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'Sandlot' still resonates 20 years after debut

'Sandlot' still resonates 20 years after debut

'Sandlot' still resonates 20 years after debut

The exasperated dad put down his luggage and looked at the crazed kid giving him so much grief.

This was an airport concourse, a place where we too often find ourselves expending the last inches of our emotional rope. It's a fast-paced environment made immeasurably more frantic by the threat of missed flights or lost bags or long and winding terminal layouts.

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No place to be dealing with an unruly child.

So the dad looked at the lad, searching for the proper words to express his irritation. And he didn't have to search long, because the words had come into his life via the magic of the movies and become lodged in some impenetrable recess of his brain.

"You're killing me, Smalls!"

Ah, yes, there they were. Words that, when strung together, do better than any other conceivable combination to articulate anguish caused by another human being. When you're cut off on the highway, when you're running late and the dude in front of you in line at Subway is oh-so-carefully deliberating his choice of bread, when you've really, really got to go to the bathroom and the janitor's closed it up, the words perfectly apply:

"You're killing me, Smalls!"

David Mickey Evans wrote those words for a movie he directed and narrated. It was called "The Sandlot," and, inconceivably for those of us who remember it as a childhood favorite, it turned 20 years old this year.

When Evans heard that stranger using those words in that moment of airport agony a couple of years back, he simply couldn't resist telling the dad that he was the one who wrote them. Evans even pulled out his business card to prove he really was a moviemaker and was not lying or out of his mind.

"You should have seen that dude look at me, like, 'What?'" Evans says with a laugh. "I said, 'I swear. I'm not armed, I'm not weird.'"

"The Sandlot's" success story is pretty weird. The coming-of-age tale about a group of boys who bond through neighborhood baseball in the summer of 1962 didn't generate a ton of buzz upon its release in 1993. Aside from Roger Ebert calling it a "summertime version" of "A Christmas Story," it didn't garner much in the way of positive press. And though it grossed $32.4 million at the box office (not too shabby at a time when the average ticket was $4), it was certainly not some runaway smash.

Yet the movie has endured and resonated for 20 years in part because of that famous line, in part because of its overt nostalgia and in part because it romanticizes a sport beloved by so many.

David Mickey Evans has been visiting Major and Minor League ballparks all summer, attending screenings of "The Sandlot," which he wrote, directed and narrated.

Here is the schedule of upcoming screenings:

  • Fifth Third Field, home of the Dayton Dragons (Dayton, Ohio) - Aug. 10
  • Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers (Omaha, Neb.) - Aug. 17
  • The Epicenter, home of the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) - Aug. 30
  • Dodger Stadium, home of the Los Angeles Dodgers (Los Angeles) - Sept. 1
  • Coolray Field, home of the Gwinnett Braves (Lawrenceville, Ga.) - Sept. 21

The resonance is such that Evans has spent all summer touring professional ballparks across the country, meeting with fans of the film, screening it on jumbotrons and swapping stories about its creation and impact.

He hasn't paid for a single beer along the way.

"I don't know if it gets any better than that," he says, beaming.

So what is it about this quirky comedy that has held up so well? How do you explain "The Sandlot" -- be it the VHS version in the '90s, DVD in the 2000s or the 20th anniversary Blu-ray edition that came out in March -- selling more copies every year of its existence than the year before?

"It's weird, right?" Evans said. "It's astounding. I think it's because the movie is a period piece, No. 1, and so it's this tiny little piece of historical fiction. But it's relatable and it's real and it's authentic and it's honest. So because of that, it doesn't ever feel old. To me, honestly, some of these guys in the cast, I hadn't seen for 20 years, but you see them the last couple months, and it feels like last week. It really does."

The boys who made up the Sandlot squad were profiled in Sports Illustrated's "Where Are They Now?" edition last month. They are men now, but to strangers passing on the street they'll always be "Ham" Porter, Scotty Smalls, Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, "Squints," et al. Tom Guiry, who played Smalls, told the story of the time he rear-ended a stopped car on an I-95 exit ramp. The other driver got out, instantly recognized him and shouted -- what else? -- "You're killing me, Smalls!"

That line, delivered by Porter to Smalls when the latter revealed, much to Porter's bewilderment, he had never heard of a s'more, is the film's seminal moment but not its only memorable one.

"The Wendy Peffercorn saga is awesome, too," says Rays outfielder Sam Fuld. "It's so spot-on, I think, for a lot of people's childhoods."

Ah, yes, there are millions of American men who can relate to the way the boys pined after Wendy Peffercorn, the voluptuous lifeguard at the municipal pool. In the film, Squints brings those childhood wishes to life by faking his own drowning so that Wendy will have to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Like the rest of "The Sandlot," that scene was not written from specific experience but certainly from loose association with Evans' own childhood.

"It's like Charles Schulz, who drew "Peanuts" and denied almost to the day he died that there really was a little redheaded girl," Evans says. "When I was a kid in Southern California, I'd go to the public swimming pool. It cost like 50 cents for 11 hours in the pool. The lifeguards are up on those pedestals, and they were either the super-tan, fit young guys or these incredibly beautiful high school girls. The girls always had these Los Angeles County-issued, red, one-piece bathing suits. One of them was named -- I kid you not -- Bunny. You'd see her and you never wanted to get out of the pool!"

The idea for "The Sandlot" popped into Evans' head while he was stuck in traffic. It was both true to life and an exaggeration of life.

"None of these kids was any kid I knew, and all of them were every kid I knew," he says. "The nugget for the movie was this small incident in my childhood when my brother jumped the fence to get the ball back from some kids who didn't like us. And this dog bit him really bad, tore his leg up. And that dog's name was Hercules [same as in the movie]. One day, I was parked on an L.A. freeway and thought, 'What if there were these nice kids, these little heroes, and they had to get back a ball that was worth like $2 million?'"

Now, as the video sales accumulate, those little heroes are being viewed by young audiences year after year after year. "The Sandlot" might be 20, but it's not showing its age.

"Baseball, of all sports on earth, works best as a metaphor and background to tell the story, because baseball is the sport that is most like life," Evans says. "If you had to sum up baseball, it would be opportunity and hope, and that's what life is supposed to be about."

And when life gets momentarily interrupted by a minor annoyance, well, you know what to say.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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