Let's Hear It for Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez
I want you to remember the best summer vacation of your life. Chances are, it was either when you were a kid and the absolute ecstasy of getting out of school on a warm day in June left your tiny body thrumming with the kind of energy not even a school field day can totally burn off, or it was probably some time around college, where you returned home a different person—a person who understood the difference between IPAs and stouts and lagers and went for a Coors Lite anyway because it’s cheaper and doesn’t make you puke like UV Blue. If it’s the former, you might have an amalgamation of different summers crushed into one single recollection representing what’s at its core—the blissful freedom permitted to gangs of children during summer vacation. It involves an almost forced existence outside with other children playing as close to organized sports as they can muster on their own. It looks a lot like the 1993 family movie, The Sandlot.
There were two movies virtually everyone in my grade watched: The Mighty Ducks was one of them, and The Sandlot, (directed by David Mickey Evans) was the other. The 90s were a very athletic decade in which, I feel, everybody was being encouraged to do sports or some kind of regular exercise, and this bleeds pretty heavily into the kids media of the time. The Sandlot is driven by nostalgia—the nostalgia of the narrator, Scott Smalls (voiced by director Evans), a nostalgia for the simpler childhood of the 1960s, and nostalgia in general for summers of childhood, which many of us are never able to fully recapture. To provide a brief plot summary, The Sandlot is about a kid named Scott Smalls whose family (new stepfather included) has moved just in time for summer vacation. Taking a little pity on his neighbor, who is bad at sports, roving pack of boys alpha Benny Rodriguez invites Smalls to play baseball with his group and takes him under his wing. As Smalls learns the game and rules for life, famous line “You’re killing me, Smalls,” is said by baseball aficionado and catcher, Ham. There’s a sleepover where Squints Palledorous describes the origins of the Beast, a giant English Mastiff who lives beyond the fenced outfield of the sandlot and from whom no lost baseball has ever been recovered. A progression of summer activities follows—town pool, fireworks, carnivals.
Smalls screws up and ends up offering an autographed ball from his stepfather’s trophy room to play with, and then promptly hits it into the yard of the Beast. Attempts to complete a remote rescue mission fail. The ghost of Babe Ruth appears to Benny to tell him the movie’s other (better) iconic line, “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die. Follow your heart, kid, and you’ll never go wrong.” Benny puts on a brand new pair of PF Flyers and becomes “The Jet,” leading the Beast through town. At the end of the day, they’re given a better ball by the Beast’s owner, Mr. Mertle, learn the Beast—whose name is Hercules—just wants to play, and become baseball buddies with Mr. Mertle. All’s well that ends well.
The fact that this is, in many ways, an idealized summer doesn’t seem egregiously problematic to me; memory might do a lot of things to trap us, but at the end of the movie, where Smalls is a commentator for the Dodgers, and Benny is on the field playing, and they give each other a thumbs up, there’s the real sense that the things which happen to us when we’re kids are what help determine who we grow up to be—in a good way. The genre requires a certain degree of optimism to come out of the drama of the plot (90s family movies were either very depressing or very positive with little middle ground between) but I think that the overall argument of the film lead to more than a superficial happy ending, and it gets stated plainly in the Ghost Babe Ruth’s quote. Like any kids movie, The Sandlot revels in the innocence of childhood—the call to “follow your heart,” however, drives goodness as a motivator for action: if it feels like it’s right to do it, you’ll know it is, and when you let your compassion guide you, then you’re going to be okay. It’s the kind of messaging a lot of kids need, and it doesn’t even need the great construct of violent conflict between good and evil (like a superhero movie does) to get there. In fact, it’s only by action and trusting himself to make the right choice that Benny is able to resolve the problems facing the sandlot: he has to be a hero to get the ball, but it’s his and Smalls’s freeing of the Beast from under the collapsed fence which creates meaningful community improvements. The movie is not about destroying the monster, or even conquering it, but about breaking down what separates us, dispelling superstition, and acting from the heart.
The thing is, Benny already knew the advice his dreamed Babe Ruth had to give him, and had already been acting on it earlier in the film when he insisted on Smalls joining for a game. He anticipates an excuse to not come, and brings an extra glove. He makes sure that Smalls is able to catch his first ball. There’s a degree of hero worship from Smalls for Benny throughout the narration, but how can there not be? Benny becomes Smalls’s first friend and his advocate in a group of boys who would just as well eat him alive. From his introduction, it seems like Benny acts from his heart. Babe Ruth’s appearance in his dream acts as a way for Benny to get advice from himself for himself: he already has a strong moral compass, strong enough that he doesn’t need an adult mentor to really tell him what to do, but can summon his own—and when he does, he recipes the affirmation to do what he thinks he should do, and what he knew he was going to have to do. It might be fairly common for kids to imagine their heroes appearing to guide them through difficult times and scenarios; unlike how a ghost mentor appears like Ben Kenobi in a series like Star Wars, where the Force is a matter of fact, the appearance of Ghost-Dream Babe Ruth acts much more like a child’s pep talk for themselves, given, importantly, by themselves to themselves.
To be a legend, or to complete acts of childhood heroism, Benny doesn’t have to have any bravado. He knows he’s good at baseball, but that’s because he knows baseball, period, and because it’s his whole life (and will continue to be, based on the end of the movie). Benny sets a standard for Smalls to strive towards: he’s popular and likable in their group not because he puts others down for the sake of a quick joke at another person’s expense, but because he just is a good kid; he’s great at baseball not to be better than everyone, but because he loves the sport; and he goes to “risk his life” against the Beast (to great protests from his friends) because it’s the right thing to do, and in doing so he opens the way for all his friends to get their balls back, for an old baseball fan to get to enjoy the freshness of the game again, and for Smalls to improve his relationship with his stepfather. And, because Benny is good, Smalls doesn’t get jealous: there is real love he feels and expresses towards Benny throughout the narration. Smalls speaks about Benny with admiration. For him, Benny is better than Babe Ruth, a guy he never even heard of until the other boys started listing his epithets in disbelief. Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez is more real to him, is his friend, and is his hero.
The uncomplicated nature of goodness in this film and its ability to solve problems may never be realistic to some people, but when you’re twelve, it is possible to believe in that kind of moral ideal, and this is a film about being Good, and about heroes, and about how not everything we assume about the world is necessarily correct—and that close-mindedness and fear can prevent us from being able to fully enjoy what the world has to offer us. Kids are infinitely more capable of believing in good than adults, which is why their naivety can put them in genuine danger—but it’s also one of the things that they’ve got on us. While Smalls narrates to us, the audience, about his favorite legend and the summer he fell in love with baseball, it’s worth remembering that he’s not narrating from a place divorced from the past or where that past was better than the future: he is actively still living and enjoying a life where he gets to talk about it and, better, gets to see his childhood hero play on a regular basis. That connection to their past and that connection to baseball has both Benny and Smalls better off for it. Remembering the bliss of a good summer in childhood perpetuates the significant lesson of the movie—to follow your heart—making those memories productive in the present at the same time they live in the past.
Another thought that occurred to me while reflecting on how this movie so perfectly captures a lot of childhood summers (obviously not all of them, but a lot of them) is that sometimes the best heroes we have growing up are our friends. Smalls is the one who goes immediately to save the dog when the fence falls down and Benny helps him lift it. How our friends act when we’re growing up influences our own behaviors; when Yeah Yeah makes fun of Smalls for being a total dweeb (he is), Benny turns around and asks what’s the difference between the two of them, when Yeah Yeah can’t run? The reframing makes Yeah Yeah sheepish, and reluctantly the boys follow Benny’s lead to let Smalls play with them. I played flute in band in high school, and I remember our instructor saying that “People of high quality spend time with high quality people,” and while it is true that we can model our behaviors on our celebrity heroes, like Benny seems to want to when he receives the visit from Ghost Babe Ruth, it means way more when it’s the kid who lives a few houses down from us who teaches us how to be a better person—whether it’s by building up our confidence in ourselves, or getting us to help a trapped animal. Kids inspiring other kids also tells us that actually, anyone can do the right thing. You don’t need to be an adult, and you definitely don’t need to be the best baseball player of all time to do that.
I don’t have kids, so I don’t know how summer vacations look anymore. I don’t know if kids spend a lot of time on their phones; I know they do in class, but I also know that I was reading books under my desk, which amounted to a similar thing, so it could just be that school in general kind of sucks when you’d rather be doing anything else. I’d like to think that most kids still get outside a lot, and that the fear over children trapped by their tablets and phones is a boogeyman like the idea of my generation being tied to the N64, or any other indoor activity and generations before us. The Sandlot is only really dated, to me, by the pool scene where Squints steals a kiss from the lifeguard (who he then goes on to marry). The rest of it—even Benny saying “Bitchin’” to Smalls about getting another baseball—feels pretty authentically middle school. Kids don’t really change that much, which is what makes texts like this movie so authentic. Now, I think it’s time for me to go throw a ball around.
Jill is a writer and academic whose scholarship primarily focuses on popular culture, trauma studies, conflict, and girlhood. Her dream job is to be the kind of hermit rich, landowning folk in the late-Regency period would hire to sit on their highly cultivated "wild lawns."