Welcome to our Dinner and a Movie series, where we feature nostalgic essays on some of our favorite films from the '80s and '90s, and share recipes inspired from movie moments.
“Hey, you wanna s’more?” asks Hamilton “Ham” Porter, a stout, freckled redhead.
“S’more what?” asks our young hero, shy bookworm Scotty Smalls.
“No, no. You wanna s’more?” Ham repeats, slowing the pronunciation and pointing to his display of burning candles, marshmallows, stacks of graham crackers and bars of chocolate. Nervously and innocently Smalls says, “I haven’t had anything yet, so how can I have more of nothing?”
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” Ham cries out, giving us an often-repeated phrase for expressing exasperation.
It’s 1962, and Smalls, Ham and the rowdy boys of The Sandlot crew are hanging out in the clubhouse, eating s’mores and making memories. And Ham is only too happy to initiate Smalls into the wonders of the perennial summertime treat: “First, you take the graham. You stick the chocolate on the graham. Then you roast the mallow,” Ham patiently explains, placing a puffy ball of marshmallow on a reshaped wire coat hanger and heating it over candles. “When the mallow’s flaming, you stick it on the chocolate. Then you cover it with the other end. Then you scarf.” And scarf he does, though not before sharing a gooey, sweet bite with Smalls — who relishes not only the s’more, but the friendly sign of inclusion that proves even more fulfilling.
And that’s the joy of The Sandlot. It’s a movie about baseball, but it’s also a movie about lasting friendships and coming-of-age.
This year marks 30 years since the film’s debut, and it still charms today. By far the most heartwarming theme is seeing shy newcomer Smalls, who acts like a foreign exchange student in the land of American boys. He knows nothing about baseball — the neighborhood’s chosen sport — but he’s adopted into the group because he’s the needed ninth mitt-holder to fill out a team. He successfully catches a ball and that cinches it — he’s in. And there’s nothing better than acceptance, especially at this critical time in a person’s life.
The movie shows the boys are growing up in subtle ways, facing new and old challenges and learning what they’re made of. And somehow they squeeze a lifetime of adventure into one summer.
A boy named Squints (Chauncey Leopardi) tricks the buxom teenage lifeguard into giving him his first kiss. The team’s misadventure with Big Chief chewing tobacco at a summer carnival induces a messy bout of nausea on the Tilt-a-Whirl. And future L.A. Dodger Benny Rodriguez dons a pair of black PF. Flyers sneakers, “guaranteed to make a kid run faster and jump higher,” to retrieve a much-prized ball that has sailed over the backfield fence into Mr. Mertle’s yard — where a ferocious dog dubbed “The Beast” has gained a reputation for eating both balls and wayward children. Mertle’s fence offers another callback for baseball fans: It’s a corrugated metal barrier painted a deep green — just like the Green Monster, the nickname for the 37-foot, 2-inch high left field in Boston’s Fenway Park.
When we finally meet Mr. Mertle, the owner of the local junkyard and keeper of the ball-chomping Beast, we get another surprise: He’s played by none other than James Earl Jones, who only four years earlier delivered a memorable ode to baseball in the Kevin Costner classic Field of Dreams. Here, he’s a former pro player who palled around with Babe Ruth until a high fastball struck him in the eye and robbed him of his vision. He heroically offers Smalls a replacement for the precious Ruth-signed ball that the boy foolishly swiped from his stepdad and then lost to The Beast’s rough paws and slobbering.
Some aspects of The Sandlot depict experiences of growing up that remain universal, but there are many ways in which the childhood of the 1960s — and even the 1990s — may no longer be recognizable. And it’s not just that it’s difficult to find reference points like Sugar Crisp cereal (with baseball trading cards on the back of the box), PF. Flyers or chewing tobacco. The ’90s may be the last time when the ’60s-style free-range summertime childhood — picking up a mitt, snatching a snack on the way out the door and then spending a full summer day, unsupervised, just throwing and hitting and running around at the local park — still resonated with audiences. Aside from a black-and-white werewolf film playing at the Boys Club auditorium during the town’s Founders Day celebration, there’s not a screen in sight.
It’s an experience that may seem alien to today’s super-scheduled, smartphone-abled youth. And a modern standout like Benny would likely be shuttling between baseball camps and hypercompetitive traveling leagues.
But if you’re longing for a glimpse of how childhood used to be, cue up The Sandlot while squishing together some s’mores. The smell of roasted mallows and the squishy sugary goodness amid the crunch of the graham cracker will bring you all the comfort of a red-stitched ball landing solidly in the heel of a well-oiled glove.
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