Wednesday, April 29, 2020

building a ‘Backyard Baseball’ rOster for 2020

Backyard Baseball

Twenty years ago this spring, the best baseball video game ever made reached shelves. Some baseball gamers might remember MVP Baseball 2005 fondly, or RBI Baseball from further back; others might be convinced that modernity and sophistication make MLB The Show the latest and greatest option. But for a certain generation of fan, no other game can match the Backyard Baseball franchise for sheer entertainment value.

And after the wildly popular original, released in 1997, came a beloved sequel with one crucial advantage over its predecessor: Thanks to a licensing agreement with the MLB Players Association, Backyard Baseball 2001—which was released, in typical sports game fashion, one year before the date in its title—could insert “kid” versions of professional stars alongside the game’s fictional characters.

Thus, Backyard enthusiasts could draft a team that included kid Derek Jeter, kid Randy Johnson, and kid Ken Griffey Jr., replete with realistic attributes and aesthetics: Jeter with his charismatic grin, Johnson with his lanky legs, Griffey with his cap draped backward. For a young baseball fan in 2000 such as myself, it was impossible to have more fun than spending an hour in front of the computer screen, clicking away to swing and throw and run.

The Backyard franchise no longer produces new games, but as the 2020 MLB season and the celebrated game’s 20th birthday approach, let’s imagine it did. For Backyard 2001, the game featured one professional player from every MLB team, plus a second player from one select club. (That’s because Griffey, the designers’ favorite player, was traded from Seattle to Cincinnati midway through the game’s creation, so they left him and Red Barry Larkin in the game but then needed to add another player to backfill the Mariners’ spot.) Which 31 players would warrant inclusion in an updated version?

The Backyard creators chose their players with purpose, and I’ll do the same today. When I documented the making of the game a few years ago, the designers shared a few principles they used to select the professional players for their game, beyond merely choosing the best players on each team from the previous (1999) season.

I’ll call the first principle the Size Rule. The game’s creators sought diversity in their player pool, so the fictional kids invented for the initial Backyard game were an even mix of male and female, white and nonwhite. They wanted a mix of body types, too; Mark Peyser, the game’s lead designer, remembered thinking at the time, “I want tall kids, I want short kids, I want fat, I want thin, I want all these different physicalities.” These lessons will inform some decisions for modern selections.

The second main principle is the Shawn Green Rule. Green was the Dodgers’ representative in Backyard 2001, but he’s one of the less memorable characters. That’s because the illustrators tried to emphasize recognizable physical traits for each player (see: Randy Johnson’s height). Artist Tom Verre told me it was “all about taking something that was identifiable about the major league players and just bringing it into that Backyard Baseball style.” If a professional player lacked easily identifiable traits, though, the artist’s job grew much harder. “I think Shawn Green was the one I had trouble with because he’s just sort of this guy,” Verre said.

How ‘Backyard Baseball’ Became a Cult Classic
When picking the 2020 crop of players, I’ll keep those guidelines in mind, as well as hew to Backyard 2001’s positional distribution, which means two pitchers, three catchers, and the rest a mix of infielders, outfielders, and a few designated hitters. Above all, I’m looking for the best players for a hypothetical version of this game—a diverse group that would excite children and adults nostalgic for the Backyard spirit, because Backyard 2001 included young players and veterans, sluggers and speedsters, established award candidates and rising stars.

Maybe the Dodgers deserved to be the one team with two Backyard players, to slip Bellinger into the game, or maybe Judge and Cole should have both been nominated from the Yankees. But far and away the best choice is the Angels, with Ohtani, the best two-way player in the world, and Trout, the best player in the world, period. Trout would deserve a 10 rating in multiple categories—only Pablo earned that honor in Backyard 2001—and he might not even be the most valuable Angel in Backyard play. In a typical game, building a roster requires either placing a nonpitcher on the mound (in Backyard 2001, Kenny Lofton and Frank Thomas were solid choices) or ruining rallies with Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling at the plate. Ohtani would obviate the need for such a sacrifice. He’d break the parameters of the game—like he’s already done in real baseball, and fantasy baseball, and advanced statistical models.

So that’s the dream Backyard lineup for a new game 20 years after the legend. It’s a shame it will have to remain a dream, because as the sport’s decision-makers fret about a lack of youth interest in the sport, an interactive game that places Lindor and Trout and Harper on a familiar neighborhood diamond could help boost interest in the brightest stars.

As John Olshan, who oversaw the MLBPA’s licensing agreements at the time the original game was made, told me in 2017, “What our research showed was that fans want to engage with the players. If you promote the players as well as the league, that increases fan connection.”

Olshan continued, about the original: “Kids loved it. Players’ kids loved it. I talk to people who are like, ‘Oh yeah, that was my introduction to baseball.’”

Alas, nobody will actually receive an introduction to the game’s new stars in this fashion; young Alonso can’t whack dingers into the Steele Stadium pool, and young Betts can’t chase down flies in the Sandy Flats dunes. Their animation and playing style would be outrageous fun. I’d still pick Pablo Sanchez first, though.