The Dizzying Heat of Summer Nostalgia

illustration by Amanda McCleod

One of the best things about teaching is the time off. I love my job, I really do—but I also love when it ends for three months and I have a significant amount of time to spend doing projects, reading and generally relaxing. The downside to the scheduled summer vacation time is the reaction it incites in others. People often argue that it justifies the relatively low salary most teachers receive, but I believe the real reason summer vacation upsets these detractors is that they are jealous. No matter how much one loves one’s job, or—even more prevalent in most cases—the money one makes from said job, I don’t think it a stretch to say that most people would enjoy taking a break from that job for a few months every year.

I live in the upper Midwest, where summer is treasured in that way specific to any place that spends half the calendar year with temperatures hovering around freezing. My summers these days are an incredible panacea to the ills of the inevitably dragging school year, but my enjoyment of summer vacation now is nothing compared to my delight in the school year’s end when I was young. To describe myself as nostalgic for those immensely free summer vacations is to understate things significantly.

Nostalgia, in my case, is easy. My childhood was pretty idyllic by most standards, particularly in the summer, and not that dissimilar to the one depicted in the 1993 summer baseball pastiche, The Sandlot. Our house bordered a few acres of woodland comprising a meandering creek—at that point still filled with small fish and crayfish to collect—and a few steep drop-offs in the landscape that seemed cliffs to us when we were small. I spent months down there with my siblings and friends, building forts and campfires out of found wood, pretending we were on any number of adventures. When we were not outside, we watched movies; naturally, one of our favorites was The Sandlot. I connected to The Sandlot because it contained a perfect storm of things important to me: harebrained schemes, young male friendships, a killer oldies soundtrack, and baseball.

The local ballpark was a mile or so away from the house where I grew up, and very early on, we were allowed to take our bikes there whenever we had practice. My brother and I spent as much time at that ballpark as possible, at least until I started to realize I wasn’t really any good at baseball, despite how much I loved it. We idolized the older “coaches” in the summer league. To us, they were mystifyingly mature and accomplished ballplayers, with skill sets that qualified them to play, if not for the Twins, at least in college or Single or Double A ball. It was later—sometime in high school, I think—when I realized that I could apply for and likely get that coaching job myself, which certainly brought those childhood giants a bit down to earth. I was no Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez, for whom, as The Sandlot says, “Baseball was life,” but I recognized and identified with that feeling. In a way, I wanted it—spending time at the ballpark, pee-wee or professional, is one of the best things to do in the summertime. As an adult with no kids, the latter is still achievable, but the former I miss.

As a movie, The Sandlot is baked in the dizzy heat of summer vacation nostalgia. But let’s get this out of the way first: The Sandlot is not a great film. It is less a coherent whole than a series of vignettes following the same characters. Story and character arcs appear and resolve themselves almost immediately in no real structurally significant fashion. The story opens on geeky misfit Scotty Smalls, a recent transplant to the neighborhood after his mother—played with incredible support in just a few tiny scenes by Karen Allen—has moved in with his new stepfather, a delightfully subdued Denis Leary. Smalls loves Erector sets (apparently the early 1960s equivalent of video games), can’t throw or catch a baseball, and—horror of horrors—doesn’t know that The Great Bambino is just a nickname for Babe Ruth. Smalls’ progression, from a kid who runs a retrieved ball in to the pitcher from left field because he is so embarrassed by his throwing ability, to a home run hitting baseball aficionado, happens absurdly quickly, as does his acceptance by the other boys. All of that is wrapped up in the film’s first twenty minutes. The middle section of the film is simply individual scenes made up of small conflicts: home runs are hit; feuds are established and quashed; illicit chewing tobacco is sampled and subsequently ralphed off a carnival ride; a beautiful, entirely age-inappropriate lifeguard is tricked into kissing a kid named ‘Squints.’ The third section involves a traditional quest to retrieve a signed Babe Ruth baseball after it was hit over the left field fence into a yard guarded by a notoriously bloodthirsty dog. It’s a silly movie. Not all of the pieces work, and many of them don’t fit together, but everything about it is enjoyable. Flaws aside, it’s the kind of movie that kids can’t help but love, and to love it as an adult is to have loved it as a kid. The power of nostalgia enhances the magic of the movie and glosses over its weaknesses.

The film itself is obsessed with nostalgia—an unexpected and surprisingly bold direction for a film directed toward children, as the target audience of the film is ostensibly living the life it will spend its adult days nostalgically pining for. The framing device involves a now middle-aged Smalls calling a Dodgers game that just so happens to feature his childhood pal Rodriguez. The entire movie is a flashback seemingly triggered after the camera lovingly scans past some odd baseball ephemera—all of which will show up in the film—and lingers on a picturesque old photograph. Throughout the movie, the boys speak constantly about their reverence for Babe Ruth and other ball players of old. They gather for a campout to tell ghost stories about Mr. Mertle, the man behind their sandlot’s fence and the owner of “The Beast,” the legendarily bloodthirsty dog—a tale helpfully presented in grainy, faux-old-timey, black-and-white flashback.

When we finally meet Mr. Mertle, he, just like Denis Leary’s Bill, is obsessed with not just his own baseball past, but that of his contemporaries’, filling his house (and in Bill’s case, a specifically designated “trophy” room) with mementos and signed photographs explicitly tying him to the men he used to know and admire. When Benny is running from the seemingly murderous dog, the epic chase takes him through a movie theater playing the 1942 film The Wolf Man. While tangentially thematically appropriate to the idea of mythical beast creatures, it is nonetheless an old movie, even for the time the film is attempting to portray—again tying the film to its own past.

As in life, the nature of memory is a funny thing in The Sandlot. In some early scenes, as well as in the flashback, The Beast is clearly some sort of animatronic puppet, a nightmarish mecha-canine behemoth worthy of the adversary role the boys have assigned to it. When Benny finally “pickles” The Beast, though still impressively large, it is a realistic and recognizable bull mastiff. Similarly, the story Squints tells about The Beast and Mr. Mertle’s origins, while romantic in a ghost story kind of way (despite its obvious narrative implausibilities like man-eating garbage-protecting dogs and “people concerned about all the missing thieves”), of course turns out to be completely wrong. I choose to see these choices as deliberate in their attempts to visualize for the viewer the mythic proportions The Beast achieved in the minds of the boys.

In these moments, the obsession the characters have with the past of their town and the sport they love is inseparable from exaggeration or even downright falsehood. They believe in the mythology of Mr. Mertle and Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat,” with all fibers of their beings. Literal truth is irrelevant when one can place oneself on a continuum of human existence that includes such legendary figures.

Nostalgia itself is a fascinatingly slippery entity. Here’s the thing: I didn’t live in 1962. That doesn’t change how nostalgic I feel for that time. Even as a kid, I actively missed that time. Like the characters in the film, I wanted to be part of that mythos; it is not an uncommon feeling to feel like the best time to be living is the time your life just narrowly missed.

Perhaps in part The Sandlot’s false nostalgia stems from the way the film glorifies the freedom that the boys shared, a freedom that would likely cause those wary of the allegedly recent trend of “free-range” parenting to suffer an absolutely debilitating panic attack. I mean, at one point Scotty’s mother instructs him to “climb trees. Hop fences. Get into trouble, for crying out loud.” My parents, though incredibly permissive and supportive, never quite reached that level. I watched the movie as a kid and wished to live in that time, but I think really it was more that I wished to have that life. I had friends, but I didn’t have The Sandlot kind of friends. I had fun, but I didn’t have “build an incredible erector set catapult that was piloted from your club’s amazing tree house in order to launch a Babe Ruth signed ball over a fence to free it from a miserly murderous beast-dog” fun. At the time, I equated those desires with opportunities only available in a time gone by, a byproduct of the movie’s enforced nostalgia.

Really, I’m not sure anybody lived in the 1962 of The Sandlot. That was a perfect time. A mythic time. The kind of time that only really exists in the movies when visuals, music, slang, and honest history can combine into a sort of alchemy that represents a time period in a way that is at once reverent and completely unfair. As an adult, I see movies that try to work that kind of magic and approach them with a cynical aloofness that dulls their impact. But if I encountered them as a kid, they worked. They still work because that enforced nostalgia is all tied up in my honest, if premature, nostalgia for my own childhood.

There’s a scene in The Sandlot that is perhaps the movie’s most shameless in this regard. Benny comes to round up the boys for a legendary “night game.” It’s the 4th of July, as stereotypically as possible, and the gang plays their usual game under the lights of the fireworks display. At one point, Ray Charles’s version of “America the Beautiful” is playing on the soundtrack, and the boys are, to a one, completely transfixed by the moment. The scene plays out in slow motion as the camera jumps from face to face, each rapturous in the beauty of their own, idyllic lives. It’s absolutely shameless, but it’s gorgeous, and I’ll always see it that way. It’s the life I wish I could have lived and the life I have, all at once.