Legends Never Die: 30th Anniversary of The Sandlot

I followed them to the sandlot once after school. I’d never seen any place like it. It was like their own little baseball kingdom or something. It was the greatest place I’d ever seen anyway.”

With those words, David Mickey Evans, the writer, director and narrator introduced us to The Sandlot, the iconic childhood baseball nostalgia film released in 1993. When Evans wrote those words in his screenplay for The Sandlot he was dreaming of a very real vacant lot in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley circa 1968. It had been transformed by local kids into a ramshackle baseball sanctuary where, throughout the summer, the crack of bats echoed from dawn to dusk. Back then, Evans and his little brother Scott were new arrivals to the community, and yearned to get in on the fun. But, this is where reality departs sharply from fiction.

“We got beat up a lot,” says Evans. His Pacoima neighborhood, one of many United States suburbs created to accommodate the White Flight of the 1950s and ’60s, had become home to lower-income Chicanos. The Evans boys didn’t look like the other kids, so they were persona non grata on the makeshift ballfield—even after Scott, desperate to court the bullies’ favor, bravely hopped a fence to retrieve their only baseball. His sole reward was a gnarled leg courtesy of the homeowner’s vicious dog.

photo Everett collection/ ™ © (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. 

Two decades later, in 1989, Evans now one of the hottest screenwriters in Hollywood thanks to his semi-autobiographical Radio Flyer (a dark fantasy wherein he reckons with the physical and emotional scars inflicted by his abusive step-father), mined these unhappy memories for a script called The Boys of Summer. It was to be his how-you-like-me-now revenge on the kids who denied him access to their baseball kingdom. This sounded wonderfully cathartic in theory, but there was just one problem: Evans didn’t want to see it, and couldn’t imagine anyone else buying a ticket for a downer movie about the bullies of his childhood. So on the day he was fired as director of Radio Flyer (early enough in production that the producers were able to scrap his footage and start from scratch with a completely different cast), he went in the opposite direction, crafting a deeply nostalgic mash note to the unifying spirit of baseball. It would be a film about unconditional friendship. It would be not about the way things were, but the way they should have been. And while the film would still be set in the San Fernando Valley, Evans would find his field of dreams a couple of states over after he visited a vacant lot in the Glendale neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

The Sandlot
photos courtesy 20th Century Fox

The Sandlot turns 30 this year and remains a timeless account of the best summer a ragtag group of adolescents ever had. Set in 1962, the film kicks off with young, timid Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry) moving to Southern California with his mother (Karen Allen) and stepfather (Denis Leary). While exploring his strange new environs, Smalls stumbles upon a makeshift baseball diamond composed of dirt, dead grass and a flung-together backstop. This is the sandlot where eight rambunctious boys bat the ball around until the sun dips below the horizon. Eight players means they’re short one for a full team, so when baseball-mad Smalls appears out of nowhere to set up in left field sporting the cheap plastic glove gifted to him by his grandmother, the squad’s leader, Benny (Mike Vitar), spies an opportunity for a ninth. Smalls is a disaster at first, but he ultimately overcomes his unsightly deficiencies in the throwing and catching department to win over the gang, leading to a magical three months full of highs and lows and plenty of mischief (most notably a Babe Ruth-signed baseball landing in the jaws of a backyard menace known as The Beast).

Given his devastating experience on Radio Flyer, Evans couldn’t afford another behind-the-camera misstep with his second feature. He hedged his risk by writing an all-ages comedy that could be made for under $10 million (a pittance for a studio production when Fox greenlit the film in 1991). The slashed cost, however, knocked Southern California out as a potential filming location. Evans, who’d lived most of his life in the area, was flummoxed. “I couldn’t imagine there being another Southern California basin,” says Evans. “It’s basically a desert surrounded by big purpley-blue mountains.” 

Desert, big purpley-blue mountains…where might one find such a setting in the continental U.S.? 

The Sandlot
photo Everett collection/ ™ © (c)20th Century Fox Film Corp. 

Producer Mark Berg thought this sounded an awful lot like Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Mountains. Evans flew out to the valley for a location scout and was immediately convinced. Location managers David B. Smith and Dennis Williams knew the area well, and, armed with photos of Evans’ old San Fernando stomping grounds, locked down one perfect approximation after another. The film suddenly flickered to life in Evans’ imagination: The Beast’s chaotic pursuit of Benny through the Founder’s Day picnic; Squints’ shrewdly calculated kiss with lifeguard Wendy Peffercorn at the local pool; the ill-fated carnival ride fueled to vomitous effect by Big Chief tobacco; the boys’ drubbing of the rich kids’ team at their meticulously maintained ballpark; and, of course, that little baseball kingdom nestled in the heart of a tight-knit neighborhood.

Heart was at the top of the docket for Evans, and he found an abundance of it in Salt Lake City, starting with his crew. “This was the first time I’d ever worked in Utah, and the people there have a work ethic that’s unrivaled,” he says. “They care about what they do. They want to do a good job and they do a great job.” As Evans and his cast of troublemakers grew accustomed to the city, he realized the themes of his movie were reflected in the people he met. “The underlying values of the characters in the movie, I think, fit pretty perfectly with Salt Lake as I know it. I love it. The people there have just a magnificent take on family. It seems to me it’s a bit of a meritocracy. It’s a good-things-happen-to-those-who-do-good-things kind of vibe.”

The Sandlot
photos courtesy 20th Century Fox

The populace of Salt Lake City has returned this affection a dozen fold. In 2013, Marshall Moore, then the Director of the Utah Film Commission, teamed up with Brian Prutch, the Director of Corporate Sales for the Salt Lake Bees at the time, to host the 20th anniversary at the restored sandlot. Moore’s love affair with the film began when he took his 4- and 3-year-old children to see the movie during its theatrical release. He had relocated to the area in 1993 to work on the ABC miniseries production of Stephen King’s The Stand and fell hard for its gentle nature and inclusive spirit. Having missed the chance to work on The Sandlot by just a year, he leaped at the opportunity to help orchestrate the film’s birthday celebration in a city that, despite its on-screen setting in California, has embraced it as the quintessential Salt Lake City movie. 

Moore believes the city’s love affair with The Sandlot is rooted in its nostalgia for a childhood innocence that is disappearing. “There aren’t a lot of kids out running around playing sandlot baseball anymore,” he says. “Maybe [kids] all get together and ride their bikes, or get together to shoot some hoops at the playground, but [youth] baseball is very organized.” Still, Moore is encouraged that the film has not only endured, but expanded its appeal. Every year, parents show The Sandlot to their children, and, judging from the turnout at the anniversary events, which occur every five years, the movie exudes a timelessness akin to cherished classics like The Wizard of Oz, The Goonies and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

None of this has gotten old for Evans or the cast. They eagerly show up for each anniversary celebration, sign loads of autographs on whatever’s handy (Evans claims he’s signed more than one baby with a Sharpie) and relive what wound up being the best summer of their lives. In exchange, attendees huddle together with their spouses and children under a starry sky and dream anew about the way things should be.  

The Sandlot
Left to right: Chauncey Leopardi, Patrick Renna, Marty York,
Victor DiMattia, Shane Obedzinski
photo j’adore photography / priscilla poland

Where are they Now? 

Tom Guiry (Scott Smalls) went on to star in major films like Ride with the Devil, Black Hawk Down and Mystic River. He will play himself as a kidnap victim in the forthcoming mob comedy Killin’ Smallz.

Mike Vitar (Benny Rodriguez) went from The Sandlot to the ice hockey rink as Luis in D2: The Mighty Ducks and D3: The Mighty Ducks. He quit acting in 1997 and later joined the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Patrick Renna (Hamilton “Ham” Porter) had memorable roles in 1990s comedies like Son in Law and The Big Green and the lamentably canceled Netflix series Glow.

Chauncey Leopardi (Michael “Squints” Palledorous) joined Renna in The Big Green before the criminally short-lived NBC series Freaks and Geeks. He recently appeared in the music video for Logic’s “Homicide.”

Brandon Adams (Kenny DeNunez) laced up the skates alongside Vitar for D2: The Mighty Ducks. He also appeared on ’90s beloved series like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Roc and Moesha.

Marty York (Alan “Yeah-Yeah” McLennan) has appeared on TV series as varied as Boy Meets World, Wings and The Eric Andre Show

Grant Gelt (Bertram Grover Weeks) quit acting in the late 1990s and went on to co-found the brand studio Masscult.

Shane Obedzinski (Tommy “Repeat” Timmons) left acting behind in 1993. He is now the owner of Times Square Pizza in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Victor Dimattia (Timmy Timmons) has returned to film, mostly behind the scenes, with billing as an actor and director.

David Mickey Evans followed up The Sandlot by writing the 1996 baseball comedy Ed about a baseball-playing chimpanzee. He wrote and directed 2005’s The Sandlot 2 and is currently developing a prequel.

Where to find The Sandlot in Salt Lake City

For superfans hyped about taking the SLC Sandlot tour, here’s your map of the essential stops.

  • Smalls and Benny’s houses are located on the 2000 East block in Salt Lake City.
  • Squints stole his kiss at the Lorin Hall Community Pool in Ogden.
  • The carnival and the Founder’s Day picnic were filmed at Liberty Park.
  • Our scrappy heroes routed the rich kids’ team at Riverside Park’s Rose Park Field.
  • The Sandlot itself is located behind 1388 Glenrose Drive, in Salt Lake City

NOTE: If you opt to visit when the field hasn’t been refurbished for its anniversary, prepare to be disappointed. It’s just a bland vacant lot. Also, it’s impossible to access the field without committing some light trespassing. So, you know, don’t do it.

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