Twenty years ago this spring, the best baseball video game ever made reached shelves. Some baseball gamers might remember MVP Baseball 2005 fondly, or RBI Baseball from further back; others might be convinced that modernity and sophistication make MLB The Show the latest and greatest option. But for a certain generation of fan, no other game can match the Backyard Baseball franchise for sheer entertainment value.
And after the wildly popular original, released in 1997, came a beloved sequel with one crucial advantage over its predecessor: Thanks to a licensing agreement with the MLB Players Association, Backyard Baseball 2001—which was released, in typical sports game fashion, one year before the date in its title—could insert “kid” versions of professional stars alongside the game’s fictional characters.
Thus, Backyard enthusiasts could draft a team that included kid Derek Jeter, kid Randy Johnson, and kid Ken Griffey Jr., replete with realistic attributes and aesthetics: Jeter with his charismatic grin, Johnson with his lanky legs, Griffey with his cap draped backward. For a young baseball fan in 2000 such as myself, it was impossible to have more fun than spending an hour in front of the computer screen, clicking away to swing and throw and run.
The Backyard franchise no longer produces new games, but as the 2020 MLB season and the celebrated game’s 20th birthday approach, let’s imagine it did. For Backyard 2001, the game featured one professional player from every MLB team, plus a second player from one select club. (That’s because Griffey, the designers’ favorite player, was traded from Seattle to Cincinnati midway through the game’s creation, so they left him and Red Barry Larkin in the game but then needed to add another player to backfill the Mariners’ spot.) Which 31 players would warrant inclusion in an updated version?
The Backyard creators chose their players with purpose, and I’ll do the same today. When I documented the making of the game a few years ago, the designers shared a few principles they used to select the professional players for their game, beyond merely choosing the best players on each team from the previous (1999) season.
I’ll call the first principle the Size Rule. The game’s creators sought diversity in their player pool, so the fictional kids invented for the initial Backyard game were an even mix of male and female, white and nonwhite. They wanted a mix of body types, too; Mark Peyser, the game’s lead designer, remembered thinking at the time, “I want tall kids, I want short kids, I want fat, I want thin, I want all these different physicalities.” These lessons will inform some decisions for modern selections.
The second main principle is the Shawn Green Rule. Green was the Dodgers’ representative in Backyard 2001, but he’s one of the less memorable characters. That’s because the illustrators tried to emphasize recognizable physical traits for each player (see: Randy Johnson’s height). Artist Tom Verre told me it was “all about taking something that was identifiable about the major league players and just bringing it into that Backyard Baseball style.” If a professional player lacked easily identifiable traits, though, the artist’s job grew much harder. “I think Shawn Green was the one I had trouble with because he’s just sort of this guy,” Verre said.
When picking the 2020 crop of players, I’ll keep those guidelines in mind, as well as hew to Backyard 2001’s positional distribution, which means two pitchers, three catchers, and the rest a mix of infielders, outfielders, and a few designated hitters. Above all, I’m looking for the best players for a hypothetical version of this game—a diverse group that would excite children and adults nostalgic for the Backyard spirit, because Backyard 2001 included young players and veterans, sluggers and speedsters, established award candidates and rising stars.
On to the list! Just dream of the joy that Backyard versions of the following 31 names would bring.
Braves: Ronald Acuña Jr. (OF)
One of the stars of MLB’s recent “Let the Kids Play” advertising push makes perfect sense as the first pick to actually play with the kids. Acuña can hit, run, and field, making him the ideal well-rounded player for a Backyard game.
Nationals: Juan Soto (OF)
So is Soto, who might as well still be an actual kid. The 21-year-old will barely even need any aging down for his animation. While Max Scherzer could have also fit as the Nationals’ representative, other teams with elite pitchers had a worse position-player alternative than Soto.
Mets: Pete Alonso (1B)
Backyard Baseball 2001 cherished power. The median career home run total for the 29 pro players in the game (not counting pitchers) was 427, Mike Piazza’s mark; the median single-season high was 43. And while Jacob deGrom was the choice for the Mets on a first draft of this list, last year’s home run champion is the ultimate selection. Alonso could give renowned slugger Kiesha Phillips a run for her Backyard money.
Phillies: Bryce Harper (OF)
The cover athlete for 2019’s MLB The Show video game is one of the sport’s most famous players, and thus a natural choice for inclusion here. Even in a down year in 2019—his first healthy season without an All-Star trip—Harper still tallied 35 homers and 114 RBIs, and he’s possessed Kiesha-esque power since his teenage years.
Marlins: Jonathan Villar (IF)
Brian Anderson is the Marlins’ best player, but as a roughly average player across the board with a generic MLB name, he falls prey to the Shawn Green Rule. Villar, conversely, possesses some standout skills, so Backyard devotees can enjoy a player with tremendous speed and surprising pop, in Pete Wheeler style.
Cardinals: Yadier Molina (C)
The original game’s selections were mostly tilted toward offense, but a few prime defenders found their way to the neighborhood. Notable among that group was catcher Iván Rodríguez, fresh off his 1999 MVP campaign—and while Molina, the best-known active Cardinal, is far from Rodríguez’s equal at the plate, he’s the modern catcher most similar to Rodríguez in defensive reputation. Molina’s nine career Gold Gloves rank third all time among catchers, behind only Pudge and Johnny Bench.
Brewers: Christian Yelich (OF)
In terms of gameplay, the best Backyard players combined a high hitting rating with a high mark for speed. Runs came in bunches with players who could whack a hit into the outfield gap and sprint all the way to third, or go from second to home on a dribbler. On a related note, Yelich was on pace for an unprecedented 50-homer, 30-steal season in 2019 before losing his last three weeks to injury.
Cubs: Javier Báez (SS)
Báez has supplanted Kris Bryant in the Cubs popularity hierarchy, as the 2020 MLB The Show cover man is one of the most entertaining players in the league. Báez doesn’t just hit and run; he turns tags and slides into highlights of their own.
Reds: Joey Votto (1B)
Votto suffered a career-worst offensive campaign in 2019, but no other Red boasts nearly as high a Q rating. Given Votto’s on-base and pitch recognition ability, his swing spot—which shows the batter an approximate outline of where a pitch is headed—would be the best in the game.
Pirates: Josh Bell (1B)
With Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marté gone, Bell is the best and most recognizable remaining Pirate. After a breakout 2019 season, which saw Bell club 37 home runs, make the All-Star team, and compete in the Home Run Derby, the Pittsburgh first baseman is a worthy choice for this roster.
Dodgers: Mookie Betts (OF)
Frankly, the Dodgers’ trade for Betts was kind of a waste from a Backyard perspective, because it means Cody Bellinger drops out, depriving the game of yet another power-speed dynamo, and last season’s NL MVP. Yet for all Bellinger’s strengths, it’s impossible to exclude Betts, the former Boston star—one of the most talented and entertaining players on the planet, a recent MVP of his own right, and a phenomenally jovial presence in the sport.
Diamondbacks: Ketel Marte (2B/OF)
Look, another flexible fielder—last season, Marte played parts of 96 games in center field and parts of 94 in the middle infield—who can hit for power, hit for average, and sprint. The 2019 breakout player finished fourth in the NL MVP vote, and even if his national profile doesn’t approach, say, Betts’s, his skill set fits the Backyard mandate perfectly.
Giants: Buster Posey (C)
Copy-paste most of the Votto section here. Posey’s production has declined, and his power output is nearly gone entirely (12 homers combined the past two seasons), and he even just failed to receive All-Star or award recognition for the first time in a full season. But Posey is an MVP, Rookie of the Year, and three-time World Series winner; he’s the best catcher of his generation and the best-known Giant left on the team. He deserves the club’s spot in the game.
Rockies: Charlie Blackmon (OF)
I know, Rockies fans, that Nolan Arenado is the superior player—a two-way star and top-10 MVP finisher five years in a row. But Blackmon’s a statistical standout in his own right, especially in the numbers the game values (career .304 batting average, recent triple-digit tallies for both runs and runs batted in), and one key distinguishing feature propels Blackmon into the game: Just imagine the joy for the animators tasked with digitizing Blackmon’s beard.
Padres: Fernando Tatís (SS)
As a rookie in 2019, the San Diego shortstop might have been the most exciting player in baseball—a freewheeling 20-year-old who took risks and accepted the consequences, whether that meant an inexplicable web gem or an error from the hole. His .317 batting average and 22 homers in 84 games only help matters. Poor Manny Machado has already been surpassed on his own side of the infield, but the young Tatís definitely belongs.
Yankees: Aaron Judge (OF)
The best pitcher in the world in the spring of 2000 was Pedro Martínez, who’d just completed, as measured by fWAR, the best season for any pitcher in MLB history. But Pedro didn’t make the game. So Gerrit Cole’s exclusion here, following a record-setting season of his own, is a nice bit of parallelism. Cole can strike out every batter he wants—but Judge is an easily identifiable slugger, already connected to the pinstripes, and a beneficiary of the Size Rule. He’d tower over even Billy Jean Blackwood and Ernie Steele, the two tallest players in the original.
Rays: Blake Snell (P)
The Rays’ roster relies more on depth than top-end talent; on the position-player side, they’re stocked with good players but lack anyone truly great. Snell is a veritable star, though, after winning the 2018 AL Cy Young Award, and he boasts the high-octane strikeout stuff necessary to excel in a Backyard environment.
Red Sox: Chris Sale (P)
So does Sale, owner of the best career strikeout rate (minimum 1,000 innings) in MLB history—and a sufficiently goofy fellow to fit with the Backyard ethos. His sideways throwing motion would yield a quirky animation; his lanky stature would mimic Johnson’s from the old game; and because Backyard Baseball doesn’t have injuries, Sale’s video game arm will be just fine, unlike, perhaps, his real-life limb.
Blue Jays: Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (3B)
I decided not to pick Adalberto Mondesi, son of Raúl, for the Royals, so Guerrero stands alone as a Backyard son turned hypothetical Backyard star. When Vlad Sr. filled the Expos’ slot in the game 20 years ago, he had already been named an All-Star and clubbed 92 home runs. Sure, Junior isn’t there yet, and he didn’t bash as expected as a rookie, but he’s poised for a sophomore breakout, and still only recently removed from being named the best prospect in baseball with a “messianic bat.” Something tells me he’d clobber pitching from Tony Delvecchio or Sally Dobbs.
Orioles: Trey Mancini (1B/OF)
Mancini is this edition’s version of Marty Cordova, who represented the Twins 20 years ago despite few outstanding statistics and no recognizable star power. But hey, you try picking a 2020 Oriole who’s well known on a national scale.
Twins: Nelson Cruz (DH)
Over the past six seasons, Cruz leads the majors in home runs, with 21 more than Mike Trout. He hasn’t slowed at all even as he’s aged into his late 30s; 2019 was his best full season at the plate. And yes, Cruz carries the caveat of a PED suspension in his past, and the Backyard universe is ostensibly designed to give children role models. But it turns out the original cast of pros was about one-third polluted with steroid users, so Cruz merely carries on the tradition.
Indians: Francisco Lindor (SS)
Lindor ranks among the most obvious choices in this exercise—a smiling, effervescent personality combined with 30-homer power and dazzling defense at the shortstop position. Forget merely representing Cleveland; Lindor would contend for the game’s cover art.
White Sox: Yasmani Grandal (C)
Next year, several more White Sox could contend for this spot: rookie Luis Robert, a power-speed merchant in center field; rookie Nick Madrigal, the antidote to the sport’s strikeout scourge; sophomore Eloy Jiménez, who could break out as a power hitter in his age-23 season. But for now, free-agent addition Grandal is the choice as the best catcher in baseball, and a two-way force at the majors’ weakest offensive position.
Royals: Whit Merrifield (OF/2B)
The multipositional Royal offers fielding flexibility, hitting ability, and speed all together. Merrifield led the majors in steals in 2018, triples in 2019, and hits in both seasons.
Tigers: Miguel Cabrera (1B)
With the likes of Cal Ripken Jr. and José Canseco, Backyard 2001 didn’t shy away from declining stars, and Cabrera might be the only Tiger left with any modicum of national recognition.
Astros: José Altuve (2B)
For the Size Rule alone, Altuve is a natural choice. It doesn’t hurt that he inspires frequent comparisons to Pablo Sanchez, the best player in the Backyard neighborhood despite his short stature. Altuve’s selection is complicated by the Astros’ cheating scandal, but he remains for two reasons. First, other possible Astros choices (Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, George Springer) have also been tarnished, and second, Altuve doesn’t appear to have actively participated in the Astros’ scheme nearly as often as the others. Nor has any reliable evidence implicated him in a possible buzzer scenario. And remember—the pro players selected 20 years ago were far from free of scandal. A kid version of Altuve would still be mighty fun to control in a game.
Athletics: Matt Chapman (3B)
If offense were the only determining factor, Chapman might be the best Oakland choice, as a 36-homer hitter last season and capable on-base threat. But Chapman truly shines on defense, where he’s won two Gold Gloves in two full seasons and posted the best advanced fielding numbers in the majors over that span. Even for professional players in Backyard 2001, receiving a “10” rating in any statistical category (on a 1-10 scale) was a rarity. Chapman would surely receive a 10 for fielding this time around.
Rangers: Joey Gallo (OF)
Angels: Mike Trout (OF) AND Shohei Ohtani (P/DH)
Maybe the Dodgers deserved to be the one team with two Backyard players, to slip Bellinger into the game, or maybe Judge and Cole should have both been nominated from the Yankees. But far and away the best choice is the Angels, with Ohtani, the best two-way player in the world, and Trout, the best player in the world, period. Trout would deserve a 10 rating in multiple categories—only Pablo earned that honor in Backyard 2001—and he might not even be the most valuable Angel in Backyard play. In a typical game, building a roster requires either placing a nonpitcher on the mound (in Backyard 2001, Kenny Lofton and Frank Thomas were solid choices) or ruining rallies with Randy Johnson or Curt Schilling at the plate. Ohtani would obviate the need for such a sacrifice. He’d break the parameters of the game—like he’s already done in real baseball, and fantasy baseball, and advanced statistical models.
Mariners: Daniel Vogelbach (DH)
The Seattle DH bops enough homers to warrant consideration (30 in 2019, giving him an All-Star spot). His cubic stature, per the Size Rule, places him over the top.
So that’s the dream Backyard lineup for a new game 20 years after the legend. It’s a shame it will have to remain a dream, because as the sport’s decision-makers fret about a lack of youth interest in the sport, an interactive game that places Lindor and Trout and Harper on a familiar neighborhood diamond could help boost interest in the brightest stars.
As John Olshan, who oversaw the MLBPA’s licensing agreements at the time the original game was made, told me in 2017, “What our research showed was that fans want to engage with the players. If you promote the players as well as the league, that increases fan connection.”
Olshan continued, about the original: “Kids loved it. Players’ kids loved it. I talk to people who are like, ‘Oh yeah, that was my introduction to baseball.’”
Alas, nobody will actually receive an introduction to the game’s new stars in this fashion; young Alonso can’t whack dingers into the Steele Stadium pool, and young Betts can’t chase down flies in the Sandy Flats dunes. Their animation and playing style would be outrageous fun. I’d still pick Pablo Sanchez first, though.