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Playing 35 years of fantasy baseball

HAMPTON

The year was 1979. Hampton Roads was thawing out from winter, and a group of friends were gearing up for baseball season by arguing about the game they love.

As Bobby Hilling recalls, the discussion turned to who the best players were at each position. That's when the group had an epiphany.

Let's hold a "draft" where we become team owners by choosing players, they said. We'll chart their statistics over the course of the season. In October, we'll tally up who put together the best team.

Without calling it this, the local group might have started one of the country's first fantasy sports leagues.

Today, fantasy sports are a huge industry, with millions of players spending time and money on games of all sorts. Thirty-five years ago, the concept was unusual - if not unique.

Writer and editor Daniel Okrent often is credited with creating fantasy baseball in 1980. But Jim Walker, another of the founders of the local "Original" Classic Fantasy Baseball League, has copies of his draft list from a year earlier.

"Just a bunch of guys who loved baseball," Walker said.

The original group of six included Harry Veazey, who provided handwritten stat sheets regularly during the season. Over the years, more than 40 owners have come and gone. Some have moved. Veazey died last year.

What remains the same is the men's love for Draft Day. On Sunday afternoon, 14 convened at a sports bar near the Hampton Coliseum to pick their teams for this year. Most came from Hampton Roads, but others traveled from western Tidewater and western Virginia - 3 1?2 hours away.

They came to set their teams in hope of bragging rights - and a little extra cash - come season's end. More importantly, they came to rekindle age-old friendships and talk about baseball.

"The camaraderie is No. 1 in my opinion," said R.G. Young, another original. "I'd rather win than lose, but that's secondary."

The draft started around 1 p.m., and Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera was picked first. A season preview aired on television behind the long, rectangular setup, but the men didn't seem to notice. Most had been doing their homework for months, scouring guides for rankings and scrolling the Internet for news.

"Walker runs mock drafts at his house," Tony Metts said jokingly of the league's commissioner, who concedes he spends "a lot" of time working out his plans with co-owner Steve Hutchens, a longtime friend from Virginia Beach.

Walker grew up playing baseball, first at Newport News High School, then at Old Dominion University from 1964-66. He said he drew interest from professional teams but didn't pursue a career seriously.

Some of the owners played either for or against Walker. Others met a few years later through recreation softball leagues. Some connected by chiming in during a baseball conversation at a bar.

Most now are in their 50s, 60s or 70s. They grew up in Hampton Roads and saw each other regularly when they were younger. Some still visit often, but for others, families, jobs and distance make the gatherings rare.

And special. Metts grew up on the Peninsula but now lives in Amherst County. He left his home at 9:30 a.m. to get to Sunday's draft, spending seven hours round trip.

"It's the camaraderie," Metts said. "Major camaraderie."

Laughter is the order of the day. Years back, someone tried to draft former first baseman Wally Joyner - after he had retired in 2001. The men disagree over who that owner was, but they still joke about the faux pas.

Midway through the draft last weekend, a waitress scooped a sheet of paper off the floor and tried to hand it to Walker.

"I've seen his picks. He doesn't need that," Tim Nelson of Suffolk joked.

When a newcomer, 27-year-old Joe Dusewicz, twice in a row called the name of already-drafted players, he became the target of razzing. Silence followed - until mock cheers erupted when Dusewicz took an available player on his third try.

"The draft is fun because you bust chops," Nelson said.

Amid that joking are strong bonds. Before the draft, Metts offered a toast to Walker that drew loud applause. As the choices unfolded, the 75-year-old Young struggled to hear over blaring music in the crowded bar. Seated next to him, Metts made sure Young knew and wrote down every pick.

"We all appreciate each other," Hilling said.

The draft can turn serious. When Metts opted for Tigers slugger Victor Martinez in a later round, he wanted him as a catcher. Martinez catches on occasion but hasn't played that position on a regular basis since 2010.

A 10-minute debate ensued, followed by a vote - which Metts won. Even after that, discussion flowed about whether that was right.

"Every one of us is trying to win," Aderon Gibbs said.

That desire to come out on top will add intrigue over the next six months. The owners scour box scores in the newspaper each morning, then watch games intently at night. They'll grimace if a player gets hurt, because the league allows only a few transactions during the season.

Whoever wins will have a little extra strut in his step.

"People are more apt to listen to you" when you win, Young said.

This year's draft ended about 2 1/2 hours after it began. But few left. They gave welcome appreciation to Dusewicz, making sure he enjoyed himself. Most stayed to chat, some for up to an hour.

They then departed with hugs - and excited talk of the next gathering.

"I wouldn't miss this for anything," Metts said.

Mike Connors, 757-222-5217, michael.connors@pilotonline.com

 

Posted to: Entertainment Hampton Sports Spotlight

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