Best of St. Louis: Plumber by day, dart champion by night –

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(Part of the “Best of St. Louis” series, featuring the region’s top performers in Olympic and recreational sports.)

The best darts player in St. Louis came to the game relatively late in life, picking up his first darts in 2006. He was 30 and did so because a relative needed a fourth to fill out a team in a league.

“I haven’t put them down since,” Eric Gregory said.

Since then, Gregory, 44 of South St. Louis, has played darts around the country and around the world, qualifying for the Winmau World Masters event in London in 2019. He won the National Dart Association soft tip world championship in Las Vegas in 2015. Six nights a week, you probably can find him somewhere with a dart in hand, either in a local league during the week or in a tournament on weekends.

During the day, though, you can find him underneath a sink for the family-owned plumbing company started by his grandfather, passed on to his father and now to him. The company’s office is in his basement. So is his dartboard, though, Gregory notes, a low ceiling there makes it not very suitable for practice because the top of the dartboard sits right up against the ceiling. But he still throws there every day because he simply loves darts.

“He plays local leagues every night of the week,” said Dave Madison, president of the Missouri Valley Darting Organization. “He’s on my team on Monday nights.”

Darts, at least in America, is not a sport many can make a living off of, and Gregory is no exception. He’s very good at what he can do with a dart in his hand, but that won’t pay the bills the way being good with a pipe wrench in his hands does. So there he is, the third-generation Gregory running Dependable Plumbing and Sewer Cleaning.

Night and day

During the week, Gregory will go out on calls, stop at home for lunch and to throw darts in his basement for 45 minutes, then get back out for the rest of the day’s service calls. And at night, he’ll be wherever someone is picking up darts. (His wife, Adrienne, plays too, so don’t think she’s being abandoned at home.)

“I played a little basketball, baseball as a kid,” he said. “I can’t say I’m out of shape; I’m still in pretty solid shape. I’m just being competitive without exerting a ton of energy. That’s the main thing. It’s not something that came super easy. I seemed to have a little bit of talent, a natural ability for it, and within four or five weeks of starting, I was outshooting most people in the league. They said I should keep with it and now I’m traveling all over the country, I went overseas last fall. I would never have guessed. The more I started playing, the more I wanted to be best.”

But it won’t allow him to quit his day job. Maybe in the United Kingdom, where darts are very big (nine of the top 10 in the world in money earning now are from the UK), the very best players can support themselves on darts alone. But not in this country. While an occasional tournament might offer big prize money, most don’t.

‘Like rock stars’

When Gregory qualified for the U.S. team that went to the UK last year, he got to see how the other half lives.

“The No. 1 in the world, just on prize money alone, makes under two million pounds ($2.42 million) a year,” Gregory said. “They’re like rock stars. Here the best player, unless you’re a fellow dart player, no one knows you. There, you get rushed.”

Gregory’s biggest win came in that Las Vegas event in 2015, In the final he went up against Jeremiah Miller, one of the top players in the world in the game of 501 — in which the goal is to subtract points until you get to exactly zero, and you have to hit a double (the narrow ring at the top edge of the dartboard, closest to the numbers) on the final dart.

Gregory needed to get exactly 146 points on his final three darts to win, and if he didn’t, Miller needed just 24 points when his turn came. Gregory hit a triple 19 (the triple is the narrow band closer to the bulls eye), triple 19 and then a double 16 “for the whole kit and caboodle,” he said. “That was nine years of trying to prove myself. That was emotional. If I don’t hit it, and I might (hit it) two out of 10 times, three out of 10 at best, he’s going to hit 24 about every time. It was a do-or-die type thing. Something was shining on me that day.

“That jump-started me. Now I can walk into a tournament in Nashville or out in California, and all the top top players know who I am. That’s kind of neat. When I first started to go to these, they did not say a word. Now some of the best ask me how I’m doing.”

Still, the economics of darts are such that when Gregory goes to some tournaments, he carpools and shares a hotel room with another top local player, Brad Oxendine, to keep the costs down.

“Some tournaments are structured where you’ve got to win several events on a weekend to come out ahead,” said Gregory, who puts the most he ever won in one year at about $16,000. “Sometimes winning one or doing good in several will pay for my weekend, the travel, expenses, food for my wife. Sometimes I take a bath and lose a few hundred. It’s like a meaningful hobby.”

Local line

Gregory recorded a meaningful win in 2018 when he won the Blueberry Hill Open, the big local tournament held at Blueberry Hill in University City.

“To get my picture on the wall at Blueberry Hill meant a lot,” he said.

That win also was big because he had been in a slump after his father, Dickie, died in 2016.

“I was right in my wheelhouse,” he said. “I felt like I was the best player in St. Louis and was starting to get confidence. When he passed away, it crushed me for a while. I didn’t know how this was going to go. I was going to quit. Some of my sponsors stepped up big. I slowly started coming back and now I’m starting to get my desire. He would want me to keep playing.”

Tom Timmermann • 314-340-8190 @tomtimm on Twitter