The Sandlot: Great Expectations in Little League Baseball



I was somewhat of a local legend back in the day. In the spirit of the great boys of summer who came before me, I once delighted Morristown fans to a brand of baseball that was seldom seen in these parts. A glove man of such grace, fans would pack-in the friendly confines of Burnham Park just to watch me take infield practice.  You could have charged admission and they’d still come to behold the wizard of Burnham Park turn a diamond in the rough into a field of dreams. My hands were so soft, they called me “Hoover” back then. If you already caught the vacuum analogy, please let me hose you with the rest of my hyperbole. My glove was the place where base hits went to die, and I could count the number of errors I made on my middle finger [it’s still sticking up if you’re knocking me for bragging]. And my curveball didn’t just break, it broke the hearts of opposing batters.


If all that shameless self-praise has you ready to eject me from the blogging game, please keep in mind that I was only 12-years-old at the time. I’m allowed to boast now because my baseball career didn’t have a Roy Hobbs-like ending. I never tore the cover off the ball or shattered the stadium lights with my Savoy Special. Heck, I could hardly splatter the inner edge of the outfield grass with the 30-inch Easton Big Barrel that outweighed me. I didn’t even win a varsity letter…unless you count the endless string of Es I committed during my freshman baseball season. Burdened by expectations, I started playing less like the vacuum Hoover and more like the President Hoover. Yep, my career as a slick-fielding, weak-hitting ballplayer peaked at the age of 12. So I guess you could say I didn’t live up to people’s great expectations of me. Or maybe I simply crumbled under the weight of those expectations.

So to this day, when I reminisce about playing baseball….I’m not wearing a uniform for my high school team. I’m playing on the Burnham Park little league field where my father/coach stood outside the dugout smoking his Winston reds right down to his nicotine-stained finger nails. I’m heading up to Newburgh, NY with my 1985 Morristown National Little League state championship teammates. Or I’m in the street with a tennis ball and a makeshift stickball bat with my brother and friends. I’m nailing cars, breaking the neighbor’s window, and helping my friend to his feet because a telephone pole caught his face before his glove caught the ball. In other words, I’m playing baseball with only one expectation in mind: having fun!


Today I coach baseball on the very same little league field where I played as a kid. And I follow my father’s Hippocratic-Oath-like first rule of baseball: “FIRST, have fun!” Believe me, this isn’t always easy. Coaching my son on the same field I played on, it’s almost impossible for me to not set high expectations for him and his teammates. I’m as competitive as the next coach, and I’m a firm believer that it’s a lot more fun to win than it is to lose. But every time I find myself getting caught up in the good plays and bad plays, the hits and the misses, or the wins and the losses…I remember my father’s golden rule of little league baseball. If that doesn’t work, I pop in The Sandlot.

“Man, this is baseball! You gotta stop thinking! Just have fun. If you were having fun, you would have caught that ball!”


The Sandlot is youth baseball in its purest form. It’s about kids passing time playing the great American past time. No benchwarmers or All-Stars, just boys growing up with baseball in the foreground and the expectations of parents and coaches far off in the background. The kids are the players, coaches, umpires, and spectators….and they’re all having fun. Too often, I fear, kids aren’t playing baseball for fun. They’re playing to meet or exceed the expectations set by everyone but themselves. Sometimes it’s the expectations of the coach, or a parent…or as is often the case: the parent/coach like myself.

As a parent/coach to my 11-year-old son (and 6-year-old daughter), I’ve learned to not set too many expectations for a couple of reasons:

1. Expectations are probably what took the fun out of baseball for me after little league. And it’s probably why, to this day, I feel my son’s strikeouts and errors as if they were my own.
2. Expectations backfired when I named my firstborn after Cal Ripken…and he named his first love SOCCER.

So if you ever find yourself frustrated by your child’s recent slump or string of errors, try to remind yourself of the golden rule set by the greatest coach I’ve ever known: “FIRST, have fun!”


If that doesn’t work, rent The Sandlot…or just read the tagline on the movie poster: “The Sandlot: A piece of paradise a half block wide and a whole summer long.”

Little league baseball lasts longer than a whole summer….and for most kids, it’s as close to baseball paradise as they’ll ever get. But only when expectation #1 is to first have fun.

The Best Western

553923_416617291729992_787666550_nFor those of you who think this is an article about my favorite family-friendly hotel chain, I’m very sorry. Since my blog readership skews more toward the Women Are from Venus end of the universe, consider yourself warned. This article will have about as much appeal to women as a tossed salad served in a dust bowl.

Today I’m writing about the best “movie” westerns of all-time. I was named after one of the best, and I was practically breast-fed on the rest. Before I could even mimic a “Come back Shane!” cry, I had a holster filled with a cap gun. Then I graduated swiftly from breast milk to Gerber and onto roast beef sandwiches from Roy Rogers. You remember the old-school, saloon-looking Roy Rogers, right? As a kid, the Roy Rogers on Rte. 10 in East Hanover felt like Wild West City to me. And in my childhood fantasy, my dad was Wyatt Earp…and I imagined he was the only reason why a gun fight never broke out around the Fixins’ bar.

Seriously, nobody ever looked cooler in a pair of “dungarees”, work boots, and a flannel than my dad. If he hadn’t smoked Winston reds, we’d have called him the Marlboro man. And if he weren’t such a cool dad, maybe I wouldn’t share in his passion for a true American original: the movie western.

Now you can argue about the real birthplace of baseball (some say it’s England, not Cooperstown). You can convince me that our current president was born in Hawaii (by way of Kenya). But you can’t tell me that there’s anything more American, more inextricably linked to the world’s vision of America, than the movie Western.

And here are my Magnificent Seven westerns [sorry, Magnificent Seven came in at #8]…

7. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Home for the funeral of an old friend, Senator Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) recounts the true story of the man who killed the titular villain (Lee Marvin). When the true story is finally told, the answer defines the western genre: “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Was the true legend Jimmy Stewart’s lanky, leftist-leaning lawyer? Or was it the gritty John [right as] Wayne gunfighter? Not so much a whodunit as a character study of two polar-opposite heroes (and actors for that matter). The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves that in the old west, just as in today’s western world, America is at its best when people of different beliefs join forces…even if it means crossing party lines.

6. Unforgiven
It’s fitting that Clint Eastwood got to make “the last great western” some three decades after making a fistful of dollars redefining the genre. But this ain’t your father’s man-with-no-name Eastwood. Here Eastwood has a name (William Munny), he has an anti-hero past, and he just wants to settle down with his young wife and raise crops. But as another iconic Eastwood character famously warned, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

So when a couple of cowboys cut up a prostitute, the bounty on their heads is all the convincing Munny needs to saddle up with his partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) and seek the justice that Sherriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) cares little to provide. Eastwood’s never been better. He wears regret on one sleeve while unleashing his gun from the other.

“I’ve killed women and children. I’ve killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another. And I’m here to kill you, Little Bill, for what you did to Ned.”

Unforgiven doesn’t just “blur the lines between man and myth, heroism and villainy”…it says unapologetically that sometimes the good can also be bad and ugly.

 5. The Searchers
Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns from the Civil War, but the war still rages inside him. When “Injuns” attack and kidnap his young niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), Ethan and his nephew Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) set out on a years-long journey to find her.

After years of searching in vein, Ethan’s single-minded hatred toward the Comanche appears to change his primary motivation. Recognizing that she’s probably been tainted by the “savages”, thoughts of rescuing Debbie are replaced by thoughts of the unthinkable. This is John Wayne’s greatest performance because he’s not afraid to ride his angry anti-hero dangerously close to the edge of insanity. So close to the edge, in fact, that the climactic scene feels less like a rescue and more like an attempted kidnapping. That is, until our worst fears are relieved, and the anti-hero turns hero with four simple words: “Let’s go home Debbie.”

Don’t get me wrong, The Searchers is not an easy movie to watch. It’s also a movie experience you’ll never forget.

4. Rio Bravo
“A game-legged old man and a drunk. That’s all you got?”

Add Ricky Nelson’s Elvis wannabe/Love Me Tender-less gunfighter, and that’s exactly what John Wayne’s got in this classic, often hilarious western. Yes, the story and the archetypes are all too familiar. Here the under-matched good guys face insurmountable odds in order to keep the brother of a local villain in jail. But it’s not the story, it’s the cast of characters, that makes Rio Bravo so unforgettable.

As John T Chance, John Wayne essentially plays a fun-loving parody of himself. Dean Martin’s Dude is the most loveable drunk this side of Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch [rent Hoosiers]. But it’s Walter Brennan’s Stumpy who damn near steals the movie as the cantankerous old cripple assigned to guard the prisoner.

Rio Bravo is filled with so many memorable and quotable moments. My personal favorite is the “My Rifle, My Pony and Me” sing-along. Like the “Show me the way to go home” scene in Jaws, it’s that perfect movie moment where the characters forget their differences and come together for some buddy-bonding….just before the shit hits the proverbial fan.

3. High Noon
Marshall Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just hung up his badge. Now he’s looking forward to riding off into the sunset with his impossibly gorgeous bride (Grace Kelly). As western fate would have it, he picked the wrong day to honeymoon with Grace Kelly. Kane learns that Frank Miller, a man he sent to prison years before, will return on the noon train to exact his revenge.

Against his better judgment [he’s passing up a honeymoon with Grace fu**ing Kelly], Kane decides he must defend the town he no longer calls home. Unfortunately, his door-to-door calls for help are greeted with the kind of response I give a Jehovah Witness. Even his own deputy begs for a day off, to which Kane responds: “Go on home to your kids, Herb.”

My brother will never come right out and say it, but he’s not a Gary Cooper fan. So I think he downgrades High Noon on those grounds. Others, like John Wayne, came right out and called High Noon “Un-American” in its day. I argue that “the story of a man who was too proud to run” is the story of our everyday American heroes: The brave officers and  firefighters who run into burning towers when others are running out. Or how about our military heroes who risk their lives to defend our freedom every day…so I can “go on home to my kids” every night? To me, that’s the story of High Noon.

2. Once Upon A Time In The West
To fully appreciate the artistry (and some might say larceny) of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies, you must first feast on this greatest of all Spaghetti Westerns. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is still everyone’s trendy pick, but Once Upon A Time In The West is Sergio Leone’s time-tested masterpiece. Brilliant set designs, a score that soars, and camera views that practically stick the loaded barrel between your eyes.

Steely-blue eyes have never been meaner than Henry Fonda’s. Harmonica-playing heroes have never been cooler than Charles Bronson. And bombshells have never been, well, bombier than Claudia Cardinale.

The film also features the greatest climactic draw in film history. When Frank (Henry Fonda) and Harmonica (Charles Bronson) square off, their history is finally revealed to us. And when the harmonica is placed in the mouth of a mortally-wounded Frank…this same history becomes his final, horrifying recollection on Earth. I guess Frank was right: “People scare better when they’re dying.”

1. Shane
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t watch the movie I was named after until I was in high school. My defense: Shane is one of those movies that’s famous even among people who haven’t see it. In other words, I wish I had a fistful of dollars for every time some jack-wagon hit me with the much-parodied “Come back Shane!” line. For the record, it’s “Shane! Come back!”

When I finally overcame “Come back Shane” fatigue, I learned that my namesake was more than just a one-line-wonder. It’s a wonderful movie about a weary gunfighter (Alan Ladd) who attempts to hang up his guns and settle down. Shane quickly wins the admiration and employment of Joe Starrett (Van Heflin), a humble, hardworking homesteader whose embroiled in a fight for his land.

Shane also wins the hero-worship of young Joey (Brandon DeWilde) and the quietly obvious affections of Joe’s wife, Marion (Jean Arthur). The plot inevitably forces Shane into a fateful climax against Wilson (Jack Palance), a hired gun who looks like a Muggle-born version of Lord Voldemort. Wilson’s serpent-like features and menacing expressions make him the personification of pure evil. It’s up to Shane to confront Wilson and “clear out all the guns from the valley.”

As for the “Shane! Come back” finale…some contend that a wounded Shane rides off into those majestic mountains to die as he wanted to live…in peace. Others have suggested that Shane’s respect for Joe Starrett makes him retreat before the inevitable love triangle reared its ugly head. I think the answer is much simpler, and we can draw our conclusion from Shane’s own words: “There’s no living with a killing. There’s no goin’ back from one. Right or wrong, it’s a brand… a brand sticks. There’s no goin’ back.”

As for Joey’s final cry out to Shane, I believe it represents the idea that a boy’s childhood heroes are fleeting. Inevitably, at some point, most boys go back to respecting the values of their first hero. “It’s a brand…a brand sticks.” And for the lucky sons like me and Brett and Joey, our favorite brand of hero is our father.

[Note to Dad: I’m proud to be named after Shane…even though I’m less gunfighter and more gunpowder puff].

[Note to Brett: How can you have a DieHard-on for a certain “Yippee-Ki-Yay motherfu**er” cop…and not love Gary Cooper’s Will Kane?]