There’s a quote floating around the Internet widely attributed to the great Cleveland Indians pitcher Bob Lemon: “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” The web being what it is, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether he really said those words in that order, but the point’s the same no matter who said it and how: Baseball’s great until adults get involved.
The last time a professional sporting league went on strike and caused a suspension of play was August 12, 1994, when the Major League Baseball Player’s Association went on strike. The reasons for the strike were a little convoluted, particularly for anyone who can’t understand why someone might get paid millions of dollars to throw a ball around, but basically, the whole thing came down to money. The players wanted more, and the owners refused to give it to them.
Around that same time, Hollywood released three baseball movies for kids that looked at the sport from a different perspective: The Sandlot in April of 1993, Rookie Of The Year in July of that same year, and Little Big League, released a full year after that, a month and a half before the strike. The movies all have different plots, but share a common premise: Kids, 12-year-old boys in particular, love baseball. They love playing it, watching it, and talking about it. It’s only when baseball gets too serious, at least in Rookie Of The Year and Little Big League, that baseball loses some of its shine.
There’s a reason this premise is resonant: Baseball is fun. It’s a game. It’s about who makes the best play, not who gets paid the most or has the most Phiten necklaces. The players and the fans win when the game is at its simplest and most pure, when it’s about a team of guys who love what they do and work hard at it. It’s the same mentality that makes baseball fans long for the days of Gehrig and DiMaggio, or at least the idea of their era.
But the same mentality makes looking back at a kids’ movie about America’s pastime that much harder. If you grew up loving these movies, you likely loved them not just because they were funny and charming, but because they were about something you loved in real life: baseball. Yes, dogs who play basketball are great and we all want to be Richie Rich, but those aren’t really attainable realities. Not many kids have their own butler or dunking dachshund. Most kids, and definitely most boys, have gone out and thrown the ball around, played on a Little League team, or at least watched a game. These movies aren’t just about a bunch of ragtag kids who love baseball; they’re about viewers’ love of the game. If you were a nerd who couldn’t throw but loved baseball, you, too, could fall on a ball, break your arm, and, by some freak bit of medical malpractice, end up as the youngest professional major-leaguer of all time.
That’s the premise of Rookie Of The Year, the most financially successful of the three movies. It made $56 million in theaters and has aired in seeming perpetuity on basic cable ever since. Squeaky-voiced Henry Rowengartner (played by American Pie’s Thomas Ian Nicholas) rockets to fame as the new pitcher for the struggling Chicago Cubs and—with the help of his single mom, hero Chet “Rocket” Steadman (a surprisingly good Gary Busey), and oddball pitching coach Phil Brickma (Daniel Stern, who also directed the movie)—leads his team to a World Series title. Along the way, he learns the value of friendship, youth, and a few well-placed trick plays.
Rookie isn’t a bad movie. It’s also not good. Watching this movie 18-odd years ago, I remember thinking Henry was cute and funny, with his witty turns of phrase (“Pitcher’s got a big butt! Pitcher’s got a big butt!”) and devil-may-care attitude. When he gets signed to the Cubs, he saunters into the locker room without a bit of hesitation, greeting players he’s only seen on TV and in his baseball card collection. He never seems that nervous, even when he tanks in his major-league debut or when he replaces Ray Charles and sings “You’ve got the right one, baby” in Pepsi commercials. At the end of the movie, he leaves the Cubs not just because he gets hurt and loses his gift, but because he misses his friends, has a crush on a girl, and just isn’t that into being a major-leaguer anymore.
As an adult, it seems ludicrous that Henry would walk away from millions of dollars in salary and endorsements (even if he couldn’t really pitch). It’s almost as ludicrous as the plot of the movie, or the stretching and snapping rubber band sounds Henry’s arm makes when he reels back and throws. It’s not that this movie doesn’t make sense because it’s dated, though; it’s just that it’s hard to remember exactly what being 12 years old felt like all these years later. Brickma’s antics—getting stuck between adjoining hotel room doors, jamming huge amounts of sunflower seeds in his mouth—are still pretty funny, but all the kiddie material just doesn’t play as well now that I’m ancient, meaning 30.
That’s not to say that there isn’t kiddie fare that translates well to adults. Heck, I write about The Adventures Of Pete And Pete for TV Club on the regular. But Rookie Of The Year wasn’t written to be a smart movie that adults and kids could enjoy together. It’s a movie for kids, directed by a guy who made his career in the early ’90s getting hit in the head with paint cans by a 10-year-old in Home Alone. Around that same time, Stern could also be heard as the narrator in The Wonder Years, a TV show about a young boy coming of age in the late ’60s. That show started airing in 1988 and ended its run in 1993, right around when The Sandlot hit theaters. The Wonder Years was a big success, equal parts charming and profound, and launched the careers of all sorts of pre-teen darlings, from the series’ star, Fred Savage, to bit players like Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Breckin Meyer.
Given that show’s hit status among both adults and kids, it’s not surprising then that The Sandlot borrowed its format for cross-generational success. Written and directed by David Michael Evans, the film tells the story of nerdy kid Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), who moves to Los Angeles in 1962 and, despite not being able to catch or throw, manages to join a ragtag neighborhood crew of baseball aficionados. Though told as sort of a series of vignettes, The Sandlot mostly focuses on Scotty Smalls’ loss of his stepdad’s autographed Babe Ruth ball to “The Beast,” a comically oversized dog who lives over the back fence of the sandlot where the crew plays its daily game. Smalls, along with friends Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), Hamilton “Ham” Porter (Patrick Renna), Michael “Squints” Palledorous (Chauncey Leopardi), Alan “Yeah Yeah” McClennan (Marty York), and others, goes through a series of misadventures and missteps trying to get the ball back, ultimately resulting in a Babe Ruth fantasy sequence, a mega-chase through town in which a giant cake falls on two bakers, and the realization that the dog and the dog’s owner (played by a sadly underused James Earl Jones) aren’t all that bad.
The Sandlot has become a cult classic with kids of a certain age, so to speak ill of it would result in certain suicide by peer group. I will say that somehow I missed this movie growing up, seeing only a few parts of it while my younger brother watched. He’s a big fan to this day, but seeing it in its entirety first as an adult, I had a hard time falling as desperately in love with it as so many people seem to be. The kids are cute, the hijinks fun, and I like the way the actions are so comically exaggerated by the narrator’s hindsight—Ham’s cannonball splash or the dog’s size, for example. But ultimately, The Sandlot is just a fun, cute movie, more fluffy than groundbreaking. While there’s nothing wrong with fluff—I review Jersey Shore for TV Club, too—it’s hard for me to really connect with this movie as an adult without any fond childhood memories of it. (And yes, I know that makes me an L-7 weenie.)
I did, however, enjoy re-watching Little Big League, the story of a 12-year-old kid named Billy (Luke Edwards) who inherits the Minnesota Twins after the untimely demise of his grandpa (Jason Robards), the owner. After he fires the team’s existing coach, mega-asshole George O’Farrell (Dennis Farina), Billy talks the team’s front office into letting him coach based on his extensive knowledge of both baseball history and gameplay. He faces some blowback from the players, all of who knew and liked him as a kid hanging around with his grandpa, but who don’t exactly want to take grown-up orders from someone who hasn’t even hit puberty, much less seen Night Nurses From Jersey. By mid-movie, however, Heywood wins the team over—and wins a bunch of games—by reminding these burly, overpaid grown men that baseball’s a fun game, rather than a tiresome job.
Once the team’s star player Lou (Timothy Busfield) takes an interest in Heywood’s mom (Ashley Crow), however, the shit hits the fan. Billy acts out, cursing out an umpire and referring to himself in the third person in a press conference. He benches a slumping Lou and ditches his friends to hang out with Reggie Jackson. As he hits the skids, so do his players, who no longer feel any sort of camaraderie amongst themselves or their owner-manager. After some heart-to-heart talks with his mom and Lou, Billy realizes he misses his friends and isn’t all that into adult responsibility after all. He tells the team he’s replacing himself after the end of the season. But first, the team must face the deadly Seattle Mariners with their big-at-the-time one-two punch of Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
Little Big League’s premise is as absurd as Rookie Of The Year’s, but it’s executed in a much subtler fashion. There are jokes and pratfalls in the movie—The team pushes Billy off a bench! Billy and some of the team members drop a water balloon from a hotel room onto a dickish pitcher!—but they’re not as hokey and overt as some of Rookie’s. (“Did he say funky butt-loving?”) Little Big League is a movie that kids would, and did, love, but it’s also a movie that’s an entirely enjoyable watch for adults. Billy seems like an A-okay kid. He has a good head on his shoulders and he manages to combine a childlike love for baseball with some almost adult decisions. He’ll be a great manager someday, but first he needs to be a great kid.
While each of these three movies is entertaining in its own way, Little Big League exemplifies baseball at its best. It’s a sport for kids, for grown-ups, for everyone. It’s interesting to speculate about contracts and whether Pete Rose should be in the Hall Of Fame, but what feels best is playing catch or seeing a great play on a sunny day. It’s a cliché, for sure, but it’s a cliché for a reason. It’s easy enough to forget these sporty truths in the playoffs, when every passed ball is a personal affront and everyone hates the Yankees, but that’s why there are movies like these to remind us that while it’s easy enough to be nostalgic for the old days—whether it’s the days of Babe Ruth or the summer The Sandlot was in theaters—the joy of baseball is still there for us, so long as we adults don’t screw it up.