Interview: Patrick Renna and David M. Evans Celebrate ‘The Sandlot’ 20th Anniversary
Few films have retained the staying power that The Sandlot has over the course of 20 years.
Sometimes, a film inadvertently comes to represent a generation. Sure, there were some great films released in 1993, but other than a select few (Jurassic Park!), how many do you still watch on a regular basis? How many have catchphrases that have embedded themselves into a generation’s colloquialisms?
Not many, my friend. Not many.
If you haven’t heard the exclamation “You’re killing me, Smalls!”, there’s a chance you A) have no friends, B) have no 20- or 30-something friends/family members, or C) are so hipster you don’t get on the internet because everyone else does, and you won’t even be reading this article.
Sure, The Sandlot paid homage to baseball, but to call it a baseball movie would be woefully shortsighted. Director David Mickey Evans himself admits as much. “The story was about friendship. It’s not about baseball. It’s about just because you can’t play doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be included. Help somebody out. It’s about character, courage, and loyalty,” he says, noting that those three words are on the Little League patch worn by many kids today. To many, the film is a nostalgic tribute to the ideal American society, a simpler time in which kids played all day outside and wouldn’t come home until it was time for dinner.
It made us laugh. It made us cheer. It introduced my generation’s Phoebe Cates (albeit in a slightly more PG version) in Squints’ love interest, Wendy Peffercorn.
So where did the inspiration for the film come from? Did Evans have a group of baseball-loving friends, one of whom made it to the majors? Not quite. Turns out the inspiration for the film was the only non-human main character.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends when we were growing up. The whole idea for the movie came from an incident when I was a kid,” David explains, discussing the neighborhood in which he and his younger brother lived. “These kids would play baseball during summer out on the asphalt in the middle of the street. They’d never let us play.
“At the end of the block there was this brick wall, literally behind which lived a vicious dog named Hercules. One day, they hit their ball over there. My brother went down there without me, and they said, ‘You go get the ball, you can play with us.’ He was like 9. So he went to get it, and he got the ball, threw it back over, but the dog tore his leg up, bit him really bad. That’s the tiny little speck of an incident from which the entire movie sprang. None of those kids is anybody I knew. All of them were sort of an amalgam of all of the kids I knew, good or bad.”
One could validly argue that the most memorable character in the film was the brash, smack-talking catcher Hamilton “Ham” Porter, played by Patrick Renna. To hear Patrick tell it, though, he almost never got the part.
“I was the last (member cast). I think they actually had an original nine cast, and I wasn’t one of them. Through whatever circumstances, it became eight,” he explains. “Even when I went, Ham was already cast, it was very down to the wire, but the next day, I met the other eight guys, we started playing some baseball together, but they still didn’t offer me the part. They wanted to see how I did with them. A few days after that, it got finalized, and then we went off and began filming.”
Of course, once he got the part, he ran with it, and his delivery of some of the best one-liners in recent memory have embedded his legacy in cinematic history.
One of the best scenes occurred when the Sandlot crew take on the local team, the Tigers. Setting up behind the plate, Ham’s trash talk serves to distract the other team’s hitters with great success. So how much of that was scripted as opposed to ab-libbed?
“Well it’s a combination of both, because I don’t think much of that was written. It was actually written differently…on the day, (David) changed it up. Setting up behind each player, he brought each new one in and would throw a line from the dugout and say, ‘Say this.’ Or he’d come up and whisper and I’d start chuckling and then (say it). All day, it was ad-libbed by him through me.”
“That’s how you get the best stuff,” David adds. “It’s so fresh and in-the-moment. That ad-lib and improvisational stuff is just absolutely invaluable.”
Although the film shows each player as being above average at playing ball, there’s no hesitation between David and Patrick when nominating the best player of the group. Just as his character, Benny Rodriguez, was the team leader, Patrick quickly proclaimed Mike Vitar to have been the best player. “He went on to have a decent high school career. I’m sure he could have played in college, but he decided to go the path of firefighter, so that’s what he’s doing now…Pretty much out of anyone, he was the only full-fledged ballplayer,” he says, but then quickly adds, “but then (second) was probably me.”
Much like the kids in the film, the cast and crew pretty much parted ways and moved on to new projects. Patrick is one of the few cast characters that continues to act on a regular basis, and he is helping produce as well as star in a project with some friends that will begin shooting in September. David, on the other hand, has several different projects going, one of which involves a new baseball project based on the venerable Matt Christopher children’s book, The Kid Who Only Hit Homers.
Still, even as they move forward, one can’t help but look back on the legacy they created.
One of the things that never ceases to amaze David is the impact that the film continues to have on those that saw it in theaters, spreading to those who are seeing it for the first time. He talks of major league and AAA stadiums showing impromptu screenings of the film to audiences of thousands. He proudly discusses his experience with one particular fan. “I had a grandfather in Springfield, Arkansas, come up and buy 12 copies of the DVD. I signed them to him, his kids, his grand kids, and his great-grandchildren, so it’s on to at least its third generation of fans.”
“What else is better in life than having done something that means so much to so many people?”
Patrick, too, speaks with nothing but affection of the film that vaulted him into the public’s eye and forever linked him to four little words: you’re killin’ me, Smalls. Despite hearing the line everywhere he goes, from playing softball with his friends to going to Dodger games, he insists the affection never gets old.
“Basically, (David) says it the best, you have a friend in every city that you don’t know. And it’s really rewarding to come to any city, and it opens any door, starts any conversation.
“There’s something great about that.”
David and Patrick are on a nationwide tour to celebrate The Sandlot’s 20th anniversary and release on Blu-Ray.