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"Pablo was like Babe Ruth crossed with Mike Trout crossed with Sandy Koufax."
If you were a sports fan born in the '90s, you probably already know that.
Pablo Sanchez was the standout character in Backyard Baseball — a popular computer game released in 1997. Instead of starring pro players, the original Backyard Baseball featured only cartoon children. (Cartoon children who could blast 400-foot home runs.)
Pablo was the best of the bunch — he was fast enough to nab infield hits, strong enough to belt home runs and skilled enough to pitch.
He was also short...
"He'd come up to bat, and the bat would be almost the same size as him," former Only A Game intern Ryan Fitzgerald recalls.
"He was like an 8 year old with a dad bod before dad bods were a thing," remembers one former Backyard Baseball enthusiast.
"If I remember correctly, the shirt did not cover his entire belly," says another.
But there is something else that every former Backyard Baseball player seems to remember about Pablo Sanchez:
"He only spoke Spanish. As far as I can remember, he only spoke to Spanish."
"Also, because I took Spanish, I was like, 'Oh yeah, cool, cool. I coulda been friends with him.'"
These days, you hear a lot — probably not enough — about the shortage of minority characters in children's books, games and movies.
Yet here was this hit computer game from 20 years ago that starred a Hispanic character — who's still popular today.
At Only A Game, we started to wonder — who invented Pablo Sanchez? And why?
The Origin Of Backyard Baseball
Pablo’s roots can be traced all the way back to a makeshift field in Olympia, Washington.
"First base is the chimney," Nick Mirkovich recalls. "If you hit it into the neighbor's yard, it's an automatic out — and you have go get it."
Nick grew up playing wiffle ball with his neighborhood friends, and he went on to work for a video game company in Seattle called Humongous Entertainment.
It specialized in adventure games for younger kids: there was Freddi Fish — which starred an anthropomorphic fish detective — and Putt-Putt — which featured a talking purple car.
"I was instantly thinking, 'How are we going to pull this off?' and 'How could we go head to head against EA? They are the dominant force in the sports game industry.'"Rich Moe, Backyard Baseball programmer
Nick liked working on Freddi Fish and Putt-Putt, but when he got home, he played sports games. During the '90s, a company called EA Sports started releasing a slew of popular titles aimed at teenagers and adults.
One weekend, on a drive from Olympia to Seattle, Nick got an idea: why not make a sports game for younger kids? He wrote up a one-page proposal for a baseball game, ran it by a friend and turned it in to his bosses the next day.
And then...he didn't hear anything. Months went by. Nick forgot about it.
"And then all of a sudden — which, this is a strange thing that happened — the Mariners started doing great," Nick recalls.
In 1995, the Seattle Mariners reached the MLB playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
"It was kind of a big thing here in Seattle, and the studio head kinda got pulled into that, I think," Nick says.
Perhaps it was just a coincidence — but Nick's baseball game idea suddenly got the green light.
By that point, Nick was already working on another project. So the ball ended up in the hands of a programmer named Rich Moe...
"I actually never really played baseball growing up, so I was the least qualified of the bunch," Rich says.
...and an artist named Mark Peyser.
"I think it had to do with the availability of others," Mark says. "Because I would not have been anyone's first choice."
So with that fearsome duo at the top of the lineup, the project began.
Some Initial Concerns
Understandably, Mark and Rich, had some concerns.
For one, nobody had bothered to check whether there was interest in a sports game for younger kids.
"We had no idea," Rich says. "This was back in the day when we didn't have a large army of market researchers. I don't think we did a focus group, period."
Second, the company's technology was meant for simpler, point-and-click adventure games — not a sports game.
"I was instantly thinking, 'How are we going to pull this off?' and 'How could we go head to head against EA? They are the dominant force in the sports game industry,'" Rich recalls.
So the two guys who didn't know baseball, without any market research or proper technology, started thinking.
"We quickly saw that the game here was not to beat EA at their own game," Rich says. "It was to take it in a different tangent."
"It really started with the characters," Mark says. "I mean, that's the biggest part."
Rich, Mark and Nick (who, thanks to sharing an office with Mark, still ended up at meetings) decided their game could stand out if they made characters that little kids would relate to.
EA Sports could have pro athletes — Backyard Baseball would have the girl with the backwards hat who was always chewing bubble gum and the cool rocker guy who wore big headphones to the plate.
"We were thinking, 'OK, we're going to do baseball. I think there's, like, what? Nine people on a baseball team? Something like that,'" Mark recalls. "And so, well, how many characters are we going to develop? Well, we have to have 18. At least. It ramped up from there, though, because we wanted to have alternates. It only took a little while of discussion before we said, 'OK. We're going to develop 30 kids.'"
"And what was your reaction to that?" I ask.
"It seemed like a lot," Mark says with a laugh. "It seemed like a lot of kids. 30!"
So they brainstormed. They thought about kids they grew up with. Mark knew a kid who used a wheelchair, so they added an ace pitcher with a wheelchair.
(And, maybe they added some characters based on themselves. One character, Reese Worthington, happens to have asthma, just like Rich.)
And for more inspiration, they turned to movies and TV shows, like "Sandlot" and "Peanuts."
"And then we also talked about the 'Bad News Bears,'" Mark recalls. "In that old movie, the one with Walter Matthau — see, I'm old — there's this scene where he's the curmudgeonly guy, and he's trying to staff out his silly little Little League team."
"There's a character in there, and he was just a small, Hispanic baseball player on the team," Nick says. "And they tended not to really put him in. And our thinking was, 'What if he was the best player on the team the whole entire time?'"
"I remember us talking about, 'What if we had a character like that in our game?'" Rich says.
"The one that can't speak the language and might normally not be picked is the best player," Nick says.
"It would be, like, a little secret you'd have to discover," Mark says.
At that meeting, Mark started sketching. He drew a smiling boy in a v-neck t-shirt with his belly peeking out.
"And do you remember why?" I ask Mark.
"No," Mark says with a laugh. "There's no reason why. You just do."
But the combination stuck, and Pablo Sanchez was born. They nicknamed him the "Secret Weapon." They made him the best player – and a Spanish speaker.
Rich says it was all part of the plan to make Pablo a character that children might initially overlook.
I asked Rich if any part of the thinking was that creating a star Hispanic character could be good for the world.
"No," he says with a laugh. "We all bought into that idea that this is a game for everyone, but we didn't think we'd have that big of an influence. It was just a game."
The Legend Of Pablo Sanchez
It was just a game — but it turned out to be a hit. Especially Pablo. He wasn't much of a secret. Everyone figured out he was a quick base runner, a solid short stop and a fearsome hitter.
Pablo's home run song became a familiar tune in living rooms across the country.
Humongous Entertainment made the game into a series, adding Backyard Soccer, Backyard Football and more. Pablo, of course, continued to dominate.
In 2000, they released a second edition of Backyard Baseball. But this time, Humongous added kid versions of MLB stars, like Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr.
"A lot of people didn't like that idea, I would say," says Aimee Paganini, who produced some of the later games in the Backyard Series. "It was controversial."
The worry was that the pro players would overshadow the original 30.
But after the sequel came out…
"We would meet people that played our games," Paganini recalls, "and they'd say, 'Oh they love Pab' — it was always Pablo. 'We love Pablo!' And then they didn't say little Cal Ripken Jr. They said Pablo."
Since then, the legend of Pablo Sanchez has grown. There have been fake documentaries about his life. Tongue-in-cheek articles have speculated about his possible steroid use. (For the record, all the original designers deny those allegations.)
So why is Pablo Sanchez still remembered so fondly? Mark Peyser — the man who drew the first sketch of Pablo — has this theory.
"It satisfies some sense of justice that we all have — that it's not fair when the really super tall, big, good-looking guys are also good at sports. That's not fair," he says. "Let the little guy have a chance."
This segment aired on June 24, 2017.
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