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First HR Derby Virtual Reality champ crowned

MLB.com

WASHINGTON -- When it looked like 9-year-old Charles Smolka was not going to be able to get his hair cut before making his trip from New York to Washington, D.C. for the 2018 All-Star festivities, his father -- who was working a night shift -- tracked down Smolka's uncle to get him to the barber to get "ASG" shaved into the side of his head.

"I just thought, 'I hope this effort was worth something,'" Smolka's father, Patrick, said.

WASHINGTON -- When it looked like 9-year-old Charles Smolka was not going to be able to get his hair cut before making his trip from New York to Washington, D.C. for the 2018 All-Star festivities, his father -- who was working a night shift -- tracked down Smolka's uncle to get him to the barber to get "ASG" shaved into the side of his head.

"I just thought, 'I hope this effort was worth something,'" Smolka's father, Patrick, said.

It was definitely worth something, but the Smolka family just didn't know it yet. Only a few days after getting those three letters sculpted into his hair, Smolka walked out of FanFest with four tickets to Tuesday's All-Star Game presented by Mastercard after winning the first Home Run Derby Virtual Reality title.

From Friday to Sunday, all FanFest participants had an opportunity to step into a batting cage, throw on a pair of virtual reality goggles, grab a bat and take some swings to qualify for one of the 32 spots in the tournament on Monday. Smolka just stepped into the cage for fun on Saturday, not realizing that he could end up qualifying for the tournament.

"It wasn't that hard," Smolka said of his first attempt at playing baseball in virtual reality. "It's really cool. It's like you're actually on the field playing the actual Home Run Derby."

Smolka only played that one time, but once was enough, as his uncle got the call that Smolka was going to be participating in baseball's first Virtual Reality Home Run Derby tournament while sitting at the Futures Game on Sunday.

"We couldn't believe it," Patrick Smolka said. "I actually didn't believe my brother. I thought he was joking, talking about a jersey. I thought he was messing around. This is really great. We really appreciate what Major League Baseball is doing here."

The Smolka family arrived to FanFest around 10 in the morning on Monday in preparation for the tournament that started later that afternoon.

"I was very nervous," Smolka said. "Since I haven't really done this before, I was nervous that I wouldn't do that good."

Each of the 32 participants received jerseys with their nicknames on the back, a pair of batting gloves and a hat with their favorite team on it. The nerves then started to fade away for Smolka, as he advanced through the first two rounds of the tournament.

To be able to beat your opponent, one must launch as many home runs as possible -- scoring more if they are consecutive -- while aiming at "multipliers," which were targets floating above the outfield fence that would multiply points by as many times listed.

In about the second round, Smolka started to make a bond with another participant in the competition, nicknamed "Coop," who was on the other side of the bracket. Once they realized they could be in the finals against one another, it instantly became both of their goals. And that's exactly what happened.

"It's what we tried to do the whole time," Smolka said. "It was the second or third round that we decided that."

The championship matchup was the closest of the afternoon. Throughout the entire day, Smolka's cheering section -- made up of his dad, uncle and close family friend -- made sure that he knew he was supported.

"Always when your son or your daughter plays, the toughest thing is not being able to do anything but just yell like a maniac in the background," Patrick Smolka said. "He gets anxious, but he knows he just has to do the same thing every time. He's been playing since he was 5 years old. He's really gotten the hang of pressure situations."

With over 120,000 people live-streaming the event, Smolka channeled his inner power hitter from his time in travel baseball -- noting that he has hit a triple or a home run in almost every week of the season so far -- to outslug Coop in the championship round on a shot that came with no time left on the clock.

"It feels amazing," Smolka said.

Smolka originally had standing room only tickets to the All-Star Game on Tuesday, but he now has four reserved seats after his victory on Monday. His goal is to track down Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, and hopefully get an autograph.

"It's unbelievable, because we were going to be standing in the back rows peeking over people's shoulders," Patrick Smolka said. "So now we can sit, he can have a hot dog and a drink, doesn't have to hold it, keep it in his lap and enjoy the game."

On top of his tickets, Smolka took home many more gifts, including his new jersey, batting gloves, a bat and a new backpack.

"I can't believe the gifts they gave them just for making the competition, [that] alone was worth it," Patrick Smolka said. "And then everything else on top, just unbelievable. We're extremely grateful."

Mandy Bell is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York.