LATE IN theafternoon of June 18, 2006, a routine Sunday on the major league calendar, theMinnesota Twins' Michael Cuddyer, the Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman andthe New York Mets' David Wright batted in rapid succession. They were playingin different games in different cities, but anyone who had MLB's Extra Inningspackage and nimble fingers on the remote could see every pitch. ¬∂ Marvin(Towny) Townsend was sitting on his couch in Chesapeake, Va., five years into afight with throat cancer. He had lost half of his tongue, part of his esophagusand the use of his left arm. Now the cancer was making its way toward hislungs. One of the few things he could still do was channel surf. He watchedCuddyer stroke a single to center. Then he saw Zimmerman hit a game-winninghome run. After Wright came through with a single of his own, Townsend turnedto his older son, Sean, and shouted in a gravelly voice: "This is the bestthing ever!"
Townsend, whocoached high school and college baseball in Virginia for 30 years, died 10months later at 54, survived by his wife, two sons and a legion of major leagueplayers from Chesapeake and the bordering town of Virginia Beach. Six ofthem—Wright, Zimmerman, Cuddyer, the Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton and the ArizonaDiamondbacks' Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds—are burgeoning stars. And exceptfor Zimmerman, all play for teams in the mix for playoff spots. If Townsendwere alive today, he would need more televisions.
Chesapeake andVirginia Beach, part of the coastal region of Virginia formerly known asTidewater and now called Hampton Roads, may be America's most unlikely baseballhotbed. The combined population of the two cities is less than 700,000. Localslike to say that the temperature in the winter can drop from 70° to 20° in amatter of hours, making it difficult to schedule games year-round. For much ofthe 20th century, the most notable major leaguer from the area was WashingtonSenators lefthander Chuck Stobbs, famous mainly for giving up a 565-foot homerun to Mickey Mantle in 1953.
"For a longtime this was a place you could ignore," says Billy Swoope, who scouts theMid-Atlantic for the Chicago Cubs and is the majors' only full-time scout basedin Hampton Roads. "It was completely barren." (The area, which alsoincludes Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk, has long beenknown for producing pro football and basketball players, including KennyEasley, Bruce Smith, Michael Vick, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.)
September 28, 2008
Townsend believedthat his favorite sport needed a lifeline. So in 1992 he launched the area'sfirst AAU baseball program, which came to be called the Virginia Blasters afterTownsend's adult-league team. Needing opponents, he persuaded his friend GaryWright to launch a rival program, the Tidewater Drillers. Cuddyer, David Wrightand the Uptons played for the Blasters. Zimmerman played for the Drillers.Reynolds played for both. From 1997 through 2005 those two AAU programsproduced five first-round draft picks, a tide unlike any the area had everseen.
Scouts weredumbfounded. Baseball talent is typically abundant in Southern California,Florida and Texas, not clustered in a small corner of southeast Virginia. Buthere were six future major leaguers, living no more than 20 miles apart,hitting at the same batting cage, working out at the same gym, sometimesplaying on the same field. They knew each other's parents and prom dates. If ascout went to see one, he would wind up catching four or five.
"Sometimesthe stars just line up, and it's hard to explain why," says Reynolds, now25 and the Diamondbacks' third baseman. "It's a pretty incredible thing.But without Coach Townsend, I really don't think any of it everhappens."
GROWING UP inPhiladelphia, Townsend learned to hit by swinging at bottle caps with asawed-off broomstick. His father would sit on a picnic table and fling thebottle caps through the air, letting the breeze blow them in differentdirections, like knuckleballs. When he began coaching, Townsend used the samehand-eye drill with his players, except he traded the metal bottle caps forplastic coffee lids, believing they better withstood the punishment. He couldtoss the coffee lids from all angles, making them duck and dive like curveballsand sliders.
After his juniorseason at Campbell University in 1974, Townsend was drafted by the Boston RedSox; he spent two years in the minors and then became the baseball coach atVirginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. "Right when I got there he had ustake batting practice with those coffee lids," says Matt Sinnen, Townsend'sfirst recruit at Virginia Wesleyan. Townsend reasoned that if a hitter couldmake solid contact with the narrow edge of a coffee lid, he would have notrouble squaring up a baseball about eight times as thick.
Over the nextthree decades Townsend experimented with every conceivable brand of plasticlid, trying to find the one that best mimicked the flight of a baseball. WhenCuddyer, now the Twins' rightfielder, and Wright, the Mets' third baseman, werein elementary school and started taking hitting lessons with Townsend, hepitched them Cool Whip lids. "It's how we all learned to hit," saysWright, 25. "I didn't know it was different from what they were doinganywhere else. I thought everybody was hitting lids."
Cuddyer was theoldest of the group, by nearly four years, and by the time he was 11 Townsendwas introducing him as a "future professional baseball player."Townsend knew that his star pupils had potential but worried they would not getenough training in the local youth leagues, so he began to expand the Blastersprogram. In 1993 Townsend had only a 14-and-under squad led by Cuddyer, so hetalked two of his adult-league teammates, Manny Upton and Allan Erbe, intocoaching a new 11-and-under team that would include Manny's nine-year-old son,B.J. (Manny's six-year-old son, Justin, was not old enough to play and servedas the batboy.)
B.J. Upton playedsecond base for the 11-and-under Blasters, and Wright played shortstop, amiddle infield with terrific upside that wasn't yet apparent. B.J. was soskinny that coaches constantly ordered him to bunt, fearing that he could notmuscle the ball to the outfield. Wright, on the other hand, was so pudgy thatopposing coaches told each other, "We can take advantage of that chunkyshortstop." Whenever the Blasters hit the road, they took with them a bagof baseballs and a bag of Cool Whip lids. If it rained, players retreated totheir hotel and found a conference room where they could hit the lids.
The Blasters didnot charge dues—the team raised money through fund-raisers and otherdonations—but they did have contracts, mandating that every player maintain atleast a 2.5 grade-point average. Townsend scouted youth leagues for talent, andErbe wrote playbooks filled with diagrams and explanations on how to coverbunts and defend first-and-third situations. Wright often complained that Erbespent too much time on defense, but years later, when Wright was in the Mets'farm system, Erbe received an e-mail from the address Met3Bagger. It read,"I play well off the line and I run a lot of coverage 2," a directreference to one of the Blasters' bunt defenses.
By 1994 theBlasters had six teams, one for each age group from nine through 14. B.J.Upton, who had been playing with kids two years older, moved down a year toteam with Reynolds, the lanky infielder with huge hands whose family had movedto Virginia Beach from Kentucky. Reynolds had initially signed on with a rivalleague, whose president soon took Reynolds out of his age group; the leagueofficial was concerned about "the safety of other players" becauseReynolds was hitting the ball too hard for anyone else his age to catch it.
Townsend wasbuilding a powerhouse, and he tried to lure Sinnen, his former player atVirginia Wesleyan, to coach one of the teams. But Sinnen wanted a challenge andopted to coach for the Drillers instead. His best player was a soft-handedshortstop from Virginia Beach who had slipped under Townsend's radar. Zimmermanwas the smoothest fielder in Hampton Roads, but he had a hard time putting onweight and a lot of coaches assumed he would not be able to generate power."I offered to throw him a party if he could ever crack 100 pounds,"says Zimmerman's father, Keith.
When RyanZimmerman was 10, in his first season with the Drillers, he went 27 for 32 inan AAU tournament in Kansas City, Mo. When Wright was 12, he hit seven triplesin a doubleheader in Manassas, Va. And when B.J. Upton was 16, facing Drillersace Justin Jones, he hit a 92-mph fastball off Jones's left forearm, sendinghim to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk with a bone bruise.
Stories about theboys started to sound like myths. "We grew up," says B.J. Upton, now 24and the Rays' centerfielder, "by pushing each other all the time."
IN 1997 the Twinsdrafted Cuddyer with the No. 9 pick, making Townsend's earliest prediction cometrue. Wright, Reynolds, Zimmerman and the Uptons were not even in high schoolyet, but they understood the significance. From then on, scouts would have tostop by Hampton Roads in case another Cuddyer came along. "I remembertelling myself, I want to do the same thing he did," says Wright.
By the timeWright turned 16, his baby fat had turned to muscle and he had developed theswing he uses today. In the 1999 AAU national championships in Cleveland, hehit a 400-foot rocket over the centerfield fence that slammed into an old oaktree. As Wright rounded the bases, a six-foot branch fell from the tree andlanded in somebody's backyard. Video of the blast, taken through a chain-linkfence, became an underground favorite in Chesapeake. Ron Smith, who coachedWright's team along with Erbe, watched the grainy footage again last month andsaid, "Just like Roy Hobbs."
The future bigleaguers all knew each other, but because of age differences and AAUaffiliations, no more than two of them had ever played on the same team. But in2000 a Virginia Beach coach, Lee Banks, put together a fall showcase teamcalled the Mets, finally bringing the group together. It was one of thegreatest collections of teenage talent ever assembled. The roster includedWright, Reynolds, Zimmerman and B.J. Upton. Justin Upton, still too young, wasa pinch runner. For the first time they were neither Blasters nor Drillers;they were representing Hampton Roads, finishing the work that Cuddyer started."Nobody," says Cuddyer, 29, "is more proud of those guys than Iam."
For Banks, thehardest part of managing the team was filling out the lineup card. Because allthe players were shortstops, Banks had to rotate them among shortstop, secondbase and third base. It was good training for the future, when Wright, Reynoldsand Zimmerman would become third basemen, and Cuddyer and both Uptons wouldmove to the outfield. The Mets played 25 games, traveling up and down theEastern seaboard, passing time by picking on Justin Upton. "We made fun ofhim because he was the smallest," says Zimmerman, who turned 24 on Sept.28. "Now he's bigger than all of us."
By 2003 Reynoldsand Zimmerman were at the University of Virginia, Wright and B.J. Upton were inthe minor leagues, and Justin Upton was at Great Bridge High in Chesapeake.From the time Justin was 10, playing for the Blasters, he was drawingintentional walks as if he were Barry Bonds. The Diamondbacks drafted him No. 1in '05, and two years later, just before his 20th birthday, he joined the restof the group in the major leagues. They studied each other's batting linesnightly. At the '06 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, as Wright prepared for theHome Run Derby, he received a text message from B.J. Upton: DON'T EMBARRASS THEAREA. Wright pounded 16 home runs in the first round.
The players'parents would see each other around town, at the post office or the grocerystore, and shake their heads in disbelief. This year, when the Diamondbacksplayed the Nationals in Washington, the Upton family sat with the Reynoldsfamily, watching their sons' team play against Zimmerman'steam—Blasters-Drillers all over again. "It was really weird," MannyUpton says. "We looked at each other like, Haven't we been doing this sincethey were 10?"
SINCE TOWNSEND'Sdeath the Blasters have all but disappeared—only one team, 13-and-under,remains—while the Drillers have taken control of the area. Sinnen, still aDrillers coach, has a term he uses when one of his infielders makes aparticularly nifty pickup. He calls it a "Zim play."
AlthoughZimmerman will be idle this October, his buddies hope to still be playing.Wright, Reynolds and both Uptons are in position to make the playoffs. Cuddyer,recovering from a broken foot, is hoping to join them. No matter the outcome,they will meet back home afterward. They still work out together in theoff-season at Fitness 19 in Chesapeake, hit the batting cages at Grand SlamU.S.A. in Virginia Beach, play in each other's charity golf tournaments andtalk about where they will watch the Virginia--Virginia Tech football game.Wright throws a holiday-birthday party at an area lounge and pays for a blockof hotel rooms to make sure no one has to drive home afterward.
"Nothing haschanged that much," says Wright. "We still do everythingtogether."
Their club isgrowing. Other major leaguers from Hampton Roads include relievers Clay Rapada,27, of the Detroit Tigers; Josh Rupe, 26, of the Texas Rangers; and Bill Bray,25, of the Cincinnati Reds. Prominent minor leaguers include firstbaseman--outfielder Jason DuBois, 29, of the Cubs; righthander Justin Orenduff,25, of the Los Angeles Dodgers; infielder Matt Smith, 25, of the Mets; andlefthander Justin Jones, 24, of the Nationals (the same Justin Jones whom B.J.Upton struck on the forearm eight years earlier). Townsend followed all of themon the Internet, jotting their stats in a notebook alongside Cuddyer's andWright's and Reynolds's and Zimmerman's and the Uptons'.
Townsend died atthe beginning of the baseball season, in April 2007, so his players mournedfrom a distance. They reminisced about his joyful spirit (he once walked ontothe field with a snorkel and a rubber duck and soaked his team with a watergun), his notorious temper (he was ejected from games as a player, manager, fanand parent), and his creative ways to help young people learn. A statement fromWright, read at the funeral, began, "I could go on for days about whatCoach Townsend has taught me."
Walk through thefront door of the Townsend house, and you are greeted by a quote from BabeRuth, painted above an interior doorway: I WON'T BE HAPPY UNTIL WE HAVE EVERYBOY IN AMERICA BETWEEN THE AGES OF 6 AND 16 WEARING A GLOVE AND SWINGING A BAT.The quote pretty well sums up Townsend's life mission. "I painted it,"says his widow, Cathy, "but it's hard for me to look at sometimes."
In his finalmonths Townsend thought a lot about bottle caps and coffee lids. He could notcoach much anymore, but he could still help the next generation hit. So he metwith a NASA engineer to design his own plastic lid, flexible enough that itwould not break, aerodynamic enough that it would not flutter. He called it theTowny Townsend Hitting Disc and found a plastics company in Suffolk tomanufacture it in bulk. Cuddyer and Wright helped him film an instructionalDVD. When Townsend died, there were still 20,000 discs sitting in hisgarage.
Cathy did notwant to keep them and did not want to throw them away, so she followed throughon her husband's plans to sell them online (hittingdisc.com)—50 discs to a bag.She has been selling them ever since, as many as nine bags per day. Most of herorders come from California, Florida and Texas, with some from as far away asAustralia. Now only a few boxes are left in the garage, and Cathy is gettingready to order more. "I'd like this to be part of his legacy," shesays.
Her younger son,Chase, is 22 and helping her with the business. Sean is 26 and coaching thejunior varsity baseball team down the road at Great Bridge High. Last seasonGreat Bridge played a game at nearby Western Branch High, and as the team buspulled onto the Western Branch campus, a handful of kids were assembled on apatch of grass. Great Bridge players pointed at the kids and then motioned toSean. "Look! Look!" they chirped. Sean glanced out the window and sawhis father's vision sprung to life. The kids were hitting Towny's discs.
Scouts were dumbfounded by the talent. "SometimesTHE STARS JUST LINE UP," says Reynolds, "and it's hard to explainwhy."
When Justin was 10, he was drawing walks LIKE BARRYBONDS.