'Sandlot' celebrating 20th anniversary with Werner Park screening


“You're killing me, Smalls!”

That line from the baseball coming-of-age movie “The Sandlot” has become a classic, on a par with the leg lamp from “A Christmas Story,” another sleeper-hit movie about kids growing up in a more innocent era.

Now, in honor of the 20th anniversary of “The Sandlot” and its release on Blu-Ray, 20th Century Fox is sponsoring a nationwide series of screenings of the movie at major- and minor-league baseball parks.

“The Sandlot” and its writer-director, David Mickey Evans, arrive Saturday at Werner Park, home of the Omaha Storm Chasers, for one of those screenings. Gates open at 7 p.m. Evans will be available for autographs, and he'll talk about the film just before the screening begins. “The Sandlot” DVDs and merchandise will be on sale. Buy a ticket at the gate for $5, or call the Werner Park box office, 402-738-5100, to get one in advance for the same price.

Oh, and bring your dog. A huge, fierce dog plays a key role in “The Sandlot,” but Werner Park management is evidently confident that your family beast is better behaved.

Werner Park was actually a test market for the first commemorative screening of “The Sandlot” on Aug. 10, 2012. With little fanfare, the event drew 1,500 people, so the nationwide tour got the green light.

Evans, who spoke by phone last week from Ohio, where he was attending the tour's 19th screening, said fan response has been more than gratifying.

“It's amazing what this film means to people,” he said of the emotional outpourings that sometimes come from fans who meet him. “We sometimes hug it out.”

The turnouts have been phenomenal, Evans said. Eight thousand in Trenton, N.J. Twelve thousand in Salt Lake City, where a lot of the movie was filmed. In Minneapolis, 38,500 showed up for the event after a Twins game. There's a scene from the movie at Dodger Stadium, and Evans is looking forward to a screening there Sept. 1.

“The Sandlot” centers on Scotty Smalls (Tom Guiry), a 12-year-old who moves to a new neighborhood in California's San Fernando Valley with his mom (Karen Allen) and stepdad (Denis Leary). He wants to make friends, and to learn to play baseball.

The sandlot team's de facto leader, Rodriquez (Mike Vitar), takes Smalls under his wing, and soon Smalls is accepted by the team. They fall into adventures involving baseball, treehouse sleep-ins, the gorgeous-babe lifeguard at the local pool, the snooty rival ball team and a traveling carnival.

Beyond the fence at the back of the sandlot menaces a legendary ball-eating dog called The Beast, and the kids inevitably must deal with him.

Evans and his kid brother were like Smalls, growing up in Pacoima, Calif. They got beat up a lot. The guys on the block, all Dodgers fans, played ball. But they wouldn't let the Evans kids play. Once they hit a ball over a brick wall. A vicious dog named Hercules lived beyond the wall. Evans' brother retrieved the ball and got his leg ripped up by the dog. They still didn't let him play.

Years later, stuck in traffic on the freeway in Los Angeles, Evans had an idea. If he turned those neighborhoods kids into heroes to an outside kid, that was a movie.

He wrote the script in about a month. Within seven days of finishing it, the movie was funded — much like his experience with another boyhood-story movie Evans wrote and directed, “Radio Flyer.”

Evans said “The Sandlot” cost “far less than $9 million to make” and took in about $40 million in its initial release. That might not sound like much today, he said, but tickets averaged $4 back then. In today's terms, he said, that many tickets would be about $134 million.

Add in VHS sales and rentals, then DVD sales, and it's a tidy profit.

“And it sells more DVDs every year than the year before,” he said. “It's an evergreen film. It never goes away.”

He didn't know he had a big hit on his hands when filming, Evans said, though the kids gelled as an ensemble (“It was like a big summer camp”) and everybody had a good time making it.

It got a standing ovation at the first test screening, back in early 1993.

“People have called it the greatest baseball movie,” Evans said. “But it's not about baseball. It's about friendship, character and loyalty. And it's completely from the kids' point of view. Hundreds of thousands of people have told me they were those kids, with a sandlot like that. Or their sandlot was a street. Everybody had their sandlot back then, but the sandlot is extinct now, which is a shame.”

But the idea of that place is so American, Evans said, it will never go away.

“These kids are like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, having an adventure. People feel connected to them. I don't think there's anything better a storyteller can be told than that.”

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