Patrick Renna was recently walking down a street on New York’s Lower East Side, along with Tom Guiry, when the two of them passed a younger man wearing a T-shirt with Renna’s face on it.
“I said to him, ‘Nice shirt,’” Renna recalls.
At first, the T-shirt wearer was a bit confused — until he looked a little closer, and sure enough, the person standing directly in front of him was the grown-up version of Ham himself, as in Hamilton Porter, the chubby, red-headed, freckle-faced character from the now classic film, “The Sandlot.” And the individual accompanying him was Scotty Smalls, the character in the show who moves into a new neighborhood, is guided to and taught baseball by a newfound friend, drawing close to a group of buddies who land in the middle of numerous adventures.
Two things are significant about that encounter: 1) The fact that somebody was wearing an article of clothing memorializing a fictional character in a fictional movie that had been filmed right here in Salt Lake City and Ogden some 25 years after its release, and 2) The man who was wearing the T-shirt was just 20 years old, meaning he wasn’t even born when the movie came out.
That speaks to the staying power of a film about a bunch of pre-teens coming together to play neighborhood baseball, and gives hope that perhaps the notion that youngsters no longer care about the game, that they would sooner sit around and play video games, that the idea of rounding up their pals and playing pickup baseball isn’t completely dead.
It’s only mostly dead.
Back in the day, the time period represented in “The Sandlot,” which was the 1960s, it was not uncommon for a group of kids to either head over to a nearby field for a game of pickup baseball, or to fashion a field out of the front and back yards of various residents in the neighborhood. Mrs. Jones’ light post was the left-field foul pole, Mr Stephens’ driveway was the warning track, the Johnsons’ roof was the upper deck, the bases were assorted pieces of carefully placed clothing, the rubber on the mound was a sprinkler head.
If that illustration seems dusty/old-fashioned, it’s because it is.
For me and my then-young friends, many of whom are grandparents now, we’d sneak into Naaman’s Field, a Little League ballpark, or scamper across the diamond at Lombardy Elementary School, where we’d often have to close down, say, right field because we were a player or two short. Everybody did that when we were kids.
Who does it now?
When was the last time you saw a pack of 12-year-olds playing an informal brand of baseball? Kids chewing gum from their baseball card collection, and firing off their opinions about Major League players and teams, or just shooting the bull between innings?
Kids are either playing super-organized ball, with all kinds of coaching and equipment and facilities and parental supervision, or they aren’t playing the game at all.
That idea is a sad one for the boys-turned-men who gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the release of the film at Smith’s Ballpark on Friday night and also on a plot of land in west Salt Lake on Saturday night, in the area where the field used in the film is located and has been refurbished. (“Utah has a special place in our hearts,” says Renna, “because this is where it all happened.”)
Now 39 years old, Renna says he’s hoping that trend away from baseball will turn in his own kids’ time, so that they will play some ball, make connections with other kids, make friends.
“One of the lines in the movie is, the mom, Karen Allen, tells Tom Guiry, ‘Go out there, get in trouble, get your hands dirty, get in trouble, but not too much trouble.’ Now, in this day and age, it’s get on Fortnite, but not too much Fortnite. It’s a bummer. … You want your kids to get out there and live life, but be safe, be smart doing it.”
Says Victor DiMattia, who played Timmy Timmons in the film: “Hopefully, the fact that this movie keeps living on with the new generations, maybe it will inspire some kids to get out there and play some baseball.”
The idea that the movie has resonated with audiences, and is still doing so, has come as something of a shock to the guys who played in it, a group of child-actors who were just trying to have some fun during filming.
“We didn’t realize it,” says Marty York, who played Alan “Yeah-Yeah” McClennan. “It’s just gotten bigger and bigger.”
“We had no idea,” says DiMattia. “We’re amazed. It’s humbling that 25 years later, people are still watching it.”
“We had an idea,” Renna says, “that something special was happening, but …”
They certainly did not expect “The Sandlot” to find a spot in some polls as the best baseball movie ever made, a status it attained in a recent Major League Baseball survey.
“I’d maybe put it in the top five,” Renna says. “It’s a movie a 45-year-old dad and his 15-year-old son can watch together. … There are a thousand reasons for its popularity. [The character] Benny brings in this guy, Scotty Smalls, and it’s all about inclusion. Scotty’s kind of the nerd and Benny’s the cool kid. It has a special, sentimental aspect to it. It’s not just about baseball.”
But the fact that baseball is the foundation upon which the rest of the story is built makes it that much better for those who still love the game, and for those who will.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.