Just Like Me: When the Pros Played on the Sandlot gathers the reflections of several retired professional baseball players about their youth and coming-of-age in the sport of baseball. Written by Sunbury Press author Kelly G. Park, this collection might provoke some nostalgia from baseball fans and former sandlot players, but it’s also a very real, humble look at the path that it takes to become a professional athlete. I always enjoy a film, article, or book that humanizes the pros. Those who make it to the highest levels of sport often have mythical status surrounding their money, lifestyle, and athletic ability. That can be fun when they’re your childhood heroes, it can be negative and mean-spirited if you dehumanize them as an adult—read any ESPN comment thread. Either way, the mythical status is never totally based on reality, and both athletes and sports fans are better off having an understanding that pros are simply humans that play a sport for a living, not just athletes that happen to be human.
Park’s book features the baseball and life experiences of mostly older players like Boog Powell, Fergie Jenkins, White Herzog, and Lou Piniellea, but also includes some more recent pro players like Lou Whitaker and Willie Blair. Adding variety to the stories is the fact that players are from both the MLB and Negro Leagues. Interestingly, two female players Lois Youngen and Katie Horstman are also featured. Both played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (yes, the one in A League of Their Own) and added unique perspectives to the book. All the content was presented in a pleasant conversational tone. They shared everything from what their youth baseball leagues were like (if there was even one organized in their town), what their family life was like, and the path they eventually went through the ranks to make the big show.
The book is organized nicely by various topics –one individual topic per chapter with information from each player. There isn’t any transitional material to start or end chapters. That is good because the conversational tone isn’t broken up, but might make the topic changes a bit jarring for some readers. I’m a reader that would have liked a little primer leading into the players’ responses, but it certainly didn’t have a hugely negative effect on my reading.
My favorite chapter was “The Games We Played” because it reflected on the made-up games that mimicked the game of baseball, but were slightly broken down for time, physical space, or lack of players. I really liked this section because it made me recall some of the goofy games that I played as a kid that were baseball-adjacent but not even close to an organized game of baseball. Some of the best ones were at my older sister’s softball games. Instead of watching our sisters play, we a had a group of younger siblings who played pickle and “wallball” until we were forced to quit and leave when the real game was over. Hearing about some of the adapted baseball games that pros played was awesome.
Another favorite chapter was “The Season, the Sport.” This section focused on the more general athletic life of the pros as kids and teenagers. Over time, parents of talented kids started pushing their kids to focus on one sport if they really wanted to play it professionally in the future. It’s now been recognized that many of the best athletes in the world got that way because they had a more well-rounded sports life. In some cases, baseball wasn’t even the favorite sport of the pros in this book. The approach to raising a “future star” has changed as people realize the benefit of playing various sports to work out different parts of the body, keep a kid interested in playing, and develop skills that translate between sports. The players in this book loved basketball, football, running track, and other athletic activities, demonstrating the valuable lesson that gifted athletes are rarely entirely focused on one endeavor.
If you’re into baseball, Just Like Me will have you thinking about your old playing days and will definitely have you pining for Opening Day. In the meantime, finish the book and enjoy all the unique baseball knowledge that you won’t find on the backs of cards.