What, you’re too good for a kiddy movie about baseball? You’re killing me, Smalls.
Let’s start with the most shocking statistic of all: This is the third baseball movie I’ve considered for “Best Movie Ever?” status. Unsettling, right? A League of Their Own and The Bad News Bears are worthy candidates, but it’s still dubious news. I didn’t even pick the baseball movie with Glenn Close in it! Why, Louis, why?! (That movie is terribly boring is why. Even Glenn thinks her role was “orbitally written.” Also, Robert Redford does nothing for me. OR YOU. Unless he’s directing Timothy Hutton to break our hearts, of course.)
The Sandlot is a juvenile movie with a buttery nostalgic glow, but its starring team of ragtag 12-year-olds is never saccharine, corny, or phony. These kids chew tobacco, use swear words, and embarrass themselves constantly, and therefore The Sandlot is a very effective, nostalgic movie because it fondly remembers the narrator’s childhood as both fun and tough. The Sandlot’s delinquents, for all of their asinine humor and silly misadventures, are justifiable human beings whose livelihoods are (rightfully) wrapped up in base hits and boisterous camaraderie. It’s an edifying perspective because they’re not just kids; they’re people.
In honor of the movie’s 20th anniversary, let’s pick the five reasons it may be the Best Movie Ever.
1. It’s heartwarming to remember that kids are total jerks.
Nothing makes you grow up faster than derision from your peers, am I right? In The Sandlot, a nervous middle-schooler named Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moves to a new town in the 1960s and tries to befriend the local group of kids who play catch and field grounders every day at the local sandlot. It’s not an easy transition, but soon even the biggest blowhards of the group (a pudgy catcher who goes by the name “Hamm,” a bratty imp named “Yeah Yeah,” and a bespectacled pervert nicknamed “Squints”) take a shine to the novice.
The group’s superstar ringleader Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) is most sympathetic to Smalls, but even he can’t protect the asthmatic kid after he steals a Babe Ruth-signed baseball from his father and loses it during a scrimmage. Worse yet? Smalls doesn’t realize who Babe Ruth is, and his teammates eviscerate him for it. It is harsh and hilarious. Lesson: Twelve-year-olds are terrifying gremlins who should be locked away in caves.
2. Fireworks: Fun for kids, horrifyingly grim for adults (or is that just me?)
Look, I can’t really explain it, but something is gut-wrenching and kind of torturous to me about a fireworks display. It’s the perfect picture of spectacle and excitement underscored by a grim, unspoken ennui. You set up your lawn chair, you watched the booming Lite Brite display, now go home. As Aimee Mann once sang in “4th of July”: “Another June has gone by / And when they light up our town / I just think what a waste of gunpowder and sky.” As an adult, fireworks displays make me cringe. But as a kid, fireworks represent the opposite of weariness: They’re a View-Master explosion of fun and whimsy, and in The Sandlot, the kids take a moment out of their endless baseball game to stare off at the local pyro show.
Remember that awesome existential scene in Stand By Me where Gordie finds himself face to face with a deer in the woods? And neither of them move, and they’re just staring, and they’re fine with each other? This fireworks scene, glammed up with a Ray Charles vocal, is the flashier version of that. It’s a reflective moment, and most of the kids are complicit in the childlike awe. But Benny, the driven adult of the group, isn’t swayed, and that’s the most poetic difference between “The Jet” and his pals. A perfectly realized moment.
3. The Sandlot reminded us that 12-year-old perverts are some of our most diabolical geniuses.
Sometimes “little perverts” understand things best. How do you get the hot lifeguard’s attention? By making her guard your life using her primary instrument: lip power.
For the record, Yeah-Yeah’s concerned delivery of “Yeah, yeah, he looks pretty crappy” is my favorite moment in the whole film.
4. This insult war is the middle school jock version of the Algonquin Round Table
Let’s just count up every amazing thing about this scene: 1) A douchebag rival team on bikes. 2) Their hilarious douchebag color scheme. 3) The cocky, Guys and Dolls-y delivery of “You aren’t even fit to lick the dirt off my cleats.” 4) The grace of a line like of “Count on it, IDIOT.” 5) The ensuing rally of immature, angry-as-hell, nearly witty putdowns. I wish a 12-year-old Dorothy Parker strolled up in bloomers while puffing a Marlboro and announced, “You pricks cover the whole range of emotions from A to B.” 6) The climactic insult. Just offensive enough to really work. Kids!
5. Like any sports movie that matters, it isn’t about winning.
Funny thing about every sports movie whose climactic scene involves a big victory: You never need to see it again. Hoosiers, Rookie of the Year, and Angels in the Outfield want you to believe in the cinematic power of “the big game,” and maybe you do for a few minutes. Then you realize these movies refuse to matter. They refuse to thrill you, surprise you, or mean anything beyond an average episode of The Real World/Road Rules Challenge. Victory is a cheap reward, and it says nothing about character.
In The Sandlot, the movie peaks with Benny attempting to retrieve the Babe Ruth-signed ball from a buzzardly old neighbor’s backyard where a vicious dog roams. It’s a vaudevillian chase scene, but one that results in an awesome, unexpected friendship with the neighbor himself (played by James Earl Jones). Benny and Smalls find themselves chatting with the old guy about baseball, and the real message of the movie then becomes clear: Two of these nine kids emerged from the raucous summer as grownups, and it’s these two Little League alums. Touching, but not cheesy. Fabulous.
What are your favorite Sandlot moments?