Interview: Kelly G. Park, Author of Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot.
Mr. Kelly G. Park is a retired sandlot athlete, never having the skills to “take it to the next level” but enjoying every moment of those pick-up games. As a retired sandlot player, Kelly’s thoughts were not about being on the field with the Pros but of his memories of playing youth baseball. It was that thought that ultimately lead him to begin interviewing former professional baseball players and gathering the stories that make up Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot. Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot is Kelly’s debut book.
Tell Readers a little about your new book Just Life Me
KP: Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot tells the stories of former professional baseball player’s memories of playing youth baseball. From the time I was a young boy, I have enjoyed reading biographies of athletes, specifically baseball players. My focus became early 20th-century baseball players such as Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehring, and many more. I then read the book, The Glory of Their Times, a book published in 1966. The author interviewed 26 players from the same era as the biographies I had read, and what I found interesting was a re-telling of stories I had previously read but from a different perspective. I enjoyed this book, so I searched for a similar book to read, and in my search, I came across a book review that said this book is so well written that the reader would believe they were on the field with the players. My first thought was, “I don’t think so, I never had the talent to be on the field as a professional baseball player,” and my second thought was, “But I have a lot of great memories playing youth baseball, I wonder what the pros memories are?” I searched for a book about pro player’s memories of playing youth baseball and could not find one, so I decided to interview the players myself. The stories found in Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot are in their own words as transcribed from our interviews.
I have interviewed 36 former professional players, 28 from Major League Baseball, four from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, and four players from the Negro Leagues. Player’s told me stories about the impact their family and coaches had on both their youth and pro careers. Some players told me the backstory of how they got their famous nicknames; players talked about their favorite players, some recounted specific game memories, and others told of some unbelievable scouting and recruiting stories. Players told me when they knew they had the ability to play professional baseball and how made-up games helped to improve their baseball skills.
What I found is that not all stories about youth baseball are fun and happy, some players didn’t have equipment or leagues to play in, but then again, there IS a lot of funny and happy stories in youth baseball … like how one player really got his famous nickname or why a player wasn’t bothered when he peed in his baseball pants. There is even a boys’ team that would rather be a winning team with a girl than be a losing team without one. All the stories are relatable, whether you are a boy, a girl, the first chosen, the last chosen, the kid that can blow the biggest bubble gum bubble, or whatever the color of your skin is. Luis Tiant said it perfectly, “How long you gonna be a kid? Not too long, you’re going to be old for a long time. Why would you want to take that away from the kid? Let the kid be a kid. Let him enjoy”.
Just Like Me is your debut, what was that process like?
KP: It has been an adventure. I’ve driven through the night after getting a last-minute player availability notice for an interview. I’ve flown to Miami for interviews during the All-Star Fanfest, only to be followed by MLB security. Not that I blame them, I had had very little sleep and definitely did not present myself as anything other than “someone to keep a close eye on.” I’ve had “right place, right time,” play a significant role throughout, and I have learned so much about two industries (baseball and book publishing) that I would have never known, if not for this project.
The approach I took with this project is the same approach I take with any project I have in my professional career. I researched the project, developed a plan and adjusted the plan as needed throughout the entire process. I then began the process of contacting players, which was a learning experience itself. I did not want to come across as merely a fan wanting to meet my favorite players; I wanted the players to understand that my intentions were true to the project, so I presented the purpose and stuck to my plan. What I found was the players seemed to enjoy talking about their childhood. Many a player would begin our interview session with the statement, “Kelly, that was a long time ago; I’m not sure I’ll be able to remember very many stories,” and as we would finish our interview, a player would remember another story, and I would have to scramble to get my recorder turned back on and not miss out on another priceless memory.
My one regret in “sticking to the plan,” is I only have a few pictures of me with the players, and the pictures I have were a result of someone else saying, “Hey, do you want to get a picture?”
You are a retired sandlot athlete, tell us a little bit about that, how you got the idea and how your experience helped shape your book?
KP: I am a retired sandlot athlete because 1. I never had the ability to be anything other than a sandlot and pickup game athlete and, 2. I do not heal from injuries like I used to. But one thing is for sure, I have some great memories playing pickup games of whiffle ball in my front yard, basketball in my friend’s backyard, football at the city park, and anything else my friends and I could find to do. As I sit here writing this, a whirlwind of memories come flying back to me. From mimicking the entire St. Louis Cardinals lineup during an intense whiffle ball game to trying to knock over a fire hydrant with my face during a much to intense pickup game of football to riding my bike to the city park and just “hanging out” all-day. It’s those memories that shaped this book.
You interviewed players such as Niekro, Campaneris, Sutton, Zapp, Herzog, Bergmann. Tell Us a bit about that process.
KP: The process of securing interviews with players is as varied as the number of players I interviewed and could be a short story itself. When I started this project, I knew no one in baseball that I could call and ask for help in interviewing players, but one of those “right place, right time” situations occurred to allow me to get my first interview. I was at a client’s facility soon after I decided to take on this project, a client I had known for ten years when the owner asked me if I knew who Jim Hickman was? I said I did, and he pointed to his maintenance supervisor and told me that was Mr. Hickman’s son. That is how I got my first interview. The process of interviewing Boog Powell began with my sons attending a national convention in Baltimore, and my interview with Lou Piniella happened during another “right place, right time” situation. I actually secured several interviews by using something called The White Pages. For some players, I was able to contact their agent or management agency and others by player referral.
Your book is full of history, interviewing those from Major Leagues, Negro Leagues, and All Americans. Tell me a little about that history and some of the things you learned along the way.
KP: Many of the players I spoke with grew up in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s and from all regions of the country. The southeast, northeast, midwest, and the western USA are represented, along with players from Canada and Cuba. Historically, it was interesting to hear players talk about how their childhoods were very similar, meeting up with friends and playing ball at the local park or in someone’s backyard. For the MLB players, what I found most interesting is how teams scouted and signed players before the current system of selecting players through a draft. What was especially interesting was the player’s perspective of the Bonus Baby era during the 1950s when teams were required to place a newly signed amateur player on the Major League roster immediately if they signed the player for $4,000 or more. Hawk Taylor’s experiences of being one of the bonus babies that signed for over $100,000 is a lesson to be learned.
From the All Americans, it was interesting listening to the players talk about the many rule and equipment changes the League put in during the 12 years of its existence. Many of the rule and equipment changes were made to increase attendance, and on several occasions, the players found out about the change when they got to the ball field. What many people do not realize, the AAGPBL started out pitching underhand, just like fast-pitch softball and used a 12-inch ball, but after a couple of years, they began to throw overhand, the ball became smaller, the bases were spaced further apart, the pitching distance was lengthened, and the pitchers began to throw overhand, just like men’s baseball.
From the Negro League players, it was a lesson learned about segregation and the lack of organized playing opportunities. Organized football and basketball teams were more accessible to the players than baseball. One exception was for the players that grew up in Florida. Organized baseball seems to have been available to kids in all age groups in the Sunshine State.
Of all the stories, which was most inspirational to you?
KP: I can’t pick one story over another as being most inspirational. During our conversations, every player told stories of supportive parents and coaches, stories of summers spent playing with friends, and stories that made us laugh out loud. What was interesting to me is that during several conversations, the player would stop, and as if they just realized the importance youth baseball had in their lives, would say something like, ”It was one big part of me, and I can’t take out any one part of it,” or “We grew up in the best of times, I wouldn’t trade my childhood for anybody,” or “I loved youth baseball, it’s some of the best memories of my life.” Those are the stories I enjoyed the most. I was sitting there listening to the players come to this revelation, and I can hear them saying those words even as I wrote this.
What is next for you?
KP: Just Like Me will be a series of books. The two volumes will be split with 18 player interviews in each. Volume Two is set to be released during the 2020 holiday season. Secondly, readers can go to my website, www.justlikemethebook.com, and tell their own youth baseball/softball stories under the “Your Story” page of the website. Based on the response, I will consider a blog to book of these stories from the amateur sandlot player.
Finally, I am planning to go through the process of researching and then developing a plan for another baseball-related book, focusing on player talents and what characteristics lead to the ideal player.
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Article originally Published in the August/September 2020 Issue The Historic Edition.