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Ben Smith

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‘Weird’ days for Ohio pair

– You find him sorting through a pile of uniform pants in the middle of the clubhouse, mundane stuff for the first day of a strange new reality. Might as well have been Saturday morning at a garage sale, looking for that gently used Ken Griffey Jr. Reds jersey.

Instead, Justin Hancock is holding up one pair of not-so-gently used pants and then another, looking for the right fit and trying to figure out how he went from fan to fan favorite in, like, half a nanosecond.

“Oh, yeah,” the TinCaps’ right-handed pitcher says. “I used to come here all the time for games. Came to a lot of them.”

And now?

Well, now he’ll be here for all of them, and so will Matt Wisler across the way there, sitting behind a pile of bags in front of his new locker. Wisler, a 19-year-old righty himself, is from Bryan, an easy hour northeast of here. Hancock is from Defiance, not even an hour east. Being assigned to Fort Wayne, less than a year after signing their first contracts, was pretty much like being told, “Get up off the couch. Go out in the backyard. Welcome to pro baseball.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely weird,” Hancock observes. “But everybody back home is really excited.”

And Wisler?

He, too, used to come over here for Wizards games when he was a kid, and last year he and his dad actually came to a game at Parkview Field, met TinCaps president Mike Nutter and his staff, asked a lot of questions about baseball at the minor-league level.

At the time, Wisler was trying to decide whether to sign a pro contract or go to Ohio State; neither he nor the TinCaps dreamed he would wind up being drafted by the Padres and arrive back at Parkview Field the next April as a player and not just an interested bystander.

“When the Padres drafted him, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” says Nutter, a northwest Ohio guy himself from Napoleon.

Wisler was no less floored.

“I thought going into spring training I’d probably stay in extended, maybe go to Eugene (short-season A ball),” he says. “Kind of a shock to me I was coming here, but I’m really excited to be here just because it feels like home.”

A smile.

“The thing with me is, I remember coming here when I was younger to get guys’ autographs, and now it’s going to be people coming from my school looking for my autograph. I mean, it was just a couple of years ago I came over here to watch a kid I pitched with in high school.”

And now that kid is him. Wisler figures his parents and grandparents and uncles – shoot, everybody – will make the trek over from Bryan, and ditto Hancock’s relatives from Defiance.

And the home feel of that only gets intensified by the fact that Wisler and Hancock played against each other in high school, even trained together with Hancock’s coach.

“We always go back and forth about whether or not we pitched against each other,” Wisler says. “We can’t remember. But I do know we’ve played against each other.”

Hancock, for his part, says baseball has always been it for him, from the time he was little enough to chuck the ball around with his dad. So this is where he always hoped he’d be someday.

Well. Maybe not here, specifically.

“I thought it was pretty promising for me to be here,” says Hancock, a ninth-round pick in 2011 out of Lincoln Trail Junior College in Robinson, Ill.

“But, yeah, it is weird to be playing pro ball so close to your hometown.”

In a good way.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.