The Greatest Game Ever Played
The year was 1962. The average movie ticket price was $.50 and the first ever Wal-Mart opened. The first Beatles recording was released and the New York Yankees won the World Series. Baseball was America’s pastime and all across the country young boys spent their summer days sweating on dirt fields, playing pickup games with the boys in the neighborhood from dawn ‘til dusk, or at least until their mothers said it was time for dinner.
The Sandlot focuses on one of these neighborhoods, on one of these dusty fields, and on one of these groups of boys who “never kept score, never took sides, never even really stopped playing the game.”
Scotty Smalls tells us the story of the summer that he was the new kid in town through a voiceover reminiscent of The Wonder Years, which allows the writer/director David Evans to provide some nostalgia for the past. Smalls guides us through the summer that is filled with familial tensions, prepubescent crushes, a beast that lives down the road, and lots and lots of baseball.
The plot is fairly straight forward, but what make the movie are the various characters that make up the team. The boys add to the heart and comedy that the film is filled with. “Squints” is a personal favorite – the way his too-big-for-his-face black framed glasses have to constantly be pushed up the bridge of his nose is endearing, and his cunning little mind that gets him into a lip lock with the older lifeguard, Wendy Peffercorn, impresses me to this day. Of course there is the overweight boy, “Ham,” and two brothers Timmy and Tommy Timmons, and “Yeah Yeah,” who’s nickname derives from his over use of the phrase, well, “Yeah yeah.” Evans does an excellent job capturing the innocence of the boys and uses close ups of their over-the-top facial expressions to bring out the most comedic moments, something the Home Alone generation is very familiar with.
I’ll just go ahead and get it off my chest now that I once had an intense admiration of the leader of the group, Benny. I’m not really sure if I had a crush on him or if I just wanted to be him. I used to specifically wear a t-shirt under an unbuttoned button-up so that I could jump off the last few stairs in my house and feel like Benny, with the tails of my shirt floating up behind me in the breeze. Even now, it’s undeniable that he is quite possibly the coolest ten-year-old that ever lived. His baseball skills are remarkable, played out in a scene where he literally busts the insides out of the baseball. His facing of “the beast” that steals the signed Babe Ruth baseball, an event alluded to constantly in the first hour of the film, is heroic and awe-inspiring, and provides one of the greatest chase scenes in cinematic history. Well, at least the greatest dog-chasing-kid scene.
I don’t remember the first time I saw The Sandlot, however my sources say it all started around 1997. Baseball was my favorite sport, though at three years old I couldn’t swing anything heavier than a wiffle-bat and my glove was a red plastic one my dad bought at Wal-Mart. It wasn’t just my love of baseball that drew me to the movie. I liked other sports movies, notably Rookie of the Year and Space Jam, but The Sandlot, for lack of a better term, was in a league of it’s own.
I am fairly certain I’ve watched this movie more than any other. My mother recalls that for a year, it seemed the only way to get me to sit in one place for an hour and a half was to pop in the worn VHS tape.
I called my mother this week to ask her what she thought about the movie. She had actually seen it before buying it for me and liked it, finding it to be a rather palatable children’s movie that was original and authentic. The children occasionally drop foul language and the boys are loveable even though they can be, in Benny’s words, “blockheads” and “goofuses.” I’m sure she wasn’t expecting to watch the movie day after day, and be able to quote the film almost in it’s entirety, but she assured me it could have been much worse.
While thinking of this, as I watched the movie this week, I realized how truly different it is from others made for children. Smalls doesn’t have a perfect family life. The boys are exclusive and essentially bullies, as most real kids are. The most refreshing aspect is that it isn’t about winning. There isn’t some big game at the end that the kids are training to win, like countless other sports flicks. They are just being kids – hopping fences, exaggerating stories, coming up with highly juvenile insults that some how still get a laugh out of me.
I knew it would be difficult to watch something I treasured so much, that defined entire years of my childhood, and try to think of it as just another movie. Watching with a critic’s eye, I started picking up on things that hadn’t seemed to bother me in the hundred times I’d seen it before. For instance, the score is comical – at times I wanted to mute it so I didn’t have to hear wind chimes every time something “special” happened. And the cheesiness doesn’t end there. Every time the “beast” moves behind the fence a plume of dust similar to those seen in images of the Dust Bowl rises. When Smalls hits the Babe Ruth signed ball over the fence, it comes shooting towards the camera with the autograph displayed prominently, just incase you missed the fact that it’s the ball he had just stolen from his stepdad’s office.
Babe Ruth (Art LaFleur) eventually makes an appearance in a quasi-dream sequence with Benny, where he comes out of Benny’s closet as a black and white, fuzzy TV image and gives the kid some advice. “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” The inspirational effect this line clearly had on me as a child, as I quoted it all too often, does not quite resonate with me anymore and most likely wouldn’t with any adult who has ever followed their heart to undesirable results. Later on as Benny is going to face off with the beast, the advice is echoed to point out it’s significance once again, with wind chime accompaniment, of course.
One of the sad things I realized in watching The Sandlot as an adult is the depressing story of the main character, Smalls. It starts rough for Smalls, being the new kid in town who doesn’t know anyone. Then he has this stepfather who can’t find time to teach him to catch (or throw for that matter). Instead of wearing a cool Dodgers or Yankees hat like the other boys in town, Smalls sports a hideous brown one with a fish on it and the most ridiculously long bill. Possibly the worst thing is his lack of knowledge of the single greatest baseball player of all time which leads the boys into “the biggest pickle of their lives.” And while Smalls learns to catch, gets accepted into the group, and loses the absurd hat, he isn’t the reason for his growth. Benny is.
Benny becomes Smalls’ best friend, coach, and at some points father figure, taking on the responsibility of not only teaching Smalls how to play ball, but also how to conquer fears. In the end when we learn the fates of the nine boys -- except one who “got too into the sixties and no one’s seen him since” – it’s Benny who becomes a major league player, not Smalls. No, Smalls is stuck up in the press box, announcing Benny’s game winning play, and wearing that stupid fish hat.
In this concluding scene where Benny wins a game for the Dodgers, he turns to the press box to give a thumbs up to Smalls. As the camera zooms in on the framed photograph of the boys on the dusty field from that summer in 1962, I began to feel quite nostalgic of my own past. The movie had reminded me of the countless times my sister called me Smalls and I could picture my dad teaching me how to catch with my crappy red glove on the freshly mown grass. I thought of all the summers I spent running the diamond and how good it felt to hear the sound of my Sketchers slapping the bases. It made me realize where my slight fear of dogs might have originated and why I seem to take a liking to boys in backwards baseball caps. The movie had brought me back to days of skinned knees and SPF 60 sunblock and riding bikes until dusk, or at least until my mother called me home for dinner.
As I sat in my room, watching the credits role, I fully grasped how much this movie not only meant to me but how much it still does. More importantly, for the first time I saw what this movie is really about. It’s not about winning the game or getting the girl or learning some big moral lesson. It’s about the love of the game and the bond of its players.