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June 14th, 2021

the sandlot comes to liberal posterROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

“You’re killing me, Smalls.”

To those who have seen the movie, “The Sandlot,” that line is as familiar as any in cinema history.

Created in the early 1990s, the sports comedy film centers around 1962 suburban Los Angeles and a Scott Smalls, a brainy reserved fifth grader who has trouble making friends.

As he attempts to retrieve a home run into an adjacent backyard, Smalls is told of “the Beast,” a large aggressive English Mastiff that has become a neighborhood legend claiming balls hit into the yards over the years.

One scene in the movie finds Benny Rodriguez, Smalls’ friend, hitting the team’s only baseball so hard, it knocks the cover off. While the Beast’s owner is away on business, Smalls borrows a baseball from his trophy room autographed by none other than Babe Ruth.

Not understanding the value of the ball, Smalls hits his first home run into the Beast’s yard, and he makes several attempts to get the ball out of the yard with makeshift retrieval devices, each of which is destroyed by the Beast.

In the meantime, Benny has a dream in which Ruth’s spirit advises him to retrieve the ball himself, and this will be the moment that makes him a legend.

Through a series of comedic situations, Smalls and Rodriguez eventually free the dog from under the yard’s fence, and the Beast shows its gratitude by leading the youth to its stash of baseballs.

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Smalls and Rodriguez later meet the Beast’s owner, Mr. Mertle, who is a former teammate of Ruth’s, but went blind after being struck by a baseball.

Mertle then trades the chewed-up ball for one autographed by all of the 1927 New York Yankees. After giving the ball to Bill, Small’s stepfather, the father-and-son relationship improves, and the boys continue to play baseball on the sandlot, with the Beast – whose real name is Hercules – as their mascot.

Over the next few years, the sandlot kids go their own ways, with Benny earning the nickname “The Jet” after his run in with Hercules and playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Smalls meanwhile becomes a sports commentator and covers a game against the San Francisco Giants in which Rodriguez steals home, ending with the two exchanging a thumbs up celebration in victory.

This month, David Mickey Evans, the writer, director and narrator of “The Sandlot,” is coming to Liberal to show the movie and make a special presentation, as well as answering questions from local fans of the film.

“My friend, Joe Denoyer, told me there was an anniversary for the Chamber of Commerce,” he said. “They wanted some sort of summer-oriented film to play. He called me up and said, ‘Can you make an appearance and say a few things and feel the love?’”

The event will take place starting at 7 p.m. June 26 at Light Park. Evans said he believes this is his first trip to Liberal.

“If memory serves, yes, but there is a possibility I may have driven through in the past during the 20th and 25th anniversary of ‘The Sandlot’ in 2013 and 2018,” he said. “I’m going to treat it like a first time.”

Since the release of “The Sandlot” in 1993, the film has won over fans and critics alike, and Evans naturally is pleased with that success.

“I’m eternally grateful it’s stood the test of time and people still love it,” he said. “It becomes more popular every year than it was the year before, which is an almost unheard of thing for a movie. I get asked all the time what I attribute that to.”

Many people see “The Sandlot” as a baseball movie, but Evans said he sees it in a different way.

“It’s a movie about friendship, and the themes are pretty universal no matter who you are, where you’re from, how you’re brought up,” he said. “I think everybody, in one way or another, identifies with those characters to this day. I’m super grateful for that.”

Evans described the process of putting what would eventually become “The Sandlot” together.

“We shot it in the summer of ’92 in Salt Lake City,” he said. “Physically, it’s always demanding to shoot a picture, but it was 100 to 112 degrees all that summer. It was particularly difficult physically. It was terrific weather, but it was really hot. It was a physical grind, but myself and the entire crew felt we were doing a good job because we kept laughing as we were shooting the film. We figured that was a good sign. We had the kids, they were all young then. If you ask them to this day, they’ll tell you it was the greatest summer of their lives, and I’ll second that for sure. To this day, we’re all good friends, and it’s a memory that never goes away.”

Evans said the movie’s plot is derived from his own childhood experiences.

“My little brother, we lived on a block when we were kids where we were the outsiders and nobody  liked us,” he said. “The kids on the block would play baseball during baseball season in the middle of the street we lived on which was all asphalt in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California.”

The similarities continue, Evans said, with the equipment his real life group of friends had.

“We didn’t have a bucket of baseballs,” he said. “We had a baseball, and they hit their baseball over the concrete block fence at the end of the block. They told my little brother, who was probably 8 at the time, ‘If you go get the ball, you can play with us.’ He went and got it.”

As Evans’ brother retrieved the baseball, he too discovered a vicious dog in the backyard, appropriately named Hercules.

“He got the ball, and the dog got him real good and bit his leg real bad,” Evans said. “I’ve never forgotten that incident. I carried around with me, and one day, I just got one of those writer moments.”

The biggest challenge, Evans said, was turning bullies into heroes.

“I turned them all into heroes, and the rest of it, the ball being signed by Babe Ruth, just fell into place in the course of the writing process,” he said. “It took six weeks to write it with one or two very small rewrites, polishes. That was it.”

When “The Sandlot” was initially released, Evans said he had two hopes, the first being that the film would be seen and the second that it would be liked.

“You never know,” he said. “Studios and distributors use algorithms, mathematics and equations to predict, pretty accurately I have to admit, what a movie’s going to do, and they expect the kind of business you would expect a small film like that to do, which was modest.”

Evans said the movie started off much better than projected.

“It just kept going and going and going, and it’s never stopped,” he said. “It was released in the heyday of the VHS revolution – Hollywood Video, Blockbuster. It sold nearly a million tapes that fall. Then, the DVD revolution came along, and it did even better there. It’s always there when the new platforms come out for distribution, and it’s always at the winner and at the front.”

Evans said the movie’s popularity has continued into today’s world of on demand and livestreaming technology.

“It finally got on Netflix, and in a day or two, it was number one,” he said. “Every new technology, every new platform, it’s always there. It’s one of those movies like ‘A Christmas Story’ people just watch over and over and over again. I don’t think there’s any bigger compliment for a writer.”

Evans talked about some of the work he has done in addition to “The Sandlot.”

“I’ve had much smaller projects, much bigger projects, very successful films,” he said. “That’s once in a lifetime, once in a career if you’re lucky enough to get it. I’ve done movies for Disney, ‘First Kid.’ I did a movie called ‘Radio Flyer’ that’s a bit of a cult classic. I’ve done television. We’re doing a prequel to ‘The Sandlot,’ which takes place a couple of years before the original. We’ve got a television show that’s set up at Disney+. I’m off to Hollywood to do a picture there. I’ll keep at it as long as I still have something to say.”

In regards to his upcoming trip to Liberal, Evans said he looks at what has happened in visits to other communities.

“I try not to have any expectations, but if history  is indication, I’ve been to have every major league and minor league ballpark in the United States to show this film to audiences from a couple hundred to tens and tens of thousands,” he said. “We’ve shown it on the jumbotrons, and it’s a love fest. People tell me over and over how much it means to them, how much they love the movie. Anytime I get an opportunity to interact with fans of the film, I definitely take it.”

As with any film, Evans said the success of “The Sandlot” can be attributed to its fans.

“It could be the best movie in the world, but if nobody ever sees it, what’s the point?” he said. “I’m grateful I have a film that’s like that, that people love and I can go out and shake hands, sign autographs and take photos. It’s terrific. What’s better than that?”

Evans is looking for a great turnout for his upcoming visit to Liberal.

“I hope everybody can come out,” he said. “The more, the merrier. I love watching a movie with an audience. The very first time I showed the film, we had no idea what was going to happen, but they all were excited. They laughed. It got a standing ovation, and it’s been that way pretty much ever since.”

Initially, Evans said he spent much of his time at showings seeing audiences’ reaction to the movie, but over time, the amount of time spent doing this has become less.

“In the early days, the first week or two it was out, 100 percent,” he said. “I’d go to theaters, stand in the back and watch the audience react to the film. Now, it’s not so much that. I appreciate it, but a lot of people have seen the movie before. There’s a sense of anticipation. If there’s a joke coming up, they’re laughing before the joke. That’s always very cool. It’s just a great vibe to feel that.”

Part of the film’s success too is its timeless humor, Evans said.

“Luckily, the jokes keep paying off,” he said.

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