Commentary

Meet the (old) boys of spring

Originally Published: February 8, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As Bert Blyleven pointed out before autographing the bruise, my mistake was shouting "Remember, I have a Hall of Fame vote!" when I stepped into the batter's box to face him. He's right. I was too ambiguous. I should have made myself clear by yelling, "Remember, I vote FOR YOU for the Hall of Fame!"

"If you had done that," Bert said, "I would have grooved it in there for you."

Instead, he hit me in the left hip with a fastball. Which, again, was my fault. Bert wasn't trying to hit me. He merely wanted to throw the pitch behind me as a gag, but I stupidly stepped back into it. I winced, spun around and, naturally, charged the mound. Which was yet another mistake. Bert is not only 10 years older than me but he is also much bigger and in pretty good shape. So when I got to the mound, he grabbed me, laughed and pinned me to the ground.

When he helped me up, I chose to return to the plate to bat again rather than take my base, and this time Bert did indeed groove me a fastball. Not that it mattered. I hit a routine grounder to short and was thrown out by several steps. Still, it was a better outcome than my previous at-bat when he buckled my knees with an 0-2 curveball.

Twins Fantasy Camp
Al Schuth for ESPN.comBert Blyleven took great joy in tossing me to the ground like a rag doll.
Fellow campers jokingly asked whether I would continue voting for Bert. Of course I will. It was all in good fun and besides, when Blyleven does get elected in a year or so, I'll be able to say that I was hit with a pitch from a genuine Hall of Famer. The autograph may have washed off the bruise, but I have a signed ball to prove it.

"Hey Jim -- Sorry I hit you! NOT!" the ball reads. "Hope it hurts. Bert Blyleven."

Well, I'll admit it stung a bit (and if getting hit by his pitch hadn't hurt, I really would have to reconsider my vote), especially the next day. In fact, the bruise was still there almost two weeks later. But the hip still didn't hurt nearly as much as my shoulder after a week at Twins fantasy camp.

(Note to editor: Does workers' comp cover rotator cuff surgery?)

Five uniform lessons learned at fantasy camp

  1. No, I am not a 34 waist. Why the hell did I tell them I was a 34 waist? Talk about fantasies. I haven't been a 34 waist since Barry Bonds was a 7¼ cap.
  2. Remember to zip up your fly. (And for older players, also remember to zip down your fly.)
  3. Always wear a cup. That one pitcher we faced knows what I'm talking about. (And no, we weren't laughing about it on our bench. Well, not much.)
  4. Spikes clattering across concrete remains one of the most beautiful sounds in the world.
  5. The rose goes in the front, big guy.

Field of dreams

Most major league teams offer a fantasy camp, allowing fans from the age of 30 to Can't-Find-Their-Car-Keys-Anymore the opportunity to exchange $3,500-$4,000 to play a week of games at the team's spring training site alongside former players. I vaguely expected to find a bunch of old pros who can no longer touch their toes playing with geeky older fans who can no longer see theirs.

It wasn't like that at all, though. Sure, most of us had Michelin Man figures and were decades removed from our very meager baseball careers. But rather than a bunch of Get-A-Lifers seeking autographs, the campers were a varied group of successful and passionate fans who return again and again for the chance to play baseball and experience the camaraderie of their newfound teammates. That they also meet some ex-players who genuinely enjoy the experience (Brooks Robinson may be 70 years old and look like Andy Griffith, but, damn, he can still swing the bat) is a bit of a bonus.

Plus, it was warm and there was all the beer you could drink after every game.

[+] EnlargeTwins Fantasy camp
Al Schuth for ESPN.comBlyleven tattooed me with a fastball, then, as a professional courtesy, autographed my rapidly discoloring flesh.
I turned 46 the week of the Twins camp and, barring a team's signing Julio Franco, have finally reached that depressing age when I'm now older than every player in the majors. Yes, even Jamie Moyer. But just walking onto the field at the Twins' spring training complex made me feel so young I wanted to run to the concession stand for snow cones. I had forgotten how good it feels to be on a baseball field with a glove in hand. Then again, it felt good just to walk around the complex and not have to worry about Tom Kelly yelling at me for asking stupid questions.

The range of professions among the 72 campers sounds like the setup to an old joke: In one game we had a priest, a prison guard, a farmer, a cardiologist for the Mayo Clinic, a bond trader and the bass player for the Gear Daddies on the field. All we were missing was a rabbi and a proctologist. The most impressive appearance, however, was by a local firefighter whose wife didn't know he was playing in the camp. Matt Galewski would say goodbye in the morning, go off to work for awhile, then drive over to the fields for the games. He played an exceptional shortstop, diving for balls in the hole, turning double plays and getting a hit almost every time at the plate. And then he would return home, with his wife none the wiser (until now).

SHE: How was work today? Any fires?

HE: Nothing our bullpen couldn't handle.

"He's my idol," said Dan Ciola, 50, the oldest of three brothers on my team.

Mr. Baseball

My hero, meanwhile, is Scott Willis. He caught all 17 innings we played Monday, caught seven innings the next morning, pitched seven innings that afternoon, caught another seven innings Wednesday, caught 15 more innings Thursday and seven more innings the day after that. He was either behind the plate or on the mound for every inning our team played. He ran out every batted ball with the enthusiasm of a dog chasing seagulls on the beach. He makes Jason Varitek look lazy.

He is 60 years old. And he underwent a quadruple bypass in September.

"This is something I was shooting for after the surgery," Willis said. "I was grateful to have this because it gave me a goal.

"Playing brings back memories of my dad and my own kids. When I was real young, the first thing I wanted to be was a cowboy. Then I wanted to be a baseball player. Then reality set in and I went onto other things. Now I'm sort of reverting to childhood again."

And he wasn't the oldest guy on our team. Not by a long shot. That honor belonged to Jack Dunn, who is 77 and was playing in his 10th camp. And get this: The next week he went to play goalie for the Canadian national over-65 hockey team.

I don't know how he does it. Heck, I considered myself fortunate when I was able to lift my arm after the first day.

As my teammate Joe Ciola said, "The only thing that could prepare yourself for how you'll feel here is to crawl into a big clothes dryer, turn it on and then let your body get bounced around pretty good."

(Joe, by the way, had a great week. He won one game in relief after I dug the team into a seven-run hole, won another with a complete game and became what is believed to be the first player in fantasy camp history to not only hit a ball far enough for an inside-the-park home run but also have enough endurance to run it out.)

Five rules of fantasy camp

  1. Take it easy. The spirit is willing but the hamstrings are weak.
  2. Run everything out, though, because there is no such thing as a routine play in fantasy camp.
  3. Yell loud and clear when calling for a fly ball. Remember, just because you're wearing your hearing aid doesn't mean the right fielder is wearing his.
  4. Don't get down on your teammates when they drop a ball or throw wildly. You're not exactly Omar Vizquel yourself. Besides, those are all unearned runs.
  5. Never look back. You'll pull something.

The (un)natural

The last time I played baseball competitively was on a Minnesota town ball team in the mid-90s, and after pitching seven-plus innings the first day of games at fantasy camp, I swallowed aspirin and ibuprofen as if they were M&Ms, occasionally forgetting how many doses I had taken or how far apart. And I wasn't the only one.

[+] EnlargeTwins Fantasy camp
Marty Bernoski/ESPN.comIce, ice, baby: Thank you, thank you, thank you.
When suspected steroid users claim that they assumed the substance they took was B-12 vitamin or flaxseed oil instead of steroids, I used to roll my eyes and say there is no way an elite athlete earning so much money would put something in his body without knowing exactly what it is. I'm not so sure now. At one point, a player offered me a pill from his prescription bottle and said it would relieve the pain in my shoulder. He said it was a triple dose of ibuprofen, but the sad fact is, he could have handed me just about anything -- and as long as he said it would either make my shoulder stop aching or help me play better, I would have swallowed it and held out my hand for more.

And this, remember, was just for a meaningless fantasy camp game. Lord knows what I would have been willing to take if there were multimillion dollar contracts available.

No, wait, that's not right. These were just fantasy camp games, but, damn it, there was something on the line. We were divided into six teams coached by former players such as Blyleven, Frank Quilici, Dave Boswell, Bill Campbell, Gene Larkin, Milt Cuyler and Jim Corsi. Each team played nine games, not counting one against the pros, and the beauty of the camp is that despite our advanced ages and talent deficiencies, each game achieved that rare balance of proper competition and pleasure.

A league of their own

You know how recreational leagues can go. There's always someone who takes things too seriously, or not seriously enough, and ruins it for everyone else.

Not at the camp. We all wanted to win and play well, but no one was an ass about it. Even the worst of us were able to put the ball in play. Even the best made embarrassing errors. All of us had great fun.

In fact, life would be a lot better if it were more like fantasy camp. Everyone is so friendly and encouraging, it doesn't matter what you do on the field; they'll say "Good job" and praise your effort. Hell, I walked nine batters in one game (the umpire squeezed me), hit another, blew a couple of leads and our manager, Quilici, kept telling me how proud he was of my effort and saying he really wanted me to get the win. I dropped three fly balls in the outfield -- two of the errors would have shamed Timmy Lupus -- and still was awarded the camp's Gold Glove.

The positive reinforcement was so constant and refreshing that it was a little like being in kindergarten again, except the hotel tiki bar served stiffer beverages than milk and the instructors tell way funnier stories.

(And by that, I mean Dave Boswell. Boz won 20 games in 1969, the same year he lost 1-0 in 11 innings in Game 2 of the playoffs and injured his shoulder so badly that he won only four more games the rest of his career. He definitely has some miles on him and is given to saying self-deprecating things such as, "I had hair when I needed it. Now I have enough scalp for a second face." Everyone loves Boz.)

By midweek our team had bonded so closely it was if we had been riding buses together since our days with the Durham Bulls. Another week together and we would have been swapping wives.

Five final lessons learned at fantasy camp

  1. After all these years, nothing feels better than connecting with a fastball right on the fat part of the barrel.
  2. And nothing feels worse than dropping a ball right in your glove.
  3. Your teammates heal all wounds. Though not as much as ibuprofen and ice.
  4. When the ibuprofen and ice lose effectiveness, start drinking beer. Continue as needed.
  5. Are my teammates the greatest bunch of guys I've ever met, or what? Whose round is it? Mine? Again? Really? All right. Hey, I love you guys.

For the love of the game

What keeps the players coming back year after year (aside from the beer)? "It's a mixture of things," said Barry Karon, our 53-year-old backup catcher/outfielder/Mayo Clinic cardiologist. "I enjoy coming and putting a uniform on and being on the field, just being in the green fields on a sunny day. This is my fantasy -- to be a baseball player. The other part is, that as long as there are Twins from the 1960s when I was 10 years old and they were my heroes, and I can talk to them and they talk back and we exchange the occasional e-mail. I like meeting people on my team and the other teams. I enjoy chatting with them all.

"I lead a very conservative lifestyle, so doing this is taking a bit of a risk. You show your vulnerabilities here. I don't have any talent for baseball, but I go out there and try."

[+] EnlargeTwins Fantasy camp
Al Schuth for ESPN.comHead still. Eyes on the ball. Yeah, I put some good wood on this one.
The old pros may be the initial draw, but in all seriousness, it's playing baseball with the ordinary campers that makes the experience such a pleasure. Take the Ciola brothers. Their father, Lou, pitched in the majors briefly for the Philadelphia Athletics. He eventually moved to Austin, Minn., to work for the Hormel meat company, where his job was essentially playing for the company's baseball team. The three brothers, Dan, Nick, 44, and Joe, 40, grew up playing ball, but because of their age differences had never played on an organized game together. Dan rectified that by giving himself the fantasy camp as a 50th birthday present and bringing his brothers with him.

Nick played college ball, and even a quarter century later his fastball still had enough smoke to make me feel very fortunate I didn't have to face him. Nick wound up leaving baseball when he hurt his arm in college and went on to play bass for the Gear Daddies, a Minnesota band that released several albums and appeared on the David Letterman show. Music has given him a good life filled with travel and great experiences. But even so … it wasn't baseball.

"I don't regret the choice because I would have hurt myself playing baseball because of the way my body is, but if I had a choice to play baseball or be a professional musician, I would choose baseball," he said. "I don't doubt that things worked out for the best. I just love baseball more than music."

Nick pitched a brilliant game for us until the fifth inning, when he felt something in his elbow on a pitch. He threw another pitch and had to stop because of the pain. The next day his forearm was so swollen and purple it looked like it had been caught in a bear trap. Nick had trouble just moving the arm yet he went out and played left field anyway, playing those meaningless games even though he had to literally underhand the ball to me to relay it back to the infield.

That's the problem with picking up a baseball after so many years away. You never want to put it down again.

As best I can recall, I batted about .300 (not counting the at-bats against Bert) with one triple, struck out looking twice (dork!), popped up weakly three times, made three errors, made two diving catches, walked 17 batters (did I mention the ump squeezed me?), hit two more, allowed 19 runs (but only four earned!) and lost track of how many beers I drank. I had a marvelous time. I would like to go back to a fantasy baseball camp, but next time I'm going to play some catch beforehand to loosen up my arm.

And if I ever go to fantasy football camp, I'm going to make it very clear to L.C. Greenwood that I do NOT have a vote for the pro football Hall of Fame.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com