If it’s truly time to grow up, give me another week.
I’m not sure when I started playing organized baseball but 1962, as a 10-year-old member of the Dial-A-Car Comets of the Central Nassau County (NY) Little League, is as good a guess as any. I still have the team picture. One thing I know for sure is, back then, I gave no thought to still be playing at 70. Heck, I couldn’t even count to 70.
But here I am this morning, giddy as a kid, putting on a baseball uniform again. Seventy years, seven months. Almost as old as Bartolo Colon when he finally called it quits a few years ago. I’m not necessarily still going strong but, still going. If I can l bend over, I’m ready to lace ‘em up one last time. Why not?
I don’t remember how many years I played Little League on Long Island. Maybe three or four. My parents sent me to Little League Baseball Camp in Williamsport, PA, for a month in 1963 and again in 1964 to learn how to play the game. It didn’t work.
I played junior high ball and was on the freshmen and JV teams at Clarke High School in Westbury, NY. Things didn’t go too well. I played first base behind a football-basketball-baseball stud named Steve Rothenberg. I hated Steve Rothenberg. Now I like him a little bit because he is a member of SMC partner Medjet. But 50-plus years ago I didn’t like him one lick because he was much better than me.
The Clarke varsity baseball coach, Jack McDonald, loved Rothenberg. A lot. In fact, he told me not to even bother trying out for the team in 1969. That was a blow as I had a very good JV season in ‘68. Or so I thought. I played four innings in the field, was errorless mainly because nothing was hit to me, and got three at-bats, striking out twice and walking once. Despite never putting a ball in play, I had a .333 on-base average which I thought would be good enough to at least give me a varsity look. No such deal according to Coach Mac.
From 1969 until 2010 I didn’t touch a competitive baseball. That’s 41 years or a gap longer than the Watergate tapes.
Then I did something I thought was pretty stupid. I was intrigued by a colleague from our 1990-99 days living in Wichita, Kansas, who had a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform displayed in his den. The uniform had his last name on it. He told me about Major League Baseball fantasy camp, his childhood love of the Dodgers and how great his week was playing with his former idols in Vero Beach, Florida. I told Andi to keep that thought in the ‘what-can-I-get-him’ one day vault.
Some of you have heard the story before. In 2010 when the Pittsburgh Pirates were celebrating their half century anniversary of their 1960 World Championship, the theme for their fantasy camp that January was a celebration of 1960: my first baseball team love and my first baseball memory. My dad was a Pirates fan; so I thought I had to be, too.
Years after that Dodgers uniform in Wichita, I mentioned the Pirates camp theme to Andi. She told me it was time to live that dream. Or nightmare. The kids were out of the house, the mortgage paid and the $3500 for the week was within our cookie jar spending limits.
Not knowing a thing about what to expect, I called Pirates fantasy camp director Joe Billetdeaux and told him I was 57 years old, hadn’t played hard ball in over forty years, and had no idea if I could hit a baseball. And my reflexes were all but shot. He replied: “You’ll fit right in.” Yeah, sure. Magic words of a salesman. It worked. I sent a deposit.
Then living in Birmingham, I found a local batting cage and had a machine pitch to me. The machine won. I tossed the baseball with my brother and sons a few weeks before camp started. My arm hurt. I ran around the bases at our local high school to get loose and got nowhere very slowly. It was setting up for what Trump would term a ‘disaster’ half a dozen years later.
Before leaving for Bradenton, 45 miles south of Tampa, in late January ‘10, I booked a return flight for the next day. Camps are normally a week long, but I had serious doubts I would survive a day. It became really intimidating about a week before when I got the itinerary in the mail and saw the players from the 1960 Pirates who would be our coaches: Bill Mazeroski, Bob Friend, Vernon Law, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon and Joe Gibbon among the group. Old time baseball fans recognize the names. In 1960, when I was 10, these guys were already legendary in my young mind. Now I would be on the same field with them. Intimidating was a gross understatement.
I manufactured the gumption to at least report to camp at the Pirates training facility aptly named Pirate City. The evening before the games started, I was sitting at the opening dinner with another unsure rookie, Ron Lepionka from Atlanta. We were making small talk when a gray, curly-haired gentleman asked if we minded if he sat with us. It was Jerry Reuss, who won 220 games as a left-handed pitcher in the big leagues including a no-hitter in 1980, and a World Championship the next year as a Dodger. He pitched for the Pirates from 1974-78 and was part of the week’s coaching staff. He saw two nervous guys picking at their beef tips, and as an ambassador, came to ease us. It worked. He introduced himself. We talked freely during dinner with him having as much interest in us as we did in his career. I learned that is the essence of a fantasy camp week.
The next morning we played an evaluation game so the coaching staff of ex-pros could draft their teams for the week. I doubt I did anything on the field to impress Reuss, but my knife control at dinner the night before must have left an impression. He, along with his coaching partner Bill Virdon, drafted me.
That was pretty cool. I grew up admiring Mr. Virdon, the center fielder on the Pirates 1960 team. He then went on to manage not only the Pirates and Astros but most importantly the Yankees in 1974 and 1975. By then, I had become a staunch Yankees fan. For our first fantasy camp game, Virdon wrote me into the lineup card playing first base and batting sixth. On opening day of the 1975 Yankees season, Virdon started Chris Chambliss at first base and batted him sixth. The man knew talent. I called Southwest, took them up on their ‘no change fees’ and decided to stay the week.
That camp was going to be a one and done for me. But I played fairly well. Better on defense than I would have guessed and looking at my baseball card it says I hit .421 with eight hits in 19 at-bats and seven RBI. Don’t be too impressed. Fantasy baseball camp is much like watching what adult Little League would be. Where anything can happen and usually does. A ground ball to second base can easily become a triple. A fly ball to center can take hours to retrieve. Nobody can run any more. By day two, the line into the trainer’s room is miles longer than the one for the breakfast omelet station. Of my eight hits in my first camp, I’m going to guess maybe three were the real deal. There are no errors in the scorebook, only hits.
So, my one and done is still counting. Today will begin my 14th camp: my eighth with the Pirates; five with the Yankees and a Tigers camp in 2011. Some years I did two. I have more baseball uniforms hanging in my Las Vegas closet than on the rack at Dick’s. Camp hasn’t happened the past two years as the pandemic claimed the pitching mound. This year it was switched from it’s normal late January window to the first week of December because of a conflict getting fields at Pirate City. I haven’t played in four years spending 2019 and 2020 on the Pirates’ camp staff publishing a daily journal of activity, at least finding something which I was fairly good at and ran no risk of pulling any muscles.
This year I wanted back on the field. I wanted to play at 70. This will be my last go round. When things start at 10 today I have no idea what will happen or if I will ever be able to stand upright after going down for a ground ball. Two sessions of yoga a week for the past three months may be an elixir. If not, chugging Tylenol by the bottle will be.
Major League Baseball fantasy camp isn’t something to do for only a week. At least it’s not for me and most of the regulars. It has become a lifestyle. Camp is now a year round fraternity for those who come back every year. The return rate is an astonishing 85%. Guys get hurt regularly. The over/under on how many will be laid up for the rest of the week after two games is 2.5. We play eight or nine games, depending how far in the playoffs you get, seven-inning doubleheaders each day. Campers pitch. A few throw 60 mph. Most between 40-50. Nobody likes the young stud who throws 70 unless he’s your teammate. Eighty-four have reported to Pirate City for the week. Ages range from 33 to 80. Sixty is about average. I started this at 57 a dozen years ago; I am now among the ten oldest.
It’s a week of bad baseball, sophomoric pranks, too much alcohol, friendships and memories that keep you coming back as long as you are physically able. And then some return when they can’t play anymore just for the camaraderie. The former pros, once idolized, are now friends. Plus you can blow bubbles, spit freely and futz with your crotch and nobody gives you a second look.
Camp is also an incentive. A motivator. When I had my surprise five artery heart bypass in August 2017 I thought that was it; I was finished. Seven months earlier, and with what I thought was a healthy heart, I put down a deposit to play at the Pirates January ‘18 fantasy camp. I wasn’t going to let a cinco de bypass and the potential loss of a deposit stop me. Playing baseball five months after such a major and traumatic health experience undeniably motivated me. I didn’t rush my cardiac rehab, but I intensified it with the goal of being back on the field in Bradenton. Depression tends to take over during recovery but I didn’t let it. I had a clear goal. By December I was throwing and hitting a baseball. When my chest didn’t rip open, I knew I was on to something. I made it to camp. That was an incredible victory no matter what happened the rest of the week. I remember my first at-bat as if it was an hour ago. Normally I never swing at the first pitch. My heart was racing so fast, a good thing, and I was so pumped I actually swung at the first offering. The best part of this story would be to say I lined a base hit to right. Instead, a two-hopper to the shortstop and in a bang-bang play at first he got me by about twenty-five steps. It turned out to be the most rewarding ground ball of my life.
The best way to describe the action, or lack of it, on the field at a camp is the story of the senior couple from Pittsburgh who were in the Bradenton area a few years ago. They stopped by Pirate City to watch what they thought was Pirates spring training. Instead, it was fantasy camp week. After about five minutes, George turns to Florence and says, “I sure hope they get better by opening day.”
For the last time, put me in coach. I hope I’m ready to play.