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If They Don’t Win, There’s No Shame: The Rise of Sandlot Baseball in Dallas

Pregaming is as important as the action. No one knows the standings. Expect a DJ in the stands. If that sounds like the kind of baseball for you, that's because Sandlot is for everyone.
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Alex Mireles rounds the bases at Lake Cliff Park during a Sandlot baseball match. Bret Redman
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If They Don’t Win, There’s No Shame: The Rise of Sandlot Baseball in Dallas

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The brown and dusty ballfield at Lake Cliff Park has clearly seen better days. The bleachers are slumping, the grass is overgrown, the dugouts are covered with plastic tarps, and the players have to adjust the bases between innings. There isn’t even a scoreboard. Which, for the purposes of the Honey Busters and the Fort Worth Ferals on this Saturday afternoon, is not an important feature. None of those shortcomings matter much. They only really need the field.  

Two players from each team stand at home base with the umpire before the first pitch. They aren’t discussing the rules.

“Quick,” a voice yelled from the dugout, “someone grab the beers!” One of the Honey Busters rummages through a bookbag that leans on the metal fence, fished out two beers and took off in a run toward the plate.

This is sandlot baseball. Whoever finishes those beers first gets to take the bottom of the order.

 And then: “Play ball!” the umpire shouted.

Sandlot isn’t necessarily about the game. It’s about the community created through the game. The wins and losses don’t define its quality. They aren’t even tracked. Bad at-bats aren’t cursed. Errors are overlooked. There are no batting averages, ERAs, or on-base percentages. Instead, there is music and laughter and light ribbing, punctuated by the occasional crack of a baseball ricocheting off a wooden bat.

Sandlot is a culture that’s spread across North Texas, Austin, Nashville, New Orleans, and Alabama, among other states. And this version of Sandlot baseball starts with an architect, not a star baseball player.

Jack Sanders, 46, who now lives in Austin, is the founder, manager, and captain of the Texas Playboys, the first Sandlot baseball team in Texas. He conjured up the idea of Sandlot when reminiscing with friends about his time studying to be an architect at Auburn University.

He was a student in what was known as the Rural Studio, a program co-founded by architects Samuel Mockbee and D.K. Ruth. It took architecture students away from Auburn and placed them in the rural communities of Newbern in Hale County, Alabama. They spoke with the locals, who helped them determine what to build for people often deemed invisible to society.

Newbern was a town of maybe 200 people in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Sanders was working there. (Today it’s 133.) He stumbled on the Newbern Tigers, a local baseball team that played games to help raise money for the dignified burials of people within the community. On baseball Sundays, the town’s size doubled. Everyone coalesced on the Newbern Baseball Club’s field to watch amateurs play, eat, and experience community.

Sanders took one look at what was happening in Newbern and knew what his Rural Studio project would be: rebuilding a backstop for the Newbern Baseball Club. At the time, the existing backstop was a teetering structure of old falling-over cedar posts and two-by-four planks held together with nails, chicken wire, chain links, welded wire, and mesh.

It was a patchwork quilt of Band-Aid repairs by generations of Newbern baseball players. Sanders wanted to build something that would last.

So he joined the team. He got to know its players and the folks who would show up to watch. What began as an attempt to share architecture with a small, predominantly Black town quickly turned into him learning lessons about life and a way of living that was drastically different from what he knew at the time.

“Baseball was the backdrop for this big block party and big community gathering on Sundays,” Sanders says today. “Learning about that was a really big moment in my development and trajectory. It was learning that something as simple and as fun as baseball could have such a big impact on a community.”

When Sanders moved to Austin for graduate school, he told his friends about what he learned in Newbern. He told them about the baseball played in a tiny town in rural Alabama. He spoke of the fun he had rounding the bases, swinging the bat, building a backstop in the image of Fenway Park’s. But more than anything else, he told them about the people and their culture.

In 2006, Sanders decided he was going to form his own team with 25 of his friends. They called themselves the Texas Playboys, throwing it back to Bob Wills. Their plan was to get back to Alabama to eat catfish, drink beer, swim in the river, and play his old team, the Tigers.

Sanders and the rest of his Playboys went to Newbern twice, but by the second year, the trip wasn’t the same. The field wasn’t mowed, and the storied Newbern Tigers needed to borrow a player from the Playboys to get nine. It marked what was essentially the end of Newbern baseball.  

“It was sort of sad,” he said. Though Newbern faded, the idea of what that town meant stayed with Sanders. He thought Sandlot baseball could develop into a meaningful contribution to communities and bridge divides.

“So we traveled to places like New Orleans and Oxford, Mississippi, instead,” he says. “And in our wake, behind us, we were leaving a couple of Sandlot teams here and there. We were basically sprinkling the seeds of a Sandlot team in our barnstorming destinations.”

Teams sprang up across Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. There was the Los Diablitos de El Paso, a team that included former congressman and gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke. But it wasn’t until late 2021 that Dallas finally put together its own rag-tag group of Sandlot baseball players.

First came the Dallas Sheeple.

Founded by Cooper Weinstein and two friends, the Sheeple was the first organized attempt to bring true Sandlot spirit to North Texas.

The group tried to start a team two years ago, but the pandemic pushed the effort into extra innings. Out of the pandemic, Weinstein and his group of co-founders ventured to the Sandlot Mecca—the Long Time in East Austin—for inspiration. The Long Time is the Sandlot field Sanders built in his image to house his Texas Playboys team, the baseball version of the stage at the Longhorn Ballroom being built for Bob Wills in the 1950s. Opposing Sandlot teams travel far and wide, across Texas and state lines, to play there. The Sheeple’s founders did the same.

Weinstein was having trouble fielding a team and sought advice from the Playboys, who told him, simply, to stop trying so hard.  

A less is more mentality helped the Sheeple bring in enough members to field the first official Dallas-area Sandlot team. Some light community outreach and social media posts helped the Sheeple build an identity that resonated with people looking for low-stakes fun. It was, in the Sheeple’s parlance, a brand predicated on “hittin’ beers and drinkin’ dingers.” Tryouts consisted of “going to a bar, and if you weren’t a serial killer, you were in,” Weinstein said.

“We look for good people, not necessarily good players,” Weinstein said. “We thought about the other leagues in Dallas, how competitive they are, and we didn’t want that. We wanted to come out and play for the love of the game, and not have people breaking bats in the parking lot. We really just wanted to hang out, have fun, and play a sport that we all love.”

Few on the Sheeple played high-stakes competitive baseball before. Even fewer are talented athletes. As a result, there isn’t much ego—and plenty of athletic empathy—in how the Sheeple treat one another and the other Dallas-area teams they play on afternoons in city parks.

One of those other teams is the Honey Busters, a club Weinstein helped shepherd through the formation process. Weinstein is a regular whenever the Sheeple aren’t in a Saturday matinee. (If you’re curious, Adam Bertholdi, one of the founding members, would like you to know that “a Honey Buster is a rag-tag, rough-around-the-edges version of a honey bee.”)

“It’s serendipitous,” Weinstein said. “The whole point is having fun. We don’t want a league mentality. We don’t want to keep scores, and we don’t want to keep records. That is what it’s really about.”

Dallas Dunaway, 37, sat under a tree before the pre-game festivities, hiding from the September Texas sun that he’d spent the previous few minutes warming up in. He’s one of the founders of the Honey Busters, which started tossing pitches forward and beers back in April. He knows that corralling a team of 30-somethings to play baseball on a weekend isn’t easy. People have families and jobs and stressors. But they’re all here, most of them anyway, because of what Sandlot represents to them.

“I’ve seen a bunch of dudes get a chance to get together and do something that’s not hanging out in a bar,” Dunaway says. “We’re getting out, doing something physical, and having fun. We are challenging ourselves but kinda laugh through it because we’re all a bunch of older out-of-shape dudes.”

The Honey Busters was an idea born from wanting to be selfless for each other and their communities. And other communities. The summer was spent barnstorming to out-of-town games, including a trip to Tulsa, Oklahoma where they played on a former Negro League field.

“What chance do you get, when you’re in your late 30s, to drive around the state and region and go play a game with your friends?” Dunaway says. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Starting the Honey Busters followed the same path the Sheeple took—limited planning. Instead, the team opted to just start playing and see who followed.

“Guys came out on a Saturday and didn’t know each other, but now they are on a team together,” Dunaway says. “It’s kind of the whole idea behind this: get people together, found teams, and have fun.”

Sometimes Dunaway thinks about the Honey Busters in relation to Sanders’ vision when he started the Texas Playboys almost two decades ago. It conjures a real sense of belonging among both those who play and those who watch. The tenets of Sanders’ Sandlot Manifesto—a book he wrote for those who aim to start their own Sandlot teams in their communities— speak to the Honey Busters in a way that exemplifies, at least to them, what it means to play this style of baseball. No doubleheaders, win the pregame, swing and miss, no practice, less is more, keep it casual, design-build-adventure, stepping up to the plate, and good game.

Each tenet embodies the notion of never taking the game, or yourself, too seriously.

“It’s simple,” Dunaway says. “We are definitely out here to play baseball, but that is the least important thing we are doing out here.”

No one really knows the Honey Busters’ overall win-loss record this year. Maybe it’s better that they don’t. In a world that has grown increasingly isolated, Sandlot is a movement to break the barriers that keep people apart. So, it’s fitting that this version of the game can trace its origin back to a small predominantly Black community in Newbern, Alabama, where Sanders was the one in need of acceptance from people different from him. They found common ground in a backstop and baseball.  

With multiple teams in Dallas, as well as over a dozen clubs in Austin and Oklahoma and Tennessee, Sandlot is a quiet culture that is attempting to build bridges through a children’s game.

“The secret is in here—your guide to stripping down the overthought overwrought mess of our calcified corporatized pastimes and making them fun again,” O’Rouke wrote in the afterward of Sanders’ Sandlot Manifesto. “Fun because we’re playing like kids, fun because we get down to the basic goodness of what we’re doing, fun because we’re doing together what none of us could on our own. It’s baseball—and life—for the people, by the people.”

On that Saturday in Lake Cliff Park, after the Honey Busters drained their beers first, the players took the field while a DJ played from the stands. A couple dozen spectators sat behind the backstop. The Honey Busters, dressed in all-black uniforms with gold lettering across the front and their names stitched onto the back, pitched. The Ferals, in their white t-shirts with black half-sleeves and grayish-whitish pants, hit.

From there came an assortment of whiffs and dings, catches and errors, beers and a few cigarettes. Not that anyone’s keeping track.

“Not sure what the score is,” the makeshift PA announcers said between the third and fourth innings, “but I’m sure it’s great.”

Welcome to a new iteration of Sandlot baseball in Dallas.

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Ian Kayanja

Ian Kayanja

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