ST. LOUIS -- Hours before taking the mound against the Braves, Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright -- along with teammates David Freese, Matt Holliday and Allen Craig -- hosted 44 fantasy-football participants in a first-of-its-kind charity draft experience at Busch Stadium.
The idea -- to create a fantasy football league where fans can compete with Major League players -- was one that Wainwright had mulled over for years, and it became a tangible concept during the offseason when he and brother, Trey, began to work through the logistics. They got the blessing from the Major League Baseball Players' Association to move forward, and brought on St. Louis-based Real Time Fantasy Sports to run the league, free of charge.
"We're excited, not only to work with Adam and the other Cardinals, but to help out with the charities," said Tim Jensen, chief operating officer of RTSports. "We have been very blessed in our business to make a living goofing off, so this is an opportunity to return something to people who are maybe less fortunate. Between Trey and Adam, they are so passionate about doing this event and helping these charities. The commitment from the beginning was real strong."
Within about three weeks of opening up the league to participants for an entry fee of $2,500, all 44 spots were filled. That brought in $110,000 to be split evenly among two charities -- Operation Food Search and Water Missions International. One of Friday's draft participants donated an additional $1,000 on behalf of his family-owned, Chicago-area business.
With the Wainwright brothers covering the little overhead cost there was, every penny that was donated went to charity. Wainwright got assistance, too, from the Cardinals, who donated space and food for Friday's event.
"It took a long time to start executing, but once the execution began, the generosity of all our partners carried us through," said Trey Wainwright, who flew in from Atlanta. "He's more passionate about this event than he has been passionate about anything in a long time."
All paying participants arrived at the ballpark early Friday to begin their day with a stadium and clubhouse tour. Afterward, they gathered in the Busch Stadium party suites for brunch and to hear more about the two charities that will be benefiting from the event. RTSports explained the parameters of the live draft just before the four Cardinals players joined the group for photos.
Then, the real competition began.
The group split up into four rooms for four separate drafts. A Cardinals player was included in each 12-team league, while other participants ranged from first-time fantasy football players to some of the most avid, like St. Louis-area resident Derek Pierson, who estimates that he is managing 95 teams this football season.
For the next four-plus months, participants will be competing for bragging rights and prizes.
"The opportunity to get to meet these guys for a little bit is great," said Bill Brunk of Washington, Ill. "And then to know that the money is going to a good cause, that makes it even better."
"You get to watch these guys who you watch every night on TV," added Patrick Polster, whose team, Foresaken Dogs, is competing in Craig's league. "For the money, I convinced myself that it would be pretty special to have a personal interaction with our heroes."
Polster, who lives in Austin, Texas, is one of several people who traveled from other states to participate in the experience. Adam Wainwright said that the states of Georgia, Arizona and New Jersey were also represented at the event.
St. Louis-area resident Jason Bogle was registered by his father for a birthday present. Pat Benson of Hannibal, Mo., said he agreed to join the league at the insistence of his wife.
"Everybody seems to be overwhelmed with what we're doing here," Adam Wainwright said. "It's a great cause, obviously, for two amazing charities. Just the idea of throwing charity in with fantasy football -- something everybody loves to do anyways -- really struck a chord."
Wainwright, who named his team "Uncle Charlie" as a nod to his trademark curveball, selected Bears running back Matt Forte with the 10th overall pick. "He's going to have a career year for me," Wainwright said after locking in.
Craig (team name: Clinton Tortis) went with LeSean McCoy as his top pick, while Holliday (team name: Matt Holliday) took Marshawn Lynch first. Freese (team name: Fast Times at Freesemont High) made Tampa Bay running back Doug Martin his first selection after Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson went off the board one pick ahead.
"It was a good time," Freese said afterward. "For people to show up and spend that kind of money for charity to be a part of a fantasy football league is a cool thing to be a part of. Waino came at me with an idea of having a fantasy league, and I was full steam ahead from the get-go. What an amazing concept to combine fantasy football with charity. That just shows what type of guy Adam is."
Though the competition only commenced with Friday's draft, Wainwright continues to have grand plans for the charity experience. He hopes to eventually get all 30 MLB teams to participate, with the Braves and Phillies perhaps the first in line to add the event.
Representatives from Cole Hamels' Foundation traveled from Springfield, Mo., to observe the draft after the Phillies pitcher expressed an interest in getting involved. Wainwright encouraged some of his friends from the Braves' organization to stop by the draft rooms as well. Wainwright, who came up through Atlanta's farm system, still plays in a separate fantasy football league with former Minor League teammates, including Braves catcher Brian McCann.
"The opportunity is huge," said Trey Wainwright. "It's almost overwhelming to think about. We would love to create the system. We just need one Major League player in other cities to be passionate and get behind it."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.