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Hefferon: Returning to “Backyard Baseball” (Oct. 9)

Jack Hefferon | Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Growing up, most adults around me liked to wax poetic on their glory days of childhood sports. In the romantic ideal of “The Sandlot,” they’d leave the house all day, go play with the neighborhood kids and return home only for dusk or the dinner bell.

These memories were usually presented in contrast to our lost generation, which would rather sit around with the book of face or our Tweeter machines then go experience the indescribable magic of a game of stickball in the backyard.

Well, now that we find ourselves being slowly pushed out into the real world, I think it’s only fair that our generation gets to look back on our childhood of sports in the backyard. And while our childhoods were filled with AYSO Soccer, CYO Basketball and those dang participation trophies old-folks love to hate, my reflection on childhood sports always leads back to one place: the Backyard.

I’m not referring to any of the games we played out behind our house, though there were plenty of those. No, the true crux of my childhood sports experience came when I’d walk back to our family’s Compaq (and later, a fancy Gateway 2000), open up the disc drive, and fire up “Backyard Baseball.”

The “Backyard” series of computer games premiered with “Backyard Baseball” in 1997, and featured 55 imaginary neighborhood kids that you could draft, manage, then go out and play with. The game’s success spawned Backyard versions of football, soccer, basketball and, regrettably, hockey and skateboarding.

I first got “Backyard Baseball” for Christmas at seven years old, and it was my first real video game experience. Over the years, the games taught me to draft and manage a team, and held my interest for hours.

But looking back, the “Backyard” world was pretty messed up.

The kids weren’t just stereotypical, they were stereotypes of stereotypes. Tony DelVecchio wasn’t just a loud-mouthed, boasting Italian – he had greased-back hair and a lollipop out the corner of his mouth to complete the look. Marky DuBois was the backwoods kid with a twang, tearing overalls, buck teeth and a pet frog. And then there was young Pablo Sanchez, the Hispanic kid who spoke broken English and wore a two-sizes too small shirt, but could hit a ball 500 feet and was far and away the game’s best player.

The players were like that grandmother from “Wedding Crashers”: incredibly racist, but almost cute enough to get away with it. The developers of the game tried their best to be inclusive, but even that was comically off (Kenny Kawaguchi played in his wheelchair, but could still dunk on a 10-foot hoop). The nerdy kids wore huge glasses and were no good at sports, the athletic kids lorded over them. But the craziness that flew over my second-grade head didn’t end there.

The 10-year old pitchers would have wrecked their arms by throwing curveballs at such a young age – to say nothing about the 150 mile-per-hour Fireball. And pitchers stayed in the game until they ran out of “juice,” a word that would come to take on a whole other connotation in baseball over the next five years. That only got worse when the “Backyard” series started including kid versions of real-life pros in the game, and had an incredible record of picking players that were connected to steroids (Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco and A-Rod, to name an unfortunate few).

The kids heckled each other routinely, and playing “Backyard Baseball” at such a tender age was the first time I ever heard someone call a pitcher the unspeakable “B-ITCH- ” word … belly itcher.

The game featured no adults and the only authority figure was the league commissioner, which for some reason was a mute, one-wheeled cyborg named Mr. Clanky.
You have to question why someone made these random, wacked-out games, this world of racist caricatures ruled by a robot overlord, run into the ground by playing pick-up games all day.  It doesn’t make sense. Why did I even find it enjoyable?

The point is, it doesn’t matter. Stickball sounds like a pretty stupid game too, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of baby-boomers from telling us that it made them the generation they are.
So I may have spent years of my childhood on the “Backyard” series, but now that I’m an adult it’s my god-given right to stubbornly defend the time I spent on it to the grave.

Now, does anyone know where I can find a new Gateway 2000?

Contact Jack Hefferon at whefferon@nd.edu
    The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.