Wendy Peffercorn has been standing in line for two-and-a-half hours to meet Hamilton (Ham) Porter, the redheaded kid from The Sandlot. Well, technically she’s waited 25 years, and technically she’s not Wendy Peffercorn, the lifeguard from the classic baseball movie. She’s actually Ashley Wellbrock, a 32-year-old from Brooklyn, wearing Wendy’s signature red swimsuit, shorts and white sunglasses. Ham Porter technically isn’t Ham Porter, either. He’s Patrick Renna, a 39-year-old actor who’s the reason this line of people snakes around a carpeted room in the basement of the Brooklyn Cyclones’ minor league ballpark.
Each person here paid $50 for the privilege of meeting Renna, getting tickets to the Cyclones game against the Lowell Spinners and copping a bobblehead of Renna’s character with his famous line, “YOU’RE KILLIN’ ME, SMALLS!” written along the base. Many of the shirts these fans are wearing say the same thing underneath a picture of his face. Others say “LEGENDS NEVER DIE,” another quote from the film. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the release of The Sandlot, and the cast has been traveling around to ballparks of both the major and minor variety to celebrate. Millennials, eager to revisit their childhoods, come out to meet the characters that played such an integral part in them. Many now have kids of their own.
Renna was 13 when The Sandlot came out, and he’s been Ham ever since. He will always be Ham. He’s acted in other movies, appeared on TV shows, even produced and written some of his own projects, but he cannot escape the movie that made him famous. This is partly because, at 5'7", he doesn’t seem to have grown since he played the character as a 13-year-old. He also looks almost exactly the same as he did then; he has the same curly red hair, the same freckles, the same squeezable cheeks, the same dark circles under his eyes.
It’s astonishing, really, how much he hasn’t changed. When Renna walked into the room, the man in front of Wellbrock—who’s here to get an autograph for his daughter who is 31 and didn’t come only because she’s nine months pregnant—whispered to his son-in-law, “There he is! And he looks just like himself!”
Renna has been nothing but gracious as he shakes hand after hand, signs bobblehead after bobblehead, answers question after question about his castmates (Squints and Benny, mostly). He takes time with each person—some of whom are very nervous to meet him, who can’t believe they’re meeting him—and listens to each one tell him their memories of the film.
“We grew up on this movie,” Wellbrock says, as she nears the front of the line. “It’s very nostalgic. I’m here with my sister, my brother’s here as well. We all watched it together all the time, and the characters—we could always relate to them. It was a coming of age movie, and about making friends over a summer and growing up.”
Wellbrock poses next to Renna. “Will you take one with my phone, too?” Renna asks the ballpark photographer taking fans’ photos. (This, too, came with the $50.) Renna’s never seen someone show up to one of his events dressed like Wendy. “Squints probably gets it more,” he says, referring to the character, played by Chauncey Leopardi, who has a crush on Wendy in the movie.
Wellbrock’s brother and his friends jump into the frame; a few are wearing shirts with Renna’s face on it, so three smiling Rennas, two of them age 13, one of them close to 40, stare into the camera as the flash goes off. Wellbrook will put the photo on her Instagram and so will her siblings. Their friends will comment “OMG!!! The Great Hambino!” because Renna is something bigger than himself.
What does it feel like to know that you’re a living, breathing representation of an entire generation’s childhood?
The night before, I dragged my friend Hilary out to Coney Island to meet Ham Porter. Hilary’s been one of my best friends since she moved to our Massachusetts town when we were five. She lives about half a mile away from me in Brooklyn now. The Sandlot and the criminally underappreciated soccer movie The Big Green, in which Renna also appears, were staples at our sleepovers. Renna’s character Larry—the goalie who hallucinates whenever the opposing team’s offense comes near him—would’ve fit in nicely on our youth soccer team, which Hilary’s mom coached. We had a lot of heart, but we won one game in two years. Convincing Hilary to trek out to Coney Island with me to meet Renna didn’t take too much of arm-twisting.
Inside MCU Park, I stopped an employee wearing a shirt with Renna’s likeness to ask where the meet-and-greet was. “Oh,” the guy said, making that half-wincing, half-frowning face you make when you’re about to deliver bad news. “We postponed that until tomorrow because of the rain.”
We stared at him blankly. I think I said, “What?” but I can’t remember, because I had a momentary sadness blackout.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m sorry. Come back tomorrow at 11:30.”
Hilary looked crushed. I felt terrible. On the main concourse, people were wearing Sandlot shirts and clutching their Hambino bobbleheads. We bought hot dogs and beers and found seats in an empty row. The ominous gray clouds that had been hanging over the curling roller coasters and neon lights of the Coney Island amusement parks finally broke. After a few minutes, the steady drizzle turned into a driving rain, and the stands, which were far from full to begin with, began to empty out.
But Hilary and I didn’t leave. We put on our (matching, embarrassingly) raincoats and just sat there, getting drenched as we watched the Cyclones throw one of the Spinners out at first.
Hilary turned and looked at me. “I feel like staying for the game anyway is what the kids from The Sandlot would’ve done,” she said. “This feels right.”
The next morning, after Renna signs the last bobblehead and takes the last picture, Cyclones PR people take him to the field to throw out the first pitch. The circus of Coney Island appears to have overflowed onto the field before the game begins: dance troupes of little kids in sequins pile out of the dugout, players in bagel-themed uniforms (don’t ask) are milling around, a guy in a red tuxedo wearing a foam crown on his head roams the first base line, mascots are everywhere. Renna stops to take pictures with all of them. He also poses with and asks the name of every fan who wants a photo on the way up to one of the park’s suites.
“You cannot have any other emotion than honor and pride when you see that happen,” he says, sitting down in front of a pile of baseballs and more bobbleheads he has to sign. “They’re waiting an hour, two hours just to say hi. And you’re like, My god, it’s pretty special.”
The Sandlot has been an American classic since it came out. Not, like, a Godfather-type classic, but the kind where everyone my age chuckles knowingly when you say, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls!” But its cult-like status has skyrocketed since the 20th anniversary five years ago. Renna says Sandlot fever started getting insane after that, and this year has been next level. He and Squints have done appearances at Dodgers and Padres games, the All-Star Game and several other minor league ballparks. Renna will be at Fenway in August, which he’s the most excited for (up until he filmed The Sandlot, he lived in Boston, and he’s still a die-hard Red Sox fan).
But the biggest event will take place in Salt Lake City, where the movie was filmed. 20th Century Fox is building a replica of the Sandlot itself, and the entire cast will fly out for a screening and a question-and-answer session on Aug. 11. Everyone except Benny, that is. Mike Vitar, who played him, is a fireman who hasn’t acted in 20 years and prefers to stay out of the limelight.
Renna enjoys it, though. He’s continued to act, most recently making a cameo in two episodes of the Netflix show GLOW. His next venture is a podcast he’s starting with his writing partner called—what else?—You’re Killin’ Me.
“I definitely do get recognized,” he says, signing a baseball. “I think I look pretty similar, but I’ve also been acting since. So someone will see me from GLOW and then remember me from The Sandlot.”
That seems like wishful thinking on Renna’s part; few people are out here on the street saying, “Hey, it’s Cupcake, the guy from GLOW!” To the people who showed up today for a bobblehead, he’s frozen in time on a VHS tape packed away in your parents’ basement.
But he isn’t frozen in time. He’s a man, now. He has a wife and a 15-month-old son, Flynn. I get the sense that he might like to evolve beyond the film that made him so famous. He’s definitely trying. At the same time, he realizes he wouldn’t be here at all without it, and he’s not about to bite the hand that has fed him for the past two-and-a-half decades.
He also fundamentally understands and appreciates the weight of what he stumbled into. The cast had no idea it would become something that would define their next 25 years, and probably the 25 years after that, but Renna is thrilled it did. He feels that connecting people to their memories is a real responsibility, which is why he’s so generous with his time. He knows that nostalgia is a hell of a drug, and he’s not about to harsh anyone’s buzz.
Both baseball and The Sandlot are all about nostalgia, the past and traditions. That’s why Renna is here, why a 32-year-old woman is currently sitting in the stands dressed up as Wendy Peffercorn, clutching a signed bobblehead, why Hilary and I were here on a Saturday night. We were the kids in The Sandlot who’d grown up playing sports and going to games at Fenway together. We, and everyone who grew up on the movie and showed up today, are the movie’s happy epilogue.
Renna signs the last of the baseballs. He asks the PR guy if he can keep the ballpoint pen he’s been using (“I’ve signed a lot of baseballs and none have worked as well as this one, I appreciate it, man, thanks so much”) and then heads into the press box. He’s going to take over the game’s local radio broadcast for one inning.
The in-stadium camera pans to Renna. He appears on the Jumbotron in the outfield and the crowd goes nuts. People wearing shirts with his 13-year-old face on it yell “The Great Hambino!” They clap and cheer.
Some legends, it seems, truly never die.