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On Backyard Baseball 2001 and the zaniness of youth baseball

With spring training officially on the horizon, let’s dive into one of the classic baseball video games.

HONG KONG-CULTURE-GAMING-RETRO Photo credit should read TENGKU BAHAR/AFP via Getty Images

It was the biggest game of the season: win and advance, lose and the season’s finished. Even now, two decades later, I can still picture it as clear as if it were just yesterday, the beautifully-mowed infield grass, the bright outfield fence, Cal Ripken Jr. digging his foot in at the rubber, ready to face down Jason Giambi.

Oh, I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about a real baseball game? Unfortunately, as cool as it would have been to play ball alongside these two legends, I was actually talking about one of the greatest sports videogames of all time, Backyard Baseball 2001.

With Carlos Beltrán, the last active player from the legendary game, finding himself on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year, I found myself thinking about this game for the first time in years. Although the Backyard Sports franchise did not have a ton of staying power — the series published 12 computer games from 1997 to 2003 (alongside a number of console and handheld ports), but has had multiple failed relaunches since — it has an immense amount of cultural capital for those who grew up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. If you search “Pablo Sanchez,” for example, the first several things that pop up will be the Backyard Sports legend, known by many as one of the greatest fictional athletes of all time.

Not surprisingly, my brother and I played this game quite a bit as a kid, and although it’s been many years since the game was even loaded on a computer in my house, I still remember the team we used in season mode as if it were yesterday. Our starting pitcher, as you may have guessed from the introduction, was Cal Ripken Jr. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter were the double-play combo, Barry Bonds was somewhere in the outfield, and Randy Johnson played first base because he was the tallest guy on the team. Out of fictional players, the speedy Kenny Kawaguchi manned center field in his wheelchair, Achmed Khan was the catcher because his headphones were kind of like catcher’s gear, and Stephanie Morgan hung out at the hot corner because the game said she was a good baseball player (and who were a pair of six-year-olds to argue?).

Nothing about the way we played the game made sense. Why was Cal Ripken Jr. on the mound instead of Randy Johnson? I don’t know, he just was. For that matter, why did we take four shortstops (the three pros, plus Stephanie Morgan who is described in game as one) but no actual first baseman? Although we fortunately knew the most important part of roster construction — get the best possible players, and figure it out later — it’s clear in hindsight that we lacked anything resembling a coherent plan.

And yet, in many ways, that incoherence is what has made Backyard Baseball timeless. It perfectly captured the highs and lows of youth baseball: the entire defense being shuffled around because of a pitching change, fielders making ridiculous errors leading to not infrequent hits on what should be routine outs, and most of all, running out of pitchers capable of putting the ball in the general vicinity of the strike zone during long games. While I hesitate to call any of these experiences universal, there’s a good chance that anybody who played baseball as a kid and who was not gifted enough to play exclusively on travel teams remembers dealing with all these things on the baseball diamond.

With the start of baseball season now on the horizon — the first players, those who are participating in the World Baseball Classic, report to spring training in less than two weeks — Backyard Baseball reminds me that, at least to some extent, every player who dons a uniform this spring began their career immersed in the zaniness that is youth baseball. And at the end of the day, that understood is what turned this old computer game into a timeless classic that’s fondly remembered more than two decades later.