The Sandlot celebrated its 22nd anniversary yesterday. Baseball is back this week. We are going to rank the characters. Before the rankings, though, a short story:
In May of 1995, right near the end of my eighth-grade year, we had a movie-night event at my school. Now, I don’t remember having a movie night on campus before that moment and I don’t remember having one after (although it seems unlikely that that was the only time it happened or would happen). And I also don’t know why they called it a “movie night” given that it occurred during the last two periods of the school day, but they did. Additionally, I don’t remember what the weather was like that day or which two classes it was that I was allowed to miss to watch the movie. I suppose I don’t remember a lot about that moment, but I 100 percent remember three things from that day, and I will remember them for the rest of my ever: The movie they played was The Sandlot. And my life was never the same after I watched it. And it was all because of one very specific scene.
The Sandlot came out in 1993. Until then, it was a thing that had only existed in my periphery. I’d automatically defaulted to thinking that the movie was boring because baseball was in it and I didn’t like baseball, and that was before I knew anything (back when I thought I knew everything), so that’s why I hadn’t seen it. I’d seen pieces of it, but that day at movie night, that was the first time I’d ever actually sat down and watched it.
They showed it in the gym using one of those classroom projectors to throw it up on the wall. And the thing that happened that will stay with me always was in part due to the movie, but mostly due to how the movie made me feel at that exact moment, which might actually be the whole point of movies.
Here’s the scene: A little bit of the way before Smalls hits the Babe Ruth ball over the fence, Benny hits a baseball so hard that the insides of it become the outsides of it. And right before that, that’s the scene. It’s just him walking up to the plate. That’s all it is. It lasts less than 30 seconds. It’s shot in slow motion, and there’s this very deliberate and auspicious music playing, and it’s just a close-up of Benny as he makes his serious face while getting ready to bat. This is it. It goes from 4:24 to 4:53. Stop it at 4:53:
Let me tell you what happened during this scene as we all watched it. While it played, as the camera caught Benny at just the right moment looking just right in just the right light, there was a very loud, very overwhelming roar in the gym. It happened quickly, and it happened like what-the-fuck. It was coming from the girls in the crowd. They were yipping and hollering and barking because of how attractive Benny was, and rightfully so, because he for sure was. The scene cut away, they showed the other boys on the team, and when that happened the girls quieted down. Then when it got back to Benny, they did it again. And as I was sitting there absorbing it all, I very distinctly remember thinking, I want that. I want that to be me.
It was bigger than just wanting to be a dope dude, though.
There aren’t a tremendous number of movies where the main or coolest person is Latino, and there were even fewer in 1995. Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez — strong, courageous, noble, preordained for brilliance — was the first obviously cool Latino I’d ever seen in a movie. I knew kids named Benny. I knew kids with the last name Rodriguez. This guy could’ve been in my math class, for all I knew. This guy could’ve been me. I mean, to be sure, he wasn’t anything like me — he was tall and handsome and had great eyebrows and was athletic and had good teeth and cool hair and cool clothes and said cuss words — but he was Latino, so he was exactly like me. That’s a powerful thing for a kid to understand and experience.
Now we’ll rank the characters.
Twentieth Century Fox
Were this a strictly skills-based ranking, the order would be obvious. Benny’s the clear first-place winner, then the pitcher DeNunez, then behind those two guys comes Ham, and you just keep on going in that order. But this is more intricate than that, because sports is always more intricate than that. Each player was given a score for actual baseball ability, but also a score for how essential he was to the existence of the team (“If we erased him, how much would it affect the other players?”), a score for how essential he was to the movie (“If we erased him, how much would it affect the plot?”), a score for how complex his character was, a score for his away-from-baseball importance, and a score for general coolness. Those numbers were all combined and averaged to form the final rankings. First place is still obvious. All of the other positions were less so.
9. Tommy “Repeat” Timmons (Score: 27/100)
He’s the least necessary (and most annoying) player on the team. The most impactful thing we see Tommy do in the movie is his insta-reaction when Ham gets into an insult-hurling contest with the captain of the snooty in-town baseball team and tells the kid that he plays ball like a girl. That was a first-class moment. Outside of that, he was invisible. Take him away, the only person who notices is …
8. Timmy Timmons (Score: 31/100)
Older brother to Tommy. Equally superfluous. The only reason he exists is so his younger brother can exist, which is the worst reason of all. I sent out emails to 25 different people asking them to rank the nine players on the team using the criteria listed above so I could have some sort of base measurement from civilians. Only one of those people didn’t have Tommy and Timmy in eighth and ninth place, and in that particular case they were in seventh and eighth place. The person they beat out:
7. Bertram Grover Weeks (Score: 48/100)
Bertram seemed a solid infielder, and that was fine enough. But mostly the reason worth watching him is that he’s a secretly compelling character because of the subtle way they implied that he was undone by drugs, which Smalls briefly addressed at the end of the movie when he was explaining what happened to everyone over the years. He says, “Bertram, well … ” and he stops short, then he massages it, finishing, “ … Bertram got really into the ‘60s, and no one ever saw him again.” If you’ll recall, it was an eventuality they hinted at early on in the movie (he was the one who stole the chewing tobacco and brought it for all the boys to chew on at the carnival). Poor dude. Benny was headed into the clouds. Bertram was headed into the earth.
6. Alan “Yeah-Yeah” McClennan (Score: 55/100)
I read a story about how the guy who played Yeah-Yeah was arrested in 2009 for allegedly punching his girlfriend in the eyeball while he was driving, in case you were wondering what the saddest moment of my whole life was.
5. Kenny DeNunez (Score: 68/100)
Kenny had talent. That’s inarguable. It was clear when he played (he pitched a no-hitter during their game against their in-town rivals) and also explicitly stated at the end of the movie (“DeNunez played Triple-A ball … ”). But that’s where his impact on the movie ended. The Sandlot wouldn’t have been any different if he’d been replaced by a pitching machine in the middle of the summer. You can’t get any higher on this list if a machine can do what you do.
4. Hamilton “Ham” Porter (Score: 81/100)
TOP FOUR, my dudes. These guys did the big lifting in the movie.
Hamilton was an emotional favorite, so seeing him at fourth place is an easy thing to reflexively buck against. He was the second-best power hitter on the team and best trash-talker. The scene where he completely undresses the other team during their game is just gorgeous. The part where he hits the home run and everyone is mad at him for losing the ball and as he runs the bases they’re all hitting him and throwing their gloves at him and he says, “Low and outside, just like I like it,” it’s so beautiful and perfect. Ham and Squints were the two guys who injected the most personality into the team, the two guys who had the most gravity. But he was never as emotionally complex as Squints, which is why he wasn’t able to leapfrog …
3. Scotty Smalls (Score: 84/100)
Smalls is the catalyst for the whole movie.1 Without him, we never hear about The Sandlot. So there’s that. That’s one reason he ended up this high. But I would argue that even in the absence of that overall boost, he’d still be right here.
If we’re doing the police blotter thing again, he’s also gotten into some trouble.
The only two guys you’d really try to put ahead of him that aren’t ahead of him already are Ham and DeNunez, but those guys had skill sets that were already fully formed in the movie. They never got any better than they already were. Smalls was brand-new and grew exponentially.
Think about it like this: Do you remember when the NBA voted and picked its 50 Greatest Players in 1996, and they included Shaq in it even though at that time everyone knew he wasn’t one of the 50 greatest players yet? They did it based on the overwhelming evidence of his potential. Same thing here. When the movie started, Smalls knew basically nothing about how to play baseball. He couldn’t throw (who could ever forget him jogging the ball back into the infield, or the time he was playing catch with his stepdad and was forced to roll it back to him?), he couldn’t catch, he couldn’t hit. He couldn’t do anything except wear khakis and be embarrassing. But then Benny gave him one lesson – ONE — and he was a star the whole rest of the movie. He caught everything that came near him, he could easily make the center-field-to-second-base throw, he was two-for-two at the plate, one of which was a bruiser home run. That’s an exceptional application of coaching advice. He learned things with the same speed Neo did once he was aware of the Matrix. I have to believe that by the end of the summer he was the third-best player on the team. You do, too.
2. Michael “Squints” Palledorous (Score: 91/100)
There was a scene early in Moneyball where all these old-man scouts were sitting around talking about baseball prospects. Someone mentioned one player and the others dismissed him because he had an ugly girlfriend, which they took to mean he was insecure.
Squints is the inverse of that problem. He was unflappably confident. He was fearless (gigantic dogs notwithstanding). He was confrontational. He was funny. He was the only one on the team who wore his hat backward, which is monumental. He just had the most natural swagger on the team,2 even more natural than Benny, which is the only way you pull someone like Wendy Peffercorn when you’re a foot shorter than her and have two front teeth big as index cards.
Ham was a very close second.
Dark sidebar: How about this? How about if when Squints did the drowning thing, what if Wendy had not gotten to him in time? What if he’d died right there? The Sandlot becomes a whole different, much darker movie. Maybe Bertram starts experimenting with hard drugs sooner because he’s so depressed, and maybe he convinces a couple of the other boys to join along (Tommy and Timmy definitely would be serviceable heroin addicts)? Maybe Benny, already a bit of a tough kid, starts wilding out in school, mad at himself for letting Squints die (Benny very clearly felt personally responsible for everyone in the group)? Maybe he drops out, joins a gang, gets caught committing a burglary and ends up getting jailed for five years until he’s 18? Maybe Yeah-Yeah, his heart darkened by despair, changes his name to No-No? Maybe DeNunez tells everyone he has an aunt who’s very into voodoo and so they all come up with a plan to take Squints’s body from his grave and bury it in the sandlot, which will bring it back to life? Except that when they do that, an evil version of Squints comes back and all of a sudden he’s going around hacking up fifth graders and now we’re dealing with a Friday the 13th situation?
1. Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez (100/100)
It was never going to be anyone else. How could it have been? He was the acknowledged best player on the team, and the acknowledged leader as well. He was physically imposing (a good foot taller than basically everyone else except Bertram) and morally sound; an all-world talent fueled by a preternatural determination to have his name live on forever. He batted 1.000 in the movie, was never thrown out or tagged out. The only time he was even halfway stopped was when he hit the guts out of the ball and Smalls caught the remains.
He stared down The Beast. HE STARED DOWN THE BEAST. He could’ve died. The whole rest of the team begged him not to hop the fence. They called it a suicide mission, and it really was, and even if it actually wasn’t, it was to them, and that’s all that matters. They begged him. They begged him. No matter. Greatness can’t be begged into being ordinary any easier than you can beg the sun to not go down. It had to happen. And so it did. Benny will never die.
WHATTTTTT’S MOOOOOOORRRREEE, that wasn’t even his most impressive feat.
Benny’s most impressive feat: He hit a baseball into a glove from 300 feet away ON PURPOSE, and I have to believe that’s the most clutch, most astounding moment in any sports movie of all time, ever in history. They make a big deal in the movie about Babe Ruth having called his shot in the World Series. That’s fine. It’s cool. But he pointed to a whole fucking section of a stadium. Benny had to hit a ball into a 4-by-4-inch pocket from home plate to left center, and he nailed it. If he missed it eight inches to the right, that would’ve been the end of Smalls’s playing career. It would’ve bounced off the dirt, everyone would’ve started laughing at Smalls again, and that’s that. Have fun being a pariah. Or even more traumatic: What if he missed it by 8 inches to the left? It’d have clonked Smalls right on the forehead. At that speed, he might’ve gone into a coma, probably died from brain trauma. So Smalls was only either going to be on the team after that hit, or he was going to be dead, either socially or literally. Benny was staring at a for-real life-or-death situation, and he was unfazed.
Benny’s the best Sandlot player. He’s probably the best any player.