In the early 1990s, you couldn’t go to your local cineplex without tripping over half a dozen scrappy kids' sports movies with titles like “The Mighty Ducks,” “The Big Green,” or “Ladybugs.” Of all these underdog stories, “The Sandlot” felt different for ‘90s kids. On the surface, it’s about baseball: A lonely kid learns how to appreciate the beauty of the game. It even has a Babe Ruth cameo! But the reason it connected with young audiences at the time of its release had absolutely nothing to do with sports. As a child of the 1990s, growing up as part of a generation for whom fear and anxiety was baked into learning how to interact with a larger world, we were drawn to “The Sandlot” for its depiction of a childhood that was so different from our own experiences.
I don’t know anything about baseball. Thanks to Benny’s antics in the framing story of “The Sandlot,” I am convinced that stealing home is probably the most exciting thing that a player could possibly do, even though Google tells me it’s actually not a very smart play, numbers-wise. But the movie, surprisingly, has very little to do with baseball. Unlike many of the other kids’ sports movies of the 1990s, there is no central narrative about the scrappy underdogs overcoming adversity to win big in the most important game of the season. We know that the kids who play baseball in the sandlot aren’t as wealthy and privileged as some of their classmates, as evinced by their crude rivalry with a local team, who ride up on brand new bikes wearing spotless uniforms to challenge them to a game at their well-maintained baseball diamond. But aside from their exchange of insults, there’s very little real conflict here—the sandlot kids win handily when they play each other, and it's treated as an opportunity for our heroes to show off more than anything else.
The film constantly reminds us that it’s not about the game. When they play together on the sandlot, they frequently rotate positions and don’t even bother keeping score. Some of the greatest set pieces—their trip to the community swimming pool, their disastrous attempt to go on a carnival ride after swallowing a bunch of chewing tobacco—don’t even take place at the sandlot. As the adult Scotty mentions as he narrates the epilogue, after that summer they never bothered to replace any of the players on the team when they moved away. It’s certainly not about baseball for Scotty; when he first meets Benny, he can barely hold a baseball and has to keep a notebook full of facts to remember about the sport in order to fit in. He’s drawn to the kids playing in the nearby sandlot not because he actually cares about sports, but because he longs for the camaraderie they share. A quiet loner, he seems resigned to playing inside with his Erector sets all summer until his mother literally begs him to go outside and make some friends. When he watches the boys playing baseball, trying to work up the nerve to figure out a way to join them, he is captivated by them for the exact same reason that the film’s young audiences were in the 1990s: Because they represent a childhood we didn’t have.
When my mom was a kid in the 1960s, she was unleashed on her neighborhood with her four brothers and sisters, only beckoned to come home once the street lights in their small town turned on. From what I’m told, they were a pack of unholy terrors, free to get into unending trouble without any adult supervision. By the time I was around in the 1990s, the world seemed to be smaller for kids. In a cultural landscape of Stranger Danger and DARE, we were taught that the world was a hostile and threatening place. We were told to keep an eye out for strange cars we didn’t recognize on our street, adults passing along their own anxieties to us, along with the burden of keeping ourselves safe from other adults who were apparently all out to prey on us. If strangers didn’t want to abduct us for their own nefarious purposes, they definitely wanted to get us addicted to drugs, which DARE helpfully taught us we could die from even if it was our first time partaking in an illicit substance.
It’s not that we spent our entire childhoods constantly worrying about how to fight off would-be kidnappers and heroin dealers—far from it. But the fact that these were the fears of the adults around us meant that our opportunities to explore the world were ... well, limited. Playdates had to be carefully arranged based on the availability of parents to give rides, and we needed a note from a parent for a bus driver to drop us off at a friend’s house after school. We were certainly not the last generation to be raised like this, but we operated at an uncertain intersection between latchkey kids and helicopter parenting. And now, 30 years further removed from the laissez-faire parenting of the 1960s, childhood has only grown more regimented. With smart tracking devices, a culture where over-reaching neighbors think nothing of calling CPS if they witness a kid playing outside without parental supervision, and a life-changing pandemic that created a greater sense of isolation than ever before, children’s lives are shockingly insular and structured.
By contrast, the boys in “The Sandlot” were essentially feral. Let loose for the entire summer to get up to all kinds of shenanigans, they could do whatever they wanted as long as they were home by dinnertime. The idea of that much freedom and opportunity for socialization was utterly intoxicating for someone who, for example, spent their childhood nurturing an elaborate micro-society of troll dolls ruled by Molly from American Girl, a benevolent overlord. The bond that the boys in “The Sandlot” developed in this environment of shared independence was entirely foreign. I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, but when I watched “The Sandlot” as a kid, all I thought about was how much I wanted to have the kind of friendships that only come from being able to roam around town completely unsupervised.
Of course, even as a kid, I knew the version of childhood I saw in “The Sandlot” wasn’t perfect. Let’s be honest, the boys almost die about a half dozen times over the course of the film. They make terrible, destructive decisions all to avoid talking to an adult. It’s probably not great that Squints faces zero negative consequences for the stunt he pulls at the swimming pool with Wendy Peffercorn. You can admire their sense of independence while also acknowledging the fact that if they had even one fully engaged parent in their general vicinity, they wouldn’t have had to take their lives into their own hands just to retrieve a baseball. And as much as I yearned for this type of friendship, I was also acutely aware of the fact that as a girl, I would not have been welcome. After all, the greatest insult any of them can think of is, “You play ball like a girl!”
Most sports movies, especially the ones that feature kids and are made with young audiences in mind, follow very specific narrative guidelines that highlight the sport. “The Sandlot” was unique because it eschewed that formula in favor of a light-hearted coming-of-age story that centered the characters’ friendships above all else. It appealed to kids of the 1990s, and continues to attract young audiences to this day precisely because of that: "The Sandlot" captured the spirit of an entirely different version of childhood that we couldn’t help but be drawn in by.