At this point, it’s safe to say that the early 1990s marked the dawning of the Golden Age for pop-culture nostalgia. You’ve got your pogs, your Saved by the Bell, your JNCOs (more on those later). But there were also those children’s sports movies—you know, those ones with the characters whose names you still recognize two decades later: Rookie of the Year, Little Giants, The Mighty Ducks trilogy, Little Big League, Angels in the Outfield (which, as we must all never forget, starred Adrien Brody, Matthew McConaughey and Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and many others.
But perhaps none left a more indelible mark on the psyche of ’80s babies than The Sandlot. Set in early-1960s southern California, it eschewed the traditional sports movie paradigm. You know the one: a bunch of rag-tag misfits band together and beat their far more talented, far more mean-spirited rivals at the movie’s climax. Though predictable, many of the those early nineties sports movies managed to find their own unique spin on the tried-and-true formula (including, most notably, Little Big League, which pulled off an ambitious 180 on the traditional conclusion).
The Sandlot, however, ditched that classic plot structure entirely. More than anything else, it was a story about friendship and fitting in. It was about how two kids—Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) and Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (Mike Vitar)—at two opposite ends of the athletic spectrum can form a life-long bond over the course of one summer spent playing baseball. The duo and the rest of the sandlot group—who at first are reluctant to accept Smalls onto the team due to his utter lack of athletic talent or knowledge— spend the entire film getting into and out of a host of shenanigans. There’s no coach teaching life lessons and no big climactic game (Benny, Smalls and the rest of the team trounce the snooty varsity jacket bike gang halfway through the film). Just a bunch of kids trading insults, lusting after the local lifeguard and avoiding an enormous dog nicknamed “The Beast.”
Today, April 9, 2013, marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Sandlot (though apparently that date is a matter of dispute). To commemorate this auspicious occasion, TIME spoke with Tom Guiry about The Sandlot, Denis Leary and PF Flyers—here’s what we learned:
[ 01 ] Tom Guiry was an 11-year-old kid who won the lead role—in a movie that also starred Denis Leary, James Earl Jones and Karen Allen —on his sixth audition.
Guiry, who (according to IMDb) had just one credit predating The Sandlot, was discovered by an agent (who still represents him today) during a production of The Christmas Carol at Princeton’s McCarter theater.
[ 02] The young cast had a great time…
“It was pretty much just playing baseball, swimming, going to a carnival,” Guiry says. “For an 11-year-old, you really couldn’t ask for a better movie to be in. It was like summer camp.”
[ 03 ] … well, except for the weather.
The movie was filmed in Utah, outside Salt Lake City, during a warm spell. Remember the scene where all the boys are saying it’s too hot for baseball, but Benny still wants to play and he accuses them of being “can’t-hack-it pantywaists who wear their mama’s bra” before ultimately agreeing to go to the pool? Not too far from the truth.
“I remember one scene, where we had to do a lot of running and I didn’t even know I was going down, but I smashed right into the Steadicam guy,” Guiry says. “But it was like 105 degrees and it wasn’t that humid, so you don’t really feel it right away, but you heat up pretty quick—especially when you’re running around in 1960s clothes.”
[ 04 ] Guiry really did know how to throw a ball. Seriously.
Anyone who’s played baseball—or practically any other sport, for that matter—knows how hard it is to actively avoid catching a ball thrown directly at you. But that’s exactly what he was required to do in scenes from the first half-hour of the film. “They coached me a lot on how to look like I didn’t know how to throw,” he says. “I know my Little League coach was pretty upset when he saw the movie.”
[ 05 ] The winner of the cast’s “Best Athlete” award might surprise you.
“I’d have to give it up to [Kenny] DeNunez, the pitcher [Brandon Adams],” Guiry says. Though he’s quick to add that the Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez [Vitar] was right there with him.
The revelation shouldn’t come as much surprise to fans of the the Mighty Ducks trilogy. Both Adams and Vitar were members of Gordon Bombay’s U.S. squad that toppled the heavily favored Iceland team at the Junior Goodwill Games (though it’s worth noting that Adams’ Jesse Hall was regarded as the more talented of the two hockey players—he was selected for a shootout attempt and actually had the ability to stop skating without crashing or falling over).
[ 06 ] Playing a character who had trouble fitting in right away wasn’t much of a stretch for Guiry.
“There were a lot of differences, but I could see a lot of similarities between us, too,” says Guiry of ‘Smalls.’ “I remember moving when I was little, and it was hard for me to make friends. I think as an actor, you always bring a part of yourself into the role.”
[ 07 ] Denis Leary did not quite live up to his reputation.
“I was expecting him to show up on set with like a leather jacket and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, talking really fast,” Guiry says. “I remember saying to my mom at the time, ‘He’s so different from how I thought he’d be!’ He and Karen Allen were both great to work with.”
[ 08 ] Chauncey Leopardi (Squints) was nothing like his on-screen character.
Of all the memorable characters from The Sandlot, Squints is perhaps the most fondly remembered by the film’s fans—especially his more memorable lines (“FOR-EV-ER, FOR-EV-ER,” “If you were thinkin’, you wouldn’ta thought that,” “Been plannin’ it for years”). But his ‘dork’ persona faded away off the set.
“He was nothing like his character,” Guiry says. “He was into gangster rap. He’d wear the nerdiest clothes and the thick glasses [as Squints] and as soon as they would call “wrap,” he’d be in humungous jeans down to his knees and a backwards hat. He was hilarious, a great dude.”
[ 09 ] On the other hand, the young actors reacted pretty much exactly like their characters did when Marley Shelton (Wendy Peffercorn) was around.
“We didn’t have too much contact with her, but she was pretty popular with us,” Guiry says. “Not too surprising for a group of 12-year-old boys.”
[ 10 ] Shooting the carnival scene was a pretty unpleasant experience—even with fake chewing tobacco
After the Sandlot-ers trounce the preppy bikers in the film’s lone game, they celebrate by going to a carnival and sharing a bag of Big Chief chewing tobacco (“The best!” according to Bertram). In real life, the end result of dip plus carnival ride is as unpleasant as it is inevitable. Unfortunately for the actors, the night’s activities ended almost exactly as it did for the characters.
“We had to go on that ride about 15 times and I think me, Ham and Chauncey all threw up a few times,” Guiry recalls. “At first it was like, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ But by the fifteenth go-round, it was like, ‘This is getting a little uhhhhh…’”
And the fake dip the kids put in their mouths was just as nasty as the real thing: “Licorice and bacon bits—I think some of us were stupid enough to swallow it.”
[ 11 ] The s’mores scene took forever to shoot
The classic exchange between Ham Porter (Patrick Renna) and Smalls about the process of making s’mores yields some of the film’s most frequently quoted lines (Smalls: “How can I have s’more if I haven’t had any yet?” Ham: “You’re killing me, Smalls.”)—but it was a bit tricky for the young actors to get through.
“It was a lot of fun filming that scene,” Guiry says. “But I remember we were cracking up during it. Patrick was hilarious, and we did, like, 12 takes to get the master shot. It must have been difficult to work with kids. It’s one thing, when adults get the giggles, but when kids get them, it could be an hour before they snap out of it.”
And if you look closely enough during that scene, you can see Mike Vitar in the background, practically pleading with his eyes for the take that made it into the film to be the final one.
[ 12 ] Guiry gets “You’re killing me, Smalls” about as often as you’d expect
The movie’s most popular refrain hasn’t faded with time. “I hear that about three or four times a day,” he says. “I used to haaaaate it, man. But I like it now. You hit 30 and you’re, like, ‘It’s cool, it’s cool.’ It’s sort of nice that people still appreciate it.”
[ 13 ] There was some ad-libbing by the kids, but not in two of the film’s most memorable exchanges.
Guiry reports that the whole s’mores scene was scripted, as was Ham’s epic throwdown with the varsity jacket-wearing, bicycle-riding ‘Phillips’—but Renna (better known in the film as “The Great Hambino”) did a few riffs in other scenes throughout the film. (Our best bet? While crouching behind the plate during the game against Phillips’ team. “Is that your sister out in left field… naked?”)
On a related note, “You bob for apples in the toilet… And you like it!” remains one of the top-five insults in cinematic history.
[ 14 ] The fireworks scene has lost none of its “magic”
“That’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie,” Guiry says. “They shot right at “magic hour,” when the sun is going down and the camera’s following Ham stealing the food? That was great. I remember filming it was a lot of fun… Then when we’re all watching the fireworks with “America the Beautiful” playing in the background, even though there wasn’t any dialogue, it’s great to see all of the kids’ faces. Just really brings back memories.”
[ 15 ] Twenty years later, Guiry is obsessed with finding an ugly hat
“I didn’t know what they were when I first read [the script], but then the brought them in and I looked around for a pair, couldn’t find them anywhere though,” Guiry says. “I’ve seen some people wearing them recently. I like the black ones with the green logo. Would it be weird if Smalls rocked some PF Flyers?”
Seems like a fitting homage to his childhood pal “The Jet.” Plus they do help a kid “run faster and jump higher.”
But that’s not the piece of memorabilia that Guiry is really looking to get his hands on. Remember the hat that Benny instructs him to burn? It seems to be missing.
“I wanted to try to keep that hat,” Guiry says. I loved that big-ass, ugly trout hat. It was a gross hat. I was looking for it a while back and my parents called up Fox—cause I couldn’t take it with me when we finished shooting because the sports announcer needed to wear it—but they called up and I guess it had been misplaced at the wardrobe place at Fox. So if anyone finds that hat, tell them to email me. I’ll pay top dollar for it—well, some money at least.”
[ 16 ] “The Beast” was just as big as he looked—and, apparently, liked baby food
With little question, “The Beast” earns the distinction of being the most infamous animal in sports movie history (unless you’re a huge fan of the Air Bud quintilogy). Played by two different English mastiffs, The Beast (also known as “Hercules”) spent most of his time in the film hoarding baseballs, foiling retrieval schemes and—in the film’s final act—chasing Benjamin Franklin Rodriguez around town. The pursuit ends when a fence crashes down on Hercules. In spite of the dog’s reputation, Smalls—with some help from “The Jet”— lifts the fence off Hercules and is rewarded with what feels like 30 seconds of face-licking. It turns out though, that the friendly reaction may not have just been thanks to Smalls’ kindhearted deed.
“They put like a whole jar of Gerber baby food on the side of my face,” Guiry says. “So that scene where I’m looking to the side, the other half of me is just slathered in this baby goo. That dog had a field day on my face. I’m a dog-lover though, so it didn’t really bother me.”
[ 17 ] The kids were pretty excited to meet the actor who played Hercules’ owner.
Even 20 years later, Guiry remembers his first encounter with James Earl Jones. “When he showed up, we were like, “[Darth] Vader is here!’” he says. “He was great, such a nice guy. Even as young as I was, I’d seen Great White Hope because I was a big boxing fan as a kid. It was incredible working with a legend and I’m so glad to have had the opportunity.”
[ 18 ] Guiry lost contact with his Sandlot teammates not long after the film was released.
“I was the only guy from the East Coast, except for Shane [Obedzinski, who played Tommy Timmons], who was from Florida, so I never really kept in touch,” he says. “For a few years we’d do Christmas cards, but yeah, never really kept in touch, which is a shame.”
[ 19 ] There have been two Sandlot sequels, but without anyone from the original cast (save for one notable exception).
Squints reprised his role in the second sequel, 2007’s The Sandlot: Heading Home. For his part, Guiry was never contacted about signing on for the sequels.
“I never heard anything,” he says. “I knew they were making a sequel because [director] David Mickey Evans called me and they needed a scene from the first one, so I said sure, and had to sign something. And I got residuals for it in the mail, so I was like, ‘I need to see this movie.’ But I liked it. I thought the set would have been a condominium complex by that point, but whoever recreated it did a great job. Or it might have been the same field, because I said to myself, “Oh my god, it’s the same place.’ So that brought back some fond memories.”
[ 20 ] Even after all these years, Guiry still enjoys discussing The Sandlot.
“I like talking about it, truthfully,” he says. I find it pretty cool that 20 years later, people still appreciate it. When we made it, we just hoped it’d see theaters. I never thought 20 years later I’d be talking to you about it. It’s great.”
A few other quick hits from Guiry:
- He places The Sandlot more in a category with Goonies or Stand by Me, rather than its sports movie peers.
- More than anywhere else, he gets recognized in Manhattan (“Usually one out of every five times,” he says).
- His teenage son has already seen the movie, but Guiry plans on showing it to his younger son in a few years and seeing whether he’s able to recognize his dad at age 11.
- The ball that Smalls aced to The Beast was not actually signed by Babe Ruth.
Perhaps most remarkably, The Sandlot seems not to have aged a bit after 20 years. “It brings people back to a time when they didn’t have to worry about going to work, about bills—a less stressful time, a more innocent time,” Guiry says. “It’s fun to watch that and bring back those kinds of memories and feelings in people. It’s what I good movie should do, I guess.” And if he can get that old hat back, it would be a fitting anniversary gift for Scotty Smalls and the rest of the Sandlot gang.