A Retrospective of ’90s Kids’ Sports Movies
Political scientists say the American political landscape shifts on a predictable 30-year cycle. But I’ve found that the bygone decade that each decade is nostalgic for is even more predictable. The ’00s loved the ’80s. The ’90s loved the ’70s (previous post tie-in alert!). Reagan’s ’80s seemed to mostly buck this trend, but you could definitely argue that the ’70s loved the ’50s.
It’s easy to understand why this cycle happens. Two decades ago tends to be when the current tastemakers grew up. And I’m more than ready to contribute to the ’90s nostalgia that will undoubtedly be a huge deal in the ’10s. When I thought about what this meant, one type of film kept coming up in my mind: the kids’ sports movie.
The ’90s in American sports were, if not altogether hopeful times, at least ambitious, as leagues expanded to include a bevy of Sun Belt and Canadian teams that wore teal or purple or both. I’m not sure if the drive to capture more fans that produced this rapid expansion was the reason, but a whole bunch of movies came out trying to get kids excited about sports. All of them are good for serious ’90s nostalgia, but how do they rate upon viewing today? I watched eight of the best remembered ’90s movies involving kids and sports to see. In chronological order, here’s what I found.
“The Mighty Ducks” (1992) dir. Stephen Herek
Given the empire this movie spawned, including two sequels (more on those later), an animated series starring anthropomorphic ducks and—this is still unbelievable to me, 17 years and a Stanley Cup championship later—an actual National Hockey League franchise, it’s easy to forget how much heart the original had. I know I did.
My recollection of Emilio Estevez’s Coach Bombay, for instance, having been mostly informed by the sequels, was certainly not that of the hilariously acerbic bastard he is at the beginning. He tells his driver, trying to find the team he’s been sentenced to coach after a DUI, “Just look for the sign that says ‘Personal Hell.'”
“I’m sure this will be a real bonding experience,” he tells the kids, who have been reacting negatively to his cold demeanor. “One day, maybe one of you will even write a book about it in jail.”
The kids also seem, if not necessarily three-dimensional, realer than your standard hard-luck preteen street gang. They also routinely use the term “cake eater,” which I had to look up to learn is apparently a pejorative Minnesota term for someone rich; that being said, I polled several of my numerous Minnesotan friends on the term, and none of them professed to have ever heard of it.
Of course, the trashtalking kids from the streets of Minneapolis eventually teach him the meaning of fun, and Bombay, being the cutthroat trial lawyer that he is, teaches the kids about winning. It’s a terrific combination.
Pro Athlete Cameos: Minnesota North Stars players Basil McRae and Mike Modano show up, saying they played with Bombay when they were kids.
Quality of Sports Action: Solid, though not spectacular. At least it seems that everyone can skate. Many wide shots look good, and that’s probably because they used doubles. At one point a particularly hard slapshot breaks the net completely though, which takes the film down a few pegs on the realism scale. Also, the vaunted “Flying V” formation is, I’m sorry to say, definitely an interference-and-offsides double helping of illegality.
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Charlie (Joshua Jackson), the Ducks’ captain, lives in a spacious art-filled apartment that his single mom can afford working as a waitress at Mickey’s Diner. Bombay acts as a father figure to Charlie, leading to him getting together with Charlie’s mom at the end.
“Rookie of the Year” (1993) dir. Daniel Stern
After a miraculous injection of talent, a 12-year-old, Henry Rowengartner, gets to play in the major leagues. What baseball-loving kid wouldn’t love that premise? I certainly did, and I recalled the film vaguely but fondly.
Boy, did my perceptions change on viewing it today. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever seen, in the ’90s kids’ sports movies department or otherwise.
Even if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief that it’s possible for a tendon injury to heal so “tight” that it gives one’s elbow a slingshot-like ability to make 103-mph snap throws—believe me, I am—this film is still riddled with conflicts that have some of the most absurd stakes ever.
If the Cubs don’t sell out every game for the rest of the season, they’ll forfeit the franchise! If Henry doesn’t complete the save in his second major league game, he won’t get an endorsement deal with Pepsi! If the Cubs’ owner doesn’t find out first, the slimy GM will “sell” Henry to the Yankees for $25 million behind his back! Despite now being the only professional baseball player at his school, if Henry doesn’t successfully build a boat with his friends, he won’t get to hang out with his dream girl!
Daniel Stern, who also directed the film, plays the Cubs’ pitching coach, who never displays any indication of knowing a single thing about pitching. At one point, he takes a few hacks during batting practice, and manages to pop three balls in a row directly above him, hitting himself in the head each time. I suppose this is meant to show how hapless he is, but if I saw it in real life, I would probably assume it to be a Harlem Globetrotterian display of skill.
This sums up the film well for me: it seems like a sports film made by people who know zero about sports.
Pro Athlete Cameos: Pedro Guerrero, Bobby Bonilla, and pre-steroidal Pittsburgh-era Barry Bonds are all shown whiffing at Henry’s fastball.
Quality of Sports Action: Atrocious, even amongst the non-child actors. Gary Busey, who is supposed to be an aging star pitcher, has mechanics akin to this guy. There is also a breathtakingly illegal hidden-ball trick in which Henry: one, stands on the rubber without the ball (balk) and two, holds the rosin bag in his glove to make it look like he has the ball (probably grounds for an ejection).
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Henry’s single mom, has regaled him with stories of a supposedly great baseball-playing absentee father throughout his life. Meanwhile, her current boyfriend becomes Henry’s evil manager, colluding on the Henry-to-the-Yankees conspiracy, leading to Mom dumping him just as she starts to get together with Busey’s character. Finally, in his very last appearance for the Cubs, Henry pulls a patch off his glove to reveal his mother’s name, realizing that all along, the great baseball or softball player was HER, not his father, producing that rare plot element that is sexist, illogical, and detrimental to the film’s premise all at once.
“The Sandlot” (1993) dir. David Mickey Evans
My completely non-scientific sense is that it’s this film that holds the most nostalgia for children of the ’90s of all the films on this list. I could say that’s curious since it’s the only one that doesn’t take place in the ’90s (it’s set in 1962), but the movie’s strength is in capturing the timeless essence of being a preteen on summer vacation.
It’s probably the least sports-dependent of any of these sports films. The journey of Scott Smalls as he discovers good friends and independence for the first time takes place on a baseball field, but it’s relatable in any context. Sure, some things seem stupid now, such as the way Smalls initially gains acceptance among his baseball peers—he stands in the outfield, with arm outstretched and eyes closed, while Benny magically guides the ball right into his glove—but they feel forgivable.
“The Sandlot” shares with “The Mighty Ducks” an excellent sense of the often brilliant, sometimes bizarre way that kids are liable to talk and trashtalk to each other when no adults are around. My favorite line is when a member of a rival team insults a Sandlot kid by saying, “You bob for apples in the toilet..and you like it.” As if grudgingly bobbing for apples in the toilet is a normal and expected state of affairs, but to enjoy it is the real disgrace.
The entire film feels like a hazy memory from years in the future. Witness the beautifully shot slow-motion fireworks-lit game scene, or the comically large size of the dog the kids try to rescue the Babe Ruth-signed ball from. When the dog is finally befriended at the end, he becomes smaller and realer, kind of like the rest of the world does as we grow up too.
Pro Athlete Cameos: No actual pro athletes appear, but Babe Ruth does show up in a dream sequence.
Quality of Sports Action: Truth be told, actually pretty terrible. When the ball comes off Ham’s bat in the first home run of the movie, it is quite obviously heading toward the right field side before a new shot shows it sailing over the left field fence. And everyone that swings and misses does so by about four feet. But it’s hard to be bothered by it when the baseball is so un-central to the plot.
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Scotty’s mom is not quite single, but she has apparently remarried very recently to a man Scotty is struggling to connect with. Stealing his Babe Ruth-signed ball and ultimately covering it in mud and dog slobber doesn’t seem to be the way to do it, but everything works out in the end between them.
Connections to Previous Films on the List: Brandon Adams, who plays Kenny DeNunez, also plays Jesse Hall in “The Mighty Ducks.” In both films, he wears some sort of headwear—a black-green-yellow-and-red knit hat in “Mighty Ducks,” and a Kansas City Monarchs cap here—emphasizing his position as one of the one or two African-American kids in the group.
“D2: The Mighty Ducks” (1994) dir. Sam Weisman
I won’t say that this movie is everything bad the first one wasn’t, but it’s close. I actually had a lot more memories of this one since I owned it on VHS, and could quote it even to this day. For example, I established a tradition among the kids I was a counselor for at Camp Tawonga of yelling “Goldberg!” every time a fart was smelled, after which the culprit had to declare with arms raised, “No! It was me!” But does it hold up?
Well, the premise is ludicrous even for a kids’ sports movie. The idea that a coach who had a single court-ordered successful season under his belt would be chosen to coach the national team at the Junior Goodwill Games is silly. The idea that the team itself would be made up primarily of the kids from the Pee Wee team he coached, several of whom possess quite limited talent, is absurd. And the idea that this coach—again, a youth hockey coach—would be able to sign a lucrative endorsement contract (including his own signature shoe model) and become a household name is truly laughable.
All of which could be forgiven if “D2” delivered the same heart and humor that the first does, but it doesn’t. There is considerably more filler and crass humor, nowhere near as many good one-liners, and Bombay’s arc, going from good guy to vapid celeb-coach and back again, is a lot less interesting or relatable.
I did, however, find the choices of the Ducks’ international opponents to be rather fascinating. Had this film come out 10 years earlier, I think that the evil juggernaut European team would likely have been portrayed as the Soviet Union. But with the dust still settling from the dissolution of the USSR, the role is filled here by Iceland, which is not exactly a hockey powerhouse in real life. I assume the writers figured Iceland, given its name, to be a land of powerful dark sorcery concerning anything involving ice. Also, I really want an authentic jersey of the film’s inexplicable Trinidad & Tobago team.
Pro Athlete Cameos: NHL stars Chris Chelios, Cam Neely and Luc Robitaille make appearances, as does NHL GOAT Wayne Gretzky, as do, rather randomly, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Greg Louganis, and Kristi Yamaguchi.
Quality of Sports Action: On par with the first for the most part, but with a few extremely cartoonish/unrealistic gags thrown in. Fulton ruptures a net in the first film; in this one, his shot produces an inches-deep indentation on a goalie’s hand. The Ducks deceive Iceland by somehow dressing Kenan Thompson’s character in goalie pads during a 30 second timeout without anyone noticing. And in the deciding shootout shot, suspense is milked incredibly cheaply by the film implying that no one is sure whether the Julie “the Cat,” the goalie, stopped the shot or not before she flips it out of her glove. Isn’t that what the goal siren is for?
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? It’s only mentioned in passing, but apparently Bombay and Charlie’s mom broke up and she married someone else.
Connections to Previous Films on the List: Mike Vitar, who plays Miami speedster Luis Mendoza, also played Scotty’s mentor Benny Rodriguez in “The Sandlot,” and Natalie Portman lookalike Colombe Jacobsen, who plays Julie “the Cat,” plays Henry’s dream girl in “Rookie of the Year.”
“Little Big League” (1994) dir. Andrew Scheinman
I didn’t remember this film very well, but after watching it, I’m convinced it’s the cream of this eight-movie crop. It shares many similarities with “Rookie of the Year”: a prodigious kid is handed an incredible opportunity involving an MLB team (in this case, inheritance of the Minnesota Twins and subsequently naming himself as manager); he has two best friends who bemoan him spending less time with them; a hidden-ball trick figures prominently at a crucial moment; his single mother hooks up with someone on the team (although, as you might have noticed by now, that one is not exactly unusual for this type of film).
So what’s the difference? Everything. When “Rookie of the Year” is crass, “Little Big League” is remarkably restrained. This is by far the most intelligent, subdued and mature film on the list. Take, for example, the exchange that the kid owner/manager, Billy, has with his star player (who is dating Billy’s mother) before his at bat that will determine the fate of the season. The player, Lou, says he’s asked Billy’s mom to marry him, and she told him to ask Billy first. Billy tells him, rather melodramatically, that he can—if he hits a home run.
Now, this is the point when 99 out of 100 kids’ sports films would take you into the at bat, fully expecting you to experience the suspense of both the team’s fortunes and Lou’s future married life hanging in the balance. Maybe he’d hit the home run and everything turns out perfectly. Maybe he wouldn’t, and Billy would then sappily tell him that he can marry his mom anyway, because, “I know you’ll always hit a home run for her” or something.
But in this movie, Billy calls out to Lou a second after his first statement, seeming embarrassed for thinking to set up such a scenario, and says, “Lou? You can marry her even if you don’t hit a homer.” Some might think this anticlimactic, but I thought it was a wonderfully organic-feeling exchange to be plopped in the midst of such a crazy situation.
This quality is what I love about the film as a whole. It extends to the entire premise. The concept behind “Rookie of the Year” is effective wish fulfillment, but it isn’t possible without a totally hackneyed medical-marvel plot device. The circumstances which lead Billy to own and manage the Twins are unlikely to say the least, but after accepting them, I honestly find his success almost fully believable. Who hasn’t known a 12-year-old kid who displays a joyfully obsessive devotion to baseball stats, strategy and history? I knew one in particular very well. Maybe that’s one reason this film resonated with me as much as it did.
Pro Athlete Cameos: A whole slew of actual MLB players of the time portray themselves, including Rafael Palmeiro, Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, and in the climactic final game, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr.
Quality of Sports Action: In another opposite from “Rookie of the Year,” the baseball action in this film is exceptionally realistic. The director seems to know it and shows this off with a ton of slow motion action shots. And the hidden-ball trick in this one is legal and in fact based on an actual play from the 1982 College World Series known as “the Grand Illusion,” which is surely one of the greater baseball moments to be named after a Jean Renoir film.
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? I basically already covered this, but I will add that Lou and Billy’s mom clearly have known each other for some time before the events of the movie take place, making their romance rather less cringeworthy than those in some of these other films.
Connections to Previous Films on the List: John Beasley, who plays a fieldside security guard who’s complicit in the hidden ball trick, also plays Jesse’s dad in “The Mighty Ducks,” and Brock Pierce, who plays a stickball-playing kid here, plays young Bombay in “The Mighty Ducks” as well.
“Little Giants” (1994) dir. Duwayne Dunham
This movie might not be quite as bad as “Rookie of the Year,” but it’s definitely more crass than any film on the list. I’m not sure if five minutes goes by in this film without someone falling over, passing gas or getting hit in the testicles. Yes, “The Mighty Ducks” has a character whose flatulence is an occasional source of humor, but “Little Giants” has one whose farts are actually used as an in-game offensive weapon.
The primary kid protagonist in this film is a girl, Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, which it might deserve a bit of credit for, if her character arc wasn’t played out as dumbly as it is.
Figuring that Junior, the Devon Sawa-played quarterback she has a crush on, will want to date “a girl, not a teammate,” this tomboy succumbs to a sudden attack of femininity and decides to become a cheerleader rather than a player…literally on the day of the climactic game, and without telling any of her teammates first.
Even when a rare moment of genuine sweetness sneaks in, like when the team carries the smallest member of the team on their shoulders after he does something good in practice, the film still can’t resist the call of the slapstick: they drop him.
There is one element of this film that I found interesting though, which is the character of Nubie, the team’s nerdy play-designing mastermind. With his large glasses, sideswept straight blonde hair and everpresent button-down shirt and tie, the filmmakers probably figured he was the epitome of archetypal dweebiness, but in fact, he ends up looking exactly like Andy Warhol. Also, I find the name he gives to the gamechanging secret play—”The Annexation of Puerto Rico”—to be the funniest thing in the entire film. I’m not quite sure why. But I’d definitely like to hear what was going through Nubie’s mind when he deemed it as such.
Pro Athlete Cameos: NFL players Tim Brown, Steve Emtman, Bruce Smith and Emmitt Smith, along with coach/broadcaster/Outback Steakhouse pitchman John Madden, show up for one reason or another to inspire the kids.
Quality of Sports Action: Could be worse I suppose, although the relentless sight gags (a barrelled-over defender leaving a full-body imprint in the turf, a receiver whose hands are glued onto his jersey by stickum, etc.) erase any chance of it seeming realistic.
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Icebox’s single dad, played by Rick Moranis, apparently hits a raw nerve when he calls her “my little fullback.” Icebox remembers how her mother called her “my little princess” which is part of what ignites her half-day-long girly-girl phase. In the end, it’s left unsaid whether re-tomboyified Icebox and Junior get together, but Icebox’s dad and Junior’s mom, painfully, do.
Connections to Previous Films on the List: Actually, this is the only movie of these eight that does not share at least one actor with another film on the list.
“The Big Green” (1995) dir. Holly Goldberg Sloan
I don’t know for sure, but I’d bet that this film was greenlit during the 1994 World Cup, the excitement of which also led to the founding of Major League Soccer in 1996. I found it interesting that the movie does not, however, take place in the middle-class suburban setting that came to be associated with soccer in the ’90s. It actually takes place in a tiny dying rural Texas town, which is definitely a more daring choice.
In the first scene of the movie, some of the kids who later become part of the Big Green are shown dumping a bag of cheese puffs onto themselves and waiting for the circling birds to eat them off their bodies. “There’s not much to do in Elma,” they say, and it at first seems that these are the type of futureless screw-ups who will grow up to operate meth labs in their garages.
Luckily, a teacher from England arrives and teaches them about soccer, which the kids have barely ever heard of at first. What follows is mostly a paint-by-numbers rehash of the triumphant-underdog plot. But the way that soccer gives some purpose to the kids’ lives, and especially, their genuinely loving appreciation toward their teacher because of it, is very sweet.
Despite what the unfortunate poster—which features more goats than girls—suggests, this film is also the most gender-equal on the list. And perhaps most interestingly and unexpectedly, it dips a toe into the illegal immigration debate. The Big Green’s best player, Juan, is an American-born citizen, but his mother is undocumented. The cutthroat coach of the team’s ultimate rival tries to get her deported, but the plan fails, the family gets to stay together, the Big Green win, and Juan and the main girl, Kate, maintain their cute flirtation. (See Icebox? Sometimes guys do want to date a teammate.)
Pro Athlete Cameos: I was totally ready for a cameo from some American from the ’94 Cup such as former free-spirit wild man and current unfailingly negative ESPN soccer analyst Alexi Lalas, but none materialized.
Quality of Sports Action: I got the feeling watching this movie that soccer is probably the easiest kids’ sports film to make look good on film. It’s clear that, aside from Juan, none of the characters (or the actors who play them) are very good, but the simplicity of basic soccer ensures that nothing looks too bad.
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? Kate’s single father is an alcoholic deadbeat who doesn’t care about her soccer exploits at first, but they ultimately bond over it. Although the setup is sad, it was kind of refreshing to see his character find redemption by reconnecting with his daughter rather than getting a girlfriend. Unfortunately there is a gratuitous relationship between the teacher and the town sheriff, though.
Connections to Previous Films on the List: Big Green players Chauncey Leopardi and Patrick Renna are also “Sandlot” kids, having played Squints and Ham respectively. And another teammate, Billy L. Sullivan, plays one of Billy’s friends in “Little Big League.”
“D3: The Mighty Ducks” (1996) dir. Robert Lieberman
One year, they defeat the world. The next year…they struggle to usurp the varsity team at the private school they’ve become the JV team for. It’s a bit of a step down for the Ducks, but least the scope of the conflict is a bit more believable this time around.
The feel of this film reminded me of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” and not just because of the academic setting. Loyalties are tested. A mentor character dies. Romantic relationships become important. A mysterious forbidden prophecy is finally revealed. (Okay, maybe not that one.) In short, this is the Ducks’ growing up moment.
On the one hand, there is a bit of potential in this idea. I was struck by one scene in Charlie (who goes through a similar phase as Bombay did in “D2,” forgetting the game is supposed to be fun) bemoans the team’s new coach stripping him of the C he gets to wear on his jersey for being the Ducks’ captain. Hans, the team’s elderly and soon-to-die equipment supplier/mentor, tells Charlie that if he wants a cloth applique C, he has hundreds—and we, and Charlie, understand the point that being a leader is not about titles or honorifics.
But on the other hand, this film doesn’t have the same sense of fun of the original or even, despite its flaws, “D2.” It has to resort to “Rookie of the Year”-esque conflicts such as the threat of the team’s scholarships being revoked in the midst of their first season just because they aren’t playing well. In a sense I’m glad that this movie exists just to prove that stories of kids’ sports don’t have to end with puberty, but unfortunately it also proves that even strong concepts usually get stretched way too thin by the second sequel.
Pro Athlete Cameos: Paul Kariya, who was the captain of the NHL’s Mighty Ducks at the time, is interviewed for some reason by the school’s hockey announcer.
Quality of Sports Action: On par with the other two, and at least Julie “the Cat” finally takes over from the obviously inferior Goldberg in goal. Goldberg is converted to a defenseman, and in a nice touch, scores the climactic goal of the film in a last-second-of-the-game sequence in which time moves slower than the third dream level in “Inception.”
How Does a Single Parent Play Into the Plot? We assume that Charlie’s mom is still married, although at one point she’s seen talking with Bombay (who is barely in the film, by the way) so who’s to say whether something’s been rekindled there?
Connections to Previous Films on the List: Scott Whyte, who plays the Icelandic team’s best player in “D2,” also plays a snobbish varsity player here.
So there you have it—my survey of ’90s kids’ sports movies. I said at the beginning that ’90s nostalgia is going to be huge in this decade, and I think it’s true not just because of the two-decade-rule I mentioned before. As we mercifully exit the decade from hell that was the ’00s and beseech the gods to let the next one be better, I imagine there will be great interest in a time when everyone first learned about the Internet, the Twin Towers still stood and the government produced a budget surplus. For whatever reason, I think these films capture those times pretty well. So I hope we keep watching them, to remember that even kids that at first have mud on their faces, are big disgraces and have their cans kicked all over the place(s), can still end up as champions—even if it takes a few fart jokes to get there.