While driving to my Coronavirus date night, part II, as per my usual, I had on sports talk radio. As it so happened, I tuned it at the exact moment that they were interviewing Patrick Renna. If that name does not immediately ring a bell, he played Hamilton “Ham” Porter in 1993’s The Sandlot. As a baseball fan who is missing baseball greatly with the season being delayed, I thought this would be a good time to look back on this bit of classic cinema. Gosh, it is hard to believe this film came out twenty-seven years ago!
Set in the summer of 1962, The Sandlot taps into all the nostalgia of the era. Being coupled with baseball gives it a double dose of those feel-good memories of a bygone era. This might be an oft repeated phrase in the next couple weeks, but looking back on simpler times can be just the salve we need right now. The story focuses on a group of pre-teens led by Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez (Mike Vitar) whose sole desire is to play as much baseball as possible in their neighborhood hard-scrabble field. Of course, they have other adventures along the way, the most famous of which being their quest to retrieve a Babe Ruth signed baseball from Mr. Mertle’s (James Earl Jones) yard and his “vicious” English mastiff The Beast, aka Hercules.
The Sandlot is told from the perspective of Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), the new kid on the block who knows nothing about baseball. His lack of knowledge about the sport draws the famous line from “Ham,” “You’re killing me, Smalls!” It is one of the most iconic lines in recent cinema history, and I am sure that Patrick Renna has dined out on it more times than we could count. But I digress. The use of Smalls as the main character and narrator of the story is brilliant as it allows the audience to not only have this group of young baseball aficionados explained to the audience, but also helps to remind us what it was like to be a kid again. I would submit that it does not really matter what year the movie is set in. Being a kid, like baseball, is timeless. The argument can be made that the sport’s popularity has been declining in recent years, but it is still a kid’s game. Thus the film is somewhat of a fountain of youth.
There are other important qualities about The Sandlot that, while not the sole purview of Catholicism, are great lessons broadly. The best one involves Smalls’ decision to take the Babe Ruth signed baseball to use for his friends game. His stepfather, Bill (Denis Leary), owned the ball and kept it in a room he was not supposed to enter. And had he been able to attach the nicknames his friends gave to their idol, Babe Ruth, to the name on the ball, he probably would have never taken it off the shelf. Thus when the ball is hit over the fence, it presents not only the physical problem of retrieving it, but a moral dilemma for Smalls of owning up to his mistake. In short, a pickle. The lengths to which his friends go in their quest to get the ball back are commendable. But the real test comes when Smalls has to confess to stealing the souvenir, which he does. Well done, kid.
To be sure, The Sandlot cannot replace real baseball. Nor is it the best baseball movie, in this reviewer’s opinion. The best would be The Natural, though that has a lot to do with it being so formative to my childhood (I always wore the number 9 because of it). Still, as mentioned earlier, the film is a great escape from troubling times.