by Alex Langer
With the recent end of baseball, and the Seattle Mariners’ hilariously sad descent back to mediocrity, my mind has been on why I love baseball so much. For much of my life, my favorite team has been bad. Sometimes bad in a way that allows me to accept it, letting me enjoy new and innovative ways to lose, and sometimes bad in a way that eats at the pit of your soul. It makes you question why you love a sport, especially when you haven't been excited about your favorite team since you were eleven.
The question gnawed at me, until I remembered one of my favorite movies. I watched The Sandlot often growing up. I probably watched that movie six times over the course of every baseball season growing up. I had an Alex Rodriguez jersey, and every time I went outside to play catch with my dad, or wiffle ball with my friends, I could never decide if I wanted to be A-Rod (before he left Seattle for Texas and $250 million), or Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez. I can still quote that movie liberally.
The Sandlot is not, objectively, a great movie. It does not deserve a place among the great sports movies of our time. It is not Friday Night Lights, or Any Given Sunday, or Bull Durham, or Field of Dreams. It’s a kids movie, more a series of vignettes before the final act. Though those vignettes are hilarious, and funny, they do not serve as an overarching plot, at least not until the Beast shows up, and Mr. Mertle (played by James Earl Jones), sits down with the kids to explain the whole thing.
What makes The Sandlot my favorite baseball movie is because it, unlike most great sports movies, captures exactly why we care, and specifically why we care about baseball. Smalls, when he haltingly asks his stepfather to teach him how to play catch, reminds me of all the days I’d look outside, wanting nothing more than to play catch, before finally going downstairs and finding my dad buried beneath an avalanche of work. I’d go down, say hello, lose my courage, and go back upstairs. Sometimes I’d do this two or three times, before finally asking, but when I did, he always said yes. Smalls being bad at baseball, playing left field (the traditional spot for the worst kid on the team) reminds me of the years I played left field. More than that, however, The Sandlot reminds me of the joy the game brings, when you strip away the competition, the crowd, and the skill. Baseball, playing catch, hitting fly balls, becomes such a joy when you see kids play it. They may be terrible, but there is a simplicity and a joy to baseball that I often forget when I see the pros play it.
That simplicity may have been the reason I return to The Sandlot so often, but it is Mr. Mertle’s story that sticks with me. For readers who aren’t familiar, Mr. Mertle is a blind former Negro Leaguer, played by James Earl Jones, who owns the Beast and invites Benny and Smalls into his house at the end of the movie. Apparently, Mr. Mertle knew Babe Ruth, played against him, and had a ball signed by the entire 1927 Yankees, considered by many to be the greatest team ever. In exchange for the ruined Babe Ruth ball, Mr. Mertle gives Smalls this ball. The fact that Mertle, an African-American, played in the Negro Leagues, has to be implied by the time, because it’s never explicitly stated, and it was something I did not catch until recently. One of the truths of baseball’s past is that some of its greatest players did not play in the Majors, but made up the Negro Leagues, and only played the top white talent in offseason exhibitions. Players like Satchel Page (who became the oldest MLB rookie ever at 42, after integration), Josh Gibson, who allegedly hit a ball out of Yankee Stadium in 1930, and Pop Lloyd, who Babe Ruth called the greatest player of all time, never had the opportunity to show their worth alongside legends such as Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, and Wagner.
Unsurprisingly, The Sandlot does not devote much of its conclusion to exploring the racial divides that permeated baseball, even during the summer of 1962, or focus on the second-class nature of Mr. Mertle. Ultimately, he stands in as a silent reminder of all the incredible ballplayers whose names fans never learned, who were pushed to the margins until 1947. Revisiting the movie, and unearthing this new facet of the game, only deepens my appreciation for it. It subtly reminds the viewer of the dark side of America’s Pastime, while revealing in the simple joys of baseball, of children playing with broken-down mitts and creased ball caps, on a dusty field in the late-summer sun.