If you know Robert Carlock, it’s probably because of his work on several NBC sitcoms, from Friends to 30 Rock to Mr. Mayor, or because he cocreated Netflix’s The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with frequent collaborator Tina Fey. If you know Adam McKay, it’s probably because he cowrote and directed several successful comedies starring Will Ferrell (with whom he also cofounded Funny or Die), then went on to earn Oscar nominations for writing and directing The Big Short, Vice, and Don’t Look Up. Even if you know that each of them first spent several years as a writer at Saturday Night Live, where they contributed to more than 100 episodes apiece, you probably remember them for their behind-the-scenes roles in crafting recurring bits: McKay, who became head writer in 1996, cowrote the first Celebrity Jeopardy! sketch (which aired in December of that year), while Carlock authored the most memorable edition of “NPR’s Delicious Dish,” December 1998’s “Schweddy Balls.”
But between those two classics, and before the shows and films that brought them fame, the two teamed up to write a sketch in which 15 Major League Baseball players came out of Chris Kattan’s closet. That’s a lot of players for a roughly five-minute sketch. “It’s too many,” Carlock says now. Maybe. But the sight of player after player parading into a child’s bedroom on Christmas Eve, inadvertently dissuading the young fan from wanting to be a baseball player, and drunkenly, raunchily hitting on his mom, has stuck with many viewers who saw it in 1997 or in the decades since. McKay has said that his favorite SNL sketches were the weirdest ones, and “Baseball Dreams Come True” fit the bill. As one Redditor wrote earlier this year, “Honestly the skit was a lot weirder than I remember[ed].”
Episode 9 of SNL’s 23rd season aired 25 years ago Tuesday, on December 13, 1997. It was the last show before the holiday break. Helen Hunt hosted, with a mid-monologue cameo from Jack Nicholson, her costar in As Good As It Gets, which would come out that Christmas. Hanson performed “MMMBop” and “Merry Christmas Baby.” The sketch lineup included installments of “NPR’s Delicious Dish,” “The Roxbury Guys,” and “The Ladies Man,” plus Norm Macdonald reprising his Celebrity Jeopardy! role as Burt Reynolds and anchoring his last Weekend Update. But the most enduring sketch was the one featuring Hunt, Kattan, and Will Ferrell, alongside big leaguers whose careers ran the gamut from replacement-level obscurity to Scott Rolen, the 1997 NL Rookie of the Year and a deserving Hall of Famer who may well be elected by the BBWAA voters who’ll submit their ballots this month.
Baseball fan and SNL alum Mike Schur, who would join the writing staff the following season, says that when he watched the sketch live, “I could not understand how in the world Mark Grudzielanek got onto SNL.” To watch the sketch now is to intensely Remember Some Guys (assuming you ever knew who, say, Russ Davis and David Howard were). So how did what Carlock describes as 15 “ballplayers of varying fame,” from 10 different teams, come together to creep out a kid played by a 27-year-old man? This is the story of “Baseball Dreams Come True,” as told by Carlock, eight of the players, and the agent who hooked them all up.
The “Baseball Dreams Come True” Roster
|Pedro Borbón Jr.
Part 1: “This Guy Called, He’s Got Like 20 Baseball Players”
The players who appeared on SNL ranged from 22-year-old rookie to 34-year-old veteran and played a multitude of positions for a multitude of teams, but they had one thing in common: They were all represented by ACES Inc., the baseball agency started in the mid-’80s by brothers Sam and Seth Levinson. ACES held an annual charity event, and in December 1997, the brothers flew in as many of their clients as they could for a weekend in New York City that would feature a fundraiser for the Starlight Foundation at the New York Hilton. Most of the players on the ACES roster made the trip, and they were eager to be entertained—and soon, to entertain.
Sam Levinson: Most of these guys were married, were bringing in their wives and making it a Christmas in New York City in addition to the fundraiser, whether it was asking for restaurant reservations or trying to get tickets to Broadway shows. Probably the most popular request was guys asking if they can get tickets to go watch SNL.
Todd Zeile (Los Angeles Dodgers): I had a friend for quite some years who was really close friends with [former SNL cast member] Kevin Nealon. And so I used to go to the show when I was in New York on occasion. When I went to the show to see Kevin, we made contact with one of the talent agents that was a part of the show. And then I think I had made that introduction to Sam and Seth, and it became a good contact for them to have to get guys tickets to the show on the rare occasion that we were in town on a Saturday.
Mark Wohlers (Atlanta Braves): Sam just knew everybody from anywhere and could get anything done.
Levinson: As [my brother and I] talked about it, I said, “Why don’t we pitch this idea to the show: Instead of it being members of the audience, maybe we can get them on the show.” I called up SNL and pitched an idea that we had all these Major League Baseball players coming in for an event, all from different clubs throughout the game, would it be possible to actually create a skit and put them on the show?
Robert Carlock: I remember meeting [Levinson] at some point. I wish I’d asked him—but I didn’t want it to come out wrong—if he thought this would actually lead to anything.
Levinson: They’ve obviously had athletes throughout the years on their shows, but they’ve never had this many athletes at one time. They knew that would be really difficult to put that all together. The person whose interest was most piqued was a woman named Ayala Cohen, who [worked in] the talent department of SNL. She seemed to be really intrigued by this idea that we could basically deliver them a group of major league players, but obviously she had to present it to Lorne Michaels. Lorne Michaels loved the idea. [Cohen] said, “Let me talk to my writers to see if we could create something,” and they knew it had to move quickly because we were speaking that week that they were coming into New York City.
Carlock: Every once in a while, someone would be in town promoting something and the talent department would tell the writers, “Hey, obviously we’re supposed to be serving the host here, but so-and-so is around, a musician or actor or athlete or whatever. And if you have any use for them, they’re open to it.” And then sometimes you’d take a shot at that. This was one of the weirder times. I think [Cohen] pulled me and McKay aside and was like, “You guys like sports, right?” “Yeah, yeah.” “This guy called, he’s got like 20 baseball players.” McKay and I just thought that was so funny, just the idea of, “Sure, let’s have 20 of these guys,” however many it is. We were probably told that on Tuesday, so it moved quickly.
Levinson: We started calling the guys up. I remember having conversations with Gregg Jefferies and Scott Rolen and those guys, and said, “Hey, we have a better idea, rather than you guys be members of the audience, we’re going to get you on the show.” They go, “What? What are you talking about?” Most of the guys thought we were pulling their legs, and they didn’t believe it until we had enough conversations to tell them, “No no, this is real. You’re coming in, you’re going to be on the show, so get ready for a rehearsal.”
Gregg Jefferies (Philadelphia Phillies): 1987, I was actually MVP in the minor leagues, and my previous agent said, “Oh, hey, how’d you do this year?” I said, “What?” So I said, yeah, I think we need to go elsewhere. And I was [the Levinsons’] first [big league] client. Sam always knew I wanted to go see Saturday Night Live, and he surprised me with that.
Marty Cordova (Minnesota Twins): At first it’s a little bit like, “Holy cow, I’m not a professional actor. Not an actor at all. But what the hell, let’s just do it and have fun, see how it goes.”
Carlock: We like to do sports things. And it used to be easier. Think of the movie Major League, which is a classic now, but in which the players sleep with each other’s wives, there’s drug use, there’s sexism, there’s a lot of raunchy stuff in it. I don’t know that MLB would agree to that today. More and more, we’re not able to get stuff like that cleared. Let alone have a bunch of guys come into a kid’s room in the middle of the night and smoke cigars and hand him a gun at the end and hit on his mom. I’m sure there was some kind of clearance that had to happen, but I just think that was easier back then. Even at the time it felt like we had to own the old-fashioned-ness of [baseball] a little bit in that kind of “golly gee” tone, at the beginning, of, “I want to be a ballplayer.” I think it was McKay’s idea to do the kid kind of going sideways and the old-fashioned sweet thing going to strip clubs and handguns.
Levinson: No one had any issue. The reaction was extremely positive, from general managers to ownership to assistant general managers to other players, like, “How the hell did this happen? That was pretty amazing.”
Carlock: I just think it’s such a mistake how these leagues have clenched up. It’s safer for lawyers to say no, right? But if these things are part of our culture, they’ve got to play along with being in the real world and being made fun of.
Levinson: I had no fax machine. I was running to a local deli to stand there as [Cohen] would fax over ideas, and she allowed us to participate and review the scripts. These guys were coming in mostly on Thursday, so it really left very little room. We immediately began trying to track down the uniforms, since obviously it’s a much greater impact to see a professional athlete in uniform. All of the clubs, and specifically all the guys that ran the clubhouses, the teams that had players participating in the skit, were all incredible. They really did everything they could to get us the full uniform. Me and Seth, it was us dealing directly with the clubs [and] Major League Baseball to track down all the uniforms. I think Major League Baseball assisted us and had some jerseys that they loaned us from their offices. All the clubs shipped the uniforms directly to our offices in Brooklyn Heights. There was no concern about having them sized, since it was their uniforms that they wore throughout the season.
David Howard (St. Louis Cardinals): Five or six days before we even went up there I had signed with the Cardinals. So they had to send a Cardinals uniform up for me. I didn’t have a name on it. There’s some point where I went to high five somebody and there wasn’t even a name or a number on the back of the jersey, because that was the first time I ever wore the uniform.
Levinson: I believe the only club that was unable to get us the full uniform, because they were out of Canada, was the Montreal Expos.
Carlock: It’s kind of perfect that we just couldn’t get an Expos uniform—that the Expos guys look a little out of place and wearing jeans.
Part 2: “It Must Have Worked.”
Despite those hiccups and last-second challenges—the Mariners players didn’t have whole unis either, and Gerald Williams was traded from the Brewers to the Braves two days before showtime—the sketch stayed on course. Recollections vary, but the consensus is that the players first rehearsed on Friday, did their fundraiser that night, and then returned to the studio for more practice on Saturday before going live from New York. Todd Hundley, who had hit 40 homers in ’97, was the first out the door, and Ferrell brought up the rear in his first (but not last) appearance as fictional former minor leaguer Ted Brogan, whom Schur describes as “an all-around dirtbag and weirdo” and “the precursor/ur-figure that led to a million other characters he played, like Robert Goulet.”
Carlock: There wouldn’t have been a way to read it at the table, which is how things get evaluated and how the host says, “This is what I would want to do,” and Lorne says, “Well, this is what we need to do.” There’s no way that on spec, they would’ve just said, “Sure,” a thing where the host has three lines and it’s mostly a bunch of baseball players. We must have read it and had the cast do the parts and it must have worked. It worked enough to say, “Let’s do it at dress.” And then it’s the kind of thing where it’s like, “Well, you can’t cut it after dress. We’ve got  baseball players.”
Howard: We did a show that was almost like a pre-show. It was a run-through, but with a real crowd like it was going to be. So we did it and it went great. Hunt had done a skit before, and as we were going down underneath, we were walking and there’s this little cutout. She was just standing back there, and she was taking off her shirt to put on another shirt. And we’re walking by, and we just looked to our right and there’s Helen Hunt standing there in her bra putting another shirt on. That was during the run-through. We were just kind of like, “Huh.” So when the real show started, everybody was looking to their right.
Howard: The run-through, [Hunt] was great. She was like, “What are you guys doing in here? You guys get out of here!” Then they said, “All right, cut.” And then she goes, jokingly, “Like I’m going to tell all you guys to get out of my bedroom.”
Jefferies: It kind of broke the ice with all of us, because obviously she was a major star. She couldn’t have been nicer.
Carlock: After the first rehearsal, and after dress, McKay kind of said, “You handle this. I’m washing my hands of it.” They just had them down in a holding room. There weren’t enough dressing rooms to give them all dressing rooms. These guys are all fairly media savvy, but it’s just such a different—“You got to wait, you got to hold for applause, we’ll lose your lines under laughs and under applause.” I’m in this room with all of these professional athletes, telling them how to behave on camera. I think they’re so used to having a mic right in their mouth, where they don’t have to project at all. There are a lot of things that got lost under the obligatory applause every time a baseball player came out.
Levinson: When the writers created the show, they worked very closely with us to see who would be somebody that would be very outgoing. There was Todd Zeile, or there was Scott Rolen, or there was Todd Hundley, the guys that were just more comfortable being front and center on the show. Then there were guys like Gerald Williams or Rondell White, [who said], “Yeah, I want to participate. I want to be in the show, but I don’t need a line. I can just show up.”
Russ Davis (Seattle Mariners): I was a pretty quiet guy anyway, and I didn’t even really want a speaking part. I was happy just to be able to walk out of the closet and ruin his dream of becoming a baseball player. And all we could find or come up with was a Mariners jacket, so it’s probably a good thing I didn’t speak and was in the back anyway. I doubt most people in the audience knew who the hell we were.
Carlock: There were not a lot of big-market guys. Like, “I’m Mark Grudzielanek.” Helen, I think, was speaking for a lot of people when she said, “I don’t care.”
Cordova: I think what they wanted to do was give the more accomplished players more talking roles than the others, because that makes sense, right? You want to attract the crowd. You don’t want Marty Cordova telling you the story.
Cliff Floyd (Florida Marlins): I think with us in the jerseys and our uniforms, it just was a cool, like, “Oh my gosh, 15 major leaguers in one room.” I don’t think anybody cared about their names.
Carlock: We started with Hundley, ’cause New York, and he had a higher profile than some of the guys. And he was pretty funny, I thought. Hundley held his own out there.
Wohlers: I was somewhat surprised I had as many lines as I did. But I think prior to going on the show, I used to have really, really long hair and that wild look that I had. So I think they might have written the script [with that in mind] because they have me smoking a cigarette and commenting on the little kid’s mom. So I think they might have had me as that rebel-type player, but then I came in with a short haircut and they were like, “Oh crap.” [The] cigarette was definitely real. Just had to work my way through it.
Cordova: The first one we did that was not for the actual live-live, everybody was absolutely perfect. It was frickin’ amazing. We did the best that we have the ability to do. So everybody’s like, “Oh, all right, this is great.” Once you turn those lights on, they’re like, “It’s live,” it gets you a little bit.
Jefferies: During rehearsals it was easy, but then all of a sudden that red light comes on and it’s like, holy cow, it’s legit. In New York we would do commercials, so [I was] lucky with that. But that was the first time I did anything like that. When I first got to New York, I think I was 19, they wanted me to host Saturday Night Live. And I said, there’s no way. I turned that down. I was terrified with that.
Floyd: I think maybe I took a drama class, just to pass some class in high school, but nothing to the extent of reading a card and actually having a camera on you and trying to act out and remember one part: “Hey, you got any food? Where’s the food?” Whatever I said. It felt like the script was a page long where there was only four words, and I was sweating my ass off trying to remember when to do it and how to do it. I was just saying to myself, “If I can’t memorize this, I mean, good luck.”
Wohlers: They had a bunch [of cue cards] strategically placed where if it was your turn to say a line, they had people standing in the direction that you were looking with cue cards there. But I think I was just so darn nervous that you didn’t even remember to look at where they were.
Cordova: All I had to say was, “Hey, Billy.” And he’s like, “It’s Bobby.” That was my big line. I couldn’t fuck that up too badly. But the delivery has to be in time and all that like anything else, or it just comes across as what we are, a bunch of athletes that don’t know how to act.
Zeile: As is usually the case in baseball, when you spend a lot of time with these guys in the locker rooms and you’re brothers, you tend to be able to rag each other and you’ve got to have pretty thick skin in that world. And so there was a lot of that going on. And I think everybody recognized that we were not going to be lauded for our great acting performances. [Ferrell] couldn’t have been nicer and more engaging and just fun to talk to. And he’s a big baseball fan, so I think that put a lot of guys at ease as well. But some of the acting wasn’t exactly top-notch. They recognized with a lot of us coming out of that closet and just trying to get through it, that probably stiff was OK. We’re a bunch of athletes, we’re not supposed to be actors, and we’re impeding this guy’s dream anyway.
Cordova: They knew the more you think, the worse it will be, because we’re not actors. They even said, “Hey, guys, relax. Just have fun.” It’d be like Will Ferrell taking batting practice. I’d be out there like, “Just have a good time, man.” Am I going to really teach him how to hit a baseball over the fence in an hour? No chance. Athletes, we follow the script. You don’t run to second base because you feel like it. You run to first base, then you go to second base. There’s no improvisation. Will Ferrell, he improvises all the time because he’s a professional. If Will Ferrell’s learning how to hit, you don’t improvise on your first hour. You don’t even know what you’re doing, so you better stick to the script.
Jefferies: I actually ad-libbed a few of those lines. I think when I said, “You little punk,” that wasn’t in [the script]. I think Scott Rolen had some ad-libs too. Pedro Borbón had a little trouble saying his lines in English. And I said, “Man, just say it in Spanish.” And I go, “Don’t tell anybody.” And if you watch Chris Kattan’s reaction when he said it in Spanish, it was hilarious, because nobody knew that he was going to say it in Spanish.
Zeile: When Todd [Hundley] first came out, I think people were like, “Oh, yeah. This is really cool.” Because that was a total surprise. And then as we kept coming out, I think it was definitely landing. And the funny twist that it goes from all this kid wants for Christmases is baseball guys to, “Oh, my God. These guys are crazy partiers and hitting on my mom. I don’t ever want to be a part of baseball again.” Mike Sweeney, who’s just a complete non-drinker and never swears, we thought it was ironic that they have him carrying the keg and acting like he’s getting ready to get sloshed. Mike and I were the non-drinkers, and we were both guys that were supposed to act like we were drinking and partying
Floyd: I think the biggest thing was us all in the closet and trying to make sure we maneuvered ourselves so we could get out and have some fun and make sure we didn’t mess up. That was the biggest thing. Like, “Don’t mess this shit up, get it right.” It wasn’t a small space, it was a big room. But we all came out like it was a closet. They wanted us all bunched together. I was like, “I don’t know how this is going to look,” but it looked like it was all in the small-ass closet, right? It was crazy.
Zeile: I figured if I was going to be standing out there, and we’re supposed to be looking like we’re having a party, then somebody better move around a little bit. My wife’s looking at me like I’ve got three heads right now. She’s like, “What?” She says [I’m not much of a dancer]. I need a little wine.
Floyd: It was one of those moments where you’re looking at the audience and the audience was just loving it. It was hysterical. So I thought we got a lot of love during and after.
Carlock: It played pretty well, both times. The guys were great, to varying degrees. They were all super game. But [the thought was], let’s have someone else land the plane here. And how do we just go a step higher, in terms of the too many ballplayers, oh, plus a guy who’s not even a ballplayer, has the flimsiest connection to it, and let’s have Will come in and be a dirtbag with a dog. Of course, the dog had a trainer off camera that was supposed to be making it bark, so that Helen’s line made sense. When she said, “Shut that dog up,” the dog was supposed to be barking furiously. And as always happens, the animal didn’t do what it was supposed to do on live TV. Yeah, I think it’s always, go to Will to close it out. Especially with a guy who says his name is Ted Brogan, which is the most McKay name I’ve ever heard.
Zeile: Ferrell with the dog and his lines was just something that we all couldn’t help but laugh at ourselves. Even during the sketch, we were so amused by him.
Carlock: [The basketball players at the end] were random guys. I can’t remember if, in the silliness of, “OK, well we’ve got  pro ballplayers, let’s see if we can get a couple of …? And we may have taken a shot, and either the talent department said, “Don’t be stupid. We’re not going to make the ask for a non-speaking role,” or there were some feelers put out. When you’re on that SNL timeline, you don’t have a lot of time to say, “Are they going to be extras, or are they going to be actual NBA players?” And I think, despite our fantasies, we pretty quickly realized, “Let’s get some tall guys.”
Part 3: “Definitely a Big Deal.”
At the end of the show, 15 very relieved baseball players—some of whom had repeated their lines, but none of whom had forgotten them—descended to the Rink at Rockefeller Center for a celebratory skating session. There, some of the players linked arms with Nicholson, who like them had just completed his first cameo on the NBC institution. The jocks were officially listed in the SNL guest archives, and they had a story to tell for the rest of their lives—especially during December, when the sketch perennially resurfaces. (“They used to replay it every holiday,” Jefferies says.) For many of the players, “dreams coming true” describes their own experience in the Saturday spotlight, though Carlock has one strong regret.
Carlock: I’m a bit aghast—I didn’t realize that what is currently the F-word is in there. I apologize to anyone who goes back and watches it. No one even batted an eye at the time. Of course it was trying to say, “Oh, these guys are being comic jerks, calling a kid who worships them that word.” No one questioned it. No one in standards questioned it. No one anywhere questioned it. It should be bleeped out now, I think. The other thing that’s shocking is the joke that Russia’s a democracy now doesn’t play quite the same way. We should just have a graphic that just flashes, “Different time.”
Zeile: At the end of the first rehearsal show, we all did the goodbyes from the stage as usual. But the little drummer from Hanson was very hyper. And Chris Kattan and him were chatting like they were little boys together. And then he turned around and he jumped on Chris Kattan’s back and grabbed him around the neck. And it really bothered Chris, and he kind of flipped him off like, “Get this kid out of here.” And thus, for the regular show, we did the close with Hanson up in the studio and everybody else down on the ice so that there would be separation between the cast and the band.
Carlock: For so many reasons, it probably wouldn’t happen today. From clearing the uniforms, to everyone’s got a guy now, and everyone’s got a social media guy, and everyone would be probably overthinking it to death, on the league end and on the player end. “Being on SNL would be great, but wait, I’m going to do it with 14 other guys? And who’s talking the most?” Everything lined up, for there to be  ballplayers together, and their agent to say, “Could SNL use them?” and for McKay and I to be there, and for anyone to tolerate any of it. It could only have happened in . Today, not only would it probably have to be a different sport, but it’d be a different sketch.
Jefferies: After the show, we all went to the ice rink and Jack Nicholson was there. And this built a friendship with him, because being from California, I wasn’t a big ice skater. He grabbed onto me, goes, “Hey, Gregg, come here. You got to hold me up.” I said, “Jack, are you kidding me?” I think I might have called him Mr. Nicholson. I said, “I don’t really know how to skate either, so let’s hold each other up.” And that whole night we were kind of skating together. And every time I’d go into L.A. to play the Dodgers, he would always come on the field and we’d always talk.
Floyd: It was a big deal, don’t get it twisted. Definitely a big deal. Part of being able to be a great agent is to be able to do other things that allow your clients to have a face, see the personality, see you’re not just a baseball player.
Howard: Everybody’s like, “What’s your claim to fame?” And I go, “Well, I’m not sure. I was a utility player.” The only other thing that can match [SNL] is the [Jim] Edmonds catch that he made off of me that everybody says is the best one or two catches ever. But I was out, so I don’t like to talk about that.
Carlock: I have to imagine [Rolen] will mention us [in his Hall of Fame speech]. We kind of pushed him over the top.
Levinson: These guys weren’t looking to be paid to be on the show, but they all became SAG members because you had to be, and the show has been ranked as one of the most popular shows and most viewed shows, I think, in SNL history, and they received residuals for years for being on the show. Every player that was on the show received a framed gift with the photograph of them on the stage, plus a photograph of them post-show on the ice with Jack Nicholson, and everyone requested that the actual check be framed.
Jeff Fassero (Seattle Mariners): I’ve downsized my house, and my memorabilia room’s not quite as big as it used to be, but that’s one of the few things that still hangs. People come over and they go, “You were on Saturday Night Live?”
Carlock: There are weird things that happen at SNL, all the time. Something like that happens every week, where you’re like, “OK, this week is the week of  baseball players.” And there are a lot of versions where someone says, “No, no, we’re not spending three minutes of our airtime on these guys,” as excited as Adam and I were. It was definitely reverse engineered. And also, it could so easily have been, “No.” I don’t think Adam or I thought that anyone would go for it. But it’s easy to take the shot. There’s always a kind of, “OK, we can call everyone’s bluff here.” And by the time it’s 11:30, it’s too late for anyone to stop us.
Interviews have been edited and condensed.