100 Film Favorites – #54: The Sandlot
(David Mickey Evans, 1993)
And so we come to the first (and probably only) “sports movie” on the Countdown. This is a film that a lot of people seem to have fond memories of, and probably because it’s about just that: fond memories.
The story is narrated by an adult Scott Smalls, reflecting back on his young adolescence. In the summer of 1962, “Scotty” Smalls moves with his mother and stepfather to a suburb outside Los Angeles. As the semi-nerdy “new kid,” Smalls has trouble making friends at first. Then, he follows a group of neighborhood boys to “the sandlot,” a vacant lot which the kids have appropriated as a baseball diamond. Though much of the “team” is reluctant to let Smalls join, their leader, Benny Rodriguez, reminds them that they need a ninth player to field a regulation-sized team. Over the coming weeks, Smalls’ ball-playing gradually improves as he practices with the boys.
Much of the film progresses episodically, seemingly less focused on maintaining a strict narrative arc than on faithfully reproducing the spirit and nostalgia of adolescent hijinks. In one scene, the boys go to the pool, and “Squints” Palledorous, the nerd of the group, pretends to drown so he can kiss the lifeguard as she attempts mouth-to-mouth. In another, the team sneaks chewing tobacco into a carnival. All partake of it, to seem like “real ballplayers.” They then board a scrambler-type ride, and all promptly proceed to vomit copiously on themselves, each other, and the ride’s other unfortunate patrons, all to the merry strains of “Tequila.”
The main narrative of the film picks back up somewhere around the halfway point. One afternoon, a particularly stellar hit knocks a baseball over the fence of Mr. Mertle, the “mean old man” who owns the old house adjacent to the sandlot. Mertle’s yard is alleged to contain a creature known only as “The Beast,” a massive junkyard dog which is said to have viciously mauled droves of people before being confined to the yard “FOR-EV-ER. FOR-EV-ER. FOR-EV-ER.” The boys have never attempted to retrieve a ball lost over the fence.
At their next game, Benny hits a pitch so hard that the cover is ripped off the ball. Eager to keep the game going, Smalls tells the boys that he has another ball. He grabs a baseball from his stepfather’s study and hurries back. Smalls steps up to bat, and almost immediately hits a home run, sending the “new” ball sailing over Mr. Mertle’s fence. Though the other boys simply give it up for lost, Smalls tells them he must get the ball back to his stepfather. When asked why, he reveals that the ball was signed by “some lady named Ruth. Baby Ruth.”
Realizing that the ball was signed by Babe Ruth, the “Sultan of Swat,” the team frantically concoct plans to retrieve it from the domain of the Beast. These schemes grow increasingly complex, ranging from simply extending a long stick over the fence to Smalls using his penchant for engineering to design an Erector-based Rube Goldberg contraption. All five of their attempts, however, fail spectacularly when the boys’ devices are mangled by the half-seen Beast.
That night, Benny is visited in a dream by the ghost of Babe Ruth, who tells him that “legends never die.” The next day, Benny informs his teammates that he has decided to “pickle the Beast.” He heroically leaps the fence and retrieves the ball, but the Beast ls instantly at his heels. The monstrous dog follows Benny back over the fence, and pursues him in a legendary chase throughout town, including bursting through the screen of a crowded movie theater. Benny’s mad sprint eventually brings him full circle, and he finds himself leaping Mertle’s fence once again. The Beast simply crashes through the fence, which collapses on the dog.
Hearing the commotion, Mr. Mertle emerges from his house and confronts the boys. It turns out that Mr. Mertle is actually quite nice, and would have returned Smalls’ ball had the boys simply asked. The Beast, whose real name turns out to be Hercules, escapes relatively unscathed from the rubble pile and turns out to be friendly as well. The dog leads the sandlot team to a hole where it has buried untold summers-worth of lost baseballs, including the “Baby Ruth” ball, which unfortunately is now mauled beyond recognition. Luckily, Mr. Mertle (played by James Earl Jones) reveals that he was once a highly skilled baseball player in the Negro Leagues. He gives Smalls a ball signed by Murderers Row, a group of the most famous Yankees hitters in history, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on the condition that the boys visit Mertle once a week to discuss baseball.
The story returns to the present, and in an Animal House-style montage, adult Smalls reveals to us what became of the various Sandlot teammates. “Squints,” for instance, grew up to marry the lifeguard and have nine children. Benny becomes a Major League baseball player in the L.A. Dodgers. The film ends with Smalls himself as a sports commentator, congratulating Benny on a particularly great play (I wonder if Smalls narrated the entire movie there in the press-box, forcing all of the spectators to listen).
True, “The Sandlot” exhibits a lot of cliches, especially those typical of kids’ sports movies. The team is made up of the usual roster: The fat kid, the black kid, the nerd, the new kid, the actually-good kid. And true, the film is essentially “Nostalgia: The Movie.” But then, The Wonder Years is essentially “Nostalgia: The Series,” and it ran for six critically-acclaimed seasons. The film may not be entirely unique in concept, but it does one thing particularly well – it really captures the feeling of being a kid in the summertime, spending time with friends on lazy afternoons in an era not yet supersaturated with “social” media. The Sandlot reminds us that, even when our childhoods are over, our memories of those bygone days will last all our lives. So basically, what I’m saying is it’s like Stand By Me, just with less mutilation and decaying child-corpses. I’d say that’s a positive change.
Tidbits: -David Mickey Evans, who wrote and directed the film, also provides the voice of the older Scott Smalls.
-Michael Polydoros, a childhood friend of David Mickey Evans, sued for defamation when his name was repurposed as Michael “Squints” Palledorous for the film’s nerd character. Though the case reached the California Supreme Court, it was ruled that 20th Century Fox was not at fault. Interesting if true, Wikipedia!