This month marks the 20th anniversary of one of the great American movies, The Sandlot. Formative for a generation of children, this movie was one of many movies in the early 90’s that focused on the childhood love of sports and the heartwarming story of an underdog rising to success. The Sandlot has given rise to iconic quotes such as, “You’re killing me Smalls!” and “FOR-EV-ER” as well as a comprehensive list of acceptable nominal references to George Herbert “Babe” Ruth: “The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout, The Great Bambino!”
The heart of the movie is the coming of age story of Scott Smalls in the summer of 1962. Before entering the fifth grade he moves with his mother and stepfather to a new town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In an attempt to make new friends, he joins a group of neighborhood boys playing baseball. The major issue for Smalls is the fact that he does not know anything about America’s greatest pastime. While all of the boys are skeptical about letting this new kid into their circle of friends, it is the best athlete of the group, Benny “the Jet” Rodriguez, who decides to teach Smalls how to play, and the rest of the group soon follows suit. They embark on a summer full of shenanigans and life lessons.
There is one scene in this movie that I would like to look at more closely. This is the scene where Smalls catches his first baseball. As the team is warming up, Smalls is playing outfield and a ball is hit to him. He falls down while trying to make the catch and then returns the ball back to the pitcher by running it in instead of throwing it. This uncomfortable moment leaves the team speechless because it is unfathomable for them to conceive of the fact that a boy in the United States does not know how to catch or throw a baseball. As the team tries to convince Benny that it was never a good idea to let Smalls join them, Benny runs out to Smalls to give him a mix of life lessons as well as technical tips on how to throw a baseball. This helps Smalls, but throwing the ball isn’t his only problem, so he asks Benny, “How do I catch it?” Benny’s response is simple, “Just stand there and stick your glove out in the air. I’ll take care of it.” At the next at bat, Benny hits a high fly ball into left-center field where Smalls is waited with his glove stretched out into the sky. The ball lands directly in Smalls’ mitt, and he then makes the throw to second base with pinpoint accuracy. The rest of the team is awed at this, and they accept Smalls as their new outfielder, enabling them to field an entire team.
I think that this scene contains an important lesson about how grace can work in our lives. Often we are like Smalls: awkward, uncoordinated, and unsure how to live a life of virtue. We have seen or heard stories of those who seem to be professional at it, but we are not sure how to do it ourselves. We need a teacher, especially when those around us are not supportive. In this situation, God, just like Benny, comes to us, making the first move, and teaches us. He does not pay attention to what others say about us when we are in a precarious situation because He knows what we are capable of and that for which we were made: to share His life for the rest of eternity.
He teaches us the technique of how to live in His love, but ultimately it comes down to our cooperating with His grace. God can do something that Benny could never do—God can move the heart by the infusion of his grace. Benny could only manipulate the circumstances to give Smalls the best opportunity to catch the ball. God works at the level of the heart. He knows the entire created world not as a result of what we do, but as its very cause, and He can place his very life within us.
Like Smalls, we are to stick our gloves in the air and let Him take care of the rest. We follow His instruction and guidance by accepting His grace. We drop the ball when we think that by our own action we can demand that God reward us. Grace is a free gift from God for this gift is nothing less than a share in His divine life.
Just as Smalls immediately acquires a throwing arm after Benny’s help, so too grace has an immediate effect in our lives: you don’t have to wait for the grace of Confession to take hold because absolution forgives sins immediately. And while Benny’s help brings Smalls into communion with the other players, God’s help gives us communion, not with a baseball team, but with the Blessed Trinity and all the Saints. Grace does not give a mere skill or physical ability, but a share in the life of God himself. And while a childhood summer of sandlot baseball may seem to last for ages, this communion will last for all eternity.
Image: The Sandlot