LaTroy Hawkins and family

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When LaTroy Hawkins finally retires, Major League Baseball not only will be the lesser from his absence, the states of Arizona and Florida could see a drop in tourism. That’s because every year, an inner core of members of the LaTroy Hawkins Fan Club travel to spring training to support the reliever, wherever he’s playing and for whomever he’s pitching.

Well, officially they are members of his fan club. But they and roughly 40 members overall are all so amazingly close that Hawkins considers them part of his own family. “One of the coolest things happens when we’re talking to him before the games and people will come down and want to interrupt," says Larry Campbell, LHFC member No. 21. “And LaTroy says, ‘Not right now, I’m talking with my family.' He refers to us as family. Not friends. Family."

“It’s hard for me to even talk about -- I still get goose bumps about how genuinely nice they are," Hawkins says. “And how they don’t want anything from me. They’re just the nicest people in the world you would ever want to meet. The most caring people you would ever want to meet."

Well, like all family members do, sometimes they do ask for something. Like the request made by Eric Weber (LHFC member No. 230) when he was 17 and attending high school near the Twin Cities a decade or so ago. He and Hawkins were chatting online one day when Weber suddenly asked whether he could borrow the pitcher’s BMW 745 so he could drive his date, Hannah, to the junior prom.

And Hawkins said sure, of course. Because that’s the kind of guy Hawkins is.

The day of the prom was also the day of a Twins game, so Weber waited for Hawkins and the car at the Metrodome. When Hawkins pulled up with the BMW, a fan standing next to Weber asked whose car it was. Weber said, “That’s the car I’m driving to the prom!" Hawkins got out and handed Weber the keys.

“Then LaTroy’s mom drives up in a minivan and picks him up," Weber says. “LaTroy says, ‘Have fun!’, opens up the sliding door of the minivan and gets in with his mom. And then we’re driving down Interstate 94 in his Beemer."

The BMW must have been impressive. Eric and Hannah wound up getting married several years later. “To this day, she will say I was far more into the car than her that night," Weber says. “But that’s understandable. I was 17 and I was driving around a major leaguer’s BMW."

That’s not the end of it, though. When the Webers married, Hawkins flew from his Texas home to Minnesota on New Year’s Eve in terrible weather to be one of Eric’s groomsmen. Not only that, the best man had bronchitis so Hawkins delivered the reception speech in his place.

“He is just a very kind, giving guy. He just wants to make people happy," Weber says. “He commands such a presence. He’s such a magnet -- people cling to him because he’s so much fun to be around."

By the way, the Weber family paid Hawkins back last year for that BMW prom ride. Weber’s father is a pilot for Delta Airlines and when Hawkins was with the Mets last season, he flew the team charter from Denver to Minnesota.

* * *

The LHFC started during the 2000 season for one very simple reason. One day, Hawkins stopped to sign autographs outside the Metrodome for Eric Englund and Heidi Sutter.

“We just started talking to him. He was like some guy we hadn't seen in a long time," Sutter says. “And he was just so incredibly nice and we were like, ‘Wow.’ We didn't even talk much about baseball. After we had talked to him for a while, Eric and I said, ‘Wow, we should make a fan club for him.'"

So the next game, they started signing up members among the fellow fans sitting around them in Section 216 of the Metrodome. Hawkins, himself, signed up the following day. And the club just grew from there, until eventually there were nearly a thousand members.

“LaTroy was so receptive," Sutter says. “It was like a great friendship started. As we went along, there were more and more people. He once said, 'They didn't really care about me "the baseball player," they cared more about me "the man."' And that’s how it was."

Englund, the LHFC president, says the club really caught fire at spring training the following year, 2001, when several members went to see Hawkins and the Twins in Fort Myers, Fla., and LaTroy took them out to dinner. When the season began, Hawkins also asked the club members to meet him outside the Metrodome after the game. And from there, the relationship just grew and strengthened through picnics, barbecues, golf outings, basketball games, card games, trips to the zoo, babysitting, visits to Hawkins’ hometown of Gary, Ind. -- you name it.

“The relationship goes the other way, too. He’s kind of invited us in a way into his family," Englund says. “Whether it’s some of us going to his grandmother’s funeral or going to his wife’s milestone birthday -- all these different events on his side -- he’s welcomed us and invited us as if we’re family. And I feel like family."

Linda Campbell (Larry’s wife and LHFC member No. 20) says that when Hawkins’ wife, Anita, was pregnant with daughter, Troi, a dozen years ago, she invited female fan club members to a baby shower that the Twins' wives threw. Anita had hernia surgery a few months after she gave birth and was unable to lift Troi. So the members got together and helped out.

“We took assorted times -- first thing in the morning, lunch time, evening time," Campbell says. “It was when LaTroy and the Twins were on the road so we took different shifts taking care of Troi -- giving her a bath, feeding her, anything we could do for Anita. In fact, one morning we got there before they even got up."

The members send birthday cards and greetings to Hawkins’ mother and other relatives. Some will drive him around when he’s in town with a team and doesn't have a car. Each year, the LHFC holds a dinner on Hawkins’ birthday and calls him to sing “Happy Birthday."

“I know how it’s affected my life in a positive way," Hawkins says. “My family, my wife, daughter, son, brother, cousins, aunties, grandparents. They keep in contact with everybody, even my brother in prison. It’s amazing. There are still nice people in this world. And they found me."

* * *

Spring training is special for the club’s core members. The LHFC members are Twins fans, but when Minnesota let Hawkins go and he joined the Cubs, a dozen or so decided to go to spring training in Mesa, Ariz., too.

“One reason this really took off is we were all concerned about him," says LHFC member Jim Holst. “He signed out of high school, and he was always a Twin. Then he goes to the Cubs and we didn't want him to be alone. We wanted to be there to support him. So we went down to spring training. We said, ‘We want to be here for you.'"

Hawkins has changed teams 10 times, playing for the Twins, Cubs, Giants, Orioles, Rockies, Yankees, Astros, Brewers, Angels, Mets and now the Rockies again. He’s played in 10 different spring training camps, five in Arizona and five in Florida. And that inner core of fan club members have visited him in each.

“It’s amazing. It is just amazing. Fourteen straight spring trainings. Florida. Arizona," Hawkins says. “Last year when I signed on Jan. 29, they already had their plans made for Arizona because they like coming to Arizona. Then I signed with the Mets and they were like, ‘We already changed our reservations.’ They canceled everything and said, ‘We’ll see you in Florida.'"

“To be honest, we like going to Phoenix more than Florida because all the teams are right there," Larry Campbell says. “So last year before LaTroy signed, we took a 50-50 shot and booked Phoenix. It was late January, and sure enough, he signs with the Mets. I told my wife, ‘You want to go to Port St. Lucie?'"

At the peak, 15 to 20 LHFC members would travel to spring training. Now it’s around half that. The trips are still great fun -- who wouldn't rather lather on the sunscreen instead of shoveling snow? -- but there are sacrifices in the LHFC. After all, these are Twins fans and Hawkins hasn't pitched for Minnesota in more than a decade.

“When he was with the Yankees, that was when I was really torn because I can’t stand the Yankees," Sutter says. “I had to keep telling people, we support LaTroy. So wherever he is, we’re LaTroy fans. But we don’t have to be Yankees fans."

* * *

One of the oldest and most passionate members of the LHFC on those early spring training trips was Sutter’s mother, Granny Lynne, a longtime Twins season-ticket holder. She developed dementia, though, and last year when the Mets had a series in Minnesota, Hawkins made sure to visit her in her memory care unit.

“We knew it was probably the last time he would see her," Sutter says. “She had dementia, but she sure remembered him. She would always ask, ‘How’s Hawk? How’s Hawk? How’s my boy?’ She referred to him as her other son.

“After the Saturday Mets-Twins game, he said, ‘OK, I’m going to go visit Mom.’ He met me out at her care center and he brought her all these things. She was just so thrilled he was there and he was just very humored by her. He was there a good hour and a half to two hours with my mom, talking and laughing. He brought a baseball and a cap and signed them.

“That’s what he does. He goes out of his way for people who are important to him."

When Granny Lynne died last month, she was buried with the baseball cap and baseball Hawkins autographed for her.

“He’s just always there for us. And we have just more fun with him. He’s an incredible human being," Sutter says. “We all hope he never stops pitching. It’s like, ‘OK, he’s 41 this year and a team still wanted him.’ We can’t imagine him not being on that diamond and that pitching mound.

“It’s pretty neat. We continue to go to spring training with whatever team he’s pitching for, wherever they’re training, that’s where we’ll go for spring training. We’re his fans."

Hawkins is in the top 20 of most games pitched. If he can pitch another 57 games -- he pitched 72 last season -- he will reach the 1,000-game mark, something only 15 pitchers have done. Depending on whether Jose Contreras makes the Rangers' roster, Hawkins could be the oldest pitcher in baseball this season.

One of these years, though, Hawkins will retire. The spring training trips will end. But the fan club and the relationships will not. They can’t, because they are family.

“He’s an honest, fair man," Holst says. “He works really hard and treats everyone with a lot of respect. That’s the only reason I joined the club. I got to know him and found out he’s a good man. Not pretentious at all. He’s down to earth, talks to anybody. We’ll be friends forever, until one of us dies."