Perfect Winter Oasis
In the summer of ’94, amid the last MLB player strike, Little Big League was released. That year alone there were four other baseball films and between 1992-1994 a total of 10 films, including The Sandlot, Rookie of the Year, A League of Their Own, Angels in the Outfield, The Scout and Mr. Baseball, were in theatres.
Playing off the general theme of 1953’s The Kid From Left Field, Little Big League centers around a young boy named manager of a major league ball club. That is where the similarities end. In this film, after finding the current manager less than accepting of constructive criticism from his new boss, Billy, who has just inherited the team, appoints himself the manager of the Minnesota Twins. While the premise of the film seems far-fetched, it is the opening scenes with actors Jason Robards and Luke Edwards, that set the tone of believability and allow you to jump in with both feet to enjoy the journey.
It’s Jason Robards’ belief in Billy, in his role as the grandfather, that lets the audience buy into the script. Without his strong characterization of a baseball man, this movie would be over before it started. Robards’ character is a man who knows more baseball than you and yet, is wise enough to recognize he’s been overshadowed by his grandson and protégé.
There is also another incredibly important element, the physical training of Luke Edwards, who plays Billy. He doesn’t just go from being a kid to a manager with grownup responsibilities. He embodies the role. His body language, the physicality in the role he plays, is undeniably inherent to his transformation from pre-teen to respected-by-adults in a position of authority. His baseball mannerisms are so well rehearsed that the final scene is nothing short of perfection.
Cast with real ball players, and having been filmed at no less than four MLB ballparks, the film is more genuine in both execution and script than most for the time. This is so important to the way the movie plays out.
Some might say the film tries to take from the idea behind Major League and make it kid-friendly. I would argue that this film takes what Major League tried to do and succeeds in the execution. Most people fondly recall Major League as a comedy about baseball but there were themes that it tried to touch on – relationships outside the ballpark, injuries and getting out of your own head long enough to help the team – that are replayed, and played better, in Little Big League.
This film is genuine to the game while addressing real concerns. It takes the “chasing tail” element out of the film and replaces it with lost friendships. They add a bit of fun and superstition into the mix but no more than you’d see at any ballpark.
Though the central premise of the film is out of reach for reality, the baseball aspects, all but the hide-the-ball play, are very much in line with the game. The cameo appearances by Seattle teammates and Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, as well as their Manager Lou Piniella, are but three of the more than half dozen players with MLB stats in the film. The film also has the Twins real life voice of the time, Jon Gordon, playing the broadcaster, as well as ESPN’s Baseball Tonight host Chris Berman.
Scott Patterson’s signature baseball cap in Gilmore Girls might be more than just a character prop. He spent five of his six years in the game in AAA. The RHP posted a career 4.31 ERA in 255 games. For the film he, once again, took the mound.
Patterson’s not the only big name with baseball experience. Timothy Busfield, who also appeared in Field of Dreams, is a pitcher in real life as well. He pitched several seasons for the Sacramento Smokies, an independent semi-pro baseball club that was home to many major league players heading in both directions through their career.
Troy Startoni, Leon Durham, Michael Papajohn, Bradley Jay Lesley and Kevin Elster also appear in the film. Between them they have more than 20 years in the majors, two All-Star appearances, a Silver Slugger Award and two College World Series appearances. Startoni also appeared in the 1991 film Babe Ruth. What does that mean for Little Big League? It means authentic playing on the field and solid acting off. If you are a fan of the game itself then, hands down, it’s a far better movie than most in its genre. Much like Miracle gained by using real hockey players, having these guys on the bases, and in the locker room, lends authenticity to every scene.
In the film, Hall of Famer Bob Lemon is quoted, “Baseball was made for kids. Grown ups only screw it up.” I’d have to agree. When you take the grown up themes out of the baseball movie, what you’re left with is a film baseball enthusiasts can daydream about and players can find relatable.
The film is a virtual 101 in dealing with baseball player temperament. Some of my favorite scenes include his letting a player go, roadtrip high-jinx meets coming of age, arguing with the ump and the stickball game. And there is nothing better than the entire team trying to help him with his math homework so they can get out on the field and play. Simply put, the storyline succeeds for me where others like Major League and Bull Durham fail. That’s because, in this film, the focus remains on the field with the players’ life stories, as often happens in season, taking on a secondary role. Most of all, I liked that it didn’t give into the Hollywood moment the way you might expect. It stayed true to the game through 90% of the on-field trials and, of course, because it is a family-friendly movie, it plays up some of the embarrassments of being a kid.
If you’re looking for a great cocoa and cookies film to get you through the cold days before spring, this one will motivate you off the couch and back into the garage for some wall ball practice.