On the 20th anniversary of its release, it's time to give this under-appreciated '90s classic the recognition it deserves
Little Big League is not your typical kids’ sports movie. The 11-year-old main character racks up major hotel charges for watching a porno, wonderfully titled Night Nurses From Jersey (Tagline: “They’re off the turnpike, and looking for love”), 11 times. There are only two scenes of kids actually playing sports in the entire movie, and the outcomes of both of those games are entirely irrelevant to the plot. And, most crucially (spoiler alert), the good guys lose the big game to the bad guys, who are led by Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson.
These departures from the tried-and-true story arc of its contemporaries also make it one of the best children’s sports movies of all time — and, with apologies to The Sandlot, The Natural and Major League — my favorite baseball movie ever. (I’m not alone in my fandom — thought it only made $12 million at the box office, it earned a slew of positive reviews, including a glowing one from Roger Ebert).
A big part of the reason was that I could identify with Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards), an 11-year-old baseball fanatic with an encyclopedic knowledge of the game. Though my grandfather didn’t own the Minnesota Twins and I like to think that I was a slightly more gifted ballplayer than Billy (who we first see grounding out to lose the game for his little league team), even as a grade-schooler I knew I had a better chance of making it to the Majors — my lone dream at the time — through my knowledge of the game than by breaking my arm so I could throw 100 m.p.h. (Rookie of the Year) or communicating with celestial forces (Angels in the Outfield).
After Billy’s grandfather (Jason Robards) dies, Billy inherits the Twins. Following an acrimonious dispute with manager George O’Farrell (so perfectly played by Dennis Farina that it seems a shame he never got a chance to do it for real) over Rickey Henderson, of all people, Billy proves his managerial mettle and names himself the club’s skipper, quoting Cleveland Indians Hall of Famer Bob Lemmon in the process: “Baseball was made for kids; grownups only screw it up.”
It’s an ironic motto for a baseball movie that really only features three kids and scores of adults, but for as good as Edwards and the child actors playing his best friends (Billy L. Sullivan and Miles Feulner) were, the grown-ups were the ones who made the film as special as it was. The Twins of Little Big League were both actors learning to play baseball (Timothy Busfield, Jonathan Silverman) and baseball players learning to act (Bradley Jay Lesley, Kevin Elster). That blend gave the movie an authenticity that its contemporaries sorely lacked (Fun fact: Adrien Brody and Matthew McConaughey were two of the baseball players in Angels in the Outfield), as did the use of real baseball players on their actual teams for the Twins’ opponents. Any baseball fan is going to prefer seeing Pudge Rodriguez and Paul O’Neill to anonymous actors.
More than that though, Little Big League was a movie for kids that never talked down to its target audience. It gave equal weight to issues that could easily be expected under these unusual circumstances — veteran players not wanting to play for a pre-teen manager — and unexpected ones — Billy’s new role and responsibilities nearly cost him his two best friends. It balanced scenes like the one where Billy joins a few of his players to drop water balloons on the heads of their teammates from a hotel window with others far more gut-wrenching, most notably when Billy is compelled to cut his favorite player from the team.
My favorite scenes (other than the ones on the diamond) were the ones in the locker room. At a time when realism wasn’t necessarily at a premium for sports movies, Little Big League bucked the trend. Whatever movies like Hoosiers or Any Given Sunday might have you believe, locker rooms aren’t most commonly used for dramatic speeches — they’re places where players spend all day ripping on one another, complaining about their manager and attacking the buffet with gusto (and if there’s time to solve a word and/or math problem, all the better).
That final game is truly a thing of beauty. When Little Big League was released in the summer of 1994, the Mariners were led by two of the game’s biggest stars: Griffey and Johnson. At the time, Griffey was a 24-year-old phenom who had already made four All-Star teams and garnered an undeserved reputation as something of a brat, thanks to wearing his cap backwards and an occasional affinity for earrings. Johnson, at 6′ 10″, was the tallest pitcher the game had ever seen and arguably its most intimidating since Bob Gibson (Johnson had led the league in hit batsmen in 1992 and 1993 with a total of 34 — just one fewer than the number of home runs he had allowed). They made the perfect villains.
The last game — a one-game playoff to decide who would win the newly minted Wild Card — was its own mini-film. Griffey quickly established himself as a worthy bad guy, blasting an enormous home run, trotting around the bases slower than David Ortiz and even giving the Twins’ shortstop a wink as he passed. The Twins, bless ’em, did everything they could do stay in the game, relying on a three-run homer from light-hitting Mickey Scales (Tony Todd) and some trickeration to prevent Junior from wreaking havoc on the basepaths. It wasn’t necessarily an original narrative, but it was executed flawlessly. When the team’s best hitter, Lou Collins (Busfield), stepped up to face Johnson and the slow-motion kicked in and the music swelled, everything that sports movies had ever taught us meant there was only one possible outcome.
Except that there wasn’t. Griffey traveled what seemed like half-a-mile at full speed to leap up and grab the ball away from the outstretched arms of a dozen Twins fans. The Mariners win, the Twins lose and everything we’d ever known about sports movies turned out to have been a lie. Every time I re-watch the movie, I part of me hopes that somehow Junior would miss the ball or not quite get there this time around. It never happens though, and that’s a good thing. The fact that the Twins lose is a good thing. The ending isn’t a sad one, it’s just melancholy. Yes, the good guys lost and yes, Billy Heywood was quitting as manager to go back to school, but there was still value in what they accomplished together. And just because Little Big League only made $12 million at the box office and has been overshadowed by many of its contemporaries doesn’t at all diminish the value of what it accomplished. Sometimes the bad guys win, and sometimes it really doesn’t matter all that much.