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The Transformation Of Mike Vitar From The Sandlot To Now

Fans of director David Mickey Evans' now-cult classic 1993 surprise hit, "The Sandlot," still no doubt find themselves uttering, on occasion, the famous phrase that launched a thousand clips: "You're killing me, Smalls!" But the line (delivered by the still sneakily prolific former child star, Patrick Renna) is just one element in a long list of credentials that, to this day, allow the plucky baseball movie to maintain its place in audiences' hearts alongside other nostalgic '80s and '90s coming-of-age films. (See: "Stand by Me," "Now and Then," and "The Craft.") 

Another important key to the film's success came from its charismatic young protagonist, Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, played by former teen idol Mike Vitar. "The Sandlot" garnered Vitar an enormous following in the days before up-and-coming actors could grab an assist from social media, and propelled him to YA superstardom in a relatively short span of time. Now, nearly three decades after its initial release, "The Sandlot" is winning over audiences all over again on Hulu, and a whole new generation of fans are wondering about the actor behind the kid that — for a handful of years in the early 1990s — everyone wanted to be.

The '90s poster boy

Way, way back in the pre-digital ages, teen magazines like "Tiger Beat," "Teen Beat," and "Big Bopper" (aka "BOP") were the place to go if you wanted to geek out over your favorite actor or musician. The magazines came with tear-out posters that swooning middle schoolers could use to shellac their bedroom or closet walls, and were an absolute must-book for young celebs. 

Though some of the publications date back to the 1960s, the '80s and '90s were their golden era, and helped propel the careers of a bunch of teen heartthrobs, including Jonathan Taylor Thomas, Jonathan Brandis, Eddie Furlong, Devon Sawa, Jared Leto, all three of the Lawrence Brothers and, of course, "Sandlot" star Mike Vitar. But Vitar was more than just a bright-eyed pretty face, and he quickly found his niche when he landed a memorable role in another still-beloved sports movie, the first direct sequel to Disney's beloved hockey hit.

Quack! Quack! Quack!

After the success of Disney's first 'Ducks' installment, 1992's "The Mighty Ducks," the studio opted to turn the heartwarming (and, notably, co-ed) hockey flick into a trilogy, casting rising star Vitar as the (literally) unstoppable Luis Mendoza in both follow-ups. The "Mighty Ducks" sequels saw Vitar transform from the scrawny, scrappy-but-cool kid on your little team to a full-fledged teen idol, with every bit as much star power as his "Ducks" co-star, the pre-"Dawson's Creek" Joshua Jackson. But unlike Jackson, whose steady acting career has wavered only briefly and infrequently in the past thirty years, Vitar never went on to star in another feature film. 

Vitar's career more closely aligned with that of fellow "Ducks" star Marguerite Moreau, who portrayed all-around badass Connie in the franchise, but would best be remembered for her role opposite Paul Rudd as Katie in the cult-classic "Wet Hot American Summer." (A role she successfully reprised in both 2015's "Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp," and 2017's "Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later.") But (again) unlike Moreau, who landed a consistent stream of recurring roles in various television series (including "Parenthood" and "Grey's Anatomy"), Vitar barely dipped his toe into the world of TV before retiring from acting for good in 1997.

He popped up in primetime, sort of

After "D2," Mike Vitar landed a bit part in an episode of ABC's popular police procedural, "NYPD Blue," but it seems that his return as Luis in "D3: The Mighty Ducks" would land him just one more role — that of a character named Carlo Lunes in an episode of CBS' "Chicago Hope." It may seem strange that Vitar went from potential superstardom to a blink-and-you'll-miss-it career in television, but it turns out his decision to leave the acting world behind was exactly that: a decision. Rather than there being some sort of tragic downward spiral or lack of talent behind his departure from the teen mags and sports movies, Vitar simply went into another profession entirely. 

In a 2014 interview, his "Ducks" co-star Jeffrey Nordling (who played coach Ted Orion in "D3") told Time Magazine, "He's a fire fighter now in LA. Great, great guy." Nordling went on to explain that he'd kept in touch with Vitar after filming, because both actors "really loved baseball," and subsequently played in a league together for "four or five years."

So, it turns out Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez grew up to be a baseball-loving L.A. firefighter. Unfortunately, voluntarily removing oneself from the spotlight is never necessarily a guarantee that it won't find you again.

The comeback kid

In 2015, Vitar found himself facing assault charges after he and two other men tackled and placed a choke hold on a man who was handing out candy to children on Halloween. (Neither Vitar nor the other firefighter in his company, Eric Carpenter, were on duty at the time.) The third defendant's attorney, Arthur Avazian, said the trio thought the man "posed a danger to children in the area by trying to pass out candy against the consent of the adults" (via NBC News). Though Vitar ultimately pled out to avoid jail time, the charge and its ramifications have followed the former teen heartthrob, putting a dent in his plan to transition out of the public eye. 

Most recently, (if 2018 still counts as recent) the hunky teen hockey player turned father of three reunited with other members of "The Sandlot" cast for David Terry Fine's documentary, "Legends Never Die: The Sandlot Story," available to stream on YouTube TV. Baseball aside, there is something a little legendary about Mike Vitar's story and transition. After all, the actor was discovered rather randomly at the age of 12, while waiting in line at a carnival (via IMDb), then enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame before leaving the industry behind to become a firefighter and family man. Now, thirty years after landing the role of his career, his character Benny Rodriguez (if not necessarily Vitar himself just yet) is enjoying a kind of renaissance. (This time with the help of streaming services, not Tiger Beat.)