The Sandlot meets Field of Dreams as three young brothers chase baseball immortality in this coming-of-age story from the best-selling and award-winning author of The Day Before 9/11, The Rainy Season, and 11 Bombs.
Matty Ryan—or as he’s known on the sandlot, “Matt the Bat”—is desperate. For three long years he’s been battling his brothers and best friend for the title “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … but now time is running out for the baseball-crazed middle schooler.
The title will be won soon. He can feel it.
But for Matty and his brothers, something magical is in the air … and it’s bigger than a made-up title for a game played on a backyard sandlot. It’s an extraordinary talisman—a gift from the gods of baseball—and it has the power to make all their baseball dreams come true.
“Mustard and Relish”
Gates Brown went to jail for a short spell as a teenager. He would later quip that in high school he’d taken some English, a little math, and a few hubcaps. A black male in mid-1950s Ohio would have found it exceedingly difficult to overcome such severe missteps during adolescence. Maybe it was a loving family member or a caring teacher that helped Gates Brown get his life on track. I don’t know, but if I had to guess I’d go with … a coach.
Whoever it was, Gates Brown could have wound up in jail long term—or worse, dead—but instead he was a profoundly different person in the 1960s. He was also a professional baseball player.
Gates Brown was not a superstar, but he was beloved in Detroit—which fate or luck or the gods of baseball had declared would be his home for the entirety of his thirteen major league seasons. Tiger Stadium was only one hundred and forty miles from the pasture where Gates Brown had played high school baseball.
He was in his sixth season as a part-time outfielder for the Detroit Tigers when he made national headlines in 1968 for his exploits on the diamond … though not entirely because of his skills. The always-pudgy Brown went into the clubhouse and grabbed a couple of hot dogs during a game, but before he’d finished eating, his manager sent him into the game as a pinch-hitter. Not one to waste good food, what he did next is what people primarily remember about his career: Brown stuffed the hot dogs inside his jersey to hide them from his manager, stepped up to the plate, and ripped a liner toward the right field gap.
It should have been an easy double, but the right fielder made a great play and cut the ball off before it could split the gap and roll to the fence.
Gates Brown was never fleet-footed, but he was a ballplayer and he knew how to hustle. He legged it out and slid safely into second on a bang-bang play. It was only after a few perplexed stares from the umpire and opposing players that he realized—much to his horror—that he had mustard and relish all over his jersey. Gates Brown hustled back to the dugout after the inning was over, despite the fact he must have known what was coming.
Mayo Smith was Detroit’s manager.
The ensuing conversation between Smith and Brown wasn’t for kids or the fainthearted. Smith cut loose a torrent of profanity, levied a $100 fine on the spot, launched a second profanity-laced diatribe, and then, eventually, he asked: “Why?”
Gates Brown smiled sheepishly. “I was hungry.”
As for his team, Detroit was the best in baseball and claimed the AL pennant with 103 regular season wins. The Tigers would face the NL champion St. Louis Cardinals in the 1968 World Series.
It was an epic showdown that featured some great individual performances—most notably in game one, when Cardinals’ ace Bob Gibson notched seventeen strikeouts to set a postseason record.
And here our story gets interesting …
In that same game, Mayo Smith sent Gates Brown on as a pinch-hitter in the eighth inning. The fans in Busch Stadium barely noticed him. And why should they? Gates Brown was destined to be a number, just one more victim for Gibson.
But Gates Brown didn’t strike out.
He didn’t get a hit either. Gates Brown hit a lazy fly ball. The grainy black and white game footage shows Gates Brown hustling around first and on his way to second when the ball was caught in shallow left field. An easy, routine out.
Stay with me though. This is important. Gates Brown slowed a bit as he neared second base, and then he jogged across the infield grass and back to the Tigers dugout. Gibson’s masterpiece was complete a few minutes later and the Cardinals had won the opening game of the World Series.
In a best-of-seven series, and with the knowledge that the dominant Gibson would surely be pitching again in game four and, if necessary, a decisive game seven … it was literally do-or-die for Detroit in game two.
The Tigers won.
The series was tied a game apiece. However, Gates Brown did not play. He sat on the bench—sans hot dogs—for the entire game.
St. Louis won games three and four. Gates Brown was a spectator for both games. He never even sniffed the diamond. The Cardinals were one win away from clinching the World Series … but then the unthinkable happened.
Detroit won games five and six.
The series was tied, but no thanks to Gates Brown. He hadn’t gotten off the bench since game one. The only time he’d been on the field was during pregame warm-up. But the Tigers had rallied and forced a decisive game seven.
Against Bob Gibson.
Gibson’s record setting performance in game one had given the Cards a 4-0 victory. In game four the Cardinals had won 10-1 … and Bob Gibson had not only pitched his second complete game, but he’d also hit a two-run homer.
The odds were long against Detroit, but this was exactly what kids dream about as they race barefoot across backyard sandlots—long odds, a chance to be the hero, to win the big game and be the absolute best in baseball. Someone would have to step up for Detroit.
And why not Gates Brown?
Gates Brown must have thought he’d get a second chance. After all, he’d been called on to face Bob Gibson in game one … but fate or luck or the gods of baseball had a different plan. Gates Brown would not be the hero. He got one at bat as a pinch-hitter in game one, and then he never got off the pine for the rest of the series.
I learned about Gates Brown when I was a kid.
There were heroes on the diamond to close out the 1968 World Series. Gibson was dominant once again, but he was matched inning after inning by Mickey Lolich—and it was scoreless until the seventh. That’s when Jim Northrup stepped to the plate and won the World Series with a two-out, two-run triple … for Detroit.
Gates Brown was an improbable world champion.
But he would never be a hero.
I always wondered, how badly did it hurt after a lifetime of dreams and hard work to make it to the World Series … and then get only one at bat? It was the most painful baseball story I’d ever heard. Gates Brown would go on and play another seven years in the majors, but he never again made it to the World Series. A thirteen-year major league career … and yet Gates Brown is remembered for hot dogs, mustard and relish on his jersey.
I grew up outside and barefoot in rural Florida. My town—think Podunk—had one stoplight, forty churches, sixty lakes and two thousand blue collar workers who mostly had to drive elsewhere to look for whatever work they could get. I had a big brother named Aaron and a kid brother named Eddie. My name is Matthew Ryan (no relation to Nolan, sadly), but my friends used to call me Matty or—my favorite—Matt the Bat, if we were on the sandlot behind my parents’ house.
I should probably clear up one thing right away: we did have good shoes, it’s just we wore them to church three times a week. If we wore them while traipsing through the woods or streaking around our sandlot base paths then we would have to clean them every Wednesday and twice on Sunday.
I also said rural Florida. In reality, I meant forty-miles-to-the-nearest-fast-food-restaurant-rural Florida. Maybe that helps with the image in your mind. Add the ubiquitous four-wheel-drive trucks, gun racks, country music radio stations and Bibles, and now you’re closing in on the full picture.
It was the mid-1980s and I’d seen a few color TVs in Sears and Kmart, but cable hadn’t come to our neck of the woods and my parents weren’t willing to buy an expensive TV just to see our rabbit-ears-antenna-fuzz in color. But a friend of mine did get an Atari for his birthday. Pong and Asteroids were all the rage for about three weeks, and then life got back to normal. For my ninth birthday I got a pellet gun. It was taken away three days later when I won a bet with Aaron, who didn’t think I could hit our dad’s dog in the butt as it chased a squirrel across our backyard.
I had my own baseballs, bats, gloves and hats—we all did.
I also had one thing no one else did: an enormous cowlick. It was cute for a three-year-old. Not so much for a ten-year-old ballplayer. Aaron would take off his batting helmet and his drenched hair would be matted against his forehead. Just like a real ballplayer. My hair would be matted for about two seconds, and then an obstinate sun-bleached lock would pop up and begin doing the wave.
One night I found a grainy black-and-white picture of my dad. He had a shaved head and an army uniform. I asked my dad, “Were you a soldier?”
He nodded, and then took away the picture.
It would take a few more years for me to understand how a granite wall in Washington could bring my dad to tears, but for the moment it was enough that I asked him, “Can you shave my head?” That night I sat shirtless in the yard, and I cheered when the mighty cowlick fell to its death. It took three or four rounds of butchering with a well-oiled pair of scissors, and then came the water hose, disposable razors and shaving cream. Then it was done, and I felt like a real ballplayer. I felt like a man. It was an amazing childhood. I wish I had appreciated it more then. Maybe it always works that way.
Aaron was fourteen months older and a year ahead of me in school; Eddie was five years younger. And no, my story is not about “middle child syndrome.” But did I get upset when my teachers greeted me on the first day of school with “oh Aaron was just the best student ever”? Sure, a little. Was it annoying that Eddie got to do “big boy” things when he was just a tike? Maybe.
Okay, I was in the middle … but I wasn’t stuck.
Me, Aaron and Eddie were close. If Aaron was an ace student and teachers’ pet who also received an unbelievable amount of attention from cheerleaders, then I was cool with it. If Eddie had twice the personality and life experiences of any kid his age in the entire state of Florida, well, good for him. At least I had one thing going in my favor. Ace student? Beloved by teachers and cheerleaders? Crack sense of humor? An abundance of good luck? Ha, not even close.
Off-the-charts better … because I was Matt the Bat, and I could hit a baseball a country mile.
Atlanta had a terrible baseball team—it’s just a fact—but Dale Murphy was my hero and lazy summer nights were spent rooting for the hapless Braves as they struggled to achieve something close to mediocrity on the AM dial. My parents built the first and only house they would ever own during this same period of time. My dad had been an outstanding high school athlete. My mom had won a beauty pageant in college. They’d met, married, and set out to build their own version of the American dream.
Now my dad was a businessman and my mom was, well … Super Mom. Paul, my best friend who you’ll meet shortly, once said, “Hey, Matty, think your mom can throw us some extra batting practice?”
My dad carried a few extra pounds thanks to job-related stress and long years spent behind a desk—but that didn’t slow him from playing ball with his sons. He’d race home at lunch for a quick game of catch, and then in the evenings he’d hit us fly balls until literal bats—the nocturnal kind—came out to play in the darkness.
Soon after we moved into the new house a man came around with a huge tractor and backhoe. He hauled away a few trees. He trimmed countless limbs. He worked magic with the earth and rid the yard of wild shrubs … and lo and behold, when the work was completed our backyard had been transformed into a sandlot diamond with an in-ground swimming pool in the deepest recesses of centerfield.
We spent countless hours on our sandlot.
The best game in town was plastic baseball. It wasn’t wiffle ball in the sense you see kids playing today—it was baseball, but the bats and balls were made of hard plastic. We played games, kept stats, tracked won-loss records, home run totals, single game records … the level of detail in our record keeping was astounding. Our friends came over and we’d play, argue, fight, play, argue, fight … and play some more.
After all, we were boys.
And speaking of friends … I met Paul for the first time when he was three hours old—which made me about two-and-a-half hours old. Our moms shared the same doctor and delivery and recovery rooms in the hospital. Call it fate or luck or divine intervention from the gods of baseball, but Paul’s family lived in the same backwoods Podunk town as my mom and dad. We were practically neighbors, and soon we’d be teammates. Paul and I would play our first official game together as five-year-old tee ballers, and we would play our last game together as high school seniors. Our first game would be glorious. Our last game would destroy my life.
I learned many baseball stories from my Grandpa Joe—Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the World Series; Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man” speech; Ted Williams’ home run in the final at bat of his career—but my favorite was Josh Gibson. If you believe the legend, then Gibson, who was an iconic Negro Leagues player, had once hit a baseball completely out of Yankee Stadium.
For the record, I believed it.
It was a feat that no major league player had ever achieved. In fact, most people thought it was impossible. But it was the ultimate goal for sluggers … and I was Matt the Bat, remember? The backwoods and often backward Podunk town where we grew up was a long way from the Bronx, but why should our goals and dreams be any different? The tree line in our backyard had been trimmed to create a natural and very reachable sandlot home run fence in left and right field, but the house and covered back patio that were beyond the swimming pool in straightaway center were a bonus gift from the gods of baseball.
This was our Yankee Stadium.
We had a solemn conversation during our inaugural sandlot season. Paul said, “I don’t think it’s possible.”
Aaron, in his intellectually-superior tone, said, “The wind will be stronger in the afternoons. It could help like it does sometimes at Wrigley Field. I think we should chart home run balls and wind direction.”
For a long beat no one said anything … but then Eddie, Paul and I laughed raucously. You see our parents had banned verbal insults and hand gestures from our backyard sandlot and the consequences for even the mildest violation were swift and severe. A “stupid!” would earn a one-week suspension from all sandlot-related activity. So we adapted and used over-the-top non-verbal cues instead. The right look or an exuberant laugh could adequately convey “stupid!” or pretty much anything else we didn’t want to be caught saying.
Aaron’s face turned red. “Fine.”
I said, “First one to hit a home run over the house should get a title.”
“A title?” Aaron repeated.
“Yeah. Like Hank Aaron is the All-Time Home Run King. First one to hit a ball over the house should be called the Sandlot Home Run Champion.”
“I like it,” Paul said.
Aaron shrugged. “Fine. But we need rules.”
Paul laughed again. “You need rules. The rest of us are cool.”
Aaron ignored the comment. “It can’t bounce off the patio and over the roof. It can’t bounce off anything and over the roof. It has to clear the backside of the roof on the fly. Got it?”
Paul said, “Write it down Einstein.”
“Got it?” Aaron said again.
Eddie nodded solemnly.
“Got it,” I said, and then we spent the rest of the day trying to hit a plastic baseball completely out of our Yankee Stadium.
Anna was my age and strawberry-blond with tiny red freckles on her cheeks and nose. We had met in fourth grade when I was forced to sit beside her on a crowded school bus. After a few awkward minutes, Anna had whispered, “You smell like fish.”
I shrugged. “I went fishing.”
We had been bus seatmates—and maybe even friends—ever since. But now we were in junior high, and suddenly Anna lost her baby fat and grew three inches taller than me. It bothered me at first, because I had been waiting for the growth spurt my parents said was on its way. But then Paul and some of my friends had begun hassling Anna about her recent pimples outbreak. That bothered me too, only in a different sort of way.
It was very confusing.
On this particular Friday afternoon, Anna and I were seated in the middle of the bus and on our way home from school. Eddie and his elementary school pals sat a few rows ahead of us. Aaron and Paul sat a few rows behind us.
Anna told me, “You’re in a crabby mood.”
“I have a problem.”
“You have two brothers plus Paul. If you only have one problem, consider yourself lucky.”
I did a quick three-sixty to make sure no one else could hear me, and then I said, “Aaron hit a monster home run last week.”
Anna’s face twisted into “give-me-a-break” mode. She said, “You’re so weird, Matty.”
“I thought for sure it was going to clear the house. I got lucky because the wind had died five minutes earlier. If the wind had been blowing to center—”
“And you’re pathetic.”
“I know all about the home run competition. It’s all you’ve talked about for three years. But now you have an actual problem staring you in the face, and you’re so obsessed with baseball that you haven’t even noticed it yet. Pathetic.”
Anna rolled her eyes. “The one we talked about during lunch today.”
In reply, I gave my best “look-who’s-loony-now” expression—a carryover from my parents hard and fast rule about insults on the sandlot.
“You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”
I gathered my backpack. “Next stop is mine.”
“We only have one week left until summer, Matty.”
“Right. You mentioned that at lunch. You see? I was listening.”
Anna rolled her eyes a second time just as the bus came to a stop in front of my parents’ house. “You’re such a lost cause. Good luck with your baseball game.”
Now I smiled. “Thanks, see you Monday.”
Anna shook her head coyly and gave me a folded piece of paper.
“A note, obviously. You moron.”
No girl had ever passed me a note. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Just read it! Okay?”
A chorus of oohs and aahs made its way up and down the aisle. Anna’s face was crimson, and she turned toward the window to try and hide it. I felt more confused than ever. “See you Monday,” I said, again.
I raced up our long driveway and inside the house as Paul and Aaron assaulted me with typical junior high barbs regarding Anna, her feverish face, and the note I was guarding so closely it could have been a Honus Wagner tobacco card.
As for my quest to be “Sandlot Home Run Champion” … Anna had been right. We’d been chasing that title for three long and exceptionally frustrating years. Eddie wasn’t a serious threat because of his age and size—but I hadn’t added any inches or pounds in months, and now Aaron was in the midst of a full-on pedal-to-the-metal growth spurt. I felt panicked and stressed. It was a huge problem, and it was made worse by the fact Aaron had nearly won the title last week. I hung a breaking ball out over the plate and Aaron’s eyes had lit up big as saucers. If he’d been wearing shoes then he’d have come out of them. That’s how fast and hard he jumped on that mistake of a pitch.
I hung my head as soon as the ball left the bat.
Aaron had flipped the bat and yelled, “Go! Go! Go!”
Paul was in centerfield and he yelled, “No! No! No!”
Eddie was playing left-center, and he tore after it, as if he could leap and bring it back. Fat chance. It was long gone, an absolute bomb. And then at the last possible fraction of a second, the ball had inexplicably and gloriously dived. It was easily the farthest of the thousands of home runs we’d hit during the past three years, but it hit the awning ten feet short of sandlot immortality.
Aaron was furious.
Paul was giddy.
Eddie was encouraging. “Aaron, that was so close! You almost did it!”
I felt relieved, but it was short-lived. Aaron’s rapidly developing muscles were a majorproblem. Now it was Friday afternoon, one week until summer vacation. The title would be won soon. I could feel it. I had to do something drastic, and fast.
I thought about a fight Aaron and I had a few months earlier. He had punched me in the stomach, and then lied about it to our parents. Aaron had gotten away with it, because his punch hadn’t left any visible marks on my body and our parents didn’t know which one of us was lying … which gave me an idea.
Aaron would bat first this afternoon. I took the mound, with Paul in centerfield and Eddie in left-center. On our sandlot it was possible to field nine-man teams or play one-on-one or any other combination.
We were limited only by our imaginations.
We used a tin barrel salvaged from our great-grandmother’s farm as a makeshift catcher and ball-strike umpire. It sat on its side with an old office chair offering support. A fastball that hit inside the barrel made a distinctive ping, but whether or not it actually hit inside the barrel was irrelevant to our game—any pitch that hit the barrel was an automatic called strike.
It was mistake-free, and a perfect umpire.
Sometimes a breaking ball would land inside the barrel and the spin would cause it to circle furiously like a wheel being spun by a mouse. It was kind of cool, especially if the pitch had been taken as a called third strike.
We modified a few baseball rules for our sandlot: two outs an inning, “pitcher’s hand” and “ghost runners” to name a few. For “pitcher’s hand” to work on bang-bang plays the batter would yell “safe!” when his foot hit the bag at first, and the pitcher would yell “out!” when he caught the ball—either by fielding it, or receiving a throw from another fielder.
We even had double plays.
If a “ghost runner” was on base in a force out situation, then the pitcher could get a double play by fielding the ball and touching the pitcher’s mound before the batter reached first base.
On this Friday afternoon, my first pitch drilled Aaron on his left thigh. Aaron nearly violated our parents’ rule. “Ouch! Watch it—”
“Careful,” I chided. “Use a wordy dird and you’ll be on the patio all weekend long.”
Aaron took a calming breath. “Man on first. Don’t hit me again.”
I nodded, and then drilled Aaron in the back.
“Sorry,” I lied.
“First and second,” Aaron said, angrily.
My next three pitches were in the dirt, and now Aaron was angry and frustrated. Perfect.
“Three balls, no strikes,” Aaron said.
I nodded, and then drilled him for the third time.
“Are you kidding me?” he yelled.
I shrugged, as nonchalant as possible. “If I’m gonna walk you, I might as well hit you.”
“Got you,” I said.
Eddie yelled, “Mom! Aaron is cussing at Matty!”
Aaron shook the bat at me. “You did that on purpose.”
I smiled, smugly. “Prove it.”
Aaron had to sit on the back patio and watch us play the rest of the afternoon. He should have been suspended for a week, but apparently my smugness had tipped off our mom that something else was going on. But for the moment I didn’t have to worry about Aaron stealing my title.
I’d worry about it again tomorrow.
That night I closed my bedroom door, sat on the floor, and unfolded Anna’s note. In large block letters she’d written, “You should call me this summer. I’ll come watch you play baseball.” Beneath it she’d written her phone number.
I had never called a girl. It felt weird—maybe even good—but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
I woke early on Saturday and played fungo while Aaron and Eddie slept. A fungo is a special bat used during fielding practice—but it was also one of our favorite words, and used generically fungo could mean practice or even a solo game.
It was also a great euphemism.
“I’m going to hit some fungoes” with carefully placed emphasis was a not-so-subtle threat between brothers—and we generally got away with using it.
The game fungo was great because no one had to pitch or run bases. The batter would simply toss a ball in the air and hit it as far as possible, and then we used our game experience to judge if it was an out or a base hit. A game was ten swings, an out was minus two points, and a hit was one point per base. A perfect game was forty points—ten home runs—but a typical score was a more realistic twenty points.
I had already played six or seven games when Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Paul will be here in five minutes! Five minutes to game time!”
Aaron slammed the door shut.
The living room was on the other side of the back door. It had a large window, and I could see Eddie and Aaron racing about and getting ready to play. I have no explanation for what happened next. I panicked, obviously. But why?
It’s going to be won today.
—I had a sense, a premonition that I couldn’t ignore.
Aaron opened the back door and yelled, “Three minutes! Three minutes to game time!” Aaron slammed the door again, and I knew the next time it opened that it would be too late. I was out of time, and I had no other choice but to run full speed to centerfield and hurl a ball high into the air and over the house … and that’s exactly what I did.
I ran inside and screamed, “I did it! I did it!”
Aaron turned pale. “No, no, no!”
I raced out the front door with Aaron, Eddie and my parents close behind. I found the yellow plastic baseball and said, “You see it! You see it!”
My dad picked it up. “Congratulations, Matty! Matt the bat, Sandlot Home Run Champion!”
I began to jump up and down. “Yes, yes, yes!”
Aaron yelled, “No, it doesn’t count!”
“Yes it does! I did it!”
Aaron shook his head violently. “It wasn’t a game situation! No one was pitching! That’s a rule, someone has to be pitching!”
“You’re jealous. Stop making up rules!”
Aaron began to plead. “But dad…”
“Hold on, son. Everyone calm down. Matty did hit a home run over the roof—”
“Yes I did, I really did!”
My dad hesitated a beat. “That’s what I said, Matty.”
My mom said, “Matty?” She said it with the voice. The one every mom keeps in her arsenal. An awkward half-a-beat later my parents recognized the full truth buried beneath my vehemence.
“Busted,” Aaron said gleefully.
“Shut up, turd!”
Which only made things worse. I had to sit on the back patio and watch Aaron, Eddie and Paul play without me for a solid week—and unlike big league players, I didn’t get an appeal or an arbitration hearing. It was the longest week of my life, and all these years later I still remember the day my suspension was over. It was a magical day, and it changed everything. It was the same day Gates Brown came into our lives.
TO READ THE COMPLETE STORY ON SEPTEMBER 15,
“Mustard and Relish”