Legends never die: Sandlot baseball making comeback

The Sandlot Revival event in Durham drew teams from several states with one goal: to have fun

Carolina Kudzu players Joseph Giampino right, Mike Ilardi and Mike Ahren watch from the dugout during their game against the Nashville Dollys on Saturday during the Sandlot Revival at Durham Athletic Park. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

DURHAM — The first sign that last weekend’s Sandlot Revival wasn’t a traditional baseball event was the names of the teams involved.

It’s a lineup that featured the likes of the Wilmington-based Port City Pickles, the Nashville Dollys and the Austin Drag, along with the co-host Carolina Reapers and Carolina Kudzu.

Then there was the sequence of events that took place in the top of the seventh inning of a game Saturday afternoon.

After sliding safely back into second base following a rundown that involved at least five throws and literally the entire Kudzu infield, a Nashville runner called timeout to catch his breath.

The Carolina Kudzu steal second base on the Nashville Dollys during a Sandlot Revival game on Saturday at Durham Athletic Park. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

Seeing that he required refreshment, a player popped out of the opposing dugout, ran onto the field and handed the runner a beer — which he proceeded to carry with him as he continued around the bases and scored a run.

As for the score, a voice over the PA system between innings at the old Durham Athletic Park told the sizable gathering of friends, family members and fellow players in the stands that it was “about 4-3.”

The seventh game of the World Series this was not. But that’s exactly the point.

“Obviously, this is not a competitive men’s baseball league,” said Tyler Northrup, a member of the Raleigh Sandlot and Social Club, and an organizer of the weekend event. “It’s just a group of like-minded people who want to come out and play together, and it’s great.

“For a lot of these people, they’re out there rekindling the love and the joy they remember from playing baseball. For some, they’re kindling that joy for the first time. The challenge now is to keep it growing but to keep the culture right.”

The sandlot movement began in Austin, Texas, with a group of friends that gathered at a local park, chose sides and began playing pickup games as they did when they were young.

The Raleigh club came into being in 2018 when a sandlot player from Austin moved to the area and continued the tradition. It grew steadily through word of mouth.

Members of the Raleigh Sandlot and Social Club, which fields the Reapers and Kudzu, get together most weekends when weather permits, and if enough players show up, they’ll have a game. If not, they’ll take some batting and fielding practice.

Northrup said that while the group has its share of regulars, anyone that’s interested can get in on the action.

Regardless of their ability.

“Community, camaraderie and competition, those are our three components,” Northrup said. “It doesn’t matter if you played through college, if you’ve never played or anything in between. It doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl. As long as you’re not a jerk, you’re welcome to play.”

Jake McGehee is the embodiment of that attitude. A transgender man who had never played baseball before, he was having the time of his life playing on the same field that the movie “Bull Durham” was filmed, patrolling right field and taking cuts at the plate.

“I honestly think they put me out in right field because that’s where I’ll do the least damage,” said McGehee, who grew up participating in cross-country and gymnastics in Asheville while rooting for the local minor league team, the Tourists. “I started playing about halfway through last year and was very nervous about showing up. I’m definitely the weak link, but everyone’s been really nice.”

Last weekend’s Sandlot Revival was the first of its kind in North Carolina. The idea for it was born from a similar event that was held at the Field of Dreams movie site in Iowa 11 days after the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees played their nationally televised game there last summer.

Two of the teams that were in Durham, the Dollys and the Tulsa Rumblers, played in that event.

“I was like, ‘Hey, this is really cool,’” Northrup said. “So I reached out to one of the guys on the Rumblers and was like, “Do you want to make it a Kevin Costner baseball tour situation?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely.’”

There was plenty of red tape to cut through, but thanks to the efforts of Northrup, his group and the actual Durham Bulls baseball team — which owns the historic stadium — the dream was realized.

Jesse Klietz of the Nashville Dollys stands next to the dugout with his beer at the Durham Athletic Park during Saturday’s Sandlot Revival. (PJ Ward-Brown / North State Journal)

It’s doubtful the next event will be held at the site of another Costner baseball movie, Yankee Stadium. But Northrup, who plays for the Reapers, said that Cooperstown’s Doubleday Field could be a possible alternative.

Wherever it’s held, the results will be far less important than the experience of playing in them. In that respect, the local Revival was a rousing success.

Although there were no umpires, there were wood bats, beers on the field and music blaring over the PA system during the games. Routine plays were sometimes anything but routine. And in the case of the Nashville team, multiple players were wearing the No. 95 on their jerseys — an homage to their team’s namesake and her hit movie, “9 to 5.”

And while someone was keeping score of the six games that were played over the two days, at least loosely, the scoreboard wasn’t being used.

Not that anyone seemed too worried about the results, a fact emphasized by Dollys player Jesse Klietz as he stood beside the third base dugout twirling the end of his handlebar mustache while waiting for his turn to get into the game.

“It’s all in fun,” the Nashville bartender said before summing up the event with one sentence while pointing to the Dolly Parton plugs he wore in his earlobes.

“Look good, feel good,” he said, “and strike out in style.”