Followers of professional baseball know how important statistics are to the game: batting average, runs batted in, on-base percentage, earned run average, and the stats-driven management style called Moneyball.
Sandlot baseball is different. A lot different.
At the 2022 season home opener of the new Texas Dingers Baseball Club of San Antonio last Saturday, the traditional baseball ingredients were in the mix: pitches still popped off the bat, grounders kicked up the red sandy dirt of Pittman-Sullivan Park’s field, fly balls elicited oohs and ahs from the crowd, hot dogs dripped ketchup and mustard on laps among the crowd of 200 while they juggled cups of beer and feisty children bored of the game action.
But when the question arose of who drove in the first runs of the Dingers’ inaugural home opener — an important feat in most sports contexts — team members flipped through lineup notes, glanced around and shrugged. Sorry, we’re not sure, they said, maybe check with Josh?
That would be Joshua Alder, a general contractor by trade, who serves as the de facto team manager when Dingers player/manager Matt Dixon, who is the manager of the Vista Brewing taproom in San Antonio, is on the mound as the starting pitcher. Alder makes sure players are in position, focused enough to compete while also staying relaxed enough to remember why they’re out there: to have fun.
One thing he does not do is keep game stats.
“It’s not official at all. It’s sandlot,” Alder said, smiling and taking a drag from a cigarette before taking the field as catcher.
Micah Sims, a bartender at Cullum’s Attagirl who Alder introduced as a Dinger “OG,” said “it’s all for fun.”
Looking for some sun
Many sandlot players have some baseball experience in their backgrounds, whether Little League, high school or some college ball, but some have no experience. Most are in their 30s or 40s and have day jobs, but all have an abiding love for the game.
“Maybe you take it a little more seriously, that’s cool. Or maybe you’re someone that just wants to come and drink some beer and smoke some cigarettes and play and have good conversation and just be outside,” Sims said. “I think it’s cool that anybody, no matter how they feel about the sport, can just come and play.”
Across the field, the Texas Oil Dawgs, a Houston-based team, obviously came to play. The group of intimidatingly large men ran through a focused pregame ritual of fielding infield grounders.
The Dingers dressed casually, wearing felt logo caps and white jersey-style tees without numerals, while the Oil Dawgs sported numbered, all-black uniforms. Dingers third baseman Matt DeGeus, a brewer at Freetail Brewing Co., eyed a break in the overcast sky and said, “I’m hoping it gets real hot and sunny so they get a little worn out.”
In the opposite dugout, Oil Dawgs Manager Mark Champion, a freelance designer, dismissed the notion. “We’re used to the heat, don’t worry.”
A rite of passage
The clouds never broke for more than a moment, and aside from a brief four-run rally, things never went the Dingers’ way. By the bottom of the fifth inning, the Oil Dawgs had built an insurmountable 15-run lead.
Given the informal spirit of sandlot baseball, striking a balance between fun and competitiveness can be tricky.
But don’t confuse sandlot with beer league ball, Champion said. “While the spirit and the idea is to 100% have fun,” Champion said, “I would be lying to you if that was the only aspect of the game. Baseball is still a competitive sport. We’re still a competitive team.”
But beer was ever-present on the field and in the stands. Oil Dawgs players clutched cans of team sponsor Lone Star beer, and Dingers could be seen with cans of Pittman Pilz, a beer specially brewed for the team by lead sponsor Vista Brewing.
As the opponent’s lead mounted, some Dingers questioned whether the focus should be more on the competition than on the fun, but Hunter Westbrook, a police officer, made clear where he stood.
“I’m all about having beers,” he said. “My only rule is when the ball is in play, don’t have a beer in your hand. Other than that, drink up and enjoy your day. It’s a Saturday, it’s beautiful out.”
As is the case with many sandlot teams, Champion said, some Oil Dawgs have never played baseball before, and the team is open to anyone interested. While the year-old Dawgs dominated the fledgling Dingers, Champion said it was a different story when they took on the Texas Playboys, who started in 2006 on Austin’s East Side and are credited with sparking what’s come to be known as the Sandlot Revolution.
“It was a great time,” he said, but “we definitely got our butts handed to us. But it’s kind of a rite of passage. You have to pay your dues in sandlot baseball. And you’ve got to work those kinks out as a team.”
There is no way to compare any team to the Playboys, Champion said. “They’re kind of like the Yankees of the MLB. They’re the originators, they’re the first to do it.”
A community element
Playboys manager Jack Sanders, creative director at Design Build Adventure in Austin, first experienced sandlot baseball in tiny Newbern, Alabama, where a town with a population of 200 regularly turned out crowds of 400 each week for Newbern Tigers games.
As an architecture student at Auburn University in the late 1990s, he worked to help revive the team’s field. After immersing himself in the town’s culture and attending weekly games, he finally made it into a game as a sub for the other team when they needed an outfielder.
The experience stuck — not only the thrill of returning to the field after a once-promising high school career — but seeing how old-school sandlot baseball can bring a community together, even during hard times.
“It wasn’t just the baseball part of it, it was the rest of it,” he said, how the game was almost a backdrop to the festivities enjoyed by the crowds, from live music to barbecue to the whole atmosphere.
The team acted as a classic benevolent society for the town, raising money for townsfolk in need. Sanders now follows that example with the Playboys, with money raised at games going to help members of the community with health care expenses, or to relief efforts after Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston neighborhoods, among other causes.
“There’s definitely a community element to it,” Sanders said.
The Dingers and Oil Dawgs also follow that tradition. The Oil Dawgs are in process of creating a charitable foundation called Gloves for Texas, Champion said, to bring sports equipment to at-risk youth, and a portion of Dingers ticket-sale and merchandise proceeds supports the Saint City Culinary Foundation in San Antonio, a nonprofit that helps food and beverage industry workers.
Fun, with some risk
The sandlot tradition of fun was also upheld. Umpire Jason Wright broke into a dance while in position between the pitching mound and second base when the stadium DJ dropped the Mike Jones rap hit “Back Then,” while volunteer color commentator Matt Garcia, owner of Gigi’s Deli, rapped along for a verse.
The Dingers have yet to record a home run over the 315-yard fences at Pittman Sullivan field, though not for lack of trying. “Big Dinger” John Vicinaiz, manager of Southerleigh Haute South at the Rim, has come closest in practice. He was hoping to hit the team’s first home run for the home crowd, but wasn’t stressed when it didn’t happen.
“I’m here drinking beers with my boys when I’m not working in the food service industry, and I think that goes a lot further than anything else,” Vicinaiz said. “I’ve just got to get some s—-talking in and it’ll make it all worth it.”
And like any baseball team, the Dingers have experienced their share of injuries. Third baseman Rob Miller, assistant general manager of Mon Chou Chou, came back Saturday from a broken forehead he suffered fielding a high fly ball in November. Artist and self-described “official beer drinker” Cruz Ortiz hit the injury list with a strained calf muscle, which he thinks will heal in time for his new sandlot team, Tigres de San Antonio, to take the field this summer.
Final score: ?
In part because of the Oil Dawgs’ large lead over his Dingers and because the field rental time was running out, Dixon suggested they call the game after the seventh inning. Camaraderie was evident as both teams gathered near the pitcher’s mound to shake hands and razz each other. Champion gave a speech meant to encourage the Dingers on their sandlot quest.
“What y’all have behind y’all is a lot of momentum, a lot of love, a lot of support,” he said. “I love your spirit. Y’all never gave up and that’s what matters.”
The two teams posed for a postgame photo together, upholding a sandlot tradition.
After the game, the diminutive chalkboard scoreboard leaning against the chainlink backstop behind home plate also displayed the loosey-goosey sandlot ethic. Nine-year-old volunteer scorekeeper Bowen Bryant and his dad Colin had recorded a score of 22 to 4, leaving off with a question mark for the Dingers’ sixth inning box score, and leaving the seventh inning blank.
For the record, the final score of the Oil Dawgs victory was either 28-6 or 26-6, depending on the telling. And Ruben “Rooby Dooby” De La Vega, production supervisor for a local metal casting company, drove in the Dingers’ first runs. Shortstop Jeanelle Jean Ruiz, a woodworker at Leo Barrios Furniture Design, expertly worked both offense and defense, hitting a leadoff single and fielding a sharply hit grounder with a crisp throw to first for the Dinger’s first out.
The home opener was the second game in the Dingers’ seven-game season. The next games at Pittman-Sullivan Park are scheduled for May 21, June 19, July 16 and August 6, with a season-closing game in Marfa Nov. 11-13. General admission tickets are $10.
Follow the Texas Dingers on Instagram for more information on games and other community events.