How come, in the movies, simply being a kid is never enough? Child heroes are forever portrayed saving wayward adults, like The Bad New Bears' Tatum O'Neal drying out a beersoaked Walter Matthau. Or else, as with the morose Wil Wheaton in Stand by Me, they're tackling life's deepest mysteries, like Albert Camus in short pants.
In The Sandlot, being a kid is plenty, thank you. This is a simple charmer of a movie about nine boys and the one thing that is important to them: baseball. Sure, they learn about togetherness, bravery, self-improvement, and all that goofy stuff, but baseball is the glue that connects this group. Their horizons end at the center-field fence.
It's 1962, and Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) is a neighborhood new kid with the worst possible resume he's a self-proclaimed ''egghead'' who not only can't throw or catch a ball, but doesn't even know who Babe Ruth was, even though his stepfather, Bill (comedian Denis Leary), has a prized baseball autographed by the Bambino. Since Bill can never seem to find time to teach him to play catch, Scotty joins eight kids on a sandlot adjacent to a junkyard. From the first pitch Scotty is mortified, but enter Benny Rodriguez (Mike Vitar), the group's hotshot leader. With Benny's help, Scotty quickly picks up the game, and hey, guys, high five! We're bonding!
These kids play all day, every day, until one of them invariably knocks the ball out of the park. That's when the world intrudes. Lurking outside the center-field fence is ''the Beast,'' an untamed mastiff who, according to local legend, has eaten 173 kids and more than 150 baseballs. One afternoon Scotty borrows his stepfather's autographed ball. Of course, one homer and it's going, going, gone into the jaws of the Beast.
At that point, the boys face the Big Life Challenge, testing their resourcefulness by trying to retrieve the ball with a broom handle, and erector-set gizmo worthy of Rube Goldberg, and finally a daisy chain of vacuum cleaners. Nothing works, of course; the Beast chomps each contraption easily. Heck, this dog could probably chew a stale Fenway Frank. Finally Benny, inspired by the Babe in a dream, decides to confront the Beast himself because, as the Bambino tells him, ''Most people get one chance to do something great.''
The Sandlot's bases are loaded with this kind of didactics, but they never overshadow the best shared moments of boys' life: camping out in the woods, telling horror stories, tricking a buxom lifeguard into giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and a gross-out experiment with chewing tobacco.
Not all their antics are fresh or endearing; the kids' standard reaction to the Beast is a sustained Culkinesque ''Aaaaugh!'' In one scene Benny really connects and literally tears the cover off the ball; in another the boys play ball by the light of fireworks for a second I thought I was watching The Natural: The Early Years. But no matter. That kind of nit-picking is lost on kids.
To keep adults' heads in the game, The Sandlot displays a keen sense of baseball history. Any good fortysomething fan will appreciate Benny's outfit during his mad dash for the ball. Along with his Dodgers cap, he wears number 30 the number worn in 1962 by Maury Wills when he broke Ty Cobb's basestealing record.
Above all, The Sandlot is a love letter to the game and an era when baseball was still the National Pastime, when a kid's status was determined by how well he could rattle off Rocky Colavito's batting average, and when the unkindest cut of all was ''You throw like a girl!'' Certainly the sight of nine middle-class kids playing ball instead of Nintendo on a sunny day will draw a nostalgic sigh from any parent.
The Sandlot lays down life's little lessons with the feathery touch of a sacrifice bunt. During the ball-retreiving scenes, as the gang learns to work as a team off the field, the movie never loses its quick pace or its sense of fun. Old baseball wisdom: The best teams win with strong fundamentals. So do the best movies. B+