Draft Day at PNC Park is always important, but the stakes were very high for Pittsburgh Pirates relievers Jared Hughes and Tony Watson recently.
On the morning of Saturday, August 20, Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Jared Hughes and closer Tony Watson sat in PNC Park, likely nervously eyeing notes and scanning the faces of the people they were with, trying to get just an inkling of information as to what their next move would be. No, it wasn’t a high-tension meeting with Pirates front office folks or a strategy session with Manager Clint Hurdle and pitching Coach Ray Searage. It was Draft Day – and it was serious business.
The pair are heading up two NFL Fantasy Football leagues in Pittsburgh to raise money for charities both in the city and beyond through the non-profit organization Big League Impact. Each ‘Burgh-based league consists of 10 teams each and Hughes expects the competition to be fierce both within his own league, and with his teammate.
“In this fantasy league, I think we got some sleepers,” he said via phone on Saturday after the draft. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
This is Hughes’, who describes himself as a “big fan of fantasy sports,” first season working with the BLI Fantasy League.
“They reached out to Neil Walker last year and he did it. With Walker gone this year, they reached out to me and asked if I would pick it up and I was like, absolutely!” he said. “Anything to help out.”
Big League Impact was founded in 2013 by St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright and his brother, Terry, under the name “Waino’s World.” The goal, according to their website, was to “to offer St. Louis fans the opportunity to make significant contributions to charity and reward them with seats in a private fantasy football league with players from the local big league team.” So successful was their first outing, earning $120,000 for charity, that they decided to expand on the idea and invite other MLB players to host leagues in their hometowns. Now known as Big League Impact, Inc., the organization has morphed into a nonprofit organization with the mission “to help meet basic human needs like food, clean water, medical care and shelter, in an effort to restore dignity and hope to people in the local community and around the globe,” the website stated.
Beyond participating in the leagues headed up by Hughes and Watson, Pittsburgh owners took part in a special Draft Day event at PNC. After the live draft with the guys, they got to watch batting practice, take photos with Jared and Tony and received a swag bag filled with Pirates-themed memorabilia.
While Hughes claims he didn’t make as good a pick as Kevin Costner did in the movie Draft Day, he thinks he’s got a solid team.
“I picked up a bunch of running backs,” he said. “I hope they stay healthy – that’s the key with fantasy football teams.”
He put together his team, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Bortles (after Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles), relying on research he did from another draft a few days before. Other owners in his league came more prepared, he said.
“There’s a husband and wife team in my group, they drove up from Charleston, West Virginia. They were making some good choices – you could tell these people did their research,” he added.
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”Jared Hughes” link=”” color=”#000000″ class=”” size=””]In this fantasy league, I think we got some sleepers[/perfectpullquote]
The cost to join Hughes’ and Watson’s fantasy leagues was $1,000 for a single owner or $1,500 for an owner/co-owner. The proceeds go to three charities, The Big League Impact Global Fund, Pirates Charities and the Pittsburgh Kids Foundation, Hughes said, with a large portion of the funds raised going to the BLI Global Fund, which is working to help provide clean drinking water for people in Haiti.
“It’s something that we take for granted in the states and so I’m willing to do anything I can to help out,” he said.
Doing Good in PNC Park’s Backyard
The Pittsburgh Kids Foundation is an organization that Hughes has worked with for a few years, where he’s gotten to know members of the staff and garner a deep understanding of their purpose and initiatives.
“They’re right across the street from the field and they always help out in the community,” he said. “They just got done with a summer camp in Michigan where they take kids up on the lake and just let them be outside and make friends and do summer camp things like rafting and stuff.”
Supporting local kids is a mission close to his heart.
“It’s something very important to me because they’re the future. So any way we can help out the future generation, I’m in. It’s the most important thing,” he said.
Of course the Pirates Charities works with hundreds of organizations throughout the Pittsburgh region, with focused efforts to “assist military personnel and their families, help those who have been affected by cancer, and improve the lives of youth through health, fitness and education initiatives,” according to their 2015 Community Report.
A First-Timer, But Not To Fantasy
While he may be new to BLI Fantasy Football, Hughes is certainly no rookie when it comes to fantasy leagues in general.
“I’ve been playing fantasy league basketball for 12 years now,” he said. Being a big basketball fan living for six months in a city with no professional team, he said he feels like his fantasy league helps him, “stay in touch with the game.”
All told, Hughes currently participates in three fantasy football leagues, one basketball leagues and occasionally a golf league.
Yes. A fantasy golf league.
“The golf one is great,” he said with a slight laugh. “I don’t follow it otherwise, so it helps keep my interest up in golf.”
The Pirates sometimes puts together its own fantasy football league, if they can get enough people to join, he said. “A lot of the guys don’t play, or just don’t want to think about sports in the off season, but I think we’ll have enough this year,” he added.
One former teammate he’s likely happy not to be squaring off against this season? Travis Snider, who played for the Buccos from 2012-2014 and again late in 2015. “In the past the best team league owner was Travis Snider,” he said laughing. “He’d trash talk so much though that we just didn’t want to deal with it anymore.”
[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”Jared Hughes” link=”” color=”#000000″ class=”” size=””]I picked up a bunch of running backs. I hope they stay healthy[/perfectpullquote]
Does he expect some of the same from Watson, whose team was rated best draft for his BLI fantasy league, this season?
“Oh, there will definitely be some trash talking. I’ll just wait for him to dish it out – then I’ll give it right back,” he said in mock defiance.
Fantasy sports are increasing in popularity, with the New York Post estimating that in 2015, 75 million Americans participated in fantasy football alone, spending a whopping $4.6 billion. In 2014, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association estimated that nearly 57 million people in the US and Canada participated in fantasy sports, acknowledging that the numbers would explode over the next few years.
Still, not everyone is a fan. There is a belief that fantasy sports focuses too much on individual players and not enough on teams – which erodes support for an organization as a whole. Hughes acknowledged that school of thought, but doesn’t see things in that way.
Getting Fans Involved While Doing Good
“I really love fantasy leagues, I think it’s so great for fans because it gets them more involved, which is always a good thing,” he said. “They are good for the game and growing people’s interest in the game.”
As for the guy who has played fantasy sports for longer than he’s been playing professional baseball, what’s it’s like to now be a person who might get drafted to someone’s fantasy team?
“I’m not sure how big of a contributor I’d be in fantasy baseball,” he laughed.
Hughes said he will keep fans updated on the progress of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Bortles as the season progresses via his twitted feed @locatejared and may even get some of the others owners in his league involved in the discussion as well.
For more information on Big League Impact – visit their website at www.bigleagueimpact.org