Baseball may be his fantasy, but pigs are his reality
Hinkelman – the most famous pig farmer in Idaho, at least for the moment – won the top prize of $100,000 in a big-time fantasy baseball contest this fall. That made two national championships and more than $350,000 in winnings over three years for Hinkelman, a modest 59-year-old native of Greencreek, Idaho.
His victories in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship led to a profile in Monday’s New York Times. Since then, the tale of the Idaho pig farmer who’s outsmarting all the hotshots in one of the country’s biggest and most lucrative fantasy leagues has caught fire. The day I called, Hinkelman was getting ready to welcome TV stations from Spokane and Boise. He mentioned that the story was spreading on sports websites, and hinted that there might be “major media” appearances to come.
“My oldest son really follows the news,” said Hinkelman, “and he says when something like this happens, it’s like a disease breaking out. … I’ve gone viral.
“It’s just been phenomenal – well, I don’t know about phenomenal,” he said. “I don’t think it’s that great of a story anyway.”
You be the judge. Hinkelman has twice beaten a field that the New York Times claims includes computer geniuses, stockbrokers and money managers. He’s the only two-time champion in the league’s history. It’s unlikely anyone has won more prize money in fantasy baseball than Hinkelman, the Times reported.
What’s his secret? With baseball – as with his love of raising pigs – Hinkelman has a hard time putting it into words. In fantasy baseball leagues, participants draft major leaguers from different teams and then compile points based on those players’ statistical performances. Hinkelman said he seeks undervalued players – you’ve heard a similar notion if you’ve read or seen “Moneyball.” He looks for solid, unflashy players who’ve shown steady improvement, and for strong players coming off a bad year, as just a couple of examples.
“I’ve got a lot of things I look at,” he said. “I do a lot of studying with the stats in the wintertime.”
This year’s team included three players who had big years: Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, and Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees. Hinkelman won the NFBC championship by just a couple points – a margin of one-10th of 1 percent – on the last day of the regular season, Sept. 28.
Hinkelman grew up on the farm where he still lives – in a home about 100 yards from his current one in Greencreek, an unincorporated community near Cottonwood in north-central Idaho. His father grew grain and raised cattle and pigs. Hinkelman didn’t play baseball as a boy – farm kids were too busy for that in the summers – but he played basketball. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Idaho, where he played for the Vandals a little.
“A real little,” he said.
But it was in pigs, not athletics, where his future lay. “I knew when I was quite young, like early high school, that I just really liked pigs and I was going to raise pigs,” he said.
After four years at the UI, he’d met his future wife, Patty, and was ready to go home and start a hog operation. He left without graduating.
“I didn’t think a diploma on the wall would help the pigs grow any faster,” he said.
Hinkelman took over the pig part of his dad’s operation, and a brother took over the grain and cattle. He has about 500 pigs at any given time – he used to have a larger operation with an employee but found it was too big for his taste. His main source of income is from selling young pigs to 4-H kids all around the Northwest, to raise them for shows and sales at county fairs.
“It’s just a family farm,” he said. “I do all the work myself.”
Why pigs? “I wouldn’t know how to explain that,” he said. He’s just comfortable around them. Likes working among them – most days, anyway. Feels he has a knack.
His interest in fantasy baseball started years ago. In the late 1990s, he participated in a smaller online league; he won $7,000 for a third-place finish in 1999. In 2005, he joined the NFBC, which has an annual draft in Las Vegas. Along the way, he’s made lots of friends around the country; one of his best friends is a cop in New Jersey.
“This hobby can pair up a police officer in Jersey with a pig farmer in Idaho,” he said. “We’re old friends. We discuss different players, which ones we like.”
He hasn’t done anything extravagant with the winnings – though they’ve far outpaced his earnings from the farm. Hinkelman bought a new utility tractor, paid some debts and helped his four kids. Now he and his wife, Patty, a high school teacher in Cottonwood, plan to remodel their 35-year-old house.
He’s not interested in early retirement.
“Oh yeah – I have no interest in quitting the pigs,” he said. “It keeps me busy, for one thing. I wouldn’t know what to do if I didn’t have ’em, to be honest with you.”
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.