Before this story gets to the part where the kid lands his dream job because of a video game, some tired fingers and Bill Buckner, let's go back about 20 years.
"I wasn't old enough to even watch the game," Lastowka said. "I first saw it during college junior year on ESPN Classic. That year was the 15th anniversary of it. I watched it three times in 24 hours."
In his four years at the University of Virginia, Lastowka did all sorts of nothing, the most benign of which was obsessing over the classic Mets comeback and Red Sox heartbreak. Beyond that, Lastowka argued with his friends that automobiles should have U-turn signals. He drew a comic for the student newspaper that was an ode to a deceased friend who, actually, was alive. He started National High Five Day, a heal-the-world movement that encourages strangers to slap hands.
Mostly, though, Lastowka played RBI Baseball. For the uninitiated, RBI Baseball is a video game that first appeared on the original Nintendo in 1988. It took each of the four playoff teams from the 1986 and '87 seasons, plus an All-Star team for each league. The players looked all the same: short, round and white. When Lastowka's apartment got robbed on back-to-back days in his senior year, he rued most that the thief stole his Nintendo and RBI cartridge.
Through a video-game emulator on his computer, Lastowka had rekindled his love for RBI, and he had plenty of time. Six months ago, he quit his job as a database manager. He spent his days lazing on the San Diego beach for a few months, living off the money he had saved. The cash was dwindling quickly when Lastowka saw an ad for a YouTube-sponsored contest that would pay $25,000 for the best video satirizing pop culture.
Of all the things to lampoon, Game 6 was an easy target. And by using RBI to replay, pitch for pitch, the fateful 10th inning that ends with a Mookie Wilson grounder slipping through Buckner's legs, Lastowka had his vehicle to do it.
"He was explaining to me how amazing it would be," said his girlfriend – yes, he has one – Lauren Duffy, "and I didn't quite get it."
Lastowka, 24, did. The video that showed someone beating the Nintendo game Super Mario Brothers 3 in 11 minutes transfixed him. The Internet is fertile for the obscure, and viral videos – ones that create instant phenomena – are its ideal medium.
So Lastowka waited until Duffy left on a business trip – she might dump him on principle alone if she saw this – and planted himself in front of a laptop. He found the broadcast of the game on MLB.com and downloaded it for $3.95 so he could splice Vin Scully's classic call over the RBI video portion.
"If they had charged an outrageous price, like $15, it would've been cost prohibitive," Lastowka said.
Fueled by a box of Wheat Thins, Lastowka breezed through the game's first 9½ innings, making sure the runs were scored in the correct innings and the hit totals were accurate. Before the bottom of the 10th inning, Lastowka saved the game on the emulator. This inning counted.
Calvin Schiraldi started against Wally Backman, and Lastowka needed to foul the second pitch off to the left. It took a few tries. Once he got it right, he saved the game and moved on.
Of course, getting it right was the tough part. Lastowka didn't have a joystick, so he used the keyboard to move the players around. On the second batter, Keith Hernandez, it took Lastowka about 200 tries to hit a fly ball to center field and have Dave Henderson track it down. He knows what Carpal Tunnel feels like.
Down the lineup Lastowka went. First Gary Carter with a single, then Kevin Mitchell – whom he edited into the game – with a single, then Ray Knight with a run-scoring single. Scully's voice increased in animation, lending gravitas to the primitive video-game graphics.
"Recreating it like I did makes you appreciate how improbable it was," Lastowka said. "Even when you're trying to do stuff like that, it's amazing to see everything that had to happen."
Everyone knows the next part. Wilson dribbles the ball to first base, Buckner muffs the play, Scully yells, "Behind the bag … it gets through Buckner!" and the Mets go on to take Game 7. In Lastowka's version, the ball doesn't travel behind the bag; it bounces off Buckner for an error, which, in RBI, means the player stands frozen for a second with what look like tears spouting from his head.
It took four hours for Lastowka to play that one inning and another six hours to match his footage with Scully's audio. On April 7, Lastowka went to post the video to YouTube when he saw that the contest had a 3-minute time limit.
His recreation ran 8 minutes, 39 seconds, and as much as he wanted to cut it down, he wouldn't let himself. It was too good. He'd be depriving himself and every other baseball fan if he didn't run the video in its entirety. He posted it that afternoon on a video sharing site.
Down the road in San Diego, Susan Olney, the vice president of operations for Legend Films, was searching the Internet for some marijuana.
Legend, which does colorization and restoration of old films, had put out an updated version of the cult classic "Reefer Madness." And curious to see the buzz before April 20 – which, in pot-culture parlance, is the day to celebrate marijuana – Olney typed into a search engine "4/20 national high." Up popped the Web site for National High Five Day, which takes place this year April 20.
Olney emailed Lastowka to point out the connection between 4/20 and High Five Day (which is actually scheduled for the third Thursday each April). Lastowka saw Legend Films in Olney's email signature. He asked if any jobs were open. She said no. He sent her a link to the RBI Baseball video anyway.
She changed her mind.
"I call it a glorious accident," Olney said. "We're all looking at the RBI Baseball game, and it's like, 'OK, I think we've got something here.' "
Once Olney hired Lastowka as a production assistant with a specialty in guerrilla marketing, the video had its own cult following. More than 200,000 people have viewed it. Old friends stumbled upon it and emailed Lastowka. His blog, San Diego Serenade, lit up. A few people complained about minor inconsistencies, like the number of strikeouts (29 for the Red Sox and 27 for the Mets, instead of the actual seven and nine, so as to speed up the first 9½ innings) and the series score at the end (1-0 Mets instead of 3-3).
Even his girlfriend changed her mind about the whole thing.
"If you spend 10 hours making a movie with friends, it doesn't sound as bad as 10 hours by yourself getting every pitch right," Duffy said. "I actually would've liked to see him do it. For a few minutes, maybe.
"I don't think he'll ever recreate anything else through RBI. But you never know. Maybe next time I go out of town."
In the meantime, Lastowka is thinking of his next big idea. Perhaps baseball is his thing. The second most popular post on San Diego Serenade happened to do with baseball audio clips, and Lastowka once performed James Earl Jones' they-will-come speech from "Field of Dreams" on stage before a friend's concert.
"I love the spirit behind baseball," Lastowka said. "It's definitely the kind of thing I'd like to do again. Only it feels like you've had the hardest part handed to you. I'd like to come up with something of my own doing.
"But for now, I'll just bask in the glory of it."
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- Bill Buckner
- RBI Baseball