Twenty years ago nine kids took to a makeshift diamond to tell a story about our game circa 1962 and ourselves. If you haven't yearned for The Sandlot's wisdom and humor ever since, well, you're killing us!
This is an article from the July 8, 2013 issue
A coming-of-age story about nine neighborhood kids who spend a summer playing baseball and stumbling toward adulthood—first kisses, first wads of chewing tobacco, first campouts without parents—The Sandlot was released 20 years ago. It was a mild financial success (it grossed $33.8 million worldwide) and received mostly eviscerating reviews.
Critics panned the film as an "unfunny comedy" and "liar's nostalgia" that possessed "less heft than a cracked Wiffle ball." Yet two decades later The Sandlot is considered a cult classic, a seminal movie in the vein of Caddyshack for 35-and-under fans who quote Ham Porter the same way their elders endlessly blurt, "Noonan!" Only one critic, the late Roger Ebert, foretold the film's shelf life when he called it a "summertime version" of A Christmas Story.
By ignoring the Hollywood adage about not working with kids or animals, writer-director David Mickey Evans and cowriter Robert Gunter made a timeless if quirky movie about boys simply being boys and their quest to salvage a Babe Ruth--autographed ball from the clutches of a junkyard dog nicknamed the Beast. After all, who wants heft in the summertime? And what does heft have to do with being 12?
Now The Sandlot is being embraced by a new generation of kids. The characters remain the same, but the boys who played them have grown up, and some of them have kids of their own. Here's what the nine have been up to since the screen faded to black on the finest summer of their lives.
PATRICK RENNA — HAM
As the pudgy, redheaded protector of the sandlot, Patrick Renna delivered the movie's marquee line—"You're killing me, Smalls!"—and also unleashed a torrent of the sharpest barbs allowed under a PG rating.
To the freckled catcher, a punk from the rival team was a "fart smeller" who mixed "yer Wheaties with your momma's toe jam." The character's brashness and husky build could mean only one thing: Ham Porter would become a professional wrestler, the Great Hambino.
In real life Renna's nickname is the Red Dragon, which he earned for his hair, of course, but also for his post-Sandlot athletic achievements. They started with his mastery of the strike zone in slo-pitch softball and carried over to golf. Last July, he hit a four-wood into a strong wind on the 164-yard 8th hole at Olivas Links in Ventura, Calif., and the ball found the bottom of the cup. But his celebration was brief. "I'm going out of my mind," Renna says. "I try to take my hat off, and I poke myself in the eye. I couldn't see for the next three holes."
Renna, 34, and his wife, Jasmin, live in Los Angeles, where he's continued to work as an actor. He's appeared in two other movies alongside Chauncey Leopardi—The Big Green and Boys Klub—with whom he's shared a special bond since their Sandlot publicity tour. When the pair checked in at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco, a representative of Fox told them, "Enjoy yourselves, everything is on us." The boys bolted to the gift shop and ordered two of virtually everything, and then they feasted all night on ice cream, lobster and steak. A knock on the door greeted them early the next morning. "Chill out!" the Fox rep said. "I meant if you need a toothbrush or wanted to rent a movie!"
"We probably spent $5,000," Renna says. "I think they forgot we were teenagers."
CHAUNCEY LEOPARDI — SQUINTS
Chauncey Leopardi learned the power of persistence while playing the role of Michael (Squints) Palledorous. Several times every day the 12-year-old actor would pester the director, Evans, "Are we going to do that scene now? When are going to do that scene?" To which Evans always replied, "I have no idea what you're talking about." Wound tighter than piano wire, Leopardi would plead, "You know, the one where I get to kiss the lifeguard!"
Most of The Sandlot was filmed in the 100° heat of a Utah summer, but not the pool scenes. It wasn't nerves but a rare 50° chill that caused Leopardi's teeth to chatter when the scene finally was shot and he jumped in the deep end in hopes of being saved by Marley Shelton (Wendy Peffercorn). Then, just before Shelton was to begin CPR and be ambushed by a smooch, Evans yelled, "Cut!" and pulled Leopardi aside. "Keep your tongue in your mouth," Evans said. "And there's no such thing as smiling too big."
Leopardi's ear-to-ear, been-planning-it-for-years grin made the scene. "That wasn't Squints," he says. "That was me. I still have that smile."
Well, most of the time anyway. Leopardi survived as a professional poker player from 2009 to '12. Then, one night in Vegas last year, he wandered over to the blackjack tables with his poker bankroll and lost "an obscene amount of money," he says. "It wasn't six figures, but it was five."
When Leopardi returned home to L.A., he had only $600 in his pocket, which forced him to take a job as a telemarketer. His bosses were blown away. "They were like, 'Wow, you're great at this,' " Leopardi recalls. "I was like, 'Yeah, it's just reading from a script, and I've been doing that my whole life.' " Now 32, Leopardi works as a project manager at a friend's air-filtration company and operates a property-management company with other friends.
Although he has 32 film and TV credits, Leopardi's one scene with the lifeguard turned him into an idol for two generations of boys. Even his co-star Grant Gelt was inspired. Filming a commercial with Cindy Crawford shortly after The Sandlot, Gelt suggested a script rewrite. "If I have to kiss her," he told the spot's director, "I gladly will." All these years later, Gelt insists, "everyone wants to be Chauncey."
And, if you're wondering, Squints didn't slip Wendy the tongue.
MIKE VITAR — BENNY THE JET
In the movie's last glimpse of the sandlot, Benny the Jet slowly rounds the bases after the other kids have dissolved from the screen. They all move on, grow up, but the Jet never loses his childhood love of baseball. The final scene shows him years later, playing for the Dodgers and stealing home against the Giants.
Mike Vitar, the heartthrob teen actor who played the Jet, can relate. No, Vitar never signed a professional contract—he didn't even play college ball—and he's never swiped home. But the 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles City Fire Department serves as the catcher and occasional infielder for the squad's baseball and softball teams. He gave up acting after meeting a fireman at his high school's career day, and he has made a life responding to 911 calls and playing recreational ball throughout Southern California.
"I'm just an average guy with a family," says Vitar, who played in as many as three overlapping baseball leagues before he and his wife, Kym, had three kids. The boys, Elias and Wesley, are six and four, respectively, and already are being coached by Dad in T-ball; their sister, Norah, is five months old.
For Vitar, all those years of crouching behind the plate led to knee-replacement surgery on each leg. But the grind was worth it. The 34-year-old driver of a ladder truck gets chills thinking about the first time he played a game at Dodger Stadium, for a men's league's championship in 2004.
When the older Benny stole home in the movie, the character was played by Mike's brother, Pablo, an L.A. police officer who died of colon cancer at age 41 in 2008. Mike had been spotted by a casting agent while waiting in line to ride the bumper cars at a carnival, but he told the man he wasn't interested in auditioning. When Pablo found out, he persuaded Mike to do it, saying, "Hey, dummy, you can play baseball all summer long if you do this."
Benny the Jet has been rounding the bases ever since.
TOM GUIRY — SCOTTY SMALLS
The biggest whiff in baseball this season occurred at a Double A game in New Jersey between the Trenton Thunder and the Richmond Flying Squirrels. In a walkway behind the home plate grandstands, Tom Guiry spent roughly six hours signing autographs for fans—married couples pushing 40 who'd seen The Sandlot on their first date; women in their early 30s who blushed while having pictures taken with their childhood crush; kids barely taller than a Louisville Slugger who wanted to know if it hurt getting hit in the face while playing catch. ("No," Guiry said. "It was movie magic.")
At one point Guiry, a patient transporter at the Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in nearby Hamilton, looked up from his table and knew instantly that he'd been caught in a white lie. He'd called in sick to join Evans at the ballpark, but staring back at Guiry was an emergency room doctor from RWJ. Unfortunately, the doctor swung and missed when he failed to proclaim, "You're killing me, Smalls!"
The Sandlot's money quote was delivered when Guiry, playing the role of Scotty Smalls, the new kid in the neighborhood and a self-described egghead, gets offered a s'more by Ham in the tree house. "I haven't had anything yet," Smalls deadpans, "so how can I have some more of nothing?"
On a near daily basis, Guiry still hears Ham's retort from friends and even strangers who recognize his boyish face. But only once, he says, was it delivered with impeccable timing. About four years ago Guiry was driving on an I-95 exit ramp in New Jersey and fiddling with the radio when he plowed into the back of a stopped car. The other driver got out, recognized Guiry and shouted, "Aaaahhh! You're killing me, Smalls!"
His reaction? "That's priceless."
Guiry, 32, has appeared in several films over the years (Lassie and Black Hawk Down) and TV shows (Law & Order and CSI: Miami), and he still takes the train into Manhattan three or four times a month for auditions. When he's not wheeling patients to the operating room—"You never want a patient to say, 'You're killing me, Smalls!'," he says—Guiry is studying to become an EMT to help support his family. He and his wife, Janel, have two daughters younger than three, Jamison and Charlotte; he also has a 13-year-old son, Michael, from a previous relationship.
Guiry's approach to his job is simple. "I'm really polite to people, because when you're sick it's hard to be nice," he says. "It's always nice to put a smile on someone's face. And if I can't do it acting, maybe I can do it this way."
MARTY YORK — YEAH-YEAH
A personal trainer who can bench-press 400 pounds and squat 315 five times, Marty York, 32, is lucky that he hasn't spent the last half of his life in a wheelchair. On June 5, 1997, he was driving on a two-lane highway in Southern California when a truck stopped in front of him. York crept into the opposite lane, looking to pass, and put himself in the path of an oncoming Mustang going about 60 mph. He spent a week in a coma and received last rites in the hospital, and after he regained consciousness he was told he'd never walk again. The engine of his small BMW had come through the car and shattered his legs into "puzzle pieces," he says. (York says the other driver was not injured.) Although he's beaten the odds physically, York, who lives in Valencia, Calif., is still working to put his life back together. His drunken tirades outside Hollywood nightclubs and his 2009 jail sentence for domestic battery have been fodder for TMZ and the tabloids. "It's a place I never want to go back to," he says. "I'm moving forward—trying to get away from all that."
GRANT GELT — BERTRAM
Before he became head of operations at Uprising Creative, a design agency in Los Angeles, Grant Gelt traveled the world managing the blues-rock band Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. He put on more than 500 shows in 50 countries, overseeing 256 performances in 36 countries in one year alone. Today the 33-year-old has nearly 30 tattoos, having tried to get inked in as many countries as possible. The most exotic tat: a swallow on the back of his neck from a bohemian artist in a field in Australia. "There was a lot of vodka involved," says Gelt, whose other adventures include hiking the Great Wall of China and riding out typhoons in Taipei and Tokyo.
His pursuits have become tamer since coming off the road last summer. "The 16-year-old punk-rock me would be so pissed at the grown-up me," he says. "All I want to do is golf." Gelt's favorite memory from filming The Sandlot: stuffing his cheeks with fake tobacco made of turkey jerky, bacon and black licorice, then pretending to puke on the carnival ride.
"Being 13 and getting to play with fake barf?" he says. "Everything was great."
Another great thing about being 13 on the set was the vintage items. Prop master Terry Haskell spent roughly $1,500 buying original Erector sets for the ball-retrieval scenes. He also tracked down authentic Playboy magazines from the era.
Many remember the day when shooting was about to commence but someone was missing. Evans refused to say who disappeared, but fellow cast members say it was Gelt. Evans eventually found the "nameless" kid in the tree house reading the vintage picture books.
"What's really funny is that my fiancée works for Playboy," Gelt says. "She's an event coordinator, and I've been to the mansion four times. So, I will neither confirm nor deny that."
VICTOR DIMATTIA — TIMMY
A guitar player and singer, Victor DiMattia moved from Delaware to San Francisco in 2004 with his punk rock band, Spastic, hoping to make it big. Within a year the two other band members had moved back East and DiMattia had enrolled in the film program at the Academy of Art University to study directing and screenwriting.
Now a bartender in L.A. who writes comedy in his downtime, the 32-year-old remains something of a Hollywood insider. He and Marty York recently went to an L.A. nightclub and were given VIP access because of their roles in The Sandlot. When they approached the velvet rope, a 6'7" bouncer who looked like the wrestler Mankind turned toward DiMattia and recited the soliloquy Timmy delivers after the scene that features exploding vacuum cleaners. "I don't even really know the whole thing anymore," DiMattia says. "This guy recites the entire thing off the top of his head and then says, 'Get the f--- in here, come on!' "
SHANE OBEDZINSKI — REPEAT
After spending his early 20s as a drummer for hard-rock bands Sacred Cell and Epic Turn, Shane Obedzinski opened and managed pizza parlors until, he says, "I got tired of doing it for rich people." Roughly three years ago he and a friend, Charlie Jonathan, bought a New York Times Square Pizza shop in Brandon, Fla., outside Tampa.
The 30-year-old Obedzinski works seven days a week keeping the books and throwing dough in the air. On rare free nights, he and his girlfriend, Ronalee Griffith, use their yearlong passes to the Disney theme parks. Space Mountain is Obedzinski's favorite ride, but his jaw has never dropped farther than it did when he witnessed Leopardi lock lips with Shelton. "I don't know why my face was singled out in the movie," he says, "but it was a legit reaction."
BRANDON QUINTIN ADAMS — KENNY
When Brandon Quintin Adams gets recognized in L.A., he isn't usually asked about his role as Zeke in Michael Jackson's Moonwalker or Jesse Hall in two of the Mighty Ducks movies or his time on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Moesha. Most people quote his Sandlot character, saying, "Here comes my heater!"
The 33-year-old rapper/actor/writer/director is as active as his job description implies, hustling from the studio to the gym to auditions, writing in parks and hanging out with his seven-year-old daughter, Iyahna. "I'm nonstop, always trying to find somewhere new to spark my mind," he says.
His life was forever changed on Nov. 9, 2002, when his best friend and fellow actor Merlin Santana was shot dead at 26. Adams was also an intended victim of the two gunmen, who are serving a combined 93 years in prison. "I'm adamant about not being fearful, not wasting time," Adams says. "Do what makes you happy. Not for money, not for fame, but for yourself."
5 Completely Trivial Things We Learned About The Sandlot
The Sandlot was originally titled The Boys of Summer—until Roger Kahn, author of the classic 1972 baseball book, threatened to sue.
The film was first cast with nine- and 10-year-olds. Lining them up, director David Mickey Evans realized they were too young and started anew. "Some of them cried," he says. "It was horrible."
During filming, the final roster of 10- to 14-year-olds stayed in a Salt Lake City condo across from a movie theater and on one off day a group of them sneaked in to see R-rated Basic Instinct.
A subplot involving Benny the Jet and Dodgers base stealer Maury Wills was edited out for time. Topps even made several '62 Wills cards for one scene, although such a card never existed. Prop master Terry Haskell has one signed by the seven-time All-Star.
Long after the movie, Chauncey Leopardi went on a date, and while he may not have enjoyed it, she apparently did. The woman created a fake Facebook profile for Sandlot actress Marley Shelton and urged castmates to hold a reunion so that she could see Leopardi again.
The boys of summer live forever on film. To watch a clip from The Sandlot download the digital edition of SI, free for subscribers at SI.com/activate