Fantasy films about kids who teach big-league players the true meaning of baseball have been a cinema staple since the '50s, when Hollywood churned out B-movie family fare like "The Kid From Left Field" and "Angels in the Outfield."
"Little Big League" continues that tradition, with the story of 11-year-old baseball fanatic Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards), who suddenly inherits the Minnesota Twins when the owner, his grandfather (Jason Robards), passes away.
Much of the movie covers expected territory, as Billy has to earn the respect of the adults on his team, and later, finds he has been neglecting his friends as a pseudo-member of the adult world. But there are also some good laughs and enough heart to earn audience affection . . . at least for the first half.
Billy is a well-adjusted kid as "Little Big League" begins, being raised by his widowed mother (Ashley Crow), with her father-in-law (Robards) filling in as a father figure. Billy is crazy about baseball, of course, and his grandfather takes him to Twins games regularly and grills him on baseball trivia, which has his mother's blessing, as long as the games don't interfere with his grade-school studies.
Billy's two friends, with whom he goes fishing (but never catches any fish), are Chuck (Billy L. Sullivan) and Joey (Miles Feulner), who enjoy the fact that Mr. Heywood isn't stuck up, even if he is, in their words, richer than Mr. Howell on "Gilligan's Island."
But it isn't long before Mr. Heywood passes away, leaving the ball club to Billy, who is, of course, overwhelmed. Initially, Billy just tries to be friendly and allows things to be run by others, but it isn't long before he sees that the team's hot-headed manager isn't getting the job done and he tries to put forward some strategies of his own.
Eventually, Billy decides to manage the team himself, with help from his pitching coach (John Ashton), which doesn't sit too well with the players. They're afraid the team will, at best, be the laughing stock of the major leagues, and at worst, become a carnival sideshow.
Meanwhile, Billy at first encourages, then becomes jealous of one of his pitchers (Timothy Busfield), who is romancing his mother and takes it out on him on the field.
As you might expect, Billy does work some wonders, and the team starts winning for a change. But it takes its toll on the boy, as he finds himself ill-equipped to handle the emotions and expectations of the adult world. Though there is little doubt that he along with the more churlish team members will learn his lesson.
The first third or so of "Little Big League" is warm and winning and has some big laughs. But as it progresses, the drama becomes more sentimental and stagnant, and the film begins to drag.
There is a big finish, of course, though by the time it arrives, the movie has run out of steam. Still, as family pictures go, you could do worse.
One big casting regret is that Robards, who lends some heft to the film's early moments, is dispatched so quickly. He is sorely missed. But Edwards ("The Wizard," "Newsies") is quite good, seeming more like a real kid than a Hollywood actor, and there is good support from Ashton ("Beverly Hills Cop"), Busfield (TV's "thirtysomething") and Crow ("The Good Son"). A number of familiar faces also pop up in smaller roles, including Dennis Farina as a short-tempered manager and Jonathan Silverman as a player.
"Little Big League" is rated PG for some profanity and some vulgarity, including Billy watching a porno movie in his hotel room (scantily clad women are glimpsed on a TV screen).