WRIGHT AND WATKINS
A RETURN to the MOUND and a LASTING FRIENDSHIP
By GLENN MILLER
Roy Hobbs Baseball
Thurston Watkins remembers meeting Gary Wright in a dugout at Terry Park before a Tidewater Drillers game maybe 13 years ago.
He was in the stadium for a baseball game, not softball, a game he had played for many years after playing baseball at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.
What was he getting into? Sure, he had missed baseball. But it had been a long time.
Wright, one of the founders of the Drillers’ multi-age program 30+ years ago, was and remains the Drillers manager. He had a simple question for the new guy that day.
“You want to play some ball?” Wright asked him, as Watkins remembers the conversation.
Watkins responded, “That’s why I’m here.”
He has remained a Driller, playing with Wright in various divisions and on Roy Hobbs World Series championship teams.
It was one of those take-a-chance team additions that allows the dugout and the game of baseball to create lasting relationships.
Wright estimates the year they met as 2007 or 2008. In all the years they’ve played together Wright learned first about Watkins’ ability, something all the teams the Drillers have played over the years can’t help but notice.
Wright described him as a “big-time player” who can pitch and hit.
On that first game as a Driller in that long-ago World Series game at Terry Park, Wright sent the new kid out to the mound as a starter. Might as well see what the guy can do.
But Watkins hadn’t played baseball since his collegiate career, 1974-77. Sure, he had thrown softballs during the 215 or so slo-pitch games he used to play every year. But that doesn’t translate into stepping on a mound in a baseball park and pitching several innings at the age of 52 or 53.
So, Watkins was handed a uniform, changed and went down to the bullpen to warm up. Wright couldn’t be sure. Yes, Wright couldn’t help but notice that Watkins is 6-foot-3 and about 220 pounds and looked like a ballplayer.
Looking like a ballplayer doesn’t always mean somebody can play the game. Consider the many fine baseball movies made over the years when athletic-looking actors swing a bat or throw a ball. Some of the efforts have been cringe-worthy.
Watkins definitely wasn’t cringe-worthy. Not even close. Watkins remembers his thoughts as he took the mound in historic Terry Park.
That was his initial reaction. He also noticed the park was very nice and his new teammates were serious.
Then, it was like he was back in college as a standout pitcher. Watkins recalls breezing through the first inning on 10 pitches, striking out three. He ended up striking out, as he recalls, 12 or 13 over a few innings.
He also recalls his new manager’s reaction.
“He said where in the world have you been?” Watkins said, quoting his manager from that game.
He told Wright he had been playing softball.
Both men are successful businessmen away from the field. Watkins own half of Greenbrier Dodge in Chesapeake, Va. Wright owns Wright’s Well & Irrigation in Virginia Beach. That company is the origin of the team’s name.
But it’s more than talent that has kept these teammates together. It’s respect for how they live their lives and treat others.
Watkins admires Wright’s work ethic on and off the field.
“He works really hard at his profession,” Watkins said.
The men respect what the other has achieved as successful Virginia businessmen and how the drive, initiative and discipline needed in business has translated into building a baseball team and enduring friendships.
It all began in that long-ago Roy Hobbs World Series game.
The car dealer was hooked being back in baseball, but it’s the camaraderie that really keeps pulling him back to the Roy Hobbs World Series year after year.
“It’s the before and after games,” Watkins said, referring to the precious time when teammates bond and share stories and maybe harmless lies about exploits from yesteryear.
Another factor that keeps him coming back is his friend and manager, Gary Wright. He respects Wright’s organizational ability that keeps the Drillers and its various age group teams humming along.
“It didn’t take long to realize he has a handle on things,” Watkins said.
It’s more than administrative ability he admires in Wright.
“He’s really dedicated to baseball as much as anybody I’ve seen,” Watkins said. “It’s his heart and soul.”
Wright knows his way around the game and can spot talent. In Watkins, he has one of the best.
“He pitches, and he hits,” Wright said.
Even now, 40 years after Watkins’ collegiate career, he can still hit. Wright said Watkins can still blast 375-foot homers with a 32-inch wood bat. And then the lefty can still deal from the mound.
“He’s the real deal,” Wright said.
Wright said Watkins has been nicknamed “The Franchise.”
Then there is Watkins’ humble character.
“You wouldn’t know if he had 3 dollars or a whole bunch of money,” Wright said.
As the co-owner of a successful Dodger dealership, Watkins is certainly comfortable financially.
Wright, though, appreciates Watkins’ modesty and generosity toward teammates who might not be as well off.
“Just one of a kind,” Wright said.
Thurston Watkins and Gary Wright have come a long way since that first game together at Terry Park.
But one thing above all binds them together.
“Once a Driller,” Watkins said, “always a Driller.”