which just goes to show realism isn’t everything. It’s also really fun to see him encourage the players who want to work with him and outwit the ones who don’t, even from the start. I was particularly amused by his extremely smart decision to tell pitcher Mike McGrevey (played by Scott Patterson of Gilmore Girls fame) that his ploy to pitch poorly wasn’t going to get him benched or traded as he wanted. Forcing McGrevey to keep taking the mound no matter how poorly he pitched in a contract year was both a simple solution and took a lot more moxie than I think we’d expect from most people.

The final act of the movie was a lot of fun, too. Billy’s Twins have a one-game playoff against the Seattle Mariners to see who will win the Wild Card spot. This movie has a lot of major league cameos and the ‘90s Mariners have some of the best people to do it with. Sure there’s Dave Magadan and Lou Piniella. But they also have Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson. They both get opportunities to steal the show; Ken hits a big home run early, Johnson comes out of the bullpen to escape a jam in the ninth, and Griffey comes up big one more time when he makes a leaping grab to steal a home run and end the game. When the movie came out those two were at the height of their powers, so it was pretty cool then. And for those of us who remember them, it’s still pretty nostalgic, now.

If there was one element I’d say was definitely “of its time”, it would be some of the humor this film leans on that I wouldn’t expect to see if it were made today. A one point there’s a physical bit where relief pitcher John “Blackout” Gatling rolls a huge wad of chewing tobacco in a piece of gum before shoving it in his mouth. There’s also a gag about Billy discovering that he can order adult films directly to his hotel room complete with some fake scenes. Even lacking any actual nudity it seems that either or both of those scenes could lead to some difficult conversations with your kids. Which is a weird thing to include in a movie aimed exactly at the demographic. The question I really want answered, however, is just what General Manager Arthur Goslin thought he was doing outing Billy to his mom for ordering the movies by sending over the bill. Not at least going to him first seems like a good way to rile up your pre-teen boss and lose your job.

It also ends on something of a weird beat; the Twins lose, Billy goes into the clubhouse and announces his “retirement” as manager of the team so he can go back to being a kid, and then the security guard comes to tell him that the fans refuse to leave the stadium. Billy goes back out on to the field for a standing ovation and it freeze frames on him celebrating. I can’t imagine a group of fans falling that hard for a team manager, especially when the team ultimately didn’t even make the playoffs. I imagine someone during the creative process thought the movie needed to end on a more triumphant note and tacked that on at the end. And, silly as it is, it doesn’t ruin the film.

Ultimately, while this movie is aimed at kids it’s not done in such a way that makes it unwatchable for an adult. There’s a lot to love in this film for all ages. I’ve been looking out, during this period of extreme stress, for movies and TV shows that aren’t too intense so as to offer a break from the stress of reality. This movie fits that bill. So if you, too, are looking for something low-stakes and calm to escape with, this movie should fit the bill.