August 2010

8/24/10 – Things to Come

When I first spoke to Joanne at Phillies Phantasy Camp back in March, she had mentioned that in addition to the five-day camp experience, there would be an alumni reunion that next August at Citizens Bank Park. All the 2011 camp-goers would don our customized uniforms, go on to the field and be announced by longtime Phillies PA announcer Dan Baker. When I told my family and friends about this extra little perk, every single one of them pleaded with me to tell them the date as soon as it was confirmed, as they all want to be in attendance. All of a sudden, I feel like Ryan Howard every time the Phillies visit his hometown of St. Louis to play the Cardinals. I’m going to need to get a LOT of tickets.

Last Saturday, the Phillies were at home hosting rookie pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and the rest of the Washington Nationals. One of my cousins had posted a status onto Facebook saying that he was at the Phillies game with his dad, one of my father’s older brothers. He had taken my uncle as part of his birthday present. I thought that was fantastic, especially since my uncle is not apt to going to a lot of live sporting events.

About five minutes after his posting, my cousin sent me a message telling me that the 2010 Phantasy Camp attendees were on the field before the start of the game. I shook my head in disbelief. Of all the games he could have taken my uncle to, it happened to be this special August game for the camp alumni. All of this may seem like nothing more than a coincidence to most people, but what makes this little story more special for me is my uncle and father share the same birthday.

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A month ago when the Phillies fired their hitting coach, Milt Thompson, the team was mired in a deep funk. In addition to a month-long, team-wide slump, the injury bug seemed more like an injury infestation. At one point, this squad was leading the division by five games. Within two months, they found themselves in third place, seven games behind the first-place Atlanta Braves and even worse, the New York Mets. At this point, I had made my peace with the fact that this team may not make the postseason. It would be OK. What I have experienced in the last couple years has gone beyond anything I could have ever wished for as a Phillies fan. It’s extremely hard for a major league baseball team to accomplish what they already have in the last three seasons. Yes, this team is just as strong as the others and another World Series appearance was not out of the question. But, as most sports fans know, a team on paper and a team on the field can be two completely different realities. Not only does a successful baseball season require skill and talent, but there’s a whole lot of luck involved too. This seemed like one of those seasons.

Well, just as Al Pacino once said in that movie that is somehow associated to the first two Godfather films, “Just when I thought I was out… they pull me back in”.

The Phillies have pulled up their bootstraps, and in the last month have played their best baseball of the season. In just one week, they reduced their deficit from seven to two and a half games, where they currently stand. At one point, they were only one game behind the current division leader, Atlanta. As of now, they stand in first place of the Wild Card lead, just ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals and San Francisco Giants. For the first time since the beginning of the season, the Phillies fielded their original opening day lineup. Everyone is back. September is right around the corner and the timing couldn’t be any better.

This last year has been very tough for my wife and I. But, just like this team, we’ve dusted ourselves off and got back doing what we do best… living our lives. Even if the Phillies just sneak in to the postseason with the Wild Card and gets embarrassingly swept in the NLDS, I would consider this season a complete success, almost as much as the 2008 championship. Just like a regular baseball season, life is a marathon, filled with long, hot streaks and seemingly unending deep slumps. You take what’s given to you and you adapt. If you can get through the adversity, and know that at the end of the day, you can honestly say you have done your best while staying true to yourself, then you are truly a success.

And just like baseball, if you have bad year, there’s always next season…

7/31/10 – Birthday

Today, my check for the balance of the camp was cashed in by the Phillies.

Today, my father would have turned 63.

7/23/10 – Milt Thompson

Word came last night that the Phillies fired former player and hitting coach Milt Thompson. This current 2010 squad has become a mirror image of the 1979 team, and unfortunately, as it goes in professional sports, someone… usually the coaching staff… has to take the fall. (On a side note, I’m proud to say that I made this 1979/2010 comparison a full month before longtime Philadelphia sports writer Bill Conlin did in this article). What really makes me sad about this organizational move is now, there may be a chance Mr. Thompson may not be a part of this year’s Phantasy Camp. Last year, he was scheduled to be there to impart his hitting wisdom, but could not be there as he was attending the wedding of Jimmy Rollins. I have a special place in my heart for Milt as a Phillies fan. He first played for the team from 1986-1988. Milt was a fantastic player and had arguably his best season ever in 1987. Sadly he was traded to the Cardinals in 1989, but returned to the Phillies in 1993. So just like Larry Andersen, Milt has the interesting distinction of playing for the Phillies in the ’80’s, leaving, then returning for that fantastic ’93 season. Nothing made me happier when he was hired in 2005 to be the Phillies’ hitting coach. Under his tutelage, the Phillies became a major offensive machine, culminating in three division titles, two World Series appearances and one World Championship. His reaction to his firing exemplified class. No bitterness. No anger. Just business. Milt, you are a Philadelphia Phillies legend.

7/12/10 – Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar Fasciitis. That’s what my nagging foot pain has been diagnosed as. Luckily, it’s not that bad and with proper stretching and orthotics, all will be right. This hurts my ability to finish out the softball season, but that’s a very small sacrifice. My eyes are on the January prize.

7/6/10 – Cleared to Participate

Today I received my annual checkup to satisfy the Camp’s health requirements to attend in January. I’m proud to say, unlike a good portion of the Phillies at the present moment, I have been “cleared to participate in baseball activities”. However, unlike the current roster of the Phillies, the great majority of my “baseball activities” include watching the MLB Network on my couch, in air-conditioning, usually with an alcoholic beverage of some sort in my hand (after 5 PM of course… depending on which country I feel like being in at that moment). Although, based just on that, coaching/playing on two slow-pitch softball teams, and my long hair and constant facial scruff, I think that gets me at least a cup of coffee on the ’93 squad.

Werth and I know something about the outfield and hair maintenance.

Along with the signed health history form, I also mailed my check for the remaining balance of the Camp tuition. Six months seems like an eternity right now.

Just like how long it would be for me to turn 30 years old as a little kid.

4/16/10 – Confirmation

I received a letter of confirmation and invoice in the mail. It said there will be an Orientation Meeting in early November to meet the staff and other campers. When I spoke to Joyce earlier, she had mentioned this meeting would be at Citizens Bank Park. Beautiful.

Also included was a Health History form for my physician to fill out. I had a basic check-up last Summer, but will need another one for the Camp.

3/25/10 – Good Day

As I am apt to do, I woke up extremely early. What had awoken me was a flood of ideas for my Phillies season preview article for prosportsblogging.com that I had been mulling over for weeks. I couldn’t type fast enough. I was so proud of what I was doing. It was such a release. By the end, I made myself tear up. I could not wait until my wife woke up so she could read it. After telling her how excited I was to show her, she sat down. She turned around with the same welled-up eyes and said simply, “it’s fantastic”.

Like my application, I looked over the article about 31 times before I posted it.

One hour later, Joyce, the enrollment coordinator, called me. My application was accepted.

I could do anything that day.

3/24/10 – Application Sent

I stood in front of my fax machine, after looking over the application for the 47th time. As the pages scanned though the machine, my eyes started to well up. All of this would not have been be possible without my dad. I gave a little look up, flashed a tiny smile… that same tiny smile he always had on his face… and to myself said “thank you”.

3/23/10 – The Call

When I called the Phantasy Camp Headquarters, I got their automated menu system. This was not your run-of-the-mill phone directory prompt. The voice on the other end was “The Voice”. I immediately beamed. I thought to myself, “this is the coolest damn thing I have ever heard in my life”. However, it also saddened me. Harry had passed away that last April before a game against the Nationals in Washington. I had seen the breaking news report on the MLB Network and quickly called my dad. I felt like I was informing him a family member had just passed. He clearly was upset by the news. A voice that was synonymous with generations of Phillies fans was silenced. This was also the voice that first told me about the wonders of this camp. The significance of this did not escape me.

I spoke to a wonderful woman named Joanne LeVeque who was the enrollment coordinator. She was excited at my enthusiasm to want to attend the camp. When I told her I lived in New York City, she immediately asked how I was coping with being surrounded by Yankees and Mets fans. It was a fun conversation and once again, I knew I had made the right decision.

She took all my information and emailed me a couple forms, including the application.  As soon as I started to peruse the application, I immediately became aware what this camp was all about. After asking your name, the second question was, “Nickname you would like to be called at Camp”. This was going to be great.

My nickname? Gary Matthews and I may be duking this out.

Other questions included preferred uniform number and position(s) you would like to play. (Note: the numbers I chose were “31” for Garry Maddox and “47” for the year my father was born. I later realized it was also Larry Andersen‘s number, the crowned ring leader of Phantasy Camp. How fitting). Before the legal agreements and final signature, the application had two mini-essay questions. First they asked you to tell them a little about yourself. The second, “Phulfill Your Phantasy: What is your ultimate phantasy for this experience?”. All of a sudden, I got pangs of anxiety. I didn’t want to botch this question up. I felt like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”, writing his essay to Mrs. Shields justifying his desire for a Red Ryder B.B. Gun. I needed to come up with the best answer I could so they would accept my application. I did NOT want to get a C+ on this one. I pondered what to write in those eight blanks lines. I shook my head to give myself a mental wake-up. I was clearly thinking about this way too much. This was not going to make or break their decision on whether or not they should let me attend. I basically gave them a condensed, eight-line version of the introduction to this diary. That should do it.

Introduction

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2010

I don’t know exactly what age I was when I first learned that my favorite baseball team, the Philadelphia Phillies, held an annual “fantasy camp” at their Spring Training facility in Clearwater, FL. According to the “second most important male voice in life at the time”, Harry Kalas, attendees would spend several days playing baseball with other camp-goers and ex-Phillies players.  I looked to my dad to make sure I heard that correctly.  Harry might as well have said the entire Phillies team will come to my house and play nine innings in our backyard. It was that preposterous. Harry wouldn’t lie to me, right? Dad gave me a reassuring smile and told me it was indeed true.

My hopes were immediately dashed though when I found out that you had to be at least 30 years of age to attend. Once again, the powers that be were denying this kid the basic human right to have fun. Thirty?! That’s an eternity! (So goes the thought process for every boy and girl that age).

Years went by and my desire to fib about my age and attend Phantasy Camp had waned. My love of baseball turned to other interests like music and playing drums. My posters of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose were being replaced with rock stars and Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. In addition to Schmidt, it also did not help that my favorite player, Garry Maddox, had retired. Compound that with the fact that my team went through a pretty long period of less-than-stellar play on the field, save for the statistical outlier that was 1993 (easily one the most fun-filled seasons following the Phillies… although did you have to lose 15-14 at my first ever World Series game? Come on. That was painful).

I moved to New York City in early 2001 and I followed the Phillies with even more fervor.  Baseball was slowly making a comeback in Philadelphia. There were a lot of reasons to get excited about this organization. That season saw them turn around with a winning record, led by new manager and Phillies legend, Larry Bowa. A new ballpark was on the way. Amazing homegrown talent was coming up like Jimmy RollinsRandy Wolf, and Pat Burrell. Catcher Mike Lieberthal was coming in to his own. Outfielder Bobby Abreu became a quiet superstar. Later, free agent Jim Thome graced Philadelphia with his presence. Chase Utley soon followed, along with a first baseman making a lot of noise down in the minor leagues named Ryan Howard.  And as any baseball fan knows, what has become of Philadelphia Phillies baseball in the last half of this decade has been nothing short of pure bliss for their fanbase. Right Harry?

My dad and I outside Citizens Bank Park, July 24, 2004.

In the last several years, my dad and I became even more fanatical about our team. Whenever it was on the phone or face-to-face, our conversations centered round the Phillies.  He and I had always been extremely close. The Phillies made us even closer.

On November 4, 2009, my father passed away.  Apart from the obvious shock, pain and heartache that surrounded me that day, what made it even worse was the fact that it was the same day as Game 6 of the World Series against the Yankees… a game (and Series) the Phillies would lose. I wrote an article for prosportsblogging.com detailing that day.

Once I was able to start focusing again on the things I loved to do, the idea of attending the Phillies Phantasy Camp went off like a light bulb. Why not? I had the time and resources now (I also finally met the age requirement. I would turn 35 during the camp in January 2011… same day as Carlos Ruiz… let’s add in “birthday present to myself” shall we?) I ran the thought by my wife. She didn’t even let me finish my sentence before she gave me a hundred emphatic “yeses”.  Not only would this be a wonderful, exciting, and therapeutic experience for me, but it would be the ultimate tribute to my father: A man, no matter how tired he was after a long day at work, would rush home to have a catch with his son in the backyard before the sun went down and to talk about baseball. A man who used sports as a way to comfort ourselves after my mother passed away when I was 14. A man who made his only child his number one priority.

I called the very next morning. After a 20-minute phone conversation with the enrollment coordinator, I knew I made the right decision.

And I knew I had to document this entire process…

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