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September 29, 2008
The southeast corner of the state was no hardball hotbed—until a pair of AAU programs produced six current major league starters, including five first-round draft picks, in a span of eight years
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September 29, 2008

Virginia's Boy Wonders

The southeast corner of the state was no hardball hotbed—until a pair of AAU programs produced six current major league starters, including five first-round draft picks, in a span of eight years

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LATE IN the afternoon of June 18, 2006, a routine Sunday on the major league calendar, the Minnesota Twins' Michael Cuddyer, the Washington Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman and the New York Mets' David Wright batted in rapid succession. They were playing in different games in different cities, but anyone who had MLB's Extra Innings package and nimble fingers on the remote could see every pitch. ¶ Marvin (Towny) Townsend was sitting on his couch in Chesapeake, Va., five years into a fight with throat cancer. He had lost half of his tongue, part of his esophagus and the use of his left arm. Now the cancer was making its way toward his lungs. One of the few things he could still do was channel surf. He watched Cuddyer stroke a single to center. Then he saw Zimmerman hit a game-winning home run. After Wright came through with a single of his own, Townsend turned to his older son, Sean, and shouted in a gravelly voice: "This is the best thing ever!"

Townsend, who coached high school and college baseball in Virginia for 30 years, died 10 months later at 54, survived by his wife, two sons and a legion of major league players from Chesapeake and the bordering town of Virginia Beach. Six of them—Wright, Zimmerman, Cuddyer, the Tampa Bay Rays' B.J. Upton and the Arizona Diamondbacks' Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds—are burgeoning stars. And except for Zimmerman, all play for teams in the mix for playoff spots. If Townsend were alive today, he would need more televisions.

Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, part of the coastal region of Virginia formerly known as Tidewater and now called Hampton Roads, may be America's most unlikely baseball hotbed. The combined population of the two cities is less than 700,000. Locals like to say that the temperature in the winter can drop from 70° to 20° in a matter of hours, making it difficult to schedule games year-round. For much of the 20th century, the most notable major leaguer from the area was Washington Senators lefthander Chuck Stobbs, famous mainly for giving up a 565-foot home run to Mickey Mantle in 1953.

"For a long time this was a place you could ignore," says Billy Swoope, who scouts the Mid-Atlantic for the Chicago Cubs and is the majors' only full-time scout based in Hampton Roads. "It was completely barren." (The area, which also includes Newport News, Hampton, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Suffolk, has long been known for producing pro football and basketball players, including Kenny Easley, Bruce Smith, Michael Vick, Alonzo Mourning and Allen Iverson.)

Townsend believed that his favorite sport needed a lifeline. So in 1992 he launched the area's first AAU baseball program, which came to be called the Virginia Blasters after Townsend's adult-league team. Needing opponents, he persuaded his friend Gary Wright to launch a rival program, the Tidewater Drillers. Cuddyer, David Wright and the Uptons played for the Blasters. Zimmerman played for the Drillers. Reynolds played for both. From 1997 through 2005 those two AAU programs produced five first-round draft picks, a tide unlike any the area had ever seen.

Scouts were dumbfounded. Baseball talent is typically abundant in Southern California, Florida and Texas, not clustered in a small corner of southeast Virginia. But here were six future major leaguers, living no more than 20 miles apart, hitting at the same batting cage, working out at the same gym, sometimes playing on the same field. They knew each other's parents and prom dates. If a scout went to see one, he would wind up catching four or five.

"Sometimes the stars just line up, and it's hard to explain why," says Reynolds, now 25 and the Diamondbacks' third baseman. "It's a pretty incredible thing. But without Coach Townsend, I really don't think any of it ever happens."

GROWING UP in Philadelphia, Townsend learned to hit by swinging at bottle caps with a sawed-off broomstick. His father would sit on a picnic table and fling the bottle caps through the air, letting the breeze blow them in different directions, like knuckleballs. When he began coaching, Townsend used the same hand-eye drill with his players, except he traded the metal bottle caps for plastic coffee lids, believing they better withstood the punishment. He could toss the coffee lids from all angles, making them duck and dive like curveballs and sliders.

After his junior season at Campbell University in 1974, Townsend was drafted by the Boston Red Sox; he spent two years in the minors and then became the baseball coach at Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk. "Right when I got there he had us take batting practice with those coffee lids," says Matt Sinnen, Townsend's first recruit at Virginia Wesleyan. Townsend reasoned that if a hitter could make solid contact with the narrow edge of a coffee lid, he would have no trouble squaring up a baseball about eight times as thick.

Over the next three decades Townsend experimented with every conceivable brand of plastic lid, trying to find the one that best mimicked the flight of a baseball. When Cuddyer, now the Twins' rightfielder, and Wright, the Mets' third baseman, were in elementary school and started taking hitting lessons with Townsend, he pitched them Cool Whip lids. "It's how we all learned to hit," says Wright, 25. "I didn't know it was different from what they were doing anywhere else. I thought everybody was hitting lids."

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