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Sandlot baseball is about having fun and building community — and everyone's a winner

The Dingers' Matthew Carrillo shares a high five with a teammate.
Luke Paine Photography
The Dingers' Matthew Carrillo shares a high five with a teammate.

San Antonio's new sandlot baseball league went from two guys to five teams in 12 months.

It's not that hard to organize when your players don't need skill — or any experience at all. Just pick a name, find a field and some gear, and play.

The core value of sandlot baseball is having fun, not winning. Since the first modern team was founded in 2006, at least 110 teams in the United States and Canada have joined in, with 21 new teams in 2022 alone.

In San Antonio, the league started with Aaron Coronado and Micah Sims, baseball fans who played catch after their shifts at a restaurant. With friend Luke Martinez, they founded the Texas Dingers, the city's first sandlot team, last year.

The demand was high for low-stakes baseball, and four more San Antonio teams have formed.

"There's people that have played a lot of baseball, some people that have played some baseball, and there's some people that have never touched the baseball in their entire life until they came to the sandlot league," says Sims, 28.

At first, most Dingers players were "bar and restaurant people," says Coronado, 28. "Now we have construction workers, there's musicians, there's accountants, there's insurance people."

Texas Dingers players await their turns at bat.
/ Luke Paine Photography
/
Luke Paine Photography
Texas Dingers players await their turns at bat.

The Dingers are sponsored by several local businesses. That relationship hearkens back to amateur baseball in the 19th century, when some teams played on literal sandlots.

"The sandlot leagues are allowing people to get back in touch with that very community-based link between the game and local commerce," says baseball historian Adrian Burgos, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

"You actually know the guy who's out there. That's my dentist. That's my auto mechanic. That's my cousin out there on the field," Burgos says.

That kind of community isn't always easy to come by, especially after two years of pandemic isolation.

"It's harder and harder to find a community to be a part of," says Howard Carey, who runs the Sandlot Revolution website and hosts the podcast of the same name. "Sandlot baseball really helps fill a yearning desire to bond with other people."

Carey was an early member of the Austin Playboys, the first team in the sandlot movement. The Playboys got started in founder Jack Sanders' backyard, which he'd converted into a baseball field. After their inaugural game in 2006, the Playboys would traveled across the U.S. and beyond, spreading the word and supporting new teams. Though there's no official governing body, Carey tracks the sport as it spreads.

One brand-new team is Philadelphia's Quaker City Cryptids, founded by players from the queer and transgender communities who'd played on other sandlot teams.

Steph Cherry, 29, started playing sandlot baseball last year to cope with the negative emotions they were feeling during the pandemic. They soon fell in love with the game, and later joined the Cryptids. "Everybody's super positive," they say. There's no machismo."

Sandlot teams share that welcoming atmosphere. What they don't share are their unique customs, rules and activities.

In Austin, Playboys games have featured a pregame yoga session and a painting station near the third-base dugout. At their inaugural game, on Oct. 30, the Cryptids wore their favorite Halloween costumes.

Rules are fluid. "If you hit a home run, you have to hit the rest of the game from your opposite side," says Carey of the Playboys. Players who manage to hit a home run from that side have to use a 38-ounce bat. "And if you hit one off of that, you're just a legend."

Teams also differ in how they engage with their communities, though many choose to support charities.

The Oklahoma City Woodys, named for Woody Guthrie, were founded in 2022. Siblings Sarah, 32, and Whitley Connor, 30, use their games to help people experiencing homelessness.

Chris Castro of the Oklahoma City Woodys shows off his bat, a gift from the Jesters, a Tulsa sandlot team.
/ Nathan Poppe
/
Nathan Poppe
Chris Castro of the Oklahoma City Woodys shows off his bat, a gift from the Jesters, a Tulsa sandlot team.

"Both Whitley and I have a huge passion for homelessness, especially in Oklahoma City," Sarah says. "I think part of what's really unique about our charity is that we're typically not asking people to bring money," Whitley says. "We're asking them to bring something small and very accessible to everyone so that everyone can participate."

The Texas Dingers, who just finished their first season, hosted a screening of The Sandlot in September. They collected donations for a family violence prevention center and shelter.

"I want people to be able to come to a baseball team, of all things, and say, 'Hey, I need help with this. Can you help me?' We'll be like, yeah, sure," says Coronado, a Dingers co-founder. "And if I can do that for the community that comes out and supports me just to watch baseball, I'm down with that."

This story was edited by Holly J. Morris.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ben Abrams