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The best and worst awards for the golden era of kids sports movies

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“Little Giants” closed out a two-year run unlike any other in kids sports movies. Here’s the best and worst from that time!

A collage featuring scenes from the 90s movies The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, and The Sandlot
The early 90s gave us classics like The Mighty Ducks, Little Giants, and The Sandlot.
Disney, WB, 20th Century Fox / SB Nation illustration

It’s fitting that we’re celebrating the anniversary of Little Giants this week. When it was released in October 1994, it marked the close of a golden era of kids sports movies. From 1992 to 1994, seven of these movies were released, and all are remembered fondly by anybody who was in middle or elementary school at the time.

The list of movies that came out over the course of 24 months is a murderers’ row of classics:

October 2, 1992: The Mighty Ducks
April 7, 1993: The Sandlot
July 7, 1993: Rookie of the Year
March 25, 1994: D2: The Mighty Ducks
June 29, 1994: Little Big League
July 15, 1994: Angels in the Outfield
October 14, 1994: Little Giants

Some will argue for inclusion of The Big Green in 1995 and Air Bud in 1997. I’m pretty sure nobody will argue for the third Mighty Ducks movie in 1996 or Ladybugs in early 1992. The first two are solid considerations, but I’ll stick with that tight 24-month period from October 1992 to October 1994.

With that in mind, I thought I’d offer up some entirely subjective awards for the best and worst aspects of these seven movies.

The Franchise: The Mighty Ducks

The only one of these to spawn a sequel, and of course the only one to spawn an actual sports franchise! The lead was noted Brat Packer Emilio Estevez, in his first big movie that allowed him to break out as an adult star. However, much like Little Giants, the kids were the key to building out the story. The movie followed the numerous tropes that come from a great sports movie:

1. Gordon Bombay provided the heroic redemption often required in these kinds of movies — although more on the realities of that later.

2. Sports movies regularly involve underdogs overcoming long odds, and we saw this in both of the movies.* In the first, a pee-wee hockey team had to beat the superiorly talented team led by Bombay’s former coach. In the second, an all-star team of Ducks had to beat heavily favored Iceland in the Junior Goodwill Games. Both made for good storylines, even if I’m not sure how they decided on Iceland being the hockey power.

*D3 did happen, but a) it fell out of this time period, and b) it really wasn’t particularly good.

3. They put together fun climactic scenes. Regardless of what you think of the triple deke as a real hockey move, it made for a thrilling conclusion to the first movie. And considering how exciting a shootout can be, I would argue the close to the second movie exceeded that of the first one.

Best story: Little Giants

Every one of these movies features a great story arc. Some are a little more realistic, some are a little more fun, but they all provide a compelling story. And yet, it’s Little Giants that remains my favorite narrative.

The David vs. Goliath story is a classic one, and they did it wonderfully in this one. There wasn’t just the pee-wee football teams, but you also had the big brother-little brother story with Ed O’Neill and Rick Moranis (superbly cast). O’Neill made his name as Al Bundy in Married with Children, but looking back, his Kevin O’Shea character seems like a precursor to his Jay Pritchett role in Modern Family. On the other hand, Moranis’ character history is summed up perfectly as Danny O’Shea, and it’s impossible not to root for him.

We also get what at the time was a bit of a forward-thinking storyline with Becky “Icebox” O’Shea, Danny’s daughter. She is the best football player, but she gets cut during Cowboys tryouts. So she rounds up a group of less talented kids and convinces her dad to coach them as the Giants. Later, we see Becky becoming a cheerleader thinking that’s how she can impress a boy, and then returning to play in the big game and shutting down the villainous Spike Hammersmith. The movie did an excellent job flipping a trope on its head.

Classic: The Sandlot

Baseball is fighting football for the heart of America, and so feelings on this movie might be changing. But as a kid growing up when this movie came out, it spoke to me. It’s about neighborhood kids playing baseball. The most popular kid in the neighborhood befriends the nerdy new kid, and they along, with a group of other kids, have adventures surrounding baseball. It’s just a perfect movie about baseball as a kid.

And of course, nobody will ever forget, “You’re killing me, Smalls!”

Most unlikely scenario: Little Big League, Rookie of the Year, Angels in the Outfield

There’s plenty unrealistic in most Hollywood movies, but these three play on the fantastic — to entertaining effect. Which of these three is most fantastic?

  1. Little Big League: A sports owner dies and leaves the team to his 12-year-old grandson. The grandson is a baseball nut who eventually fires the manager (played by Dennis Farina, who does not drop a single f-bomb, so you know it’s fantasy) and takes over in his role. The last-place team turns things around while regaining their joy for the game, before losing in a one-game playoff. Oh, and early ‘90s Ken Griffey, Jr. is kind of a villain in the movie.
  2. Rookie of the Year: A middle schooler breaks a bone in his upper arm and after healing, he can throw a 100-mph fastball. He signs with the Cubs, and along the way, his mom’s boyfriend tries to trick her into getting him traded to the New York Yankees.
  3. Angels in the Outfield: Actual angels help the then-Anaheim Angels get to the World Series.

I would accept arguments for any of these three being the most absurd.

Worst hero: Gordon Bombay

I get that movies need a redemption story, but man, c’mon! An arrogant lawyer gets pulled over for a DUI, and his punishment is community service that involves coaching a local pee-wee hockey team. When the team gets pummeled in its first game against Bombay’s old pee-wee coach, he decides to teach them how to dive and draw penalties.

In the sequel, Coach Bombay becomes enamored by the Hollywood life during the Junior Goodwill Games. When the team gets pummeled by Iceland because Bombay did not prepare the players well enough, he makes them do an excessive amount of sprints immediately after the game. He even goes on a date with the Iceland trainer the night before his team gets thumped in its first match with the hockey heavyweights!

The guy repeatedly left his team hanging, so it’s hard to entirely buy the redemption angle when he was the one putting himself in that situation. And frankly, anybody who pitches the Air Bombay loafer to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he should be preparing his team gets docked a whole lot of points.

Best villain: Coach Reilly, The Mighty Ducks

Reilly, played by Lane Smith, coached Gordon Bombay as a kid. Bombay lost his dad, and in the championship game he missed a penalty shot that cost his team. Coach Reilly expressed considerable disappointment in him. Considering Bombay was dealing the loss of his dad, that’s pretty incredible balls on Reilly.

Twenty years later, when Bombay takes over as coach of another team in the league, Reilly is STILL pissed about it snapping his championship streak. Naturally, Bombay’s team faces Reilly’s team in the championship game. Reilly orders one of his players to injure the star on the other team. We’re talking John Kreese from Karate Kid-type villain.

Worst villain: Ken Griffey, Jr., Little Big League

You could argue there really wasn’t a full-on villain in Little Big League. Billy fired Dennis Farina, who was underrated in his role as the Twins arrogant manager. Billy got a big head at times, so it was more about the transition he made. But the movie ended with Griffey snuffing out the Twins’ chances in the one-game playoff.

The fact that early ‘90s Griffey, one of the most popular players in baseball history, was brought in as a villain still ruffles my feathers. I suppose one argument would be that since Billy’s Twins were going to lose, you wouldn’t want it happening to a complete dick. But did they also have to do Jr. dirty like they did on this phantom pickoff play?

Best cameo: Little Giants players visited by NFL players and John Madden

John Madden, Emmitt Smith, Bruce Smith, Tim Brown, and Steve Emtman show up before the big game against the Cowboys. They’re headed to Canton for a banquet and get lost in Urbania. I have a lot of questions about this, but obviously we have to roll with the punches.

Each of the players and Madden offer up lessons to get the players ready for the game:

  1. Steve Emtman gets Zolteck fired up and ready to run over the Cowboys.
  2. Emmitt Smith inspires the kids to succeed even if they’re not the biggest or the fastest or the smartest.
  3. John Madden works with Nubie to tweak the Annexation of Puerto Rico play design.
  4. Bruce Smith offers lessons in intimidation.
  5. For some reason, Tim Brown shows up and leaves, but doesn’t get his own scene with the kids. Maybe it’s part of the deleted scenes.
Little Giants picture of Tim Brown, Steve Emtman, Emmit Smith, and Bruce Smith

Best musical montage: “Runaround Sue,” Little Big League

Most team sports movies have a montage scene when things are going well. If I’m flipping through my TV and I hear “Runaround Sue,” I know it’s time to settle in for Little Big League.

Worst in-game tactician: Kevin O’Shea, Little Giants

I appreciate that Kevin is the local hero and knows football, but he really was an awful coach. Christian D’Andrea went into great detail on how bad a coach he was, but simply put, his ego far exceeds his skill as a coach. How else do you recognize the opponent has predicted your play and still not call an audible from the sideline? It really was a matter of ego costing his team the victory.

Best coach: Mac Macnally, Little Big League

Pitching coach (and effective bench coach) Mac Macnally was the opposite of Kevin O’Shea when it came to ego. Shortly after 12-year-old Billy Heywood took over as owner of the Minnesota Twins, he fired manager George O’Farrell and with the help of his buddies decides he should take over. He takes the decision to Mac and the team’s general manager. He has Mac test him on situational baseball and offers a clear-cut answer and Mac acknowledges Billy is a superior baseball mind.

Either this is the greatest show of selflessness you can expect, or Mac lost his mind in agreeing to let a 12-year-old manage the Twins. Considering the team’s turnaround, I’ll give Mac credit. And of course, he got to take over as manager the next season after Billy stepped down after the one-game playoff loss to finish up middle school. Selfless and savvy!

Worst play in a climactic scene: Triple deke, The floater

I get that there is a certain suspension of disbelief when it comes to movies. The Mighty Ducks and Rookie of the Year set up incredible tension for their climactic scenes, and I felt like they let us down in the end.

In the original Mighty Ducks movie, the Ducks are facing the Hawks and it goes to a penalty shot for all the marbles. The youthful hero, Charlie (Joshua Jackson), is in the same position Coach Bombay was in 20 years earlier. Bombay’s big move that he taught to Charlie was the triple deke. It’s a move that I’m fairly certain would not amount to anything but a laughing goalie in real hockey. Naturally, Charlie succeeds with the move.

In Rookie of the Year, Henry Rowengartner and his 100-mph fastball are a key to the Cubs turning their season around. They face the New York Mets in a one-game playoff for the division title and he comes on in relief for his mentor, Chet “Rocket” Steadman. After striking out six straight batters, he heads onto the field to start the ninth but slips on a baseball. He lands awkwardly, and when he gets up he can no longer throw the gas. He and the Cubs use trick plays to get the first two outs, but then faces his nemesis, “Heddo.” Henry strikes him out using a floater pitcher inspired by his mom, who was a standout softball pitcher back in the day. I appreciate the story arc, but for a finisher, really?

Best climactic scene: The Annexation of Puerto Rico, Little Giants

Each of these movies involved some kind of suspense in the big climactic scene, but none offered the kind of realistic absurdity of the final play that spoiler alert won the game for the Little Giants. The play was effectively the fumblerooski and as noted in the movie — in a conversation between Nubie and John Madden — was cribbed from a similar play from Madden’s Super Bowl XI victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

The Giants fell behind 21-0 after Becky spent the first half serving as a cheerleader. Danny gives the players an inspirational speech that results in them getting back into the game. As the Giants are coming back, Becky decides to dump the pompoms after Spike Hammersmith illegally spears Junior Floyd. She immediately impacts the game and the Giants are able to tie it up. The Cowboys move down to a goal to go situation, but Icebox stops Spike short of the goal line.

That leads to one of the truly great plays in movie sports history. Quarterback Junior Floyd takes the snap and immediately puts the ball down. He then starts a fake reverse, and as Spike tackles Icebox without the ball, Rudy Zoltek has picked it up and taken off down the field.

Naturally, the Cowboys track him down and he throws the ball up for grabs behind him and Junior catches it. The Cowboys get to him, and right before they tackle him, he tosses the ball to Jake Berman. The little guy manages to take it to the house for the game-winning touchdown.

I can rewatch this movie over and over, and that scene still gives me goosebumps.