'Chasing squirrels and herding cats': An oral history of 'The Sandlot'
When David Mickey Evans sat down to write his magnum opus, he wasn't trying to write a baseball movie. "The Boys of Summer," as his script was originally titled, isn't even about baseball, he insists. He was simply trying, to borrow a term from Scotty Smalls, not to be a "goofus."
After being unceremoniously relieved of duties about 10 days into production on "Radio Flyer", his supposed directorial debut - which he had also written and sold to Columbia Pictures for $1.25 million back in 1989 - Evans just needed a clean, simple idea that he could execute. "Everyone gets a second chance in Hollywood," Richard Donner, his replacement behind the camera on "Radio Flyer" once told him, "but nobody gets a third chance." He couldn't blow this one if he wanted another crack at directing.
"The Sandlot" (1993), his nostalgic coming-of-age tale about a ragtag group of baseball-obsessed boys in idyllic, postwar America, was a rousing success, both commercially and for him personally. The film made a gross of roughly $45 million, according to Evans, and even more in VHS and DVD sales; in time, though, the film's cultural footprint eclipsed its box-office haul, eventually morphing into a bona fide cult classic - a timeless, uncynical, eminently quotable romp through a halcyon past that continues to resonate with baseball-loving kids and parents alike. A quarter-century after its theatrical release, you'd be hard-pressed to find a rookie in the big leagues who couldn't place "You're killing me, Smalls!"
When they first arrived on set in the summer of 1992, of course, neither the crew nor the prepubescent ensemble could've anticipated that "The Sandlot" would one day be considered baseball-movie canon. "They were just hanging out, playing baseball," as Evans put it, with cameras rolling in the background. Whether they were aware of it or not, though, they were also making magic.
This is the story of how it happened.
Following his ouster from "Radio Flyer," Evans knew he had to write a "more contained" follow-up project if he was to get another chance to direct. (A producer on "Radio Flyer" tried to prevent that from happening, badmouthing him all over Hollywood, Evans claims, after sacking him from the project.) Shortly after he was let go, while sitting in traffic one day on the Los Angeles freeway, a pared-down premise came to him: He'd turn his childhood trauma, inextricably linked as it was with baseball, into a movie.
David Mickey Evans (director/writer): My little brother and I had a pretty bad childhood. We got bullied a lot. A lot. And we used to have these bullies at the end of the block that would never let us play - they were, like, 9 and 10 - (when) they played baseball. (One day), they were playing baseball and for some reason, my little brother went down there, and they had hit their baseball over a fence. Actually, a brick wall. And everybody knew that there was a vicious dog named Hercules back there. Nobody was going to get the ball, but my brother wanted to play so bad, they said, "OK, go over and get the ball and bring it back, and you can play with us." So he did, and when he went over there, the dog ripped his leg to shreds. And they laughed at him. He had to walk all the way home. I really hated those guys. For a long, long time. Into my adult years. And, as you do on the L.A. freeway, your mind wanders because you're not moving. And I needed a small, contained film with a limited number of locations, a limited number of characters, a simple but clean idea. And that incident pops into my head, and I said, "That's it." A bunch of kids during the summer have to get a baseball back from a mean dog. And that's where the whole thing started.
Cathleen Summers (executive producer): I'd certainly heard about the project because David sold the script for a good sum of money, and he'd sold "Radio Flyer," so he was certainly a hot writer in town.
Evans: "The Sandlot" isn't the way my childhood was. "The Sandlot" is the way my childhood should've been ... After writing the first paragraph of that script, I never had negative thoughts about those bullies from my childhood again. They were gone. I turned them all into heroes.
Summers: When I first read the script, I really liked it. I grew up on a sandlot baseball team. I played with my older brother. I played with the kids down the street. It was all kids in our neighborhood. And we'd either play in the street or we would play in this field back behind our houses under high-tension wires. It's amazing any of us are still alive. To me, it really hearkened back to my own childhood.
Evans: I got shot down everywhere, except for one guy. And it only takes one guy. The man's name was (executive producer) Mark Burg. ... He goes, "This is arguably better than your last script. It's simply brilliant. And you're going to direct." And I'm like, "Wait a minute - have you called around town, Mark?" And he goes, "Yeah, I've called everybody in town. And every single one of them says you could not direct." I say, "So why are you offering me the job?" He goes, "Because they can't all be right."
After selling his script to Island World, the now-defunct independent production company that agreed to finance his project (and on his terms), Evans encountered a challenge greater, perhaps, than finding someone willing to give him another shot to direct: He had to find nine kids who could bring his story to life.
Evans: The film was originally written for 9- and 10-year-old actors. And we actually cast it with a group of 9- and 10-year-old boys. And the late, great Shari Rhodes, the casting director, got them all in together in an ensemble for the first time, and (a producer) looked at me and said, "Oh my God, they look like babies." I can't do this movie with these kids. It sounded like the right idea, but it just wouldn't work. So we had to re-cast with 12- and 13-year-olds.
Summers: There was a certain quality of, like, "Which one is which?" Nothing against any of the kids cast, they just didn't spell out their characters differently enough from the other characters. So I had voiced that. You need to look at these kids and they're different.
Chauncey Leopardi (Michael "Squints" Palledorous): It was a pretty long (audition) process. I did four or five callbacks, probably. And then even once I had kind of booked the part, more or less, we still did a lot of screen-testing, mixing and matching kids and parts. The roles were kind of up in the air for quite a while.
Marty York (Alan "Yeah-Yeah" McClennan): I was auditioning for Bertram, actually, and I ended up booking the role. I remember we all went to the field to train to play baseball, and I think it was the assistant director that came up on the field and said, "Uh, you're not really right for the part of Bertram. Why don't you go back and read for another part?" And I was like, "Oh, OK, that's weird." So they sent me the script for the other part and the character was "Yeah-Yeah," which I think they had booked Chauncey for, originally. It required a ton of energy, and that's how I was when I was a kid: very energetic, probably weighed 110 pounds. And I remember my mom just gave me a Hershey's bar, and I ate it, and then I went into the audition with just a ton of sugar and I pretty much blew them away. The rest is history.
Patrick Renna (Hamilton "Ham" Porter): They had actually already cast, I think, all other eight at the time (when I auditioned). So it was sort of a really fast audition process. I read for the director. I didn't really have a callback. The next day, they just said, "OK, we love you if you get along with the other guys. You're going to come out and play baseball with them on Saturday. If you guys all get along, we'll give you the job, but you don't have it yet." So it was a little different, I think, than normal.
Evans: It took a long, long time. Months and months and months. Thousands of kids to see before we decided on them. They were all such individuals. None of them looked like the other. They all had something quirky and new and charismatic about themselves that the others didn't have. So they complemented each other great. The ensemble, when I got them together in their costumes for the first day, it was like, "Well, that's it."
Before shooting could start, Evans had to make sure that these kids could play. A botched double play with cameras rolling means a lot of wasted film, and it would've been hell, the director noted, if each baseball sequence had required "nine medium (shots) and nine close-ups." So, following a protracted audition process, the kids spent two weeks in a de facto "baseball camp" in California, where they were taught how to hit, catch, and throw.
Evans: Mike Vitar, who played Benny, was - and remains - a supreme athlete. Pat Renna can hit and throw. And the other guys could sort of do that, but not as proficiently. So I hired a guy named Daniel Zacapa, and he's one of the best character actors in the world, and he also happens to be a baseball fanatic and a terrific player. So I told him, "You gotta sharpen these guys up."
Anthony B. Richmond BSC, ASC (director of photography): We used the Little League field that I coached at that was in Encino, and we took the kids there and they had instruction.
Renna: I happened to actually play baseball and was pretty decent as a young guy. I'm no Benny the Jet, but I can hold my own.
York: I played soccer when I was really young - I was very good at soccer - but when it came to baseball I was not really that good.
Leopardi: I had sandlot baseball experience. I think I played T-ball. But I was athletic enough that I could play anything. It wasn't really a big deal.
York: I still drive by the field every day where we practiced at. Every day, I can see it from the freeway, and it just takes me back to when we played on that field. We trained, learned how to throw right, learned how to pitch, learned how to bat.
Renna: Funny enough, the coach actually played Squints' grandfather in the flashback scene.
Evans: By the time (shooting) rolled around, they could turn a double play and I could shoot it with a single camera. They were really good. Really good.
York: By the end of camp, we were pros.
Once Evans was satisfied that the kids could get the job done on the baseball diamond, the cast and crew headed up to Salt Lake City, Utah for an unforgettable shoot that felt like summer camp, with raging, adolescent hormones and sweltering heat.
Evans: The good news and the blessing is I had mostly 12- and 13-year-old young men, hormones are raging, and energy is high. That's terrific. The bad news and the curse is I had a bunch of 12- and 13-year-old young men, guys going through puberty, and energy is high. It was like chasing squirrels and herding cats.
Summers: Some of them had acting experience, and (for) a number of them, this was really fresh and different. And, also, they're kids!
York: Day 1, I didn’t really know what to expect. I was a kid from a small town. I had done a ton of theater. But being in a blockbuster motion picture with, like, cameras everywhere and sound guys and grips, directors, was pretty new to me.
Richmond: I think the hardest part was probably the first week when the kids were pretty much out of control. I mean, you can imagine with nine kids all that age just not listening, that was tough for David. And after about a week of this, I said, "I've got little kids myself so I know how kids talk - can I talk to them?" So he said yes. So I took them out to the dugout and gave them a little piece of my mind, and spoke to them like they speak to each other. And the kid Squints (Leopardi) came up to me and said, "OK, we'll be good. But we want something from you." And I said, "What's that?" He says, "I want a copy of this month's Playboy." (laughs) I said OK, so I got it for him at lunchtime and everything was fine after that.
Leopardi: I've heard that story before. I honestly don't remember, but (it) probably (happened). Bribery is always the quickest way to somebody's heart, right?
Terry Haskell (prop master): Just keeping track of those kids, they were like herding cats. (I'd ask): "Where's your glove?" "Uhh … I lost it. I don't know." And Squints, you know, with his glasses. I'd look at Squints, I'd go, "Squints, where's your glasses?" And he goes, "Well, I gave them to you." And I'd say, "Well, if you gave them to me, we wouldn't be having this conversation!"
Renna: I vividly remember getting yelled at several times by various people to keep me in line - all of us did, I'm sure - but we all had such a great time. It was more like getting yelled at by your dad because we were all so close, even with the crew. I think they just kept us in line through killing us with kindness.
Leopardi: You got nine kids plus extended family on a set, so it was kind of a circus.
Evans: It wasn't so much like they were making a movie. They were just hanging out, playing baseball, and oh, there are cameras here. And I tried to keep it loose and fun, like, "Pretend this is baseball summer camp, man. Don't act. Be yourselves. And I'll take care of everything." And that's how we did it.
Renna: It was short and sweet. It was 105 degrees every day. We played baseball and it was like summer camp. It was pretty awesome.
Summers: David did make this effort for the kids to know each other so they felt comfortable. But you also had everyone's parents or guardian or family (around) because it was summer, so mostly all the brothers and sisters came as well. And that in itself makes it a bit of a summer camp party.
York: They put us up in this condo complex, and they had a pool that was like a half-indoor, half-outdoor pool. So we would go swimming almost every day and hang out. And this was when Super Nintendo was out, so we'd all be playing Super Nintendo competitions, playing Street Fighter and all those Super Nintendo games, sneaking into R-rated movies. We did a bunch of crazy stuff, off-camera.
Summers: The kids became more and more responsible because they really got into it and realized that we didn’t have the time of day to have it really be camp.
Richmond: It was just really exciting. We thought we were making a good movie. But it was also fun to shoot because the kids were virtually in everything so we didn't work long hours like you do on most movies. We were outside most of the time, and we had a wonderful time. In fact, when we broke for lunch, we would always eat our lunch quickly and just knock the ball around on the baseball diamond.
Haskell: We had our own team. The art department, we had a game every week against the camera (department) and (assistant directors) and the director and the producers. We had seven-game series that went to the seventh game. The losing team had to wear women's dresses the next day to set.
Richmond: We hired a couple of college umpires, and that was our weekends. We trained for the games - it was fantastic - as well as shooting the movie.
Haskell: We had such a wonderful time. How hard could it be to spend the summer playing baseball and getting paid for it? ... I've done a lot of films in my day. And I'll tell you what: This simple, little, three months on a baseball diamond with those nine kids was the highlight of my career.
Richmond: Everything seemed to be perfect. That was a perfect summer.
Of course, 25 years later, each member of the cast and crew has different memories that burn brightest in their minds, from their favorite scenes to shoot to insights about the production - for instance, how Denis Leary, who played Smalls' stepdad, wouldn't use the baseball glove that the props department gave him.
Haskell: I didn't realize that (Leary) was a huge Boston Red Sox fan. So the first day on the set, when he showed up - Smalls and him are playing catch - I had all these period gloves, and I gave Denis his glove. He put it on his hand and he started punching it with his fist, and he looked down and it was autographed by Mickey Mantle of the Yankees. And he took it off his hand real quick and he said, "Terry, for god sakes, you've given me a Yankee glove and I'm a Boston fan. I'm not wearing this."
Renna: One of my favorite (scenes to shoot) was the insult scene, (which) originally was not written for me. It was originally written for Benny. And I think we were enough into the filming that the director kind of saw that Benny was sort of becoming, I don't know, like he really was like a hero already - he was the leader on and off the film set - so I think he recognized that this isn't the right thing for Benny to do, to kind of talk trash to the neighborhood team. So that day, on the call sheet, here it is, this scene, and it says, "No. 1 - Benny," or whatever his number was, and I get a knock on my dressing room and it was the director saying, "I want you to do this, and here's why ..." And I went, "OK, let's do it," and I loved it. And we had such a great time.
Haskell: Basically all the memorabilia that was in that film came from my own personal collection. Because I've been collecting memorabilia since the '50s. It was great because the art director came to me and said, "How much (will the memorabilia props cost)?" I said, "Listen, I can save you a lot of money because I've got all the stuff that you need. You can't find 1962 baseball stuff without paying a lot of money for it. But I'll let you borrow my stuff and we'll put it in Benny's room, we'll put it in Mr. Mertle's room, and we'll put it in the treehouse."
York: My favorite scenes to shoot were the treehouse scenes. The interior treehouse scene, where Squints is telling the story of the Beast, that was shot on a soundstage in L.A. But pretty much everything else was shot in Utah. So we had two treehouses.
Leopardi: All the stuff revolving around the treehouse was really cool. That treehouse was pretty badass. It's one of the nicest treehouses I've ever seen. It was built so well.
Renna: The (trash-talking from behind home plate scene) was pretty great. That was very heavily improv-ed. But it just wasn't improv-ed by me; the director had a bullhorn, and he was in the dugout yelling insults for me to say. I think he just rolled camera. Now, realize this is 1992. This is real film, not digital, so this day probably cost a lot of money for him. But he just would roll and yell out insults as the guy came up and I'd kind of chuckle to myself before I said it. Like, "Is that your sister out there in left field?" And I'd look over and go, "Really? You want me to say that? OK ..." And he'd go, "Yeah, just say it," and laugh when I'd say the line. And we just kept going with each new batter. It was pretty awesome.
Richmond: I think one of the classic scenes in movies is when Squints plots and pretends to drown, and basically sticks his tongue down the throat of the lifeguard, Wendy Peffercorn. I mean, that's every boy's dream. And the way we shot that, where she's up there rolling on the sunblock and this and that - her figure, and the way they look at her - it's fantastic.
Leopardi: Another day at work, I guess. I remember it being really cold. It was like the coldest day of the summer. So all the shivers in the pool, that’s because we were freezing. Other than that, it was a fun scene to shoot. Obviously, it stood the test of time.
York: I mean, the fireworks scene was fun to film, but seeing it in the theater, it just gave me goosebumps.
Haskell: The Fourth of July picnic - and then the kids ran to the sandlot to play that night game, because that's when they could play at night because the skies were so lit up with fireworks - that was really, really magical.
Leopardi: As a kid in the '90s to just be like immersed in the early 1960s, we kind of got to live a summer like our parents, more or less, or maybe even a little bit before their time. I think it's cool that we got to experience that, because they did such a good job of art direction and set design and wardrobe. It was cool to be in another time and place.
Evans: It's impossible to get to shoot at Dodger Stadium. And we got to shoot at Dodger Stadium. For one day. I knew we needed to do it - it was written into the script! We needed to end the movie there. Well, we (initially) couldn't get it. The producers just kept getting shot down by the Dodgers organization. ... So (director of photography) Tony says, "Right, mate, you need to shoot at Dodger Stadium?" I said, "Yeah." He goes, "Right, get in the car." We happened to be in Los Angeles. So I get in his car - this, like, phenomenally restored early '60s NG Roadster - and we race across Los Angeles up to Dodger Stadium, but it's closed for the day. He runs right by the security guy - (Tony)'s waving his hand, and they wave back - drives up to the clubhouse door, walks in. I follow him in there, and we walk right into Tommy Lasorda's office. And there's Tommy in his underwear. And I'm like, "Oh my God, that's the skipper. That's the captain." You know, that's Tommy Lasorda! And Tony says, "Right, Tommy?" He goes, "Oh, hey Tony!" He goes, "This is David Evans. We're making this movie, this terrific movie, and we need to shoot here." He goes, "When?" So Tony goes, "When do you want to shoot here?" I go, "Uh ... this day!" And Tommy goes, "Yeah, tell them I said it's OK." And that was it. It was freaking awesome.
The good vibes that permeated the set that summer spilled onto the screen - so compelling were the dailies (the raw, unedited footage) that 20th Century Fox bought the film distribution rights midway through production on a negative pickup. The final cut was even more enchanting. Roger Ebert, the late Pulitzer Prize winner regarded at the time as the country's preeminent film critic, was helpless against its charms, "seduced (by) its memories of what really matters when you are 12." Twenty-five years later, "The Sandlot" continues to resonate.
Renna: I think this movie has progressively gotten more and more popular, which is something you don't see very often.
Richmond: On the (film's) 20th anniversary, they showed it at Dodger Stadium after the game. They let everybody go onto the field (to watch), and they sat down on the field. And it was just like "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," where the fans were mouthing the words. They knew all the words.
York: I think it's what America should be about, to be honest. The film really resonates with everyone. Somebody out there can relate to every single one of these characters. There's a Ham out there. There's a Benny out there. There's a Yeah-Yeah out there.
Summers: This is a movie about friendship and believing in each other. I think it appeals to know that every kid is different, every kid is not the same person, but every one of them tests the other one, and when you pass the test you're all in it together.
Richmond: I think it's a timeless movie. You watch the movie now, you don't think you're watching a 1960s movie, you think you're watching a 2010 movie. It has that resonance (because) it's a very good story.
Leopardi: I feel like, with ever-advancing technology, we're in the best time period of human existence (right now), as we continue to progress forward and forward. It’s obvious that we live longer and have better access to everything. But that time frame is what the saying "It's not like it used to be" is about.
Evans: It's caught in time, and it's got an instantaneous nostalgic feel. I had a critic once call "The Sandlot" "shamelessly nostalgic." So I called the guy and went, "Dude, that's redundant. All nostalgia is, by definition, shameless." And that's not a bad thing. It's a good thing.
Renna: I think it represents a time that people miss, and I think we should bring back.
Haskell: I just think it's the innocence. It's the innocence of a bunch of kids playing baseball. It's, like, so special.
Richmond: I think the greatest tribute, to me, paid to that film was (by) the Milwaukee Brewers. You saw that reconstructed scene, right? I thought that was brilliant. They were terrible actors, but I thought that was brilliant. When you've got major leaguers saying that they grew up on that movie, I mean, it's fantastic. (Note: The New York Yankees also did a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from the film in 2015.)
Richmond: They're forgiven for their bad acting. It's wonderful they wanted to do that. Just by doing it, it showed so much what that movie meant to them when they were growing up.
Evans: What bigger compliment could I get than the big boys, the pros, the guys in The Show loving this movie so much that they take the time to go out and do something so cool, so goofy, but they really mean it? That's better than any award I could ever get.
Leopardi: Everything I've done has been cool. But it's hard to beat Sandlot. As an artist, everybody wants to have their hit or their big thing that lives forever, so it would be hard to top something that's still going strong - if not stronger - 25 years later and seems to be not letting up at all. I think that we'll be talking about this film forever.
(Interviews have been edited and condensed.)
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.