I don’t think I’ve ever hugged so many dudes… How’s that for an intro?
They say you “can’t go home again”. I wondered if I’d feel the same way heading into my second year at Red Sox Fantasy Camp, and my first as a “veteran”. Last year was pure magic. Was there a chance that another year at camp could really capture the same feeling as slipping on that uniform for the first time? I was about to find out.
Everything was an unknown my first year. How would I fit in? And more than that, would I be worth a damn in the field or at the plate? I found out pretty quickly that I fit in just fine, and I was ‘serviceable’ (seems like a fair word) at the plate and in the field. I was excited coming into my 2nd year. But was I too excited?
I dropped 8 lbs and hit in the garage leading into camp. Heading into the clubhouse was a sea of handshakes and hugs. It felt like I’d never left. I walked back to my locker, the same one from the year before, and slipped into my jersey. The uniform fit better than last year. I wish I could say I looked svelte, but let’s just say I felt better about myself even if I didn’t look dramatically different. I did feel different though. I knew what I was getting into, heading out to the field for our veteran’s game ahead of the official start of camp. I went 3 for 4, including a solid double, a slide into 3rd, and a putout in CF. This was going to be a great week.
And then the week started.
Butch Hobson picked me to be on his team again this year, which I took as a compliment. They picked us in groups, but I’d like to think it was because Butch wanted me back. He put me back in LF to start the week, where I misplayed a good 3 balls in 2 games, before I was demoted to RF, where I misplayed another few balls over another 2 games. From there I was pretty much alternating RF. God, I sucked. It was literally the opposite of last year where I started in RF and ended the week in LF. The only saving grace was I did fine at the plate.
It’s easy to get down on yourself when you’re sucking it in the outfield. I tell my oldest all the time to just take it a play at a time, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. It did. It fucking sucked, and I was pissed. I tried not to show it, but some things you just can’t hide. Butch was a pro though, giving me pointers coming off the field and still putting me out there. I was determined to do better. I did it before, I’d be fine. And then I got sick.
Going into Game 5 of the week I had that tickle in your throat that you get when something is on the way. I started the day blaming it on the cigars and scotch from the night before. (Cigar night, like the year before, was one of those nights you wouldn’t believe unless you were there. Just drinking, smoking, and shooting the shit with campers and former players for hours on end.) I was coughing and wheezing, and felt a little crappy for Game 1, but players play! Butch had me in RF, where I kept at it, all the while feeling progressively worse. It was hot and I was sweating like mad. We broke for lunch where I just sat, exhausted. Game 2 was up next, so I ran back out to the dugout but told the guys to give me some space. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s week by spreading it around. I told Butch I had to sit this game out in the field but that I could hit. I apologized. I felt awful. Not just because I was sick, but because I felt like a failure. I felt like I should have been able to “tough it out”. Isn’t that what men do? (And women. We had two women on our team that killed it. Both play in Men’s leagues.) I sat on the bench and heard kids laughing behind me. I turned to look, and there was Al Bumbry playing tag with a group of kids. I looked down at the end of a near empty dugout and saw Luis Tiant sitting at the end of the bench. That was the moment that stuck with me. It’s a game. What the hell was my problem? I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I walked down to the end of the bench and sat next to Luis Tiant. (In hindsight, I felt bad. What if Luis had gotten sick or something? Doug Miller, Red Sox Fantasy Camp’s Typhoid Mary.) I talked to Luis for a good 20 minutes between two innings. 20 minutes about nothing but pitching, training, and today’s players. It was a surreal experience. No one but me, and Luis Tiant.
Game 2 felt like it moved in slow motion. I went up to the plate and went 2 for 3. I couldn’t field for shit, but I could hit. (I should put that on a t-shirt.) By the end of the game, I was done, just completely spent. I bailed on the HR Derby and BBQ (that was straight grub last year!) and caught an Uber back to the hotel. I asked the driver to drop me at the Walgreens by the hotel so I could grab a thermometer, some Pedialite and Gatorade, and some pills. It was close to 90 degrees outside. The Uber dropped me off, I grabbed a thermometer, and walked the half mile back to the hotel. I don’t know what I was thinking. I’ll blame it on the fever.
103 degrees. I went 2 for 3 with a 103 degree temperature. I crushed a bottle of Pedialite, took a few Tylenol, and crashed. I woke up a few hours later, and it was still 103. At that point you start Google’ing “When do I need to go to the hospital?” One of the players on the team, Mark, is a Doctor. An actual Doctor, not one that just went to school for a long time and gets a fancy title and delusions. I dropped him a text to make sure I wasn’t dying, because I felt like it. The cool thing? Getting texts from guys not on my team that heard I was out. I compared camp to a fraternity before, or at least the closest thing I can compare it to, this is the kind of thing I meant. It’s family. But it’s not just the players, as I found out later.
I sat out Thursday completely. My fever was still hovering at 102, even with the medicine and staying hydrated. I didn’t want to pass it around, and I didn’t have the energy. I spent most of the day alternating naps, resting up, and watching the scoreboard. Hobson’s Heroes wins Game 1 and makes the playoffs. Hobson’s Heroes wins Game 2. On Friday we play for the opportunity to play in the Championship under the lights in Jet Blue Park. I wouldn’t miss Friday for anything. I told myself I felt better, ordered a big pizza and breadsticks from Uber Eats, and left most of it in the box to stink up the hotel fridge. (Sorry about that, hotel staff.)
I felt as good as I could Friday morning. In other words, I still felt pretty crappy. My temperature alternates between 100-101, but I wouldn’t miss the game. I went in and one of the first face’s I saw that morning was Frank Viola. Understand that I didn’t play for Frank. I wasn’t even wearing my jersey, so it’s not like I had a ‘name tag’ on, and I think I’d maybe talked to Frank twice this year. Frank sees me and says “Hey, how you feeling?” I say ‘Good enough’ (which was pretty much my stock answer Friday, I was focused on one thing, playing) and his response was perfection. “Hope you don’t jinx these guys, they did great without you yesterday!” He paused for my reaction, which was to laugh, and he laughed too. Family. How did Frank Viola even know who I was? Frank wasn’t the last guy to ask me how I was that day, and that meant a lot to me. “Good enough.”
It’s my first game back after being out for a day that felt like forever. I went up to Butch and apologized again for missing Thursday. I told him I was good to go, but that I understood I didn’t play yesterday, so said “You do what you need to do. I understand.” He looked me in the eye and said, “You were sick, it’s OK!” El Guapo, Rich Garces, is Butch’s bench coach. He refers to everyone as Papi the way I refer to every kid as Buddy or Dude. He greets me with a handshake, “How you doing, Miller?” I say ‘Good enough’ with a smile and start in RF.
This is the part of the story where I catch everything that came to me and hit a HR to win the game, right? Nah, nothing came my way, but I did hit a solid double in what was probably the hardest ball I’d hit all week. Hobson’s Heroes won the game and it was time for a shower, in champagne. I’d never had champagne poured on me before. Hobson’s Heroes, who started off the week with a group of losses, had rallied back to win the Division Championship. Next up, under the lights.
We felt good heading into the Championship game. You could feel a quiet confidence in the dugout. We were ready to play. What we weren’t ready for, was a pitcher that threw sidearm…
We’re down 3-0 in the top of the 7th inning of the Championship Game. (Fantasy Camp games are only 7 innings, since they’re all double headers.) I’m leading off against a guy that’s given up 2 hits all day. I grab the bat in my hands and start walking towards homeplate. Eminem is playing over the loudspeaker. “Till I collapse… #37, Doug Miller…” Metallica’s “For Whom The Bell Tolls” blares as I walk up to the plate. I’m in a complete zone. You read interviews all the time where players say they completely block out everything that’s happening around them. You always figure they’re exaggerating, but it’s true. I didn’t hear a single thing outside of the music. Every note, every lyric was playing in my head as I stared down at the pitcher. Eric, a camper that was at the game, said as much when we were at the banquet the next night. He said I was all business at the plate. He said just the way I was tuned into the music looked like I was out of it.
Foul. Foul. (Generous) Single to the 3rd baseman. I was on 1st, and must have ‘broke the seal’, because the next 5 consecutive batters singled too, and by the end of Top 7, we’d gone from down 3-0 to up 4-3. We were 3 outs away from a Championship. Holy shit.
I run back out to RF, where I’ve played most of the game, outside of an awkward inning at 1st base. Our 1st Baseman, Charlie, tripped running through the bag after a hit, and we found out later broke 3 bones in his wrist. After a few rough games my confidence had been shaken in the OF, but as the game went on I was only thinking one thing. Hit the ball to me. I didn’t get any balls hit to me, but backing up 1st on a missed ball did help keep guys on base, where they could have scored. Unfortunately, Stanley’s Steamers tied the game, so we were on to extras.
A scoreless 8th and I’m leading off the 9th of a tie ballgame. Locked in. New pitcher. I walk after a 3-2 count. I score again and we take the lead 5-4. 3 outs away from a Championship, again. Holy shit.
“Baseball is a great fucking game. But it will break your heart.”
– Butch Hobson
We lost. It didn’t come down to one play or one particular moment, we just didn’t win. Our CF, a considerably more talented Doug, sat down in the outfield as the man crossed home. He’d pitched, he’d fielded, he’d hit the ball. The better Doug was our true MVP. This was his 3rd Championship game he’d been a part of it, and his 3rd loss. I was disappointed, but I hurt for him. It wasn’t fair that a guy that had literally put everything on the line had missed another opportunity at a ring. We all walked back into the dugout and Butch pulled us together and said those two sentences that will stay with me until the end of time. “Baseball is a great fucking game. But it will break your heart.” Truer words have never been spoken. The team was disappointed, but we’d left every ounce of energy on the field, we just ran out of innings. I don’t think it’s ever taken me so long to take off a pair of socks.
The game against the pros was there, but I think everyone on the team was ready to just get it over with. It was fun, sure, but we’d left it all out there the night before. I don’t think a single one of us wanted to run for fly balls. I spent the game in CF (because no one else wanted to) just taking in the last look at the field. I struck out against Alan Embree – You can watch it here:
The week was over, and it ended like it began, with handshakes and hugs. Most everyone was talking about “next year”. Will there be a next year for me? I don’t know. I loved it, it was still an experience of a lifetime, again. But how many ‘experiences of a lifetime’ can you do before it’s no longer the experience of a lifetime? I’d be lying if part of me didn’t hesitate because of the cost. It’s not cheap. I felt a little ‘guilty’ for a lack of a better word, being there a second year. Justifying it for one year was relatively ‘easy’, hell, justifying it for a second year wasn’t that hard, and I could probably give it a go for a 3rd year. But is it the best way to spend the money, or would it be more fun to invest that into other experiences? That’s the real Catch 22 about it. I love every minute of Fantasy Camp, but would I be better off trying something new in 2019? Would ‘absence make the heart grow fonder’ if I took a break for a year? Part of me even wonders what it would feel like to wear a different uniform. Would the experience be the same? Or does this all come down to walking off the field of that Championship game knowing I’d given it my all?
The irony that I’m writing this in Boston isn’t lost on me. I’m scheduled to play my second game at Fenway Park on Thursday, an experience that some would sell their left nut, and some both nuts, to do. There is no place in baseball like Fenway Park, and to be part of it is humbling. My second year at Red Sox Fantasy Camp proved that you can go home again. You’re treated like family by the players and your teammates, but at some point, everyone moves away… But it doesn’t mean you don’t miss them and count down the days when you’ll see them again.