Brandon Webb and his Arizona teammates play in a "Guitar Hero" band inside their clubhouse after games. Travis Hafner has the stick skills to play drums on expert in "Rock Band 2." Desi Relaford beats people down as Ken in "Street Fighter IV." And Matt Cain gives up video games during the season so sore thumbs don't get in the way of his grip.
Those were just some of the video game related stories I found down in Scottsdale as dozens of big leaguers took time out from Spring Training to compete in the "MLB 2K9" Home Run Derby at a charity fundraiser co-sponsored by Autism Speaks and the Southwest Autism Research and Resource Center.
Matt Holliday of the A's looked like an early favorite to win it all after smashing his first six pitches over the fence. But when his character started making outs, he started looking up his player rating in 2K9 and found plenty of numbers to blame on his character's sudden spaghetti-arm power outage.
The A's were always my team in ['RBI Baseball'] because the All-Star team has Canseco, McGwire, Reggie Jackson, Carney Lansford and Rickey Henderson. Talk about a lineup.
”-- Oakland A's Matt Holliday
"A 76 for power? C'mon! I only hit 25 home runs last year, but they need to take into account my career," Holliday said with a laugh. "They can't issue a power number like this after one year."
And Holliday knows what these ratings mean to gamers as he was a big "RBI Baseball" fan growing up, and in fact, still plays the classic game to this day. Crazy thing is, his favorite team in the game has always been Oakland, now he finds himself as a member of the A's.
"The A's were always my team in the game because the All-Star team has Canseco, McGwire, Reggie Jackson, Carney Lansford and Rickey Henderson. Talk about a lineup," said Holliday. "I was always a big sports gamer, and I still am as I love "NCAA Football." I have a PS3, and that's pretty much the only system I play now, but I still remember how excited I was when I first got into the league and I was finally in a game. It was Spring 2005 when I was going to be in a game for the first time, and honestly, as a gamer, that was one of my proudest moments. That is one of the cool parts of being in the Major Leagues. Now my kids can go on and play as me. Of course, being a 76, it's not like they are going to hit any homers as dad, but at least they don't need to create me."
As I walked around the tournament, the funny thing was, all of the power hitters in the room were losing to the pitchers at the Home Run Derby. And when cover boy Tim Lincecum started to advance in the tournament, everyone thought there was a ringer in the house. I mean, his face is on the cover of the box.
"What people don't realize is I suck at my game," Lincecum said. "If I should be good at one game, this is it, but I haven't had time to practice. I got lucky and hit a few out with Pujols, but don't expect me to last too long in this tournament."
And Lincecum was right, as the kid who grew up playing "Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX" on his PS2 was bounced in the next round.
His teammates didn't fare much better as all of the Giants contingent was eliminated by the second round, leaving the final four to Prince Fielder, Matt Herges, Seth McClung, and Chase Headley.
"I think they made me even more powerful in the game than I am in real life," laughed Fielder. "I just hit seven out in a row. We'll see if I can keep this up."
As they prepared for the semi-finals, I circled the room talking to various players about their favorite games.
But the more players I talked to, the more the same game kept being brought up: "RBI Baseball." Seems that's where almost every player broke in to the virtual diamond. The old arcade game is still so popular in clubhouses throughout the league that 2K Sports is going to revive the series as a direct to download title later this year using updated rosters.
And to ace pitcher Brandon Webb, this move couldn't come soon enough.
"If I could curve the ball in real life like I could in 'RBI Baseball,' I'd go 35-0," Webb laughed. "I grew up playing 'RBI' and I still play that, then I moved on to 'Baseball Stars.' But in 'RBI,' I loved St. Louis because of the speed and then you had Jack Clark to knock them home.
"I have a PS3 with about a 110-inch screen in my theater downstairs, so it's pretty sick. I play a lot of 'Guitar Hero' and 'Rock Band.' I'm a guitar player mostly. I play the guitar a little bit for real, so it's fun. I can do expert, and I love to throw in those cheat codes and play in hyper speed."
What people don't realize is I suck at my game. If I should be good at one game, this is it, but I haven't had time to practice.
”-- Giants pitcher and MLB 2K9 cover athlete Tim Lincecum
The other music-game lover in the house was Indians slugger Travis Hafner. "I go online to play 'Rock Band 2.' I love playing the drums," he said. "I actually played the drums all the way through high school, so it's fun to play in the game. Once I get to Megadeth on expert, though, that's when it gets a little too tough for me.
"I'm a big gamer, though. I have a 360 at home, then I usually end up playing a lot of 'SOCOM' on the PSP when I'm on the road with the guys. I'm a big 'Madden' and 'NCAA Football' guy. 'Tiger' is always fun. But I always seem to go back to playing 'Rock Band.' I remember back in college, though, the game I couldn't stop playing was 'World Series Baseball.'"
Funny thing is, just as Hafner tells me this, in walks the guy who was on the cover of "World Series Baseball 2K3," Jason Giambi.
Giambi likes to think of himself as a recovered gamer, but he still has all the systems and watches as his friends come over to blast each other at "Call of Duty." "I used to play all the time, but now I leave it to the younger guys. It's amazing how far the games have come. When I was a kid, your dad would read you the sports pages to find out about the different players, now the kids are learning everything about you through the games."
As for Giambi's keys to success in always being one of the top players in the "MLB 2K" franchise: "Become friends with the video game designers and they take care of you. That's how my guy has always been good."
If that's the case, Albert Pujols must give the guys at 2K Sports bonus money for every attribute point as the powerful polygon version of the Cardinal not only has the deadliest cuts in the game, he was the most used character in the Home Run Derby. And Pujols' sweet swing helped pitcher Matt Herges pull off the upset by winning the tournament and taking home the prize of an Xbox 360 complete with a variety of 2K Sports products.
"I have an advantage over most guys because I give up so many home runs for real. I guess that helped me hit them in the tournament," Herges admitted with a grin after the victory. "I wanted to play as Pujols because he's a guy I can never get out in real life. Luckily for me, he's just as good in the game."