You don’t often get to hear an umpire call out “strike two-and-a-half” in a game, much less twice after back-to-back pitches to the same batter. But sandlot baseball in Hollister doesn’t play by the rules of standard baseball. Exceptions can be made up on the spot if it gives a player a second (or third or fourth) chance to shine.
“My wife Lalena saw an article about a baseball program in Oklahoma,” said Coach Martin Carter. “The kids would come out and play the game like it used to be played, with them meeting for the first time over a baseball bat and just coming out to have some fun.”
This is the first year for this program and the first game was played on July 17 at Rancho San Justo Middle School in Hollister. A half dozen volunteer coaches, all with Little League experience, help Martin with running drills, pitching and umpiring the games.
Similar to Junior Giants, the games are essentially non-competitive. The teams are made up from whoever comes to play. One of the coaches acts as a pitcher and batters are given a reasonable number of tries at hitting the ball. Outs are counted for scoring purposes but an inning does not end until the entire batting order has a chance at the plate.
“There are really only a couple of key rules,” Martin said. “The parents can come out as long as they keep quiet, other than to cheer players on. And we want it to be all about playing the game, not the competition.”
Though fliers posted online suggest players be seven to 11 years old, anyone close to that age is welcome. There were 14 players at the game on July 31, with the youngest being five and the oldest 12—and twice the younger one’s size.
With an age spread like that, how do you put together evenly matched teams?
The answer is, as with the old-fashioned neighborhood games, you don’t even try. The kids seem to support each other and regulate the games themselves.
At one point I watched the five-year-old running as fast as she could toward second base while the 12-year-old was waiting for her, with the ball in her mitt.
In a real game, she just would have had to move her foot an inch or two to connect with the bag, resulting in the younger girl being called out. Instead, she held the ball above her head and stepped away, allowing the smaller runner to safely reach second base.
Similar (intentionally) fluffed plays resulted in the girl making it all the way home, smiling all the way. It was an achievement made possible only by the generosity of the opposing team.
“You can see this is pretty casual,” said Bob Mann, who has been coaching youth baseball for 23 years. “We teach them how to throw. Teach them how to catch. Teach them how to hit. At this level of the game, it is just a way to build confidence. We just want to give them the fundamentals so if they want to take off with baseball, they can.”
Heather Perez has watched her nine-year-old son Carlos play in the more organized leagues and sees a clear difference in style.
“You can come out here and just enjoy the games,” she said. “There is less tension for the kids and for the parents. It is more casual and I like that it is more practice than there is competition. If some kid wants to just come out to hit balls, they can do that without the pressure.”
Nine-year-old Grady Caldwell agreed. He has played in a few organized sports and, in some ways, has come to prefer the easy-going pace of sandlot baseball.
“I like learning how to catch and I like the running,” he said. “It helps me to relax. In other sports I have done, they really didn’t teach us anything. We didn’t learn skills; we just played the games. The coaches here seem like they played when they were younger so I feel like they understand us better. It makes it a lot more fun to come here.”
Sandlot baseball is being held Saturdays through Sept. 4 at Rancho San Justo Middle School and Tuesdays at Cerra Vista School Park with games running from 5:30 p.m.-7 p.m. There is no cost to participate and all equipment is provided. The games are not affiliated with any sports organization and are played at your own risk.
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