Saturday, January 27, 2007

Day Five Continued - Taking the Mound

I write this post on Saturday morning, a full four days after taking the mound against the pros. Reentering the real world hasn't been as easy as I thought it would. In any free moment, I play the tapes of our games in my head. Sometimes I replay the good plays, but just as often I go over what I might have done differently.

I played a lot of third base this week, and it took a good four or five games to work through the fear - between the ball screaming at you and the long throw (and my previously mentioned tendency to invoke Mackey Sasser), it can be a long day out there. The worst is when you make a nice pick and then throw it away, and I did that a couple of times. My favorite defensive play came while pitching - I came off the mound during the no-hitter to field a little dribbler down the line and made a strong throw to first to just get the runner. That was fun, although my thighs are still mad at me about that one.

So on to the pro game. My inning of pitching during the pro game is one that I've played over in my head many times this week because it was so damn much fun.

Tradition Field

In the twenty some odd years they've been doing Mets Fantasy Camp, the pros have played something like four hundred three inning games against the campers, and their record is like the Harlem Globetrotters' - 395-3 or something crazy like that. The realistic goal in the pro game is to emerge with your pride, although a win would be nice.

My immediate goal was to emerge with two arms of relatively equal length. You could practically see my pitching arm throbbing, but I was going to go in and tough it out. I had been thinking about pitching in the pro game for over a year now, and I wasn't going to let a sore arm ruin that.

So I took the mound and Doug Flynn dug in. A word here about Doug Flynn - this guy, who came over in the Tom Seaver trade, is just an amazing guy. I used to love to watch him play second base as a kid, and it was a thrill to meet him. But like many of the pros here, what stands out is the guy's limitless generosity. Ask him a question on the way to the field, and he'll stop for ten minutes to answer it. He just seemed genuinely pleased to be there - he always had a smile on his face, he'd sign anything you put in front of him, and he really, really knows the game. And as Bobby Wine's assistant on the kangaroo court, he was hilariously funny.

So there I am standing in pitching against Doug Flynn, THE Doug Flynn. I was pretty much reduced to throwing sliders because I could no longer locate my fastball, and besides, these guys would hit my fastball back into the locker room. So I threw slider after slider as near to the outside corner as I could, and Dougie reached out at one of them and grounded easily to Chris Berlingo, who made a nifty play at short.

Then Tim Bogar stepped in and also hit a playable infield grounder, but he reached on an error. No matter. Art Shamsky grounded to first and Anthony Young popped to center, but it dropped for an unearned run.

Then in stepped Steve Henderson, another one of my favorites. Hendu is another one of those guys who seems genuinely glad to see you, always has a smile, and always has something nice to say. I suspect that for the most part, the pros at fantasy camp self select. They enjoy the cameraderie, and they like lacing up the cleats again. They must feed off the energy of us geezers, and they really like teaching, even if what we learn only gets used every year or two.

So Hendu says, "are you ready, Brownie, 'cause here it comes," or some such, and digs in in that Steve Henderson way. Hendu used to own the inside corner because he was so strong he could hit a ball off his pinky into the gap in right center. I asked him to go easy on me, and maybe he did, but I hope he didn't because he hit a lazy fly ball to left to end the inning. Line score - one run, no hits, two errors. I had no-hit the pros, and gave them five outs to boot.

With Hendu After the Game

Anthony Young was pitching for the pros, and it wasn't pretty. He barely broke a sweat, although he was throwing about 80-ish mile an hour fastballs. I think we managed one hit. I got jammed on a fastball and grounded to second and my right hand was swollen for days. It was nasty, but for days I walked around saying, "See this swollen hand? I got jammed by Anthony Young." Nice.

So that was the day, and the week, and I'm really sad that it's over. We had a great, great bunch of guys, and we played a very difficult game pretty well. I achieved some personal goals, but I've still got a lot of room for improvement.

I met some people who really inspired me, and who reminded me what a wonderful game baseball is and how lucky we are to be able, at this age, to spend a week being a kid again. I'm already thinking about when I can go back.

I'm not quite done writing. I hope to spend a day or two a week profiling some of my fellow campers, some of the employees who work so hard to make this a great experience, and to talk a little more about a player or two. If anybody out there has photos to share, send them along and I'd be happy to put them up.

When the photos I ordered from the team arrive, I'll post them as well - some of them are really cool.

Finally, we'll be heading back to Shea for a game on the field in July, and I'll be sure to write an update about that then.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Day Five - Into the Breach (cont)

So it was off to the far end of the complex, the optimistically named Tradition Field (perhaps only in Florida can you have a Tradition in a couple of years, but whatever). On the way there, I ran into perhaps my two favorite campers, Lynn Spuler and Wendy Shotsky. Lynn and Wendy are both in their fifties, and are first-time campers. And without getting too Five-People-You-Meet-in-Heaven here, they reminded me yet again that fantasy camp is about challenging yourself to do something difficult and then doing it with gusto.

Wendy told me the other day that, like a lot of people here, she’d been dreaming about going to fantasy camp for years. They didn’t let girls play baseball when she was growing up, and she was determined to come and play, no matter what. She convinced her friend Lynn to join her after a great deal of coaxing. And these two ladies are having the time of their lives. The other day, Wendy had a key hit during a game, her first. She told me, “It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me in my entire live, and I have twins!”

Then I stopped to watch Lynn step in during their final game and she took a hard cut at a pitch, sending it over the first baseman’s outstretched glove for a double. She screamed, then she laughed, then she screamed again. “A double! I hit a double! My first extra base hit!” She was delirious, her team was delirious, even the other team was excited. Another time, Lynn related how the trainer had wrapped her pulled groin. “I only realized that he had taped my underwear to my body when I went to pee.”

Lynn (left center) and Wendy (right center) at the awards banquet.

A lot of people will head back to their jobs and their families this week with a true sense of accomplishment, but I have a feeling that nobody will feel like they achieved as much as these two women.

So it was off to the field for the game against the pros.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Day Five - Once More Into the Breach Against the Pros

Day Five

On the last day of camp, the campers suit up and take on the pros at Tradition Field, the mainstage at the Spring Training facility. Each team plays a three inning game against the pros, and I've been looking forward to this for two years.

Since we finished third, ours was the third game. Last time, I had to leave early, and since we had finished last I would have missed my plane, so I had to ask onto a team that was scheduled to play earlier. It just wasn't as much fun taking the field with some other bunch of guys.

Thinking back, it really reinforced the notion that this experience is just as much about the cameraderie on the team as it is about hobnobbing with your childhood heroes, if you can believe it. We had a great time playing together, but we seemd to have almost as much fun sitting on our stools in front of our lockers hanging out and drinking in the experience.

There was a fair amount of Robert Bly working at this camp - baseball camp is kind of the Brooklyn/Queens/Manhattan version of running into the woods banging drums, if you ask me. I remember one moment when I was sitting there talking to John Brooks about my dad and how I know how much he would of liked to have been there, and by then it was too late - I started to choke up a little and Brooks got this sort of stricken look on his face, and we endeavored to change the subject.

But in my mind, that vibe was hanging in the air all week. About half the guys, it seems, were there for their fortieth birthday, one of those untidy milestones that reminds us that we're no longer young. And what better way to deny one's own mortality and imperfect relationship with our own fathers, (who, if they're still alive, are aging before our eyes) than to put on baseball pants and hang out with Felix Millan and Ed Charles?

Me and The Glider

It's hard to kid yourself that you're a kid, though, when you can't get out of a chair because you're too sore. As much as I was excited about playing on the big field against the big guys, it took me about five times as long to put my pants on as it normally does, and I had to brush my teeth with my left hand, because my right arm was not cooperating properly, having pitched twelve innings in two days. So game day with the pros produced somewhat mixed emotions - I was thrilled to stand on a field with them and maybe even pitch an inning, but boy was I tired.

We dressed slowly, partly because we couldn't move any faster if we wanted to, and partly to savor the moment. Then it was off to the field one last time.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Day Four - A Big No-No

Day Four

The day began with the awarding of the gold and brown ropes. I received another gold rope nomination for yesterday's win, which was really gratifying. Of course I was so excited about getting to pitch and being able to deliver under pressure felt great.

Stearns announced the various brown rope nominations, including one for a guy who was almost picked off second base on an infield fly rule play. It was in our game, and truth be told, the ump missed the call and the guy was out by a full step.

The brown rope went to Pat Zachry for pulling a hamstring -- while bowling. Zachry was nowhere to be found, so Stearns awarded the rope in absentia, which he pronounced "absent-ee-a," sending the room into a giggling frenzy. "Hey," said Stearns, "when I went to Colorado" (where he was on football scholarship) "I majored in eligibility."

Then Zachry walked in, and Stearns presented him with his noose. Zachry replied in his trademark west Texas deputy dog drawl without missing a beat, "I always wanted to be hung."

We went into the day 2-2 - respectable, but not great. In game one, Larry Gross pitched his heart out against a team that was 4-0, and which was frankly stacked with great players. We all battled like hell, and the turning point happened when the ump called a ball down the line fair, when it was clearly foul. Our manager Duffy Dyer, who was a, er, silent presence for much of the week, did a very good impersonation of Earl Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles manager who famously bedeviled umpires by, how shall I put it, pointedly disagreeing with their decision making skills.

So Duffy complained colorfully to the umpire, who for some reason neglected to throw him out of the game, and we took that as a sign that he really wanted us to win, which is what we proceeded to do. I went 2 for 3 with a double to right center and an RBI single, and we won something like 16-10.

We played against the team coached by Tim Bogar, who is one of the class acts in baseball. I was playing third, and he was coaching third, and as the game progressed, I'd ask questions about the game. Where should I play? What should I be thinking in this situation? Things like that. Some coaches take the game really seriously, and a few might be less than totally forthcoming, but not Bogie. He was really helpful, and it made the game a lot of fun. He's a AA manager for Akron in the Indians organization, and the talk is that he's on track to manage in the majors before long.

So our win over Bogie’s team put us into the playoff game to determine the third place finisher. Third in a field of ten is very respectable, since there was a pretty high level of play this week. (This doesn't mean by any stretch of the imagination that players without a lot of experience can't contribute or have the time of their lives - more on that later.)

Duffy handed me the ball for the afternoon game. One of the trainers rubbed my arm out during lunch and I was feeling as well as I had in days. Those guys are miracle workers, I swear.

So I took the mound feeling confident that I could pitch effectively, even if I was running out of gas in general. After three days of solid baseball and five games, we were all completely wiped out. Nobody’s legs were working properly, most of our arms were really sore, and there were all sorts of bizarre and funky injuries – one guy had his toenail lanced, for example. Goldstein and his bad hammy had him crab running like some kind of creature out of Star Wars – funny to watch, and inspiring.

In the first inning, I threw about five pitches to get three quick outs, backed up by three terrific plays in the field. I think we scored two in our half of the inning, so I was staked to a nice little lead.

The second inning was the same. It might have taken ten pitches to work through the next three batters. We added a few more runs.

By the time I sat down in the dugout after the third, I asked my catcher John Brooks a question and he answered it, then said, “Oh I forgot, I’m not supposed to talk to you.” I had a perfect game going. Dugout etiquette dictates that if a pitcher has a no-hitter going, he is to be ignored. Perhaps it's superstition, or maybe it's to keep him focused on pitching, but I was having a ball being ignored.

The fourth was more of the same – I kept throwing sliders low and away, kept throwing strikes, and we were playing defense like crazy men. In the first four innings, shortstop Chris Berlingo came across to the second base side on a ball through the box that I couldn’t handle. Vic Bellavia stabbed a liner at second. I came off the mound to field a little dribbler off the plate and made a strong throw to first to get the runner. Ed Pecinka tracked down some well hit balls to left.

This was getting interesting.

I took the mound in the fifth and Lenny Randle, that class clown, decided he wanted to umpire, and gave the ump a rest and dug in behind the catcher. For some reason, I agreed to this insanity and proceeded throw three straight balls. When he called the forth pitch, which was close enough, a ball, I said enough and kicked him off the field.

The perfect game was gone, and I don't remember exactly how it went, but with first and second, I threw away a comebacker and the shutout was gone, but I did manage to get out of the inning without giving up any hits. The no-no was intact.

In the bottom of the fifth darkness was setting in, and when the other team's pitcher was hit with a line drive, the coaches called the game on account of darkness and I ended up with the weirdest of no-hitters - shortened by darkness and not a shoutout, but technically a no-hitter.

Heck, I'll take it.

My final numbers - 8 for 16 for a .500 batting average, 2-0 pitching record, with 12 innings pitched, 10 strikeouts, and one earned run for a .083 ERA. What an amazing week. We went 4-2, finished third, and really came together as a team.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Day Three - The Injuries Mount

Well, day three’s in the books.

I would like to now give a run down of my current physical condition. Moving from south to north: I have a black toenail from stopping short on the basepath and somehow causing trauma inside my cleat. The outside of my left and right ankles have some hard to describe pain. My left knee is mad at me for sliding. Both quads and hamstrings are so sore that to get into a car I have to lift my legs by the pants. My left hip is sore from diving for a pop fly. My right elbow is throbbing (more on that later). Nearly every muscle in my back and shoulders is tender. We think that baseball is a genteel sport because there’s not contact, but let me tell you, all that starting and stopping, and running at full speed only to stop yourself by hurling yourself the ground and skidding across it takes its toll. These are unnatural motions and should be avoided under most circumstances.

But I consider myself one of the lucky ones. Teammate Larry Goldstein hit a single to center only to go down halfway to first with a nasty hamstring pull – he tried to get up, but went back down again a few steps later, and to add insult to injury, he was thrown out at first by the center fielder.

Another teammate, Jim Forde took a fastball to the thigh that produced a bruise that was amazingly reminiscent of the one I had last time. His has a nicer variety of colors than mine did, though, and you can actually see the stitches of the ball in his bruise, if you look closely enough. Really, it’s a wonderful bruise. Amazingly, as the day progressed, the colors actually matured. They began with the warm yellows and pinks of sunrise, but developed into the more emotional and profound blues and purples of a memorable sunset. If it weren’t on a man’s leg, you could perhaps see the think hanging in a museum. Jim’s all banged up – he had rib cage surgery recently and has spent a fair amount of time in the trainer’s room, but he’s getting his money’s worth – out there playing his heart out and having a great time.

If you look closely, you can actually see the stitches on Jim's bruise.

The trainer’s room is a hypochondriac’s delight – with every manner of emollient, salve, and pain reliever known to modern chemistry, not to mention a staff of trainers who could practically heal the dead.

(On a side note, a coach offered to lead a chapel service this morning, and it was suggested they start in the trainer’s room to help the lame, and move on to the ump’s lockers, where they might help the blind to see.)

My favorite locker room item is, and I’m not making this up, a tub of stuff called “Boudreau’s Butt Paste,” for diaper rash. This, I have not had occasion to try just yet, but the week is not over yet, so you never know.

Anyway, Jim Forde is, to my mind, the quintessential fantasy camper – here to do the thing he always wanted to do but never did.

Boudreau's Butt Paste - They Say it Works

The day was a lot of fun. I finally got to pitch. Remember all that talk about a two seam this and a four seam that? Well, when you get on the mound, sometimes all that stuff goes right out the window. Because in this league, the number one thing is to throw strikes, and if you’re futzing with a cut fastball or a sidearm sinker or something, pretty soon you’ve walked the bases loaded.

So I pretty much stuck to a fastball and slider (I throw my slider just like a fastball, except with a very unnatural and unrecommended twist of the arm that makes it curve). And things worked out pretty well. I pitched a complete game, striking out nine or ten, and only giving up one run. The best part was snaring a screamer back through the box to end a rally. We won 8-1, and it was a really, really satisfying game, made possible by, among other things, an inside the park grand slam by Joe Oesterlie, who chugged around the bases and slid under the tag at the plate. Long run.

The obligatory post-pitching photo.

In the second game, we were down 2-0 to Ron Swoboda’s team, came back to take a 3-2 lead, and watched it slip away as they scored a run in the sixth and another in the seventh with a very contested walk off hit. So we’re 2-2, and missed our chance to qualify for the two game playoffs. The bottom line is that while we’re here to have fun, we’re also here to win, and it was disappointing to be close but not close enough. We have two more games tomorrow, and we’ll still play to win, but we’re now just playing for pride.

This evening was kangaroo court – in which fines are handed out for crimes and misdemeanors real and imagined. It is presided over by Coach Bobby Wine and his able lieutenant, former Reds and Mets second baseman Doug Flynn. Now Bobby is a really funny guy because he has an incredible wit but an even greater deadpan – he actually reminds me of Buster Keaton – and he almost never breaks it.

I have a feeling that kangaroo court may be the ultimate “you had to be there” experiences, but Bobby serves as judge, jury, and executioner, handing out fines to people for doing stupid things, talking back, speaking out of turn, or just because he feels like it. An example – Wine: Who here likes their wife better than baseball? (A number of guys raise their hands) Wine: That’ll cost you two dollars each for lying! Bobby fined former Met pitcher Anthony Young (yes, the one who lost 27 games in a row and I don't recommend reminding him of that unpleasant fact) two dollars for wearing an ugly shirt. And so on.

Doug Flynn explains AY's fine for wearing a loud shirt as Judge Wine brings down the gavel.

So tomorrow it’s two more games and the banquet dinner, and a lot of Advil.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Day Two - The Glider Gives Up His Nickname

Oh man, am I fried.

That was a very long and exhausting day, and it was a roller coaster. But I’m happy to report that all’s well that ends well – at least so far.

The first real day of camp starts with the morning meeting at 8:30.

Commissioner John Stearns goes over the rules and describes the awards that are handed out on a daily basis. For example, each day, someone is awarded the “gold rope” for outstanding performance, and someone receives the ignominious “brown rope” for boneheadedness, and people can do very dumb things in a baseball game.

John Stearns shows off the coveted "gold rope" at the morning meeting as Joe Pignatano looks on.

As Stearns put it, “Each morning, campers will be singled out for praise and ridicule, so be ready.” Baseball players are a caring and sensitive bunch.

Then the clubhouse man Jack Brenner helpfully demonstrated the “laundry loop”, which the clubhouse staff use to keep track of everyone’s laundry. In a nutshell, you’re supposed to clip all your laundry on this handy dandy loop that has your locker number on it, and every morning, like magic, your laundry is delivered fresh and clean to your locker. They also somehow manage to get these hideously muddy, clay-ey, grass stained jerseys sparkling white. I honestly don’t know how they do it, although it wouldn’t surprise me if they use chemicals that will make us all sterile.

Anyway, Jack clearly enjoys his work, because he demonstrates the laundry loop principle with extraordinary gusto. Given that I have a feeling there is at best 75% compliance, I assume Jack to be a patient and generous man.

Jack Brenner Triumphantly Displays the Proper Laundry Loop Technique as Stearns Looks on

Once we were indoctrinated in the various rules and rituals of life in baseball, we headed off to drills in four stations – infield, outfield, pitching and batting practice. The coaches wandered the fields, assessing the talent in advance of the closed door draft held at lunch.

So we’re all running around like a bunch of idiots trying to impress the coaches. After thinking about this, I realized that the best strategy would be to play really badly in practice so other good players would be drafted ahead of you. But the fact is that the same kind of competitive spirit that would possess a person to drop a pile of dough for a week of baseball also means that it’s really tough to undersell one’s own talents, such as they are, or aren’t.

At the center of the practice fields at the Mets training compound is this great big tower, and for much of the morning our fantasy camp league commissioner John Stearns would pace the battlements of the tower, kind of like the commandant of a prison camp. My guess is that he really likes it up there. (By the way, unless I’m the only person in America who has failed to figure out how to use You Tube, I shot a little video of Stearns throwing batting practice – priceless. I’ll try to post it soon.)

So Stearns is yelling stuff with his bullhorn up on the tower, and we’re busting our butts trying to get coaches to notice us, like wallflowers at the prom.

After drills and lunch, the coaches held their draft.

We all come here to have fun, but we also come to win. And everyone wants to get on a good team with good coaches and win this thing. So the draft is very important, and guys started getting really edgy toward the end of lunch. A lot of time went by, and the coaches still hadn’t emerged from their draft, and we all sat around, waiting for the puff of white smoke over the Vatican to signify that the teams had been selected.

I was really hoping I’d be back on Felix’s team. Or maybe I’d get with Steve (Hendu) Henderson, who went up to my daughter last time and said, “Are you little Brownie?” “Yes,” she beamed. “Your daddy can play.” Now that was cool.

Well, I was picked by Duffy Dyer, who caught for the Mets in the early seventies. The rest of his coaching staff includes the indecipherable but energetic Willie Montanez, whose excruciatingly slow home run trot was a thing to behold, and The Glider, Ed Charles, the third baseman of the Miracle Mets team of ’69, who sat at our dinner table the night before.

Duffy Dyer is, how shall I put it, taciturn. He will never be hired as Walmart greeter, but fortunately, he doesn't need the work. He currently manages the Detroit Tigers’ AA affiliate, so he knows his baseball, and continues to make a living at it. And it's clear that he wants to win, and that losing makes him rather cross.

The first game didn’t go well at all. As I’ve written, I’ve been really eager to pitch, but I started at third, which is a tough position to play. Lotta very hard balls hit at you, and a really long throw, and we all know I’ve got a bit of Mackey Sasser going on.

I played okay, going 2 for 3, making a few decent plays and a few lousy ones, but we got shelled – 11-2 or something like that. Duffy was displeased.

Game two started marginally better (although I still didn’t get to pitch) – we had a 2-1 lead through three innings, but I made a few bad plays at third and I was beginning to wonder if trying to recreate my perfect first fantasy camp experience was a dumb idea.

Then, late in the game, the other team had the bases loaded with two outs, and we were watching our 5-2 lead potentially slip away. Their best hitter was up, and he had just hit a long bomb to left that barely went foul. Then he hit a screamer to my left - I stabbed it, spun around, and raced to third for the force. End of rally. Ed Charles, The Glider, then said the words that I’ll take to my grave – “I’m done being The Glider, Brownie, now you’re The Glider. That kind of play is why I come here.”

I mean, Ed Charles gave me his nickname. The really nice thing about baseball is that you can wipe out a day’s worth of infamy with one play that takes all of ten seconds, and which happens entirely by instinct and reaction. We went on to win 7-2, and all of a sudden things were looking up.

Injury report – in his first at bat, one player, who brought his wife and kids down from New York, pulled up lame with a very bad hammy, and could possibly be out for the camp. Another guy, on the same team, did some kind of circus move at home plate trying to elude a tag, and smashed his elbow into the catcher’s helmet. Hard to say whether he’ll be able to play any more. I suspect the trainer’s room will look like a M*A*S*H unit tomorrow morning, given the stories I heard.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Day One - Some Things Never Change

Day One

So I run into Bobby Wine in the locker room. "What's your name?" has asks me. Happiness washes over me. "Brown," I tell him. "Are you any good?" has asks. Oh, well. This can't be the way big league scouts do it.

Bobby Wine (center) with his famous clipboard as camp coordinator Jay Wegweiser (l) and former Met George Stone (r) look on.

Oh, it's just the way I remember it.

I have to confess that when I walked into the locker room I didn't almost lose my bladder like last time, but I was still extremely happy.

When the bus pulled into the parking lot at the Mets' training facility, I had to be prevented from jumping out the window and running onto the field, where guys were already
taking batting practice. Next time rent a car, I thought.

So I ran into the locker room, changed into cleats, and dashed out onto the field.

On the Field, Day One

I fielded the ball well, including one of those once in a lifetime plays - playing short, a guy hits a line drive in the space between me and the third baseman. We both lunge for it, and the ball glances off the third baseman's glove and I reach back behind me to catch it. Sadly, this occurred during batting practice, and thus is a totally useless act.

In fact, if you put your body in harm's way during batting practice, you are a fool.

This is the part where, like Bart Simpson, I should be made to write on the blackboard "I won't overdo it. I won't overdo it. I won't overdo it" about a million and one times.

Because when another line drive came my way I stretched all the way out and felt that familiar tweeeeeaaaaaak in my lower back. I never learn.

Then it was off to the banquet dinner, in which the pros are introduced, and each camper does a little introduction. Best line of the night came from my erstwhile teammate Ned Newhouse, who said, "I'm back again this year because this is the only fantasy my wife will let me have."

Tomorrow it's drills in the morning, then the coaches will draft teams, then we head out to play two games in the afternoon. I fully expect to be in full traction by evening.

It's Hopes and Dreams Day!

The first day of the season is always the day most filled with hope. After all, everyone is tied for first – even the pretenders and the dreamers are permitted their brief bout of pretention and dreaminess.

And so it is on the morning of the first day of fantasy camp. The tubby and the fat, the old and the older, the halt and the lame (gee, this is fun), all take the field with equal hopes for greatness.

After I did my last fantasy camp report ( two years ago, I got lots and lots of emails from guys wondering if they would be able to hack it – were the pitchers too good? Did everyone run well? Now, some guys are actually pretty good, but most of us fall in that wonderful middle of the pack place – here it’s a utopian world of parity. The games are competitive, everyone gets their hits (was it Bill Clinton who used to say “even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut”? but more important, everyone has fun. I remember one player, who was having a tough first few games, singling in a run in the championship game and being carried off the field on the team’s shoulders. Baseball’s like that, just ask Bucky Dent.

Well, almost everyone has fun. Last time there was this one guy who complained about everything. He never stopped complaining, and nobody could figure it out. I mean really. And this guy comes back, year after year, pretty much just to complain, I suspect. Kinda like the people who go to Hawaii and bitch about the heat.

But the first day is the best. Personally, I have all kinds of hopes and dreams this time around. As I mentioned, I’ve been working on a few pitches, but I’ve never actually faced live pitching with them. Last time I came, I had no intention of pitching, but our team sucked so badly that we could have sent my daughter Maggie out there with better results, so I volunteered to pitch thinking that I couldn’t be any worse than anyone else. And I was so scared that I just heaved the ball over the plate without any real plan, and did okay.

This time I have a plan, which could produce some real heartache, but I’m willing to risk it. As I mentioned, I spent a year fantasizing about pitching, in a Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi kind of way. “Be the ball. Feel the universe help it spin. See the bottom drop out of it as your opponent swings and misses in beautiful futility. Then grab your aching elbow in exquisite agony.”

Well, something like that anyway.

Then, some time this fall, I started getting serious. I started throwing with a few friends, and thought “what would happen if I tried to throw a curve ball?” and would you know it, the damn thing curved, sort of. Then I started trying out new grips and arm angles, and then I tried a change up (okay, that didn’t go so well), and then I started throwing kind of side arm sort of thing, which made my arm feel very, very bad, but which did very cool things to the ball. I threw and threw and threw.

The bottom line is that it’s the first day of the season and I am full of hope. Full of hope that I’ll get the ball over the plate, that I’ll get a few guys out, and that I’ll make it through the entire week without needing Tommy John surgery.

As for hitting, since all of a sudden I fancy myself a pitcher, I’ve given it little thought. I will try to remember what I learned last time – don’t swing at a pitch you can’t hit. Sounds easy, but it’s hard. But hitting shmitting – mommy, I want to pitch!

Fielding is hard, too, because the little voices in my head are very, very mean in this regard. The ball will come flying at me and instinct takes over. I will field the ball cleanly, and then the voices come “don’t throw it about ten feet over the first baseman’s head,” the voice will helpfully suggest. And then I do exactly that, of course. For some reason, the voices don’t bother me when I’m pitching or hitting, but they’ve bedeviled me in the field. Mean, mean voices.

And I’m in excellent company. We all remember the travails of the doomed Mets catcher Mackey Sasser, who inexplicably found it impossible to return the ball to the pitcher, something any little leaguer could do without thinking.

Macky Sasser, Presumably Waiting for the Pitcher to Retrieve the Ball

And what about Steve Sax, who after years and years in the game found it impossible to make the throw from second? Second! And Chuck Knobloch? (I’ll never forget the Daily News headline after he blew a game with a particularly awful error – BLOCHHEAD, it read, for all the world and his mother to see.) And then there’s the cruel case of pitcher Rick Ankiel, who in the heat of the pennant race, began heaving the ball into the stands from the pitcher’s mound. It’s like situational Tourette’s, and it ruined these guys’ careers.

Thank goodness mine only occurs when I’m playing a game. I mean, can you imagine sitting at your desk trying to write a memo and having it come out “I stink, I stink, I stink” or something like that and not being able to do anything about it?

So I consider myself lucky that the little voices only come when I’m playing a harmless game and not while I’m trying to make a living.

In any event, today is hopes and dreams day. We’ll head out to the field to warm up at around 2:30. We’ll go into the clubhouse and gaze lovingly at our uniforms hanging in our lockers. Then we’ll gaze lovingly at the trainer’s room, where we will spend much of our time this week. Then we’ll probably take some batting practice, shag balls (British audiences may be alarmed at this, but it just means standing around and catching the balls hit during batting practice), and we’ll just generally drink in the glory of it all. And then we will go out and drink in the glory of it all.

Last time, coach Bobby Wine literally started scouting guys on the bus out to the stadium (“What position do you play? Are you any good?”), and paces the fields during warmups with his clipboard, trying to spot talent for Saturday’s draft. “Nice catch, kid. What’s your name?,” he asks the sixty year old stockbroker. Bobby Wine doesn’t come to fantasy camp to have fun, he comes to win. Gotta love that guy.

But as for me, I’m just here to have fun. But if Bobby Wine doesn’t ask me my name, I’ll go home a cry.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why I'm a Met Fan

One of the fondest memories I have of my childhood goes like this – I was in elementary school one day, and I was called to the office because my father had come to get me.

This was unusual. For the most part, if I wasn’t feeling well, he’d insist I go to school. On the rare occasions when I wasn’t feeling well and convinced my mother to let me stay home, he’d get angry. Missing school was bad.

As it turned out, he had tickets to an afternoon Mets game, and he was taking me out of school so we could go. He had never done anything remotely like that before, and he would never do it again.

He died at 37 when I was eleven, and I’d be hard pressed to think of too many other positive moments with him. He could be a difficult man. He drank, and he didn’t take care of himself. When he started feeling bad (turns out he had cancer) he didn’t go to the doctor until it was way too late. A lot of people came to his funeral and genuinely mourned his passing, but they saw a side of him that I only saw once. What a waste.

But for that day at Shea Stadium, all was well with the world, and a father and a son played hooky from work and school and came together at a ball game. I don’t remember who pitched or even who they played – I just remember being at the ball game with my dad and being happy.

I don’t believe in looking back with regret, but I regret that I didn’t have more days like that.

I’m a Met fan because my dad was, and a baseball fan because he was, and there’s probably a lot more of my personality than I’m willing to admit that I inherited from a guy I barely knew. These silly games in which fully grown adults run around a throw and catch and hit a ball are phenomenally trivial on the surface, but they give us the chance to build friendships, and express joy, and act like schoolchildren when we’re supposed to be worrying about our mortgage, or our job, or world peace, or other important stuff.

Two years ago, when my wife, my daughter and I played collective hooky to go to Florida while I played baseball, my father was there as well, and after thirty years I finally forgave him for being a crappy father. Maybe I was trying to relive that day at the ballpark as a kid, and to be honest, it worked.

And it worked so well that I’m going back to try it again.

Okay, enough of that – tomorrow’s post will be funny, I promise.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reminiscing Over a Big, Purple Welt

On Friday, things are going to get really fun. I'll arrive in Port St. Lucie, make my way out to Tradition Field (a hopeful name for a new ballpark if ever there was one) and the rest of the Mets' Spring Training digs, and I'm going to run around the field with my arms flailing, all blissed out like a cast member in "Hair". If memory serves, I won't be alone.

I will first wander the clubhouse, regard the inspirational posters on the walls (hey, I need some inspirational posters on the walls at home, come to think of it), put on my uniform, drink in the moment, and I'm going to run out onto the practice field like a lunatic.

I can tell you right now - I'll run out there, I won't warm up, I'll throw way too hard for my own good, and I'll pull every muscle in my body. That's what I did last time, and that's what I'll do this time, because I have no restraint. But that's okay. If I had restraint, I wouldn't be doing this.

On Saturday morning I will feel like I was run over by a bus. And I will smile like a village idiot.

It's been two years since I went to fantasy camp, and I've been obsessing about it ever since. Every pulled muscle. Each ache and pain. I even miss the gargantuan purple welt I got from the line drive off my thigh. Now that was cool. (I now provide for you a never-before-published photo of the hideous wound - kindly shield the childrens' eyes).

What would possibly possess grown men to do this silliness not once, but twice? Beats me, but stay tuned, I have a feeling this is going to be fun.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Only a Fool Climbs Mount Fuji Twice

Two years ago, I went off to Florida, laced up my cleats, and gamboled in the grass with a hundred other guys at New York Mets Fantasy Camp.

It was, quite simply, the greatest week of my life - I played baseball like a little boy, and hung out with my childhood heroes. I scratched a great big itch - the kind we all seem to carry around with us, if one can carry an itch. I got to live out a childhood dream, to perfect the past. And it was pretty darned close to perfection. I pitched, I hit, and I was picked to play on the team of my #1 childhood hero, Felix Millan (you can read all about the first time at

So, apart from the sheer indulgence of it, why would one go back? When I lived in Japan, they used to say that everyone is supposed to climb Mt. Fuji once, but only a fool climbs it twice. (Okay, I never climbed Mt. Fuji at all, but bear with me here.) Maybe that's because it's a lot of work, or because Fuji is kind of strewn with trash, or because sometimes you have to do something and then just move on.

Well, if I went to Florida two years ago to relive my childhood, am I going back to re-re-live my childhood? Well, maybe. At 42, I spend a great deal of my time forced to act frightening like an adult.

No, actually I think there are two main reasons why I'm going back again. The first reason is embarrassingly simplistic - it's that in the two years that has gone by since the last time, a day hasn't gone by when I haven't thought about how much fun I had.

I spent the next year after the last camp thinking about pitching.

It was like one of those zen master visualization exercises gone hideously awry. I thought about how I'd throw a two seam fastball, a four seam fastball, and then I got nutty and started thinking about throwing sidearm, or even, gasp, a changeup.

And the thing is, never once did I actually pick up a baseball and throw it. No, I was happy just to think about it. Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid would have wept.

Then it occurred to me that I could actually do something about it and head back to Florida and see what happened. And then I figured what the heck.

The other reason is that I really want to know what makes the other guys tick. I know my cockamamie reasons for putting on a uniform and pretending to be something I wished I were, but what about the other guys? Why are my fellow campers shoehorning themselves into a hideously uncomfortable cup and supporter? What about the coaches - former pros who once did it for real? What do they get out of all this?

Why are a bunch of grown men acting like a bunch of babies? I'm dying to find out.

The day after tomorrow, I'm off to Florida to re-re-live the past, and I can't wait.