Let’s Play Ball: The Carolina Sandlot Revival

This pickup baseball league is all about playing for fun — and its annual tournament at Durham Athletic Park has all the energy of a block party.
by Ayn-Monique Klahre | documentary photography by Alex Boerner | portrait photography by Tyler Northrup

The thud of a fist in a mitt, the scratch of a cleat in dirt, chants from the dugout — and if you’re lucky, the crack of a bat making contact with a ball. They’re the sounds of the Sandlot Revival, a baseball tournament of sorts this month at Durham Athletic Park. “It’s just magical to be out there,” says Tyler Northrup, a photographer and organizer for the event.

From April 21 to 23, our local sandlot teams will host five teams from out of state for a weekend of semicompetitive play, plus beer, food and general socialization. “Nobody wins, there’s no trophy in the end,” says Northrup. “The ultimate goal is for this to feel like a block party where baseball is happening.”

Organized by Carolina Sandlot Collective, the weekend is part of a national movement to revive sandlot baseball. What is “sandlot”? It’s sort of like a pickup game, open to any adult, regardless of experience. The idea is that anyone can walk onto the field and start playing. “It’s meant to be a no-pressure, chill environment,” Northrup says. “If you want to flash your skill, that’s great, but you can’t get upset if someone strikes out or fumbles a ball.”

 Players from the Carolina Kudzu lean over the rail at the dugout.

The teams have funny names — around here we have the Carolina Kudzu, Raleigh Reapers, Durham Dirtbags and Port City Pickles — and practice in Raleigh, Wake Forest, Wilmington, Durham and Carrboro for about nine months of the year. “The teams play each other once a month, but every other weekend there is open sandlot, so literally anyone can play,” says Northrup.

Even playing against each other, there’s still a friendly spirit. If one team is short a player, someone from another team will throw on their jersey and help them out. “Last year, our game got rained out halfway through, so my team and the other team rolled out the tarp together and then we all went to Boxcar to eat pizza and drink beer,” says Northrup.

Northrup invited fellow photographer Alex Boerner to help him document the Sandlot Revival, with Northrup taking portraits and Boerner catching the action. For Boerner, a longtime Minnesota Twins fan, it was a chance to rediscover his love of the sport. “I played a ton of baseball as a child, but stopped as a teen,” he says.

Since then, Boerner’s started playing for the Durham Dirtbags. “It’s not that it’s anticompetitive, it’s just that you’re only competing with yourself,” says Boerner. “It’s a great vibe.”  

Bats and a microphone in the dugout. 
Jimmy Assal of the Carolina Kudzu
Beth Philemon of the Durham Dirtbags warms up for a game
Elliotte Douglas-Middleton of the Raleigh Reapers

Jake Wood of Lawrence BBQ, who serves up food for the event, with his son. 

Paul Tuorto of the Raleigh Reapers

Jason Puryear of the Carolina Kudzu, Carlo Freeze of the West Philly Waste

Crete Street Riot players and fans
 Port City Pickles player Robin Wood, in the dugout, celebrates with teammate Kelly Franklin

Matt Koontz of the Carolina Kudzu

John Lim of the Raleigh Reapers
Durham’s Bulltown Strutters band
Port City Pickles player Matt Emmerich drinks… pickle juice. 

Lacie Jay Emmerich of the Port City Pickles

 Tyler Northrup eats an oyster

Crete Street Riot players

Joey Carty or the Raleigh Reapers
The end of a game between the Carolina Kudzu and the Nashville Dollys

This article originally appeared in the April 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.