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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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For Banks, the hardest part of managing the team was filling out the lineup card. Because all the players were shortstops, Banks had to rotate them among shortstop, second base and third base. It was good training for the future, when Wright, Reynolds and Zimmerman would become third basemen, and Cuddyer and both Uptons would move to the outfield. The Mets played 25 games, traveling up and down the Eastern seaboard, passing time by picking on Justin Upton. "We made fun of him because he was the smallest," says Zimmerman, who turned 24 on Sept. 28. "Now he's bigger than all of us."

By 2003 Reynolds and Zimmerman were at the University of Virginia, Wright and B.J. Upton were in the minor leagues, and Justin Upton was at Great Bridge High in Chesapeake. From the time Justin was 10, playing for the Blasters, he was drawing intentional walks as if he were Barry Bonds. The Diamondbacks drafted him No. 1 in '05, and two years later, just before his 20th birthday, he joined the rest of the group in the major leagues. They studied each other's batting lines nightly. At the '06 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, as Wright prepared for the Home Run Derby, he received a text message from B.J. Upton: DON'T EMBARRASS THE AREA. Wright pounded 16 home runs in the first round.

The players' parents would see each other around town, at the post office or the grocery store, and shake their heads in disbelief. This year, when the Diamondbacks played the Nationals in Washington, the Upton family sat with the Reynolds family, watching their sons' team play against Zimmerman's team—Blasters-Drillers all over again. "It was really weird," Manny Upton says. "We looked at each other like, Haven't we been doing this since they were 10?"

SINCE TOWNSEND'S death the Blasters have all but disappeared—only one team, 13-and-under, remains—while the Drillers have taken control of the area. Sinnen, still a Drillers coach, has a term he uses when one of his infielders makes a particularly nifty pickup. He calls it a "Zim play."

Although Zimmerman 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 the off-season at Fitness 19 in Chesapeake, hit the batting cages at Grand Slam U.S.A. in Virginia Beach, play in each other's charity golf tournaments and talk 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 block of hotel rooms to make sure no one has to drive home afterward.

"Nothing has changed that much," says Wright. "We still do everything together."

Their club is growing. 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 first baseman--outfielder Jason DuBois, 29, of the Cubs; righthander Justin Orenduff, 25, of the Los Angeles Dodgers; infielder Matt Smith, 25, of the Mets; and lefthander 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 them on the Internet, jotting their stats in a notebook alongside Cuddyer's and Wright's and Reynolds's and Zimmerman's and the Uptons'.

Townsend died at the beginning of the baseball season, in April 2007, so his players mourned from a distance. They reminisced about his joyful spirit (he once walked onto the field with a snorkel and a rubber duck and soaked his team with a water gun), his notorious temper (he was ejected from games as a player, manager, fan and parent), and his creative ways to help young people learn. A statement from Wright, read at the funeral, began, "I could go on for days about what Coach Townsend has taught me."

Walk through the front door of the Townsend house, and you are greeted by a quote from Babe Ruth, painted above an interior doorway: I WON'T BE HAPPY UNTIL WE HAVE EVERY BOY 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 final months Townsend thought a lot about bottle caps and coffee lids. He could not coach much anymore, but he could still help the next generation hit. So he met with a NASA engineer to design his own plastic lid, flexible enough that it would not break, aerodynamic enough that it would not flutter. He called it the Towny Townsend Hitting Disc and found a plastics company in Suffolk to manufacture it in bulk. Cuddyer and Wright helped him film an instructional DVD. When Townsend died, there were still 20,000 discs sitting in his garage.

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