MOOSIC — Mark Payton grew up in a baseball household.
And if it wasn’t baseball, it was hockey. So “Backyard Baseball” and all of the Backyard Sports video games played a big role in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders outfielder’s childhood.
Saturday marks Backyard Baseball Night at PNC Field, where the childhood video game will come to life for RailRiders players and fans. The iconic game, that debuted in the late 1990s, featured 30 fictional kids and an assortment of former major leaguers, and whose impact helped shape the generation that currently plays pro ball for SWB.
“Growing up, everything I did was either baseball or hockey and playing all the Backyard Sports games made it fun,” Payton said. “We played wiffle ball outside and made our own fields, kind of like the game was. As soon as we were done outside, we’d go inside and get on the computer and play Backyard Sports.
If you were to ask Nick Mirkovich, Matt Mahon and Erik Haldi, three of the men responsible for bringing the hit video game alive, if they thought a minor league baseball team would one day reach out to them to bring Backyard Baseball Night to their park, they would have been stunned.
But on Saturday night, the love and impact of their video game will be felt by all. And their influence continues to grow.
But 21 years after the inception of the original “Backyard Baseball” video game, the Backyard Sports franchise continues to make waves whether it’s Backyard Baseball Night at PNC Field or, most recently, into Major League Baseball and the National Football League.
The Oakland Athletics used “Backyard Baseball” for its lineup during Players Weekend last season and the Houston Texans used “Backyard Football” to introduce its upcoming regular-season schedule.
“I think it’s pretty amazing,” said Mirkovich, who created the video game. “We had a lot of fun working on it. For me, it was a joy because I was not working on an adventure game. The adventure games were great to play and work on — don’t get me wrong — I was always ready to play some kind of sports game. When we were making it, the fact that we were playing it all day, we knew something was there. It’s great that people are still playing it and at least know about it.”
However, the idea of “Backyard Baseball” sat on a shelf for quite some time.
If it wasn’t for the success of the 1997 Seattle Mariners and employees at Humongous Entertainment, the video game might have stayed there. But thanks to the Mariners winning the American League West title that year and fueling baseball fever in Bothell, Wash., the home of Humongous Entertainment, the idea grew wings.
And one Monday morning a short time later, Mirkovich got the green light to move forward with the computer game.
“From just being on the shelf kind of for months then it was running,” Mirkovich said. “Just one day I walk into the office, Rich Moe, another person that worked there, said, ‘Hey Nick, we’re going to be making Baseball. Come into this room. Let’s talk about it.”
From there, the game took off.
Despite working on a different game at the time, “Putt-Putt: Travels Through Time,” “Backyard Baseball” was in good hands with Moe, a programmer, and Mark Peyser, a graphic designer, during the early stages of development. And Mirkovich did benefit from the fact that he shared an office with Peyser, so he was able to constantly add insight throughout the beginning of the creation of the game.
By the time “Putt-Putt” was finished and Mirkovich hopped on the project, Peyser and Moe had already created the 30 Backyard kids. This allowed Mirkovich to come on and help with the gameplay.
Not long after, “Backyard Soccer,” “Backyard Football,” “Backyard Basketball,” “Backyard Hockey” and “Backyard Skateboarding” were all created and the Backyard Sports team started adding professional athletes as kids to the roster.
“The great thing that Mark and Rich brought to the table was the idea of the characters,” Mirkovich said. “They were the driving force behind a lot of the cool stuff that happened with the 30 kids — half of them girls. We have a kid in a wheelchair. Pretty much, it’s a gambit of racial ethnicity. I think that was a really big deal just because we were a kids company. We really thought about that stuff a lot and how to be inclusive and they really brought that to the table.
“The hard part, I think, was bringing the pros into the game. That was the hardest part. It was like, we thought our kids. Why do we need pros?”
On Saturday the New York Yankees Triple-A affiliate will ditch the nickname RailRiders for the day and become the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Melonheads. The team will use the official Melonheads logo and color scheme that Humongous Entertainment used as its “main team,” according to Mirkovich.
The RailRiders will also wear special Melonheads jerseys which will be auctioned off after the game, with the money raised going toward the Boys and Girls Club.
“That’s what’s so awesome about those minor league teams — they can do that stuff. Just say, ‘Nope, tonight, we’re the Melonheads.’” said Haldi, who was a programmer on the game.
“It’s super-great,” added Mahon, who was also a programmer on the game. “I just love seeing that people still know and care about this thing that we worked on over 20 years ago. It’s super gratifying.”
But Mirkovich, who along with Mahon will be making the trip to PNC Field for Saturday’s game, now has a decision to make. Does he go with his purple Melonheads shirt, or his gray one?
“For me, I can’t wait to wear my baseball shirt again, you know? I have a Melonheads shirt that I’ve had,” Mirkovich said. “I have two of them. I have to pick out which one I want to wear.”
“Yeah, are you going purple or gray? Which one are we going to do?,” asked Mahon.
“Yeah, I don’t know. I think the gray one actually is slimmer. So I might end up wearing that,” Mirkovich said. “I kind of can’t wait to do that and see Matt again. But, yeah, I’m really excited about this, and can’t believe it to tell you the truth.”
Payton might have missed the first two months of the season recovering from a knee injury suffered during spring training, but he did make it back just in time for one thing.
Backyard Baseball Night.
Payton can’t wait to take on the moniker Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Melonheads for the night.
“I’m excited,” said the RailRiders outfielder. “This is cool. All of the teams, I don’t remember all of them, but I remember the Wombats and the Melonheads. I think there was a Purple-People Eaters and stuff. It’ll be a fun day to wear those jerseys and kind of remember the game a little bit.”
Reach DJ Eberle at 570-991-6398 or on Twitter @ByDJEberle