Confessions of a Wide-Eyed New York Yankees Fantasy Camp Rookie
The idea of being someone you’re not is seductive. It’s what attracts people to Halloween, speed dating and Las Vegas and affords you that chance to sneak through a seemingly closed window to be the you that you want to be, the you that you could’ve been, the you that you envision.
Full disclosure: I recently turned 40, which prompted my wife to turn up the quality of gift-giving to a level not seen since God gave Eve to Adam. She surprised me with a trip to New York Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Florida, a Golden Ticket for my initiation to the middle-aged. A week playing actual baseball, rubbing elbows with nearly two dozen retired players who donned the pinstripes. Dream. Come. True. Memo to self: let her win every argument we ever have again.
After a grand total of one trip to the batting cage and more time spent spent shopping for cleats than honing my defense, I packed my bags, kissed the wife and kids goodbye and boarded a plane for what turned out to be an experience like none other I have ever known.
It was time to be someone I am most definitely not: a baseball player.
How It Works
After nearly 22 years of not playing an organized game of baseball, I arrived in Tampa, giddy over the thought of 75-degree weather in January. Upon entering the hotel, where scores of campers and retired Yankees congregated in a scene more befitting of the mayhem of a political convention than a gathering of grown men in town to play a boys' game, I received my team assignment and schedule for the week. During that evening’s welcome banquet, I met my teammates, a conglomerate of strangers who warmly greeted one another with buoyant smiles and shared unspoken expectations as we pledged a fraternity of hardball few could comprehend.
There were 10 teams with 13 players apiece (my team was named the Highlanders in honor of the Yankees original moniker). Each morning, buses left the hotel at 6:30 to bring the campers to Steinbrenner Field, Spring Training home of the Bronx Bombers, where we ate breakfast, hit the batting cages, consulted the trainers and got ready for baseball, with a pair of 9-inning doubleheaders, one game at 9 AM and the other at 1 PM, on tap each day.
The rules for the games were about as sparse as the attendance during a Miami Marlins homestand. There was a 13-person batting order, giving everyone the chance to hit. There were four outfielders, a regular infield and a catcher, while a coach assigned to your team slowly tossed to the batters. You could substitute freely, so if you played shortstop the first two innings and then sat out an inning you could go back in as, say, a right fielder. Taking a page from Where's Waldo?, I appointed myself a utility player and took the field everywhere except shortstop and catcher.
The translation between what we wanted our bodies to do and how we actually did it was as wide as the gap between a AAA star and a viable major leaguer.
Orlando Hernandez – aka, El Duque – and Oscar Gamble served as our team’s coaches (each team has two former Yankees as coaches). Duque’s English is as rough as a scuffed baseball, but he was encouraging and had a good sense of humor that superseded any language barrier. We had a running feud during the week where he hounded me to tell him a joke, which became a surreal exchange in and of itself. Gamble’s a fantasy camp veteran with a thousand-watt smile who wanted everyone to have fun, so his coaching consisted of the following, in his wonderful Southern drawl: “Run like a deer.” "Infield fly rule.” “This is baseball. This ain’t EA Sports.”
Eventually, we all teased him about his mantras and they all became parodies of themselves. Gamble took it like a champ, though, as he did the ribbing about the infamous Afro he sported in his playing days. The encounters drove home the point that, yes, these are people like you and me, with the added gift of pro baseball dotting their resumes.
While intentions were good, a lot of the campers (including yours truly) couldn’t move with the ease and zeal they once did and the translation between what we wanted our bodies to do and how we actually did it was as wide as the gap between a AAA star and a viable major leaguer. Throws to first base went further to the right than Rush Limbaugh. Simple pop flies to the outfield turned into ugly, slow-motion doubles. Players rounding third are still chugging along as you read this. Games ended with football blowout-sounding scores, like 18-1, 25-3 and 24-6. A 13-10 game was a barn burner. You’re losing by
two touchdowns 14 runs? Who cares? Maybe you can claw your way back into it.
The Highlanders were slow getting out of the gate, dropping our first two games and displaying a frustrating inability for getting a big hit to jumpstart an anemic offense. Eventually, we righted the ship when our bats came to life and we made some nifty defensive plays as we won a few games to climb back to the .500 mark.
Even when we were losing, we had fun, although the important thing was to take a breath, soak in the scene and have the best time doing anything we’ve ever done. “I’m standing in Steinbrenner Field in a Yankees uniform.” “Bucky Dent just told me, ‘Nice play.’” “El Duque wants the team to go to the cage for extra hitting.”
The Legends Game
The cherry on top of this sundae of awesomeness was when our team played against the retired Yankees.
Each team was allotted a two-inning game against the legends, played on the main diamond at Steinbrenner Field. When you batted, your name appeared on the Jumbotron. PA man Paul Olden – who was in the booth -- read your name, announced your hometown and told other fun facts about you, like favorite Yankee and favorite Yankees moment, from a card you filled out once you arrived in camp (confession: I intentionally took several pitches from Mike Torrez because I wanted to hear my facts and wanted my picture on the Jumbotron to stay up longer than, say, just one pitch). Because it’s a short game, the campers got six outs when they were at-bat and when on defense all 13 players took the field, transforming it into a doppelganger for a pinball machine.
The game is usually played on Saturday, the last day of camp, but a threatening forecast forced our games to be moved to Friday. The weather was wonderful and what followed was magical.
You know the scene in Field of Dreams when 'Moonlight' Graham crosses the baseline and turns back into the old doctor? This was the exact opposite of that. Once a camper ran onto the field, time suddenly rewound and we were all 12 years old again, convinced, much like Greg Brady after his meeting with Don Drysdale, that, yes, a career in baseball was pre-ordained.
Elation, joy, glee – what word do I use to describe what just happened?
I had the good fortune to pitch. I had pitched earlier in the week and miraculously held my own. And by “held my own,” I mean I got the ball over the plate. In the legends game, I took the hill and to say it was a dream come true would be like saying summer is warm.
Floating to home plate on the strength of nerves not seen since Kevin Arnold tried to muster up the courage to ask out Lisa Berlini on The Wonder Years, my first pitch sailed high and away to Jim Leyritz. My nerves steadied, I tossed a strike on the next pitch, which he hit to the third baseman, a realtor from New Jersey, who easily corralled it to throw him out. Holy cow! I just got Jim Leyritz to ground out!
Jesse Barfield bashed my next pitch for a no-doubt-about-it single before a pinch runner came in for him.
Next up was Bucky Dent, who hit a sharp comebacker to my right. Displaying the sort of quick reflexes that previously only served me well when playing ping pong, I snagged it and turned, forcing the runner at second base and earning a smattering of cheers that I am confident sounded much greater in my head than they did in reality. And while in my mind I’ve re-imagined the play a web gem of Gold Glove proportions, watching the cell phone video replay proved it wasn’t that great. Still, I don’t care – that’s the beauty of fantasy camp.
Homer Bush then tattooed a double and a throwing error enabled a run to cross the plate before Marcus Thames, a towering presence who looks like he can still play, hit an equally towering fly ball to right to end the inning.
I ran off the field, hugging my catcher, a six-time veteran of the camp whose encouragement all week will not soon be forgotten. Elation, joy, glee – what word do I use to describe what just happened? The truth is I didn’t care if I had gotten knocked around. Heck, I expected it, but to pitch respectably was too much for me. We lost 1-0, but that was okay. My ear-to-ear grin was something you haven’t seen since Jack Nicholson played the Joker.
I am not a baseball player. I am a kid again.
Off the Field
If the old Yankee Stadium is known as the House That Ruth Built, you can be forgiven for calling this complex set adrift in senior citizen-friendly Florida, with all its modern amenities, the house that your great-aunt Ruth built. Located within walking distance of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Raymond James Stadium, Steinbrenner Field elicited a sense of awe as the campers trekked into the off-limits players area, complete with big affirming signs reminding everyone of the need for greatness scattered through the hallways.
Part of the camp experience is getting your own locker in the actual Yankees clubhouse with your name on it. I had been told that walking in for the first time is pretty amazing and, unlike scores of can’t miss prospects, this lived up to the hype. Not only was my name on my locker, but hanging inside was my official Yankees uniform with the number 40 on the jersey. (My wife chose 40 for my birthday, even though Don Mattingly, number 23, is my all-time favorite player. She gets points for trying, though.)
The locker room was a shiver-worthy sight, with hundreds of lockers placed amidst the kind of space sardines fantasize about having. It was offset by the showers and a laundry room which housed washers and dryers so big you could live comfortably inside and sublet part of them to a roommate.
The locker experience was sweetened because gifts would be waiting for us after each game. Shirts, shorts, hats – our wardrobes increased exponentially (and, yes, we got to keep the uniform). It was like Santa Claus, decked out in Yankee paraphernalia, mysteriously visited us twice a day.
The secret about fantasy camp is that it’s not just playing baseball that makes it so remarkable. There was the aforementioned welcome dinner. There was a family night where campers’ relatives can go into the locker room and walk on the field. The Yankees fed us just about every meal. There was a lot of breaking down each game and analyzing the key plays. And everyone was so nice, not the least of whom were the fantasy camp staffers who patiently and consistently answered all of our many questions. With 130 grown men in attendance, that was no easy task. There were ample opportunities to ask players to pose for pictures and sign autographs. It was like a Star Trek convention for jocks.
The locker room was a shiver-worthy sight, with hundreds of lockers placed amidst the kind of space sardines fantasize about having.
One night, we took our coaches out to a steakhouse for dinner. I sat next to Oscar Gamble and peppered him with questions all evening, enthralled as my delicious bison took a back seat to him regaling us with tales of facing Nolan Ryan, being mentored by Ernie Banks when he came up as a rookie on the doomed ’69 Cubs (ironically, word broke the next morning that Banks had passed away) and giving his opinion on the current playoff format. I could’ve stayed there all night and the sadness of the walk back to our hotel was tempered by the ludicrousness of the fact El Duque gave us his cell phone number. It was all part of this magic carpet ride in which time stopped for a week while we mingled with players on an equal plane.
Campers had access to the trainers, who took amazing care of us, which was fortunate since the bumps and bruises and aches and pains settled in our bodies with 4G speed. They balmed us down and taped us up, always with a smile, and doled out advice on how to take care of ourselves for the week. I woke up the morning after the first set of games and was pleasantly surprised to discover, yes, I could walk. By day three my quads were ready to go on strike, but I muddled through. I attribute that to the trainers because my steady pre-camp diet of Pepsi, pizza and hope sure didn’t do the trick.
When not on the field, there was a lot of schtick to be done. The welcome banquet was preceded by a meet-and-greet where we could take photos and get autographs. That first night featured a bonus, too: Mariano Rivera was there signing autographs, elevating this into the adult male version of a 12-year-old girl meeting Taylor Swift. After standing on line as if preparing to meet Brando’s Godfather, I finally got into the back of the dimly-lit Dugout Club inside Steinbrenner Field where Rivera individually greeted everyone. Like that 12-year-old meeting Swift, I completely lost my senses and mustered a weak question about how often he goes back to Panama as we posed for a photo and he signed my copy of his book, The Closer. Lame, I know.
There were plenty of chances to interact with the retired Yankees during the week. Maybe you sat down at a table during lunch where Chris Chambliss and Roy White were eating or perhaps you and Shane Spencer got into a chat at the hotel bar at the end of the day. Hey, is that Charlie Hayes over there? I’m going to ask what he did with the ball he caught to clinch the ’96 Series. It all happened.
Then, there’s the kangaroo court, a modified take on the age-old baseball tradition where the retired Yankees teased various campers for a wide variety of transgressions while everyone in the camp sat in the locker room and laughed. We had two sessions and I had the dubious honor of getting called up twice. As embarrassing and blush-inducing as it was funny, the scene looked like a cross between Major League and a Comedy Central roast.
Mickey Rivers, donned in his black judge’s robe, oversaw the proceedings and doled out the fines (yes, actual money, which goes to charity) with the same fervor he dished out one-liners, proving Mick the Quick is as quick with his wit as he was on the base path.
The week culminated with the closing dinner, in which the coaches said a few words about their teams and awards were handed out. When my name was announced as one of the all-stars, I was beyond floored. The five-foot-three, 40-year-old, left-handed, Jewish fielding third baseman/pitcher with a fastball limping around 30 miles per hour made it. I texted my wife, who I’m pretty sure had no idea what I was talking about, profusely thanked my teammates upon returning to the team table and was genuinely so happy it’s still hard to articulate in words.
Going into this, I was about as naïve as a Cubs fan expecting to win the World Series. For a rookie like myself, two things surprised me: one, many campers return year after year, like the Yankees to the World Series in the second half of the ‘90s. I had assumed it was a one-time thing, but, in fact, several men come back, drawn to the scene like a criminal to the crime. Second, several campers traveled with their families to make this a truly unconventional vacation. And while it seemed like a majority emigrated from the Northeast, there were plenty of people from all over the map: Sacramento, Toronto, Kansas City, even Japan.
A lot of the campers could play, too. No, not major league caliber, but they could rake, and one of the first things we were told was don’t go thinking you’re going to get signed based off of this week because no one ever has, which I took to mean as, "Hey, this is a real-life Disney movie just waiting to happen." As banged up as we all felt, there were guys on my team in their 60s and 70s who could smash the ball, while there was a healthy population of younger players who basically played like fantasy camp versions of Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout.
People have asked me what I liked best about fantasy camp. It says a lot that I can answer that question many different ways. I loved every minute of it. I loved every second of it.
I’ll cherish playing against retired Yankees and getting roasted in the kangaroo court, but I’ll also fondly remember the myriad conversations I had with other campers. There was the guy who played high school baseball against my brother, the guy who used to live about five blocks from my house, the guy who used to work with my old boss, the guy who is a retired detective and the guy with asbestos poisoning from 9/11 who was at camp to check an item off his bucket list. And there were many, many more. Each conversation served as a reminder that, while we all have a shared passion for baseball and the Yankees, we also have our own unique stories.
Some players were more intense than others. Some teams were more intense than others. I’m still amused by the team that put in its setup man to give him some work while up by 17 runs. I was at bat in the top of 9th with two outs and he shook off his catcher. Excessive? Perhaps, but let him have that as part of his narrative. I had my moments, too, yelling at an umpire for calling an opposing runner safe when I scooped a ball out of the dirt while playing first base. There’s something to be said for the competitive fire being re-ignited after a two-plus decade layoff.
Winding up on the Highlanders was nothing more than dumb luck and these men were insanely supportive of one another beyond the field of play. A roster mixing rookies and veterans, we were easygoing at the right junctures and ready to play at others. They served as my unofficial photographer and cheerleaders and the veterans often answered my questions, the proverbial seniors taking the freshmen under their wings. I’d like to think other teams had this dynamic, too.
People have asked me what I liked best about fantasy camp. It says a lot that I can answer that question many different ways. I loved every minute of it. I loved every second of it. Games played with actual umpires, the feel of putting on batting gloves again, sitting at the hotel bar and listening to players tell their stories, chatting with teammates on the bus, running so hard I was huffing and puffing down to first base like a Weeble Wobble, seeing my picture and name on the scoreboard during the legends game – it was all amazing.
In the end, fantasy camp is a lot like the first girlfriend you have. At the time, you can’t believe you got so lucky to be part of something so special. When it ends you find yourself playing back all the good times in your head and wishing you could go back to that time and place. Like that first girlfriend who broke your heart, though, the grief that this magical time has ended will eventually be replaced by gratitude that you got to experience it at all.
The memory and good feeling of the week lingers strong and immediately brings a smile. It’s a moment frozen for me. Do I go back to the camp next year? In a week where I accomplished everything I wanted and then some, how can I possibly replicate it? How can the high be matched? It doesn’t seem possible, but I feel the lure of another go-round tugging at me like hunger.
A few weeks after I returned home, I was on the phone with one of my new friends from camp, talking about just how fantastic the week was. I think he summed it up best. “I find myself finding ways to work into conversation that I went to fantasy camp,” he told me. Yup, I get it.
I am not a baseball player. I am a baseball fan with a fantastic story to share.