Cuddyer was the
oldest of the group, by nearly four years, and by the time he was 11 Townsend
was introducing him as a "future professional baseball player."
Townsend knew that his star pupils had potential but worried they would not get
enough training in the local youth leagues, so he began to expand the Blasters
program. In 1993 Townsend had only a 14-and-under squad led by Cuddyer, so he
talked two of his adult-league teammates, Manny Upton and Allan Erbe, into
coaching 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 served
as the batboy.)
B.J. Upton played
second base for the 11-and-under Blasters, and Wright played shortstop, a
middle infield with terrific upside that wasn't yet apparent. B.J. was so
skinny that coaches constantly ordered him to bunt, fearing that he could not
muscle the ball to the outfield. Wright, on the other hand, was so pudgy that
opposing coaches told each other, "We can take advantage of that chunky
shortstop." Whenever the Blasters hit the road, they took with them a bag
of baseballs and a bag of Cool Whip lids. If it rained, players retreated to
their hotel and found a conference room where they could hit the lids.
The Blasters did
not charge dues—the team raised money through fund-raisers and other
donations—but they did have contracts, mandating that every player maintain at
least a 2.5 grade-point average. Townsend scouted youth leagues for talent, and
Erbe wrote playbooks filled with diagrams and explanations on how to cover
bunts and defend first-and-third situations. Wright often complained that Erbe
spent 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 direct
reference to one of the Blasters' bunt defenses.
By 1994 the
Blasters 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 to
team with Reynolds, the lanky infielder with huge hands whose family had moved
to Virginia Beach from Kentucky. Reynolds had initially signed on with a rival
league, whose president soon took Reynolds out of his age group; the league
official was concerned about "the safety of other players" because
Reynolds was hitting the ball too hard for anyone else his age to catch it.
building a powerhouse, and he tried to lure Sinnen, his former player at
Virginia Wesleyan, to coach one of the teams. But Sinnen wanted a challenge and
opted to coach for the Drillers instead. His best player was a soft-handed
shortstop from Virginia Beach who had slipped under Townsend's radar. Zimmerman
was the smoothest fielder in Hampton Roads, but he had a hard time putting on
weight 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.
Zimmerman was 10, in his first season with the Drillers, he went 27 for 32 in
an AAU tournament in Kansas City, Mo. When Wright was 12, he hit seven triples
in a doubleheader in Manassas, Va. And when B.J. Upton was 16, facing Drillers
ace Justin Jones, he hit a 92-mph fastball off Jones's left forearm, sending
him to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk with a bone bruise.
Stories about the
boys started to sound like myths. "We grew up," says B.J. Upton, now 24
and the Rays' centerfielder, "by pushing each other all the time."
IN 1997 the Twins
drafted Cuddyer with the No. 9 pick, making Townsend's earliest prediction come
true. Wright, Reynolds, Zimmerman and the Uptons were not even in high school
yet, but they understood the significance. From then on, scouts would have to
stop by Hampton Roads in case another Cuddyer came along. "I remember
telling myself, I want to do the same thing he did," says Wright.
By the time
Wright turned 16, his baby fat had turned to muscle and he had developed the
swing he uses today. In the 1999 AAU national championships in Cleveland, he
hit a 400-foot rocket over the centerfield fence that slammed into an old oak
tree. As Wright rounded the bases, a six-foot branch fell from the tree and
landed in somebody's backyard. Video of the blast, taken through a chain-link
fence, became an underground favorite in Chesapeake. Ron Smith, who coached
Wright's team along with Erbe, watched the grainy footage again last month and
said, "Just like Roy Hobbs."
The future big
leaguers all knew each other, but because of age differences and AAU
affiliations, no more than two of them had ever played on the same team. But in
2000 a Virginia Beach coach, Lee Banks, put together a fall showcase team
called the Mets, finally bringing the group together. It was one of the
greatest collections of teenage talent ever assembled. The roster included
Wright, Reynolds, Zimmerman and B.J. Upton. Justin Upton, still too young, was
a 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 I