Baseball Needs More Kids Movies

A story recently emerged that captured the hearts of even the stoniest baseball fans. On June 19, a little girl named Abigail attended her first major league game in Cincinnati and was over the moon to get to see her hero, Joey Votto, in action. But as fate would have it, Votto was ejected in the first inning, leaving young Abigail devastated; a photo of her forlorn face, eyes brimming with tears, made the rounds on Twitter. Soon enough, though, she had a signed ball in her hands, and later that same week, she returned to the park and got to meet Votto in person. A photo of her beaming expression might best summarize the whole experience:

The entire story, from Abigail’s excitement to the perfectly-timed misfortune of Votto’s ejection to the entirety of baseball Twitter rallying around this one little girl, felt like the plot of a movie, with our hero, in this case, a fan ready to cheer for her favorite player.

Abigail’s story is not a movie, of course. It will become a fun memory to look back on later in her life and probably helped solidify her as a Reds fan. Not every fan can have the kind of direct experience she did; not every child can meet their hero. But what makes Abigail’s story special is that it’s centered on her and not Votto. He was a just a peripheral part of what made this tale unique, and that is what made it so touching and engaging for others to follow.

Most baseball fans know precisely how their fandom originated. Often it comes in the form of an existing family love for the game. Sometimes we come to it later in life all on our own. Regardless of when it started, we often look back on those early days of fandom with a special fondness. Similarly, many fans of the game feel a deep nostalgia for the baseball movies we watched as kids.

There’s something about baseball movies for children that generations of kids gravitate toward and watch year after year. If you were to rewatch these movies as an adult, you’d likely find that they hold up remarkably well — that the glow of nostalgia has not misled you to their quality. What you will also find, through the filter of an adult gaze, is that these movies all deal with exceptionally difficult topics that allow a child watching them to see themselves, perhaps, but also see that a connection to baseball can be a guidepost through some of life’s hardships.

In The Sandlot, Scotty Smalls has been uprooted from the life he previously knew, moving to a new city with his mother and stepfather. The film is ostensibly about Smalls developing new friendships and cultivating a lifelong passion for baseball that will lead him to his future career as a broadcaster. On a deeper level, though, it addresses feelings of belonging, of finding connections with a new father figure, and learning to find confidence in oneself. The ragtag group of kids Smalls gravitates toward have different body shapes and represent different ethnicities, giving the kids watching an opportunity to see some version of themselves on the big screen. The movie didn’t center on Benny, the only member of the group to make it to the major leagues, but rather Scotty, the unathletic one who simply used baseball as a way to find a common bond with others.

Most remember Rookie of the Year for its absurd premise: Henry Rowengartner is terrible at baseball in spite of how much he adores the game, but a freak accident results in his sudden ability to throw a high-octane fastball so impressive that the Cubs sign him to a contract in the hopes it will bolster ticket sales. It’s worth mentioning the parts of the movie that are less frequently recalled, though. Henry is being raised by his single mother, who has told him incredible stories about his father, a skilled pitcher. This connection to his lost father appears to be the genesis for Henry’s love of baseball, something he can share with a father figure he never got to know. Henry also doesn’t quite fit in at school, but rather finds himself part of a small group of misfits that wants to spend time building a boat. Through the course of the film, Henry learns that his father was not who he believed; his mother built up the legend so Henry wouldn’t know the truth about his father abandoning their family. He also doesn’t remain a freakishly talented pitcher, keeping his gift long enough to recognize that it was he mother he idolized all along, and to help teach grizzled veteran pitcher Chet Steadman to love the game again.

The absolute kicker, in terms of heart-wrenching plots, might be Angels in the Outfield. A young Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Roger Bomman, whose mother has died and whose father has left him in a foster home with two other boys to await a long-term placement or adoption. Roger’s father, when asked “When will we be a family again?” responds with, “When the Angels win the pennant” — something never meant to happen, since the team was well-ensconced in last place. The titular angels arrive to help the team, but the real focus of the movie is on the bond formed between Roger and his foster brother J.P., and the unlikely connection they forge with Angels manager George Knox. The movie deals with some crushing topics, like J.P.’s childhood homelessness and Roger’s dad legally relinquishing all parental rights to him. Like all the others, it ultimately ends in a new kind of found family, as Knox adopts Roger and J.P. and the Angels win the pennant (of course).

The interesting thing about these movies, aside from the weighty topics they focus on, is that all three came out in the span of two years, making 1993 and ’94 the halcyon days of baseball movies for kids. So why is it that we don’t see these movies made anymore? Both The Sandlot and Angels in the Outfield spawned direct-to-video sequels, and all three were made on modest budgets that saw solid box office return. Angels in the Outfield cost about $24 million to make and earned over $50 million worldwide, and it’s easily the worst-reviewed of the three. Rookie of the Year cost $10 million to make and grossed over $56 million. The Sandlot cost $7 million to make and grossed about $34 million in theaters but went on to become a massive home video success. Historically speaking, baseball movies aimed at kids do well, even when the reviews don’t love them.

Yet the last baseball-themed movie for children to receive wide theatrical release was the animated Everyone’s Hero, which came out in 2006 to poor results, earning only $16 million against its $35 million budget. I think part of the problem might be the movie industry’s newfound love of animated features over live-action. The lovingly-crafted b-roll footage of going to a game is lost amid all the polish and pixels of the animated format; it’s nice to look at, but it isn’t real. The movie also wasn’t very good, garnering only middling reviews, with one critic calling it “sweet, but ultimately disposable.”

We are at a stage in baseball’s lifespan where it is becoming critical to engage a younger audience. While the focus might be on luring in Millennials and Gen-Z, I’d say the smart target would be to aim younger. The beat writers and die-hard fans of today were the ones watching these movies when they first came out. For a lot of people, a love of baseball could easily have been rooted in seeing Rookie of the Year for the first time; it probably created more than one lifelong Cubs fan.

Baseball movies for kids have proven they can tackle incredibly difficult topics and issues that a lot of kids can relate to, and do it against a background that shows the ballpark as their home away from home and players as a second family. But what those earlier movies lack is something a new generation of movies could build on. Neither movie treats girls as anything more than mere set-pieces. Henry yearns for the attention of Becky Fraker in Rookie of the Year, but we know little about her other than she’s an object of desire at their school. The women of The Sandlot are treated even worse; Squints’ assault of Wendy Peffercorn is played for laughs and then made “okay” by the epilogue in which the pair marries. The abysmal sequel features a trio of softball phenoms as a part of the plot, but they are still established as objects of desire rather than having any real impact on the key story. It’s also worth mentioning that Sandlot 2, which is almost a beat-for-beat recreation of the first movie, also features a character forcibly kissing a woman. This time it’s at a kissing booth, but it’s once again played for laughs, and the subtext of the scene is that this is not the first time the character has pulled this move.

These movies do make attempts at having diverse casts, be it showing characters of different races (Angels in the Outfield does fairly well here) or with disabilities (Sammy in Sandlot 2 is deaf). But the central figures of the movies are almost always young, white boys. That’s in line with the demographic makeup of baseball viewers, which is fairly aligned with the demographics of its players. A 2020 poll determined about 60% of baseball fans are white, 20% are Hispanic, and 14% are Black; in 2016, the breakdown of MLB player demographics was 63.7% white, 27.4% Hispanic, and 6.7% Black. To inspire a new generation of baseball fans, we need more than the standard young, white, male hero. We need to see girls at the center of these stories, and representation for Black, Hispanic, and Asian kids. We need baseball stories for a broader audience if we want baseball to appeal to a broader audience.

The more kids see themselves represented on screen, the easier it becomes to picture themselves in those spaces within the real world. Whether it’s simply growing up knowing that there is a place for girls in baseball — the gone-too-soon TV series Pitch gave us a believable female MLB pitcher; a movie with a central female character shouldn’t feel so far-fetched — or seeing a movie and understanding that even if you cannot play the game, there is a safe space or home to be found within fandom. Baseball itself has some work to do here, as it struggles with how to handle Pride-themed events and is only now beginning to drift away from the sexist overtones of themed “Ladies Nights” and toward “Women in Baseball” events.

Baseball movies matter, because they allow a new generation to love baseball without ever having set foot in a park. Baseball can be a difficult sport to learn; the rules are nuanced, the games are long, and while many kids might have grown up watching the game, it is becoming more and more cost-prohibitive to bring a whole family to the park and hope young children stay engaged for three or more hours. Having a way to get kids excited about the game as a slow introduction would go a long way to bringing in new fans. What movies offer are a high-level introduction to the sport, a gateway team for viewers to connect with, and an opportunity to see someone who looks like them — either in terms of age, gender, or race — participating directly in the game in some fashion. Giving a new generation of fans a new generation of these movies can help generate natural, long-term engagement in the sport and create cult classics to be enjoyed for decades to come.

Not every kid can have the experience Abigail did when she met Joey Votto. But it sure would make a great movie.





Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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smada
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smada

Not ashamed to admit it, I’m an Angels fan because of Angels in the Outfield.

miltonfriedman
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miltonfriedman

You should be a fan of where u grew up, unless,there was no team.

bluerum29
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bluerum29

Mostly agree. I’m a Braves fan because there was no team in AZ and the Braves were on TBS everyday. Miss that.

averagejoe15
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averagejoe15

Why?

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

Why? I grew up in Missouri, Cardinals fans are obnoxious dicks. Plus I was a pitcher in little league who didn’t throw hard. Maddux was my inspiration to “pitch, not throw” and he shut up cardinal fans most nights. Why wouldn’t I be a braves fan?

averagejoe15
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averagejoe15

I was asking miltonfriedman why you should be a fan of where you grew up.

Your feeling about Cardinals fans are how I felt about Yankees fans where I grew up and gravitated to the Red Sox as a result. Nomar was the guy when I became a fan and the Sox were easy to root for given the curse and the evil empire they were up against seemingly every year.

I don’t think there’s anything noble in letting the geography of where you grow up dictate what you should and shouldn’t like.