“Go get ’em, No. 1!” barks baseball icon Willie Horton as I leave the on-deck circle and make the short — yet long — walk to the batter’s box. I’d just finished a batting clinic with Horton, one of the greatest Tigers ever, and I’m now standing at home plate with a wooden Louisville Slugger on my shoulder for the first time in 42 years. The eyes of everyone in the ballpark are upon me. It feels just like standing at the first tee with scratch golfers scrutinizing my drive. What pressure!
Facing a pitcher throwing about 65 mph, I was soon behind on the count: one ball, two strikes. Frozen in the batter’s box, I reminded myself of Horton’s mantra: “Get comfortable, dig in, figure out the strike zone, get ready, relax, then make contact.” Easy for you, I thought.
As fate would have it, the next three pitches were balls, and I quickly trotted to first base. “Way to go, Eisenstadt!” Horton yelled.
At that moment, baseball fantasy camp became reality for me. Knowing my passion for the game (I play on both fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball teams), my family decided a week away from a Canadian winter playing hardball with some of the game’s greats would be a great way to celebrate my 60th birthday. They were right. What some might call executive downtime was, for me, really uptime and upbeat.
And it didn’t matter that I didn’t grow up listening to Tigers Radio. Although 24 of the 30 big-league ball teams offer fantasy camps, the Toronto Blue Jays aren’t one of them, so I considered other options. Realizing I’d be the first Eisenstadt to wear Tiger blue since left-handed pitcher Harry Eisenstadt in 1939 made Detroit an easy choice. For one glorious week, I’d be enmeshed in a baseball routine not unlike that of the pros: in uniform by 7:30 am, followed by stretching, then batting and catching clinics, plus one or two games a day. The week would culminate in the dream of a lifetime: competing against the old pros.
In preparation, I made three commitments: get into better shape to reduce my chance of getting hurt; not play like a rookie; and have fun. Here’s the highlight reel from a week at the Detroit Tigers fantasy camp.
Sunday, January 23Today I arrive in Tiger Town, the spring training grounds of the American League Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., a 30-minute drive from Tampa. Wow. The complex boasts five fields, training, dressing and equipment rooms, a cafeteria, meeting rooms, batting barn and lots of green grass on which to toss balls and shag flies. The crown jewel of the facility is Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers play their spring training “home” games. It’s perfect.
In being here, I join 89 other “kids” (average age: 49) who are eager to play ball, including one 84-year-old, five women and three father-son duos. Our backgrounds range from entrepreneurs and professionals to teachers and car dealers. Many are serious about playing ball, veteran campers with five, 10 and 19 years’ attendance under their belts. Most of them are in reasonable shape.
The thrills start immediately, when I am selected to play for a team coached by two World Series champs: outfielder Willie Horton and relief pitcher Jon “King Crab” Warden.
Monday, January 24What a rush to walk on the navy-and-orange tiger-paw broadloom in the Tiger Town clubhouse and to see my own private cubicle. My home white and road grey uniforms are hanging in readiness, surname spelled correctly and numbered “1” … yes! This is the show.
Before we hit the fields we have to visit Kangaroo Court, a timeless tradition in which campers are penalized for the previous days’ misdemeanours, from strikeouts and missed fly balls to wearing cleats in the cafeteria and forgetting their gloves. This daily ritual is adjudicated by Judge King Crab, and players are mercilessly razzed and then fined. It’s a real hoot, with a number of campers sheepishly paying fines of $2 to $15 that go to a Michigan autistic research foundation.
Light stretching led by the trainers is followed by work in the batting cage, then pitching and catching instruction. After a one-on-one with Horton, I spend about 10 minutes in a pitching clinic with Hall of Fame Veterans Committee nominee Mickey Lolich, who explains how to throw the basic pitches: fastball, curve, slider and change up.
While I never wanted to be a pitcher, knowing the differences will help me hit better. I’m actually disappointed that we don’t do more pre-game exercise, but all the guys want to do is play games.
By afternoon, it’s game time. This is serious, competitive fun, and the adrenalin is pumping as the game gets under way. When I take first base, I look around the field and it hits me: this is the big leagues — which isn’t all good. The base paths are 90 feet long, meaning throwing and running will be a challenge, especially on Day 1. Still, the seven-inning game flies by and we win 16-10; I go one for three, with a walk.
This evening, some 90 adults become awestruck kids, lining up eagerly for autographs from ball heroes Horton and Warden, Lolich, Dick Tracewski, Juan Berenguer, Dave Rozema, John Hiller and others. The longest lineups are for Horton and Lolich, and I’m lucky enough to have a ball autographed by each of them for one of my clients on his company’s pre-labelled ball.
Tuesday, January 25The camaraderie is infectious. Most campers were strangers at the get-go, yet we’ve quickly become mates with a focus on fun — and winning, too.
Wearing home whites, I share duties at first base, making eight routine outs but committing an error when I boot a hard shot down the line. I walk in my first at-bat. Then teammate Jay Crawford, batting behind me, hits a big-blast triple. I run the bases as fast as I can, silently thanking my pre-camp cardio training, because I’m barely puffing when I round third on the coach’s wave to score. Final score: 16-4. We’re pumped!
Tonight we play under the lights at nearby Henley Field, which is another spot where the real Tigers play their home spring-training games. Despite my pre-game excitement at playing in a real stadium with real fans, I manage a pre-game nap — just like the pros.
We hit the field at 6 p.m. I notice the ad signs on the outfield boards, the well-manicured grass and the baseline chalk professionally applied. This is one continuous rush. The team really jells and wins 5-0. While I’m resigned to keeping my day job, my mates and I are starting to believe our own clippings.
Wednesday, January 26Funny thing about baseball: one morning you’re leading the league at three wins against no losses; by the end of today, we’re 3-2.
They had told us the pain sets in for most players by Day 3. The training room is a hub of constant activity, with players being treated for various ailments. But, thanks to three days a week in the gym with a personal trainer since September, I make it through with the aid of a pre-game rub and post-game ice pack, although my shoulder is starting to ache.
Thursday, January 27I’m beginning to love the smell of liniment in the morning. This gunk really works. But we lose our only game of the day, 12-3.
Friday, January 28Autumn is in the air as the playoffs begin today, starting with the quarter-finals. I lead off, walking and ultimately scoring on a long run home from the hitter behind me. An 8-2 victory carries us into the semi-finals, but we lose the hard-fought game 2-1.
It strikes me, after the week’s games, that I take playing ball very seriously. There is pressure not to miscue, but the competitive spirit of the older guys, whose testosterone has mellowed somewhat and who love the game, has helped me focus on succeeding in the spirit of real personal satisfaction.
Final Day: Saturday, January 29Today we face the former pros — our Tiger coaches — in the ultimate fantasy game.
Henley Field is positively buzzing, with 90 campers eager to take to the field. Each player will bat once and field a couple of innings to ensure everyone lives the dream.
What an amazing feeling to line up along the first base line, across the diamond from former Major Leaguers, for the singing of the U.S. national anthem. Better yet, each player is introduced by name and number as he runs down to home plate and tips his hat to a cheering crowd of family and friends.
In my one at-bat, against 1968 World Series reliever Jon Warden, I smack a ball deep to the shortstop. I’m thrown out by four steps, but the hit felt good!
Despite the competitiveness of previous contests, no one cares much about the final score. The thrill of competing against players who have carved their names in Tigers lore makes it enjoyable — and provides good reason to return next year.
For anyone who loves the game, seize the opportunity to be a kid again. This is as good as it gets!
Play ballBaseball fantasy camps offer exercise, camaraderie and a chance to play against the old pros.
Where: Some 24 Major-League franchises offer one- or two-week camps in Florida and Arizona. See a complete list at www.hihard1.com.
When: November through February.
Price: US$3,000 to US$4,500 a week. At US$3,590, the Detroit Tigers camp includes airfare from Toronto to Tampa.
Skills required: While some campers simply love the game and want to hang around the old pros, most have baseball skills and are serious about playing ball.
David Eisenstadt is a partner in The Communications Group Inc., a public relations consultancy in Toronto.
© 2005 David Eisenstadt