The protagonists in The Sandlot (1993) volley insults with the rich kids from the neighboring town.
“You eat dog crap for breakfast, geek.”
“You mix your Wheaties with your mama’s toe jam!”
As the exchange escalates, Ham’s final diss is the irrevocable pinnacle.
“You play ball like a GIRL!”
Both sides fall silent, stunned. Their jaws hit the ground.
“What did you say?” the opponent stammers, holding back tears.
“You heard me.”
It’s the ultimate insult; there is no retort.
While most family-friendly sports films of the 90s don’t feature this kind of outright sexism, most are largely by, for, and about boys. We see male characters on the field winning championships, while the women and girls, positioned as mothers, sisters, and love interests, cheer from the stands.
Yet upon re-watching three kid-friendly sports classics—The Little Giants (1994), D2: The Mighty Ducks (1994), and Rookie of the Year (1993)—I noticed something: several instances where, in crucial moments, female characters swoop in and, through courage, cunning, and skill, save the day.
Another movie of the era, A League of Their Own (1992), about the first all-female baseball league, tackles gender equality head-on. But in the male-dominated Little Giants, D2, and Rookie of the Year, the feminist themes are unexpected, even subversive.
Where do these characters and moments show up, and why? Let’s circle back to these three films and explore their feminist overtones, from the most predictable to the least.
The Little Giants
“She’s the best one out there”
Becky “The Icebox” O’Shea (Shawna Waldron) is the Billie Jean King of peewee football; she wages a Battle of the Sexes for the entire movie.
“She’s the best one out there,” applauds her aunt when we’re introduced to Icebox.
Everyone acknowledges this fact, and because of it, Icebox is the subject of condescension and disrespect from all parties: her opponents (“Do you pee standing up?”), her teammates (“Spike doesn’t play with girls”), and even her uncle, the opposing team’s coach (“Girls can’t play football”).
Icebox also struggles with the complexity of her burgeoning sexuality and femininity, and the way they affect her feelings, her relationships, and her identity as a tough, tomboyish star on the gridiron. The dissonance is visceral: After a moment of hopeless pining over her new, dreamy teammate, Junior Floyd (Devon Sawa), she gathers herself: “I’m the Icebox. The Icebox doesn’t get crushes.”
In the end, Icebox emerges a winner, both on the field and off. With Junior sidelined by injury and her team on the brink of defeat, Icebox ditches her pom poms, scoots to the locker room, and returns to the field donning her football pads on top and her cheerleading skirt on the bottom.
She makes the game-saving tackle, secures the win for her all-male team and her father, the coach, and learns to embrace her own duality as a hardnosed linebacker and a heterosexual young woman. Her vindication is entertaining and inspiring. It’s also predictable. Not the case with another classic of the era, D2: The Mighty Ducks.
D2: The Mighty Ducks
“When am I going to get my chance?”:
In The Little Giants, Becky is the best, and she spends the entire movie proving that to doubters, trolls, and herself. D2’s Julie “The Cat” Gaffney (Colombe Jacobsen), meanwhile, is the best goalie on the team, yet spends the entire film lobbying for the mere chance to play.
In this sequel to The Mighty Ducks (1992), the original Ducks are joined by star players from around the country to form Team USA and compete in the Junior Goodwill Games.
The Ducks’ goalie, Greg Goldberg (Shaun Weiss), is, for some reason, deemed starter for the squad despite his reputation as a clumsy goofball and his rhetorical use as comic relief.
At the team’s opening practice, the original Ducks are introduced to their new teammates.
“There’s Julie ‘The Cat’ Gaffney,” announces the team’s sponsor. “She won the state championship for Maine three years in a row.”
“We have a goalie: Goldberg,” Coach Bombay (Emilio Estevez) responds, which means he’s already granted Goldberg the starting role, without having seen Julie play.
Cut to Goldberg, who’s fallen into the splits and can’t get up.
“Watch this,” the sponsor says.
Back to Julie, who saves four consecutive shots from point-blank range. Coach Bombay’s conclusion?
“Well, we could use a backup.”
Except, apparently not. Team USA wins their first two games by a landslide, 21-2, yet Julie sees no ice time. After the game, she visits Bombay in his office.
JULIE: I want to play. When am I going to get my chance?
BOMBAY: Julie, Goldberg’s on a hot streak. I’ve gotta stick with him as long as we’re winning.
JULIE: I understand. But I left my team in Maine to show the world what I can do.
BOMBAY: Give it time. You will show the world. I promise.
In their next game, after the team falls behind to 5-0 to Iceland, Bombay subs Julie in.
“Send in a woman to do a man’s job…” one Iceland player taunts her.
“Don’t break a nail,” another mocks. They laugh.
Julie turns to the punks.
“I’m sorry, boys. Can you help me with my pads?”
As they look down, Julie delivers a sucker punch. The goons fall to the ice, and Julie is ejected.
“See you around, fellas,” she quips.
Goldberg returns; Team USA falls 12-1.
From there, Julie is practically silent, save one line amid a tense moment when several players decide they’re too tired to practice.
“It’s not like we couldn’t use the conditioning,” she says.
“Speak for yourself, babe,” Portman sneers.
Julie, the three-time state champion, who’s traveled across the country for a chance she’s earned but not granted, is jeered by her opponents, insulted by her teammates, and written off by her coach. She’s relegated to the bench and, in the script, to near silence; in subsequent games, she sees almost no time onscreen and zero time on the ice.
Everyone, including the audience, is made to passively accept this; even I, the discerning and repeated and, now, adult viewer would’ve likely forgotten her if not for the movie’s final, dramatic moments.
In the championship game, a rematch against Iceland, the US falls down by four goals but claws its way back to even as time expires. In the shootout, Team USA pulls ahead by one goal, and the world title comes down to a single shot. With the championship on the line, Bombay kneels on the bench behind his unused, underestimated, overqualified secret weapon.
BOMBAY: Julie, you got the fast glove. I know this kid’s move. Triple deke, glove side. Anticipate it and you got him.
JULIE: What if he goes stick side?
BOMBAY: He’s fancy. He’ll go glove. Don’t hesitate. Let’s go.
With the world looking on, Julie skates onto the ice, fearless.
ANNOUNCER: I don’t know about this move by Bombay. Putting in a cold goaltender to face the leading scorer in the tournament. But hang on to your hats. Here we go. If Julie “The Cat’ “Gaffney stops Gunnar Stahl, the U.S.A. wins.
SPOILER ALERT: She does and they do. Julie saves the shot and the game; she shows the world what she can do, what she’s been able to do all along.
Rookie of the Year (1993)
“Mom, it was you?”
A father and son have a car accident and are both badly hurt. They are both taken to separate hospitals. When the boy is taken in for an operation, the surgeon says, “I can not do the surgery because this is my son.” How is this possible?
Rookie of the Year, a movie almost exclusively about boys and men, is the baseball adaptation of this riddle.
“Hey! Wait, wait!”
Mary Rowengartner (Amy Morton) calls after her son Henry (Thomas Ian Nicholas) as he and his friends run off to their Little League game.
“Sun block!” she says, and tosses the bottle, underhand, towards Henry. A piccolo flutters in the background, signaling beauty and magic, as the sunscreen soars through the air—and over the head of Henry, who’s badly misjudged its trajectory.
Henry later returns home from the game where he put on a humiliating performance as an outfielder. He’s downtrodden, but Mary offers encouragement.
“Maybe you should be a pitcher like your father was,” the single mother suggests.
Her words and Henry’s pedigree prove prophetic: While trying to impress his crush (who, coincidentally, is played by Colombe “Julie ‘The Cat’ Gaffney” Jacobsen), Henry slips on a baseball and breaks his arm. Combine a miraculous occurrence with some pseudoscience and the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief, and you’ve got yourself a movie!
Henry’s tendons “heal too tight,” according to his doctor, and the teenager is blessed with a supernatural arm, freakishly strong and accurate enough for him to—better believe it!—secure a roster slot with the Chicago Cubs.
“This arm thing is weird,” Mary says, ambivalent about the whole situation.
“This arm thing is fantastic,” says Jack, Mary’s new boyfriend, who’s entirely too titillated by the financial implications of Henry’s sudden talent. His eyes practically cha-ching with dollar signs.
Cut to the airport: Henry and the team prep to depart for his first road game.
Again: “Sunscreen!” Mary calls out, tossing the bottle across the airport—there’s the piccolo!—right to Henry, who this time hauls it in.
“Hey, your mom has a pretty good arm!” exclaims Brickma, the Cubs’ pitching coach. “I ain’t seen the floater pitch since Scuffy McGee!”
Fast forward: Henry has emerged as a superstar and beloved celebrity, but off the field, villainy lurks: Jack, who’s dubbed himself Henry’s “manager,” is trying to trade him to the Yankees for $20 million, and dupes Mary into signing off on the deal.
“You’re not my father!” Henry tells Jack, who’s trying to force the teenager to a photo shoot.
“That’s right, I’m not your father!” Jack responds. “In fact, your mother probably doesn’t know who your father is! Your father’s some guy who left town!”
Mary comes down the stairs.
MARY: Get out of my house. I never want to see you near us again.
JACK: Well you’re gonna be seeing me. You’re gonna be seeing a lot of me! Because we’re moving to New York together!…Henry’s been sold to the Yankees!
MARY: You can’t do that!…He is my son!
JACK: He’s my client!…I brought in Reebok! I brought in Pepsi…He’s half mine!
Mary’s had enough. She punches Jack directly in the face, and he tumbles out of the house and down the front stairs.
“All right, Mom!” Henry triumphs.
“My god, that felt really good,” Mary exhales, embracing Henry.
Gathering herself, she sits him down for a heart-to-heart.
MARY: Your father…Okay. When I was a teenager—
HENRY: Mom. I know about dad…I know that he left you when you were pregnant with me.
MARY: How did you know that?
HENRY: Grandma told me when I was in second grade.
MARY: Why didn’t you tell me?
HENRY: Because I thought you liked telling me stories about him. About how he was a great baseball player and all.
MARY: Henry, I’m sorry. I just wanted you to have someone you could look up to.
HENRY: I do.
Soon we’re in the league championship game, where Henry is on the mound and a single inning away from sending the Cubs to their first World Series since WWII.
Things are swimming along, until—what’s this?—Henry slips on another ball and—say it ain’t so!—loses his power. Suddenly his superhuman strength is gone, and he’s a hapless teenager once again.
Without his 100 mph fastball, Henry leans on chicanery and beguiles the Mets into two outs. On the next at-bat, Henry needs just one strike to seal the game, but he’s facing the Mets’ toughest, meanest hitter.
“Hey kid, you’ve got nothing!” he tells Henry, grinning with arrogance and evil. “You’re mine.”
Henry stalls. He wipes his brow.
“Oh, God. What do I do?”
He looks around, bewildered. Nervously, he begins picking at his glove and peels back a flap of leather. We see a name inscribed in pen: MARY. Could it be?
Henry looks to the crowd and meets Mom’s gaze.
“Mom? It was you?” he mouths to her.
Mary, misting up, nods: “It was me.”
Henry smiles. As with the surgeon in the riddle, the pitcher was…his mother.
“Float it,” Mary tells him, miming her patented underhand toss as the piccolo flutters on cue. “Float it.”
As the drama and the music crescendo, Henry winds up and, in slow motion, lofts an underhanded pitch toward the plate. The Mets slugger whiffs wildly. Strike three. Game over. Cubs win.
As in D2, the characters and the audience alike are made to underestimate Mary, to push her aside as, at most, a cool mom. When she punches her conniving boyfriend through the door, it feels surprising but feasible. But to think she was the legendary pitcher who becomes the hero who bails out her son, his team, and the entire city of Chicago, rallying them from the brink of defeat to their first pennant in 50 years? Impossible. Until it wasn’t.
In these movies, the female characters, when not blatantly marginalized, seem relegated to insignificance. But in the end, they’re the key to the plot and to victory: without Julie, who knows if Team USA wins. Without Mary, Henry likely gives up a homer, the Cubs lose, and the misery of the franchise and the city continue in perpetuity. Without Icebox, there is no movie.
A film like A League of Their Own, catered towards both male and female audiences, is designed to address feminism and equality in sports and in life. But in Little Giants and especially in D2 and Rookie of the Year, movies that seem targeted at young boys, feminist themes infiltrate the male-dominated universe and subversively force characters and viewers to challenge their own assumptions about the role of women and girls in sports, in movies, and at the intersection of the two.
It’s no surprise that the following years produced female-driven family-friendly sports movies like Double Teamed (2002) and She’s the Man (2006), not to mention sports films centered on women of color, including Eddie (1996), Love & Basketball (2000), and Bend it Like Beckham (2002).
So, “you play ball like a GIRL!”? Yeah, if you want to win.