Red Sox Fantasy Camp: Baseball Fantasies vs Aging Reality!

I’ve always told my oldest daughter, who has been playing ball since she was 4yrs old, to ‘Have fun and do your best’, so it was only right that she told me to do the same thing before heading out to Florida for a sun-soaked week of double headers in the ultimate week away at Red Sox Fantasy Camp.  My wife took the route of “Have fun and don’t hurt yourself.”  Gee, thanks.

I think that hurting myself was actually my biggest fear heading into Red Sox Fantasy Camp.  You would think it would be striking out (a lot) or missing a bunch of plays in what I expected inevitably to be in Right Field, but it wasn’t the fear of hurting myself at camp that kept me awake at night, it was the fear of hurting myself before camp!  After my cousin broke his arm slipping on the ice and I nearly fell down the stairs at home, I was ready to wrap myself in a giant bubble while I watched the calendar.  By the time travel day hit, it felt like I’d dodged the bullet for the week and I was ready for something I’ve wanted to do for years, so I hit the stairs (slowly), backed out of the driveway (carefully), and sped to the airport (at a reasonable speed).

At this point I think it’s important to set the table.  _t4b6815What did I really expect from Red Sox Fantasy Camp?  I knew a few things going in.  I’d get a uniform, I’d get to play, and I’d get to play at least one game at JetBlue Park.  Sure, there would be players there too.  Part of the fun of Fantasy Camp is the opportunity to meet and hang out with players from every era since the 60’s, but outside of that, it was really a mystery.  How would I do?  How are the other players?  How would it feel?  (Spoiler alert:  It felt awesome.)

The Red Sox Fantasy Camp was about as flawless of an experience as you can find.  From the communication and logistics heading in, to the swag box before Christmas, the arrival, orientation, and more, it could not have been better organized. 

But what was the week like?  It all started Sunday night with the Rookie Orientation.

Rookie Orientation: 

Since I’m a West Coast guy I had to fly in the day before.  There weren’t flights that would get me to Fort Myers before the Rookie Orientation that night, but that was a blessing since it gave me time to adjust to the time zone.  I was shocked to see that roughly 70% of the campers are returners.  John, a veteran camper, took us all through what to expect from the week and some tips on how to go through drills the following day.  His biggest tip, which was something I’d already heard from a few guys at that point, was “Don’t overdo it.”  He talked about seeing guys blow up every year on day one.  There are no refunds, gentlemen, so don’t get hurt your first day!

You look around the room, and it’s a smorgasbord of guys.  Tall guys, short guys, skinny guys, thicker guys, old guys and… older guys.  The nice thing is there’s an age floor that starts at 30, so you’re looking at a group of guys that could be you, or be you in 10-20 years.  The great thing about that is that the competition is pretty evenly matched, supported by a Draft that the coaches have the following day.

From Rookie Orientation it shifted into social night, which was really the first chance you have to mingle with your future teammates and former players.  It’s an interesting dynamic.  Since 70%+ of the players are returning, you’d think that everyone would stay pretty clustered with people they already know, but everyone was really welcoming and seemed to go out to their way to meet rookies.  Some of it may be my personality, I’m pretty comfortable talking with complete strangers, but everyone was really easy to talk to, and without fail any camp veteran I met gave me pretty much the same speech.  “Take it easy the first day, there’s a full week ahead of you.”

At this point, I’d only had one thing on my mind.  Is it tomorrow yet?!  I’m ready to get this party started, and the wait has been agonizing.  I’m like the kid on Christmas Eve that is ready to go to bed at 5pm so that I can wake up and have it be Christmas already!  I hit the hay relatively early, not only because I’m anxious to get to the ballpark, but because I know I’ll be waking up around 6am, which is still close enough to 3am my-time that I want to be coherent in the morning.

Day One:

It’s Monday morning, and I don’t know why I set my alarm.  I’m up, staring at the clock like it’s a scoreboard.  I head downstairs to catch the shuttle and it’s a ghost-town.  The shuttle leaves, and it’s me, the driver Carvel, and Rico Petrocelli, who played for the Red Sox in the 60’s and 70’s.  Rico asks where I’m from, and we talk about the Pacific Coast League, where he met his wife early in his career.  The air is cool when I step off the bus at the training facility.  I’m not the first guy here, far from it, as there are dozens of guys milling about, some already in full uniform, while others shake off the night before over a bowl of cereal in shorts.

John, the veteran camper from the night before, laughed when he said we’d all do the same thing when we saw it, and he was right.  My locker was tucked in the corner of the locker room, a fresh nameplate in the upper corner, and stocked with uniforms, a few shirts, and some extra goodies.  Like every man before me, (and woman, they have a women’s camp that happens the week before,) I took a picture in front of the locker and posted it where the ‘world’ could see.  I’m at Red Sox camp.  How friggin’ cool is this?  My wife said I looked like a ‘kid in a candy store’.

img_1007Slipping on the jersey felt amazing.  I think I probably sat there at my locker for a good 10 minutes just taking it in.  You have to understand, I hadn’t worn a baseball uniform since I was maybe 10 or 12 years old?  I sucked at baseball as a kid, and hadn’t really rediscovered the game until my senior year of high school.  I’d played a little intramural softball in college, and played a season of Men’s League softball when I turned 40.  Any recent experience playing ball came down to the hours I’d played catch with my daughters, or the dollars I’d spent at the batting cages for fun on a summer afternoon.  But now here I was, ready for a week of double headers.  I thought I’d feel a little more nervous at this point, which would come, but at that moment-in-time, I was completely oblivious to anything but excitement for the week ahead.

The day started with a quick Kangaroo Court.   The Kangaroo Court is the chance to out players for screwing something up or doing something stupid before, during, or after games.  Every morning started with the Court, with Jim Corsi driving the bus.  Offenses as simple as wearing a cap out to bat vs a batting helmet, or wearing the wrong jersey were met with fines (that all went to charity).  Some offenses were the source of week-long ribbing for others, and larger fines, but everything was done in good fun.  The campers split into Veteran and Rookie groups, and we head out for drills.  _t4b5111Every Rookie goes through outfield, infield, and running drills, along with a quick batting practice, before heading back for lunch while the coaches pick their squads.  The coaches draft in clusters.  The camp has grouped Veterans into balanced clusters of players, so the coaches can’t stack teams in their draft.  They’ve made sure to keep each team as even as they can by making sure each team is pretty similar for age breakouts.  Then the coaches draft the rookies, before announcing the teams after lunch.  I’m drafted onto Hobson’s Heroes, coached by former manager Butch Hobson and Rick Wise, a former pitcher for Red Sox, as well as a handful of other teams in the 70’s.  We play a 3-inning scrimmage as a team to just get a feel of it, before calling it a day.  I’m not a big drinker, but drinking an ice cold beer while looking out from a completely empty JetBlue Park was pretty cool.  Except I wasn’t alone.  I looked down the 3rd baseline and there was one other guy I hadn’t seen at first, enjoying the quiet serenity of the empty ballpark too.  I tipped my beer towards him, he did the same, and we both turned back without speaking and just looked back out at the ballpark.

Day Two:

My first official game at Red Sox Fantasy Camp is at JetBlue Park.  Hobson’s Heroes win game one, and I started the game with a double and made a put out in Right Field.  It’s dsc_8917hard to describe the excitement at taking the field, but it’s easy to describe the initial nerves.  I wasn’t worried about hitting.  As funny as it sounds, I’ve always felt like I could do that if I really focused on it.  See ball, hit ball.  I know that’s oversimplifying it, a lot, but I was more nervous about the field than anything.  Not surprisingly, the rookies were at the bottom of the order, and I found myself in the somewhat expected Right Field.  I was hoping to play First Base; I’m 6 foot and left handed, so I figured that could be a good fit and I’d see some action, which at the end of the day is what I was really hoping for from the week.  Ken, a long-term veteran and Fantasy Camp Hall of Famer plays first, so I’m happy to anchor right.  I’m not the only lefty on the team, we actually have four, and I’m not the tallest guy on the squad either. 

At 6 foot-ish, I’m the fourth tallest guy on the team.  I got a good laugh at one of the social events during the week when one of the guys on another team says “Butch loves the big motherfuckers.  He always picks the tall guys, and you’re stacked with lefties.”  He wasn’t kidding.  Our Center Fielder, Dylan, is a big dude that Butch affectionately calls “Big Donkey”.  Poor bastard.  Most of the rest of the guys call him “Squatch”.  He’s got a good attitude about it, but I’m pretty sure that “Big Donkey” isn’t the nickname he’d choose if he was given a list.  I’m just “Miller” for the week.

Scouting was alive and well at camp.  That’s the nice thing about so many veterans.  “Miller, be ready, he’s behind and hits to Right!”  “James, move over towards second, he’s an up-the-middle guy.”  Even the comment from the other team about how Butch assembles his teams.  You can tell right away at Fantasy Camp that there are roughly three kinds of players.  1) ‘Wants to win, no matter the costs’ guy.  Those are the ‘eye black’ guys, the guys that are a little too intense, or get on their teammates if they struggle to make the play or hit the ball.  No one likes ‘that guy’, so we’re fortunate to not have any of them on our team.  (As a note, there aren’t too many of ‘that guy’ at camp, which is a good thing.  2) ‘Happy-to-be-there’ guy.  He’s the player that doesn’t really want to play all that much.  He wants to be there, wants to hang out with the players, and is perfectly content to just hang out on the bench (and would probably be on the bench with a beer if it were acceptable).  We don’t have any of that guy either.  3) ‘Doing his best, but he’s old’ guy.  This is pretty much 80% of the camp, and makes up our entire team (although we have two under 40’s on our team, so they aren’t old).  The ‘Doing his best’ guy is the ultimate teammate.  He’s going to play hard, but will have a good time.  He doesn’t take himself too seriously and knows he’ll make mistakes, but shakes it off and keeps moving forward.  That’s really how I’d classify camp as a whole.

Even going in knowing I’d have fun and do my best, while to my wife’s point, hopefully not hurting myself, I was piss scared I was going to look really, really crappy in the outfield.  Like Smalls crappy in The Sandlot, but unlike Smalls, I wouldn’t have Benny ‘The Jet’ Rodriguez golfing one right to me in the outfield.  I knew I was going to have to move and even run to catch balls.  Sure, I’d played a little softball a few years ago, and I was Right Field then too.  Unlike softball, where the ball wasn’t moving quite as fast off the bat, and it didn’t hurt that it was big and yellow, this ball was white, and looked like it could have been a golf ball coming off the bat in what felt like an endless outfield of green.  I remember standing out there in Right Field trying to shake off any nerves I had about catching it, instead sticking with some positive self-talk.  “I’m going to catch the ball.  I’m going to catch the ball.”  (I’d be lying if early on when there were guys on base my self-talk didn’t shift to “Hit the ball to the other guy” though.)  Then the most unlikely thing happened.  Guy at the plate hits the ball my way and sure enough, I caught it! 

Any initial fears that I’d be able to play in the outfield melted away, and I’m happy to say if it was hit my way and was catchable, I caught it!  There were some difficult balls that were dsc_9234really tailing away fast that I managed to come up with too, balls where my teammates said they didn’t know if I’d get to it because it was moving fast.  It felt great, and by the end of the week I’d been ‘promoted’ to Left Field.  (Those were ‘Big Donkey’s’ words, not mine, who played one helluva Center Field all week, by the way.)  Just so we’re clear, I still looked 40(s) out there.  There were two balls I should have had if I’d taken a better route, but that’s just how it goes.

I’d played my first game at JetBlue Park, which was about as perfect a start that you could get.  I joked with Jesse that the great thing about playing our first game in there was that we got to enjoy the game when we were fresh, before we got tired and before it got too hot.

Social Night for day two came down to either bowling or cigar night with Luis Tiant.  I figured I’d save my arm (and avoid any risks of odd Kangaroo Court-level injuries) and choose cigar night.  I mentioned how perfect everything was put together at camp, and cigar night was no exception.  Hand-rolled cigars, a bar, and just a bunch of guys shooting the bull.  Bob, a camper I’d met at the airport, had brought some Cuban rum which was delicious and warmed from head to toe. 

The thing that really jumped out about just hanging out img_1078with all of the campers and former players is just how casual everything is.  You’d think the talk with the former players would just revolve around games or stories from the road, and sure, there was plenty of those, but there was just as much talk about hunting, or golf, or real estate, talk about families… It was a big pool of anything goes.  The other thing that really stood out about the night, but also about the week as a whole, is you’re part of a fraternity.  The week at Red Sox Fantasy Camp was almost like being invited into a ‘circle of trust’.  There were stories told that weren’t meant to be repeated, and they won’t be repeated here.  Stories from the road, even down to conversations about other players and certain ‘enhancements’ guys may have been using during their time in the major leagues.  It was like the week operated without a filter, but you knew without it being said out loud that this wasn’t meant to be shared.

Day Three and Four:

Days three and four fit right into what was a streak of great days.  The sun was out, but it wasn’t too hot, and I was playing baseball.  All was truly right in the world.  Hobson’s Heroes, like I mentioned earlier, struggled to win games, so we found ourselves in the ‘playoffs’ for the Toilet Bowl.  Some guys may say “I don’t want that crappy trophy!” (pun intended), but I had fun with it with the rest of the guys.  I’ve always coached my daughter to be positive in the dugout, and if she wasn’t up to bat or playing, she should be at the fence paying attention and cheering the team on.  I kept the same attitude during the week, so when it came to the playoffs, I reminded everybody that only two teams left with trophies this week:  The championship team, and us!  Best of the worst?  I’ll take it.  But first things first, we were going to have to win 3 straight ballgames to get there.

_t4b1124

The fourth day had us in JetBlue Park for a second game that week, and by that time I’d moved to Left Field.  I’d batted pretty well most of the week (yes, you’ll get my stats at the end,) including my hardest hit ball of the week that went to Left until Munoz made a diving catch to rob me of a hit.  Eat it, Munoz.

Day Five:

Hobson’s Heroes is on a winning streak.  Two games in, and now not only are we in the Championship game (or as we’d started to lovingly refer to it, as the Champion’shit’ game,) but winning this morning not only meant the trophy for best of the worst, but it would also put us over .500 for the week, which by that time, was actually pretty good! 

By this point, I was definitely feeling sore.  My upper right thigh was throbbing since the day before, when I took my first Hot and Cold, which consisted of me standing in a 50 degree tub for 5 minutes before moving to a hot tub, then back again.  Things were tightening up, but I had managed not only to play, but until then had played in every inning of every game, but one, where Butch had me out in the first game for an inning to see where guys fit.  That was a big pride thing for me going in, enough so that I’d even talked about it before I left.  I wanted to play, and if I could play every inning, of every game, that was my goal.  I knew that there were going to be 11-12 guys on every team, so it would still come down to the manager and making sure everyone got their time, but I knew I wanted to play as much as I could.  Even battling with the upper thigh, I was bringing everything I could, which by that first game was fumes.  In my first at bat I took a swing that took me to my knees.  Back up, swing again.  Agony.  Something was definitely not right, but I went out and did my best to not only play on one leg at this point, but playing while wondering what the hell I just did to my side.  Next time at bat.  Swing.  YEOW!  I haven’t felt this kind of pain in a long, long time, but I’m doing everything I can to stay in, but it’s the kind of pain that makes you laugh because it hurts so bad.  I’m ready to go back out, but Butch sits me to put Senior in Left.  I’m bummed, but I understand.  It was the first time that week that I’d sat down.  I looked out at the outfield and the reality that my week was over started to hit, and I fought to keep my emotions in check.  There’s no crying in baseball, but it was a real struggle because I was so disappointed that I just couldn’t finish.  Rick Wise came by and clapped me on the shoulder and told me I’d played hard all week.  My main focus was just keeping it together.  I hated coming out, but if there was a silver lining, I’d left everything on the field.  (As a side note, I’d torn a muscle in my side, and had a bruise the size of a cantaloupe when I got home.)

dsc_0731

Hobson’s Heroes win and we’re Toilet Bowl champions!  At this point we’re all joking about making t-shirts that say “Hobson’s Heroes – This team is the shit!”.  There was a second scrimmage game scheduled for after lunch, but knowing we had our game against the pros that night, we all agreed that was it.  We went out on top, Toilet Bowl champs, winners of 4 straight, and finishing with a 4-3 record.  The only thing left to do at that point, was crush the pros… After an ice bath.

Alright, crush the pros is probably optimistic.  It’s hard enough for teams to score against the pros, let alone win.  I watched Shea Hillenbrand crush one over the Monster the game before.  The pro games are 3 innings and max out for (pro) runsimg_1145 per inning, and every camper gets an at-bat.  Our team played pretty well, but lost.  I was able to use the 4hrs or so before our game to Hot/Cold it and take some Advil.  By game time I felt good, but I’m pretty sure it was the adrenaline.  Dante Bichette struck me out, but I’d had him out at First (my only game at First Base,) so I figured we were even.  There’s something surreal about playing in the field against pros.  Here I am playing First and I’m shooting the bull with Troy O’Leary (who thought I got him with a hidden ball after he’d stepped off – if only I’d been that smart!) or Ellis Burks, Shea Hillenbrand, and more.  But not you, Dante Bichette.  You were out!

I was the last to leave the field after the game.  I stayed behind to just look out at it.  It was the end of a truly magical week that I didn’t want to end.

Recap:

So where does all of this lead?  Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?  Worth.  Every.  Penny.  This week away was probably the most relaxing ‘vacation’ I’ve ever had.  I was so busy having a good time, which was booked from pretty much sun-up to sun-down that I was just too busy to think about work.  It was a true escape.  I don’t think a day went by where I didn’t text my wife and kids how grateful I was to be there or how much fun I was having.  I spent every day playing baseball.  I got to hang out with a bunch of really cools guys, and saw a side of the game I don’t think you appreciate from the stands.  The game is hard.  I always knew baseball was work, but until I played 9 games over 5 days, I didn’t realize how tiring it can be.  It really puts into perspective how guys can struggle or need a day off; the ‘Dog Days of Summer’ are a real thing, and I can see why!

What would I do differently, and do I have any regrets?

You know, I told myself that signing up for Fantasy Camp would be a good excuse to get in better shape.  I really wanted to drop 15lbs before camp, but it just didn’t happen.  I really needed to spend more time getting my arm in shape too, but the endless rain and darkness promised by a Pacific Northwest winter make that hard.  The early packet tells you to work on your legs, especially short burst running, and they aren’t kidding.  I did fine, but could have been sharper.  Outside of that?  Zero regrets.  I really focused on enjoying every moment of it, and left everything on the field.

So are you going to give us your stats, or what?

There were 11 guys on my team, and I had the 5th highest BA at .444.  OBP was .500, SLG was .556, and OPS was 1.056.  I had the 3rd highest QAB at 45%.  Not bad for a guy that hadn’t played a game of baseball in over 30 years!

Would you do it again?

I think a better question than would I, is can I?  Would I?  Hell yes.  But can I justify another trip?  That’s to be determined.  I know I’d love to do it again, but if I’m not able to, I can live knowing that for a week, I was a ballplayer.  And if was amazing.

 

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