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The forgotten brilliance and influence of ‘Little Big League’

07/15/2014 3:57 PM

07/15/2014 5:50 PM

Maybe we should start with the most amazing thing about the most overlooked baseball movie of our time: It could have been the Royals.

Billy Heywood, dressed in a youth-medium uniform, could have been peddling his sabermetric ways inside Kauffman Stadium. Lou Collins, the veteran first baseman-cum-leading man, could have been smashing home runs into the right-field fountains. And Ken Griffey Jr. — yes, freaking Ken Griffey Jr. — could have been scaling the center-field wall in Kansas City in the dramatic final scene.

It would not be the Royals, of course. We know that now. In the summer of 1994, as the family film “Little Big League” hit theaters across America, the plot would focus on the Minnesota Twins and the most absurd of baseball ideas — even for a kid’s movie of the era.

A middle-schooler named Billy Heywood would inherit the Minnesota Twins. He would name himself the manager. And the team, a collection of goofy characters and familiar baseball tropes — the wise corner infielder, the brainy reliever, the athletic rookie second baseman, the jerky ace — would race up the standings and learn how to have fun again.

It was a plot directly from kid fantasyland, wholesome and innocent. But if the narrative was slightly fantastic, the end product was even more absurd: “Little Big League” just might be the best baseball movie of the last 30 years.

And we’re not sure if many people realize this.

The baseball scenes are some of the most authentic ever captured on film. There are no clunky swings, or ridiculous slides, or even cartoonish sluggers. In a sense, there are no Clu Heywoods.

There is a sincerity to “Little Big League,” a realism that captures the adolescent essence of a baseball clubhouse and the metronomic grind of a road trip. This was still a kid’s movie, of course, littered with the cornball sentimentality and low-budget feel of a film made for $20 million. But it felt real.

Two decades after its release, in July of 1994, Little Big League is still overshadowed by a glut of films from the same era and same genre. There was the innocence of “The Sandlot.” The Disney-backed powerhouse of “Angels in the Outfield,” And there was even “Rookie of the Year,” a movie about a Chicagoland kid who parlays a grotesque arm injury into a spot in the Cubs’ starting rotation. (A movie that was directed by, of all people, Daniel Stern.)

“You never know what movies are going to be successful or connect,” says Greg Pincus, the original screenwriter for Little Big League. “It didn’t have any huge star names to draw on. And if you’re going to choose between baseball movies with your kids, who knows why you choose which one?”

But 20 years later, a few people are starting to notice. The movie is in heavy rotation on MLB Network. A vocal segment of the Sabermetric movement has adopted Heywood, the young protagonist, as an early ally. And a large percentage of boys between the ages of 25 and 35 will tell you that you should “Start Wedman” or order “Night Nurses from Jersey” on hotel pay-per-view.

From the beginning, “Little Big League” looked destined to fail — and that’s not just because Pincus wanted to make a movie about the Royals. Pincus was an aspiring screenwriter with zero credits to his name. He had grown up on the East Coast, and relocated to Los Angeles to chase a career in Hollywood. But by the early 1990s, not much had materialized.

But there was one idea in his head, something that sounded fun. What if a kid managed a big-league baseball team? What if a kid ran a baseball team. So in late 1990, more than three years before the movie would arrive in theaters, Pincus went to work on a script. But first, he needed a team. As a child in the mid 1970s, he had been a fan of Royals infielders Freddy Patek and Cookie Rojas, the forefathers of the Royals glory years.

“Some of my favorite baseball cards,” Pincus says.

So it was settled. It couldn’t be a big-market club like New York or Los Angeles. It had to be small.

Billy Heywood would manage the Kansas City Royals.

It was a warm afternoon in June, and Greg Pincus is scanning through the old documents on his computer, looking for a script from the baseball movie that launched his career. It has been 20 years, and he is having trouble remembering an old line from the original draft. He searches for a moment, then stops.

“I’m not sure I even have the original draft on my computer,” he says.

Quite honestly, there are a lot of things that Pincus can’t remember. He was in his late 20s then, and something of a Hollywood neophyte. There would be re-writes, and more re-writes, and once director Andrew Scheinman took over the project, Pincus was mostly left out. Sometimes, this is how film projects work.

Scheinman was an accomplished producer and screenwriter who had worked on “Stand By Me,” “The Princess Bride” and a few season of “Seinfeld.” But he was also making his directorial debut on “Little Big League,” and he had wanted things to go a certain way. So Scheinman enlisted his brother, Adam, to rewrite the final draft of the script.

“The essence of the movie is the same as my original,” Pincus says. “As a screenwriter, because it’s such a collaborative medium, you can’t ask for much more.

The final script would look something like this: Minnesota Twins owner Thomas Heywood (Jason Robards) dies during the first 15 minutes and leaves the franchise to his baseball-nerd grandson Billy (Luke Edwards). After a few days of owning the team, Billy fires jerk-store manager George O’Farrell (played by sports movie legend Dennis Farina), and after pondering the decision (“It’s American League,” a friend says, “They have the DH; how hard could it be?), Billy named himself the manager.

“The movie takes baseball seriously,” Pincus says. “The key for them was always: ‘If you’re going to do baseball, make sure it looks like baseball. And if you’re going to do major leagues, make sure it looks like the Major Leagues.’”

The movie would be shot in Minneapolis, inside the pressurized bubble paradise of the Metrodome. There would be cameos from Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Ivan Rodriguez and a collection of future Hall of Famers. But these were not the “Hey, thanks for coming” sports movie cameos that we were used to. Griffey and Johnson would play a crucial role in the film’s climactic scenes; others just popped up randomly in a midseason game. (“Hey, it’s Mickey Tettleton! Hey, there’s Carlos Baerga and Sandy Alomar Jr. in a montage!”)

Yankees shortstop Kevin Elster was cast as Twins shortstop Pat Corning. Jonathan Silverman stopped making Weekend at Bernie’s movies long enough to play Jim Bowers, the zen-master reliever who quotes Sun Tzu in the clubhouse. And lastly, Timothy Busfield plays Lou Collins, the sweet-swinging first baseman who appears to stand about 5 feet 8 — and predictably becomes the love interest of Billy’s widowed mother.

It was not quite the plot Pincus had written — his original script focused more on the father-son relationship that developed between Billy and Lou — but by the summer of 1994, he was just pleased to see his name on the screen at the premier.

“Baseball gives you a natural arc, a spine to a story,” Pincus says. “The season starts, it continues, and you either get to the World Series or you don’t.”

You probably know a little something about the summer of 1994. The O.J. Simpson saga. Forrest Gump hit theaters on July 6. The World Cup was in America. And Ken Griffey Jr. was a bona fide superhero — all backward caps and gold earrings and kids in suburban shopping malls and sambas mimicking that sweet uppercut swing. On July 18, Griffey hit his 35th homer.

Just three days earlier, another kid baseball movie, the Disney-backed “Angels in the Outfield” was released across the country. Starring Danny Glover and a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “Angels in the Outfield” would pull in more than $50 million at the box office, crushing “Little Big League” in a summer duel of kid’s baseball films.

It was, of course, something a renaissance period for children’s movies — especially children’s movies about sports. This was still, in some ways, the aftershocks of the “Home Alone” effect. The big studios, Pincus says, believed there was money to be made in live-action children’s movies. And in the span of two summers, those same studios green-lighted four baseball movies aimed for kids.

“The Sandlot” came first, in April 1993 a halcyon film about a group of kids playing baseball in the early 1960s. Then came “Rookie of the Year,” a more impish and cartoonish portrayal of a pre-teen infiltrating major-league baseball. It raked in more than $56 million at the box office.

By July 1994, the well had been tapped dry.

“Baseball was kind of in the zeitgeist for a while,” Pincus says. “(But by July of 1994), I think a lot of the baseball zing might have been gone.”

During its stint in the theaters, “Little Big League” plodded its way to just $12.1 million at the box office. On Aug. 12, the baseball strike stopped the sport, and for a few months, a country soured on baseball.

But over the next two decades, Little Big League would have a secret weapon in its quest for relevancy, a fictional (and literal) poster child for a generation of statistically inclined baseball fans.

Billy Heywood, you see, really hated the bunt.

One of the definitive scenes of the film comes during the first act, when Billy Heywood tells the Twins’ general manager and pitching coach (“Mac”) that he’s decided to manage the team.

“It’s not that easy,” says Mac, who devises a situation to test Billy’s managing acumen.

The situation includes the Yankees, Steve Farr, a man on first, and a tie game in the late innings. Billy suggests that the Twins hit away, while Mac counters that they should bunt. An argument ensues. Billy wins.

In the summer of 1994, the sabermetric revolution was in its infancy. Web sites like Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs were still years away; Billy Beane was just an assistant general manger in Oakland; in web parlance, the internet was hardly even “a thing” yet.

But here was Billy Heywood, offering a cold and pragmatic takedown of the bunt as sound baseball strategy.

“It may be the greatest distillation of sabermetric thinking into a soundbite that’s ever been filmed,” says Rany Jazayerli, a founder of Baseball Prospectus and long-time baseball writer. “And that includes ‘Moneyball.’”

I saw “Little Big League” for the first time in late July 1994, nearly a month after its release. I was 8 years old, going on 14. I loved baseball, but I really wasn’t all that excited about seeing a baseball movie for kids. I had seen “Rookie of the Year” the previous summer. Lame, I thought.

So in the summer of 1994, “Little Big League” was playing as part of a summer movie series at the old Glenwood Theater, a retro place from the early age of suburbia — the kind of place that had one of those colossal chandeliers in the lobby.

The Glenwood had a summer movie series ever year — a mix of old kids movies from the 1970s and 1980s and some cheap modern fair. The one constant: The tickets were cheap and the movies were usually underwhelming — and I knew all this as my mom suggested “Little Big League.”

But even then, there was something that felt different. It was the way the shots were framed in the Metrodome, the way the field opened up and offered a window into a big-league stadium. It was iconic Twins announcer John Gordon, who gave an inspired portrayal of radio announcer “Wally Holland,” always spewing out these comically inane statistics. (“He’s eight for 13 this year, against left-handers, in night games, played above the Mason Dixon Line.”)

It was the scene where Billy outwits the petulant ace Mike McGrevey, a would-be free agent who is none-too-happy to be playing for a child and decides to tank.

“You’re the free agent,” Heywood says. “‘Hey Mac, what’s the going rate for an absent-minded pitcher who can’t get anybody out?’”

It was also the montages, the glorious, jump-cut laden, no-shame montages, including a late-season run to a one-game playoff set to “Runaround Sue.”

It was the scene right before the climactic playoff game, where Bowers swoops in to help Billy finish his algebra homework. And it was the final game, where the Twins face Griffey and the Mariners in the Metrodome with a playoff berth on the line.

Twenty years later, the All-Star Game is back in Minnesota on Tuesday night. The Metrodome is gone, and Griffey is retired, his backward cap just another piece of 1990s nostalgia to be soaked up by millennials. Pincus is still writing, mostly in what he calls “the family comedy” genre. Before a reporter called last month to talk about “Little Big League,” he hadn’t even realized it was the 20th anniversary.

“The things that’s funny to me is it was not a wildly successful movie in any way, shape or form,” Pincus says. “So that it connected and has stayed relevant in some way has really been kind of a surprise.”

So if you don’t mind a spoiler from a 20-year-old baseball movie, you might want to know about the final scene. You might want to know that the Twins lose. In the bottom of the ninth, Lou Collins hits a deep drive to center, and then Griffey robs the would-be home run, and the Twins lose.

Twenty years later, Pincus can’t remember all the details about the movie he wrote. But he can tell you this: The Twins always lost.

“It always ended that way,” Pincus says, “and it’s okay to lose. Only one team wins.”

Yes, it should have been the Royals.

To reach Rustin Dodd, call 816-234-4937 or send email to rdodd@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rustindodd.

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