In L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, during the early ’60s, Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is the shy new kid on the block who wants desperately to fit in, but would rather keep to himself for the summer. At the urging of his mother (Karen Allen), Scotty finds a group of kids who play baseball at the local sandlot and tries to be accepted by them, but since he mistakes Babe Ruth, of all people, for being a girl and not the 714 home run hitting Yankees legend, they don’t expect much if even anything at all from. Despite the taunts from most of the kids, Smalls is taken under the wing of Benjamin Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), the leader of the group.
Before long, Smalls becomes one of the gang and goes on to share one unforgettable summer with them, one which includes retrieving the prized Babe Ruth autographed baseball he swiped from his stepdad Bill’s (Denis Leary) trophy room and regrettably knocked it out of the sandlot and into the dreaded junkyard domain of the savage dog known simply as “The Beast”.
Kids + sports has always been a safe and easy formula for the studios, dating back to the ’70s Walter Matthau comedy classic The Bad News Bears. Come the ’90s, it seems like there was one getting released every weekend, some decent (The Mighty Ducks, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield, Air Bud) and some not-so decent (Ladybugs, The Big Green, Little Giants, the Mighty Ducks sequels). Standing above that pack is The Sandlot, a coming-of-age baseball comedy that after twenty-two years is now more popular and well-regarded than when it was first released.
Back when it was released, The Sandlot achieved moderate success. It took in over $30 million on a $7 million budget and while the critics weren’t unanimously raving about it, the reception was decent (a “two thumbs up” seal of approval from Siskel and Ebert helps). Matthau’s The Bad News Bears is still the king, but unlike the swarm of other aforementioned child sports flicks that surrounded it, The Sandlot has that special something that’s allowed it to gain more and more of a cult following throughout the years following its release.
Just saying, you won’t be seeing The Big Green get a 20th Anniversary Tour this year.
No matter what age you are, anyone can find something to relate to in this film. Every neighborhood always has that one dog every kid is afraid to be within twenty yards of, and though I can’t say I ever faked my own drowning just to sneak in a make-out session with the hot lifeguard as she performs CPR (Squints Palledorous… Like a boss!), who among us hasn’t turned an empty lot, local park, or in my case my grandma’s backyard into a baseball field?
See, kids, back in my day during the ’90s, when the internet wasn’t as big as it is now, we did this thing called “playing outside” instead of fiddling with the tech gadgets you all are mindlessly addicted to. Of course, I say that as my face is buried into my computer while I type out this review.
Obviously, nostalgia’s has helped maintain this film’s longevity, and nostalgia does sometimes have a way of being a bit of a bigoted bastard when you slap on the rose-colored viewing glasses, but it’s not like it’s inherently a bad thing. Ghostbusters and Superman, both of which I’ve reviewed, are two films I adored as a child and they still hold up as two of the most revered film classics by critics and audiences alike (on the flip side, I used to love The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking when I was in preschool, but upon catching it on TV recently, I made it about 10 minutes in before happily changing channels).
Likewise, The Sandlot most definitely will conjure up those fond childhood memories, but never mawkishly, and it still holds up as an effectively whimsical coming-of-age tale despite its flaws which become a more evident as you get older. There’s a little too much telegraphing “HERE’S A BIG EMOTIONAL MOMENT!!!!” from co-writer/director David Mickey Evans’s obsession with slow-motion shots and from a storytelling standpoint, the side-story of Scotty seeking approval from his stepdad much like he does with the sandlot kids, despite being a nice parallel, is unfortunately underused (though career-obsessed, Denis Leary wisely doesn’t make him another obligatory jerky stepdad).
So yeah, it’s not perfect, but never underestimate the viewing public’s ability to bury a film deep down into obscurity if it doesn’t hold up over time. The fact that this film to this day has characters will still can name off at the snap of a finger and remains one of the more quotable family films of the past 30 years (one of my former bosses used to say “You’re killing me, Smalls!” whenever we’d get on his nerves) shows how well it has aged. Despite a few more on-the-nose slow-mo shots and sweeping musical cues than needed, Evans still brings a light touch to the humor and takes a page from the comedy classic A Christmas Story by presenting the events in quirky, larger-than-life, exaggerated fashion, a fitting choice considering the story being told from the perspective of the kids (Evans also provided the narration for Smalls as an adult). The dream crush is imagined as a goddess, the next-door junkyard owner is a monstrous hermit (James Earl Jones bringing much more to what could’ve been a thankless cameo, even if his casting makes you wonder if Evans knew there were no black MLB players during the Babe Ruth era) and his dog is talked-up as having the ferocity and size of the T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
Absurd? Absolutely, but so were our overactive imaginations when we were their age.
There’s an undeniable charm in the way Evans lets the kids be kids, and the film lives or dies by them. A couple miscasts and you’re dealing with a sub-par movie, but they all do a solid job at carrying the film. These aren’t mind-blowing child performances by any means, though Tom Guiry as Scotty Smalls is actually really good for this being his film debut and Patrick Renna earns some laughs as the cocky catcher Ham (in today’s highly politically correct society, I imagine his big line “You play ball like a GIRL!!!!” would probably be replaced with “You play ball like a… lesser-skilled individual regardless of gender who still should absolutely earn a participation trophy ’cause there are no such things as losers!!!!”). Everyone is fine, especially when you take into account that these were their first big roles. More importantly, they form a connection with each other that makes it easy for us buy these nine kids as childhood friends.
Sure, The Sandlot benefits from nostalgia and its narrative is derivative, but its genuine sweetness, well-cast gang of kids and David Mickey Evans’s keen sense of childhood escapism overcome its flaws and allow the film to succeed on more than just nostalgia. Regardless of whether you grew up during the ’60s time period of the film, 25-30 years later as I did, or even 10 more years after that, The Sandlot’s themes of friendship and the unifying spirit of baseball transcend any generation.