February 2011

1/23/11 – FINAL DAY of Phillies Phantasy Camp

I woke up just as the sun started to make its slow rise over the horizon and envelop Clearwater Harbor with its warm orange glow. This was the perfect way to start out my last morning at Phantasy Camp.

Packed and checked out, I headed to breakfast in the ballroom. My calf muscle in my left leg felt fantastic, like nothing had happened to it the day before. No hobbling down the buffet line for me. This was good because I needed the support to hold up the massive amount of bacon that I just shoveled on to my plate. No need to eat healthy today. This was going to be a party.

I sat down at an empty table and was soon joined by Scott Palmer. He wished me a good morning, asked how I was, and asked about my experience at Camp He was thrilled to hear all my exaltations. While I had him there, I had to speak to him about Cliff Lee…

I watched the Cliff Lee press conference live on the MLB Network and the first thing I noticed was Palmer’s introduction of Lee and GM Ruben Amaro Jr. Palmer was not just a Public Affairs Director this day, he was a fan like all the rest of us.  I remarked to Scott how overjoyed he looked and sounded, like he could not believe he was actually there, introducing Lee BACK to the Phillies. The same went for Amaro Jr. The both of them had the widest smiles. Scott shook his head and told me that was such an incredible day and everyone in the organization felt the same way: over the moon. He went on to tell me about the night he found out Lee was returning to the Phillies.

The Phillies were hosting a charity event that Palmer MC’ing. Dave Montgomery, the owner, president and C.E.O. of the Phillies, who takes his involvement with charities very seriously, was suspicious absent for the good part of the evening. Every now and then, Dave would come in, looking very tense and pensive, and then quickly disappear again. Scott knew that the Phillies had recently become a major player in the Lee sweepstakes, and he was their number one priority. Throughout the night, Dave would come and go, but finally, he returned with a very similar wide grin, sat down, crossed his legs, took a huge a breath and put his arms on each chair next to him. Scott knew right then the Phillies had just landed Lee. It wasn’t until later that night while he was driving home did he hear the confirmation on the radio. Fantastic.

A teammate of mine, Harry Sharpe, joined us at the table. Harry had incredible energy, a great sense of humor, and was a joy to be around. He and his wife own a bed & breakfast in Tunkhannok, PA, which he promised all of us discounted rates if we came and stayed there. I’m holding you to that Harry!

Scott told us another story about Phantasy Camp that gave me such a bad case of goosebumps. Syd Fluck had been a regular down in Clearwater, but over the years, he started developing early stages of Alzheimer’s. In what turned out to be his last year attending Camp, his son had joined him for the first time. Palmer recalled a sad, but very touching moment when the older Fluck was batting in a game at Bright House. Syd had struck out, but thought he actually walked. He started his way down the line to take his base. His son met him on the line and gently whispered in to his ear that he actually struck out. His son put his arm his dad’s shoulders and walked him back to the dugout. EVERYONE on the field, in the dugout, and in the stands, gave him a rousing, standing ovation. My eyes are welling up just typing this. Like I said before, this is what this Camp is all about.

———————–

I loaded all my luggage into the bus and said goodbye to the Marriot.  Since the Drillers finished in 8th place, our game against the Legends would not be until the early afternoon, so we did not need to be at the Complex until a little later. That extra hour was so nice, although, we did kind of wish we would finish 9th or 10th just so we could get two extra hours. Also, as a consolation, the 9th and 10th place teams played their final game the day before at Bright House Field.

Sometimes, it’s good to lose one every now and then.

We pulled in to the Complex one last time. This morning routine of ours quickly became so familiar, like we had done this for years. That was a really comforting feeling. It felt great to take our time this day, stroll in to the clubhouse, and not have to rush about getting ready for our morning briefings. We all were able to leisurely sit around, chat with our surrounding locker buddies and teammates, and fully take in this final and very exciting day.

Before I left, another Camper stopped me, and for the fourth time in the past couple of days, was told I resemble a sports celebrity. This time, my apparent doppelganger was not a baseball player. Nope, I got a NASCAR driver this time. Who? Tony Stewart….

That’s still SO much better than Kruk (just kidding big guy!)

I slowly made my way from the clubhouse to Bright House Field. I wanted to really take in that particular walk one last time. The weather was gorgeous. It was still very cool, but the winds had completely subsided and the sun just seemed extra brighter today. Very fitting.

When I arrived, the atmosphere was so joyous. Everyone had their family and friends around with them, taking pictures of their favorite Camper and all the Legends, congregated and playing on the field. This was also a great chance for everyone to raid the Phillies Clubhouse store. I honestly thought I would have left with half the store, but I resisted the urge and surprisingly did not purchase one item. However, I did purchase a photo CD courtesy of the professional photographers who roamed the fields every single day, Northeast Photography. They had every proof laid out for the Campers to pick and choose. I found a good number of photos with me in various action and not-so-action-filled shots. All I have to say is, by the time the August reunion at Citizens Bank Park rolls around, I am losing some pounds. Looking like that in front of 200 people is one thing. 45,000? Yeah, maybe I should cut back on that bacon.

With a good amount of time on my hands, I made my way around Bright House Field to take photos.  Much like every new ballpark that has debuted in the last 10 or so years, Bright House has the distinctive feature of a seamless walkway, encircling the entire field.  Two days before, an ESF employee spotted me taking pictures and told me that I could climb up to the perch in centerfield where the TV cameras are positioned. I took his advice, and made my out there. On this crystal clear day, the field’s colors looked extra vibrant. The grass was greener and the sky was bluer.

Around the stadium I went. I was all alone standing beyond the outfield fences. I all I heard was the faint crack of a bat and a few muffled cheers. That near silence was broken with the echoes of the PA announcer calling out the next batter and the score. It was so peaceful back amongst the palm trees.

I settled in to the seats along the first base side, right behind the Legends dugout. Twenty minutes ago, they were the size of ants. Now, they were all lined up in front of me, larger than life.

For the first time today, I was able to sit down and take in one of these games. This would be a good time to explain the rules of our matchups against the Legends…

1. Games are only three innings long. The Legends are the home team, which really means, the games are actually only two and a half innings. I believe it only happened once ever in Camp history where the Legends needed their last at bat’s to finish the game.

2. We are allowed to field an entire team at once. Yes, we had five outfielders. We regressed beyond Little League. We went to Tee Ball.

3. If by the third inning, if everyone on the team had not batted, but we reached three outs, the inning would still continue until everyone had a turn at the plate.

4. The Legends are only allowed to score a maximum of two runs per inning. If they reached the two run limit, but still have less than three outs, the inning is still over.

Not only do these rules benefit the Campers in that we all get to participate and have fun, but to try and limit the time on the field of the Legends. Not every Legend played, which meant a lot of these guys were logging a lot of time on the field this day (almost five hours).

It was a something else seeing a lot of the Legends switching around and playing positions you would have never seen them man in their heydays. Mitch Williams at first, Scott Eyre at third, Mickey Morandini pitching…

It was also great seeing these guys in playing action for the first time this Camp. Being able to see those sweet left-handed swings of Milt Thompson and Von Hayes, those distinctive batting stances of Kruk, Ricky Jordan, Mike Lieberthal, the power windup of Ricky Bottalico, Kevin Stocker and Dave Hollins fluidly and flawlessly turning a double play, Juan Samuel gracefully taking a double… truly awe-inspiring. Yes, they are all older and they were not playing at 100% of their physical ability, but you could just see how innate their talent is. Everything they do on the field is second nature to them. It’s like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes. You don’t have to think about it. That’s what the sport is like for them, and that will always be something I’ll never get my mind around. Just incredible.

After a few innings, I made my way back towards the tent in left field for a well-deserved lunch. Sitting around and taking photographs is exhausting. I sat with a lot of my teammates and we had a wonderful last meal together. Just like in the clubhouse, it was kind of sad that this would be the last time we would be eating together. I finished my extremely nutritious slab of cheesecake and made my way back to the stands to watch some more games. The Ravens and Sky Chiefs would be playing soon and I wanted to say hi to my friends before they hit the field.

As our time drew nearer, my team started congregating in left field. No one was really hitting the ball that deep, so all the teams would start warming up a couple games before theirs.

During the Sky Chiefs game, we made our way to the dugout to get ourselves ready so as to have a smooth and quick transition to our game. Now it was starting to hit me; sitting in that dugout again and watching all these great ex-Phillies on the field and knowing I would be stepping up to the plate and looking out at all of them. Wow.

The game finished and we stood around, getting ready to run out on the field. I got a few more pictures and videos. One of my friend’s had asked me to get an autograph of Kevin Stocker for her as he was her favorite player on that 1993 team. I decided that would be too boring, so Stock obliged me with a quick video message to my friend. In true Stocker fashion, he got a quick dig in, calling my play on the field, “unbelievably bad”. Thanks. Now I’m not going to buy one of your smoothies. What do you think of that hot shot? But seriously, it was a great gesture. The night of the Bull Session, he did a very similar thing. When asked if he would speak to a Camper’s daughter on the phone, he obliged. He truly loved interacting with everyone.

I also got one more quick video. This was one of the big moments I was waiting for.

Wow. Dan Baker, calling out my name and number, with my big goofy smile projected on the scoreboard. What a moment.

Stock and Lieby called us in for a quick huddle. Their only instructions were, once we finished our at-bats, to go out to any position we wanted and to just have fun. Yep, we had regressed to Tee Ball.

The Legend that we drew as our opposing pitcher was a great one. We actually got to face the newbie and last minute addition in Scott Eyre. So, not only did we get to face a real pitcher (some teams had former position players throwing at them), but we would be batting against a man who was only one season removed from pitching in the World Series against the Yankess AND two seasons removed from winning the World Championship. That was mind-blowing.

1-2-3 we went.

I made a beeline out for left field. There was no way I was playing infield against these guys. Plus, they had no problem driving the ball out, so I figured there would be a great chance for me to field a ball hit out. Lee Sorenson took his spot next to me in the new “middle left field” position. For those scoring at home, that would be “11”. I yelled over to Lee and joked with him that we needed to take this seriously and that we would be the first team to beat the Legends. He got in to the spirit and barked back that this is the last stronghold and to hold our positions. Very funny.

The first Legend to bat was Ricky Bottalico. Ricky Bo was most definitely taking these games seriously; from his metal spikes, to his quick glove work at third, to his powerful bat. He was there to play. After his first at-bat, it all seemed like a blur. One after another these guys would rake the ball. They quickly reached their two run limit. The highlight of the first inning though was Von Hayes hitting an opposite-field shot down the line towards me. Unfortunately, between the photographer who was stationed near me on the field, and another team warming up near the sidelines, I could not field the ball as cleanly as I wanted to. It bounced off several people and I had to quickly change my course. I finally retrieved the ball and made a nice clean throw to the cut-off man. There was another highlight: fielding a Von Hayes double. Awesome.

1-2-3 once again. I felt that our chances were looking very slim at this point.

Bottom of the second and another blur of hits and scoring… Ricky Jordan, Juan Samuel, John Kruk, Dave Hollins, Tyler Green, Ryan Howard… just kidding. The score was now 4-0 and we came up for our final at-bats, which meant I would finally get my chance.

There I went, strolling up to home plate to face Scott Eyre. The PA announcer called out my name and I got chills down my spine. Eyre clearly had dialed it down for us Campers. He did not throw any off-speed or breaking balls. Every single pitch was right down the middle, straight, and much slower than he could possibly throw. I would say he was around the low to mid-70’s. It was great to see him start out his windup with that little shoulder shrug he does before every pitch. Unlike what I normally do, I took the first pitch just to see what I would be facing. It was like a pitching machine. Straight and perfect. The second came in exactly the same and I swung. Yep, not even close. After
that, I may have taken a ball (I can’t really remember, but it’s very possible I did not. Patient at the play I am not.) Scott threw his next, identical pitch in and I got around on it, hitting a very solid line drive towards second base… right in to the glove of Dickie Noles. No matter. If I had one ultimate goal in this Camp, it was to NOT strike out against a Legend, and just make contact. That was all. And I did. For once, I did not go down because of my flailing bat. My dad would have absolutely over the moon. For a man who witnessed his son swing at many-a-horrible pitch in his life, any sort of solid contact made him extremely proud. That one was for you dad.

I came back to the dugout with a big grin on my face, Stock, Lieby, and the rest of my teammates all came over to tell me how solid of a hit that was. What a great feeling. Our MVP Pete was not able to play due to a nagging injury, but did find the energy to get an at-bat. As they did for players who were having a hard time running, a pinch runner was used, stationed behind the umpire. This time, they used the young son of my teammate Joe Stackhouse. Pete got a hold of Eyre’s pitch and drove it in between right and center field. Ricky Jordan, who was patrolling center, pulled up a bit and let it fall as to give Joe’s son the opportunity to run the bases.  Stocker, who was coaching first, got in to the spirit and told Joe’s son to try and steal after Eyre released the ball. In the Camp, one rule was that there was no stealing allowed, so of course, this garnered a lot of laughs, especially from Eyre.

We made our last out and that was that. My days on the Phantasy Camp were officially over. We lined up to shake the hands of all the Legends and give our final goodbyes. One after another, “good game, thank you, take care, great to meet you, etc.” Then came Dave Hollins. “Great game Inky!”

———————–

Back to the clubhouse… what no Yuengling today?! Yeesh. I slowly packed up everything from my locker; all the uniform accoutrements, the customized magnetic name plate, etc. For those who were not going to be taking the bus the airport, we all said our goodbyes. We traded our business cards, numbers, emails, and most importantly, our heartfelt exchanges of letting the other person know that it was an absolute pleasure to have met and shared this incredible experience with them.

Before I left, I did have one small piece of business to attend to. I brought down a one of my favorite pictures of my dad and I, taken before a Phillies game in July of 2004, the first year of Citizen Bank Park. I blew it up and wrote a personal note on the back. I folded it up tightly and placed it in the far back of the safe in my locker. I’m sure it was quickly found by the clubhouse staff after we all left, but it was my way of giving my dad a small taste of being in Clearwater with me, living out this lifelong dream together, in spirit.

And that… was what this Camp was all about to me.

Dad, this was for you. I love you.

———————–

This does not mean this diary is finished. Not by a long shot. There will be much more to come… more pictures, links, and follow-up stories. There will also be two Phantasy Camp reunions at Citizens Bank Park during the upcoming baseball season, including the big one during alumni weekend on the last weekend in August. So please keep stopping by!

Podcast Interview with Fightin Phillies

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Last night I gave an interview with the great guys from Fightin Phillies for their weekly podcast, Phillies Talk. You can go to their website to listen to the entire show or subscribe to their podcast on iTunes under “Phillies Talk”.

Phantasy Camp Interview and Links

I’ve been back from Phantasy Camp for just over a week, and I feel like I haven’t left. The response to the blog has been incredible, and I thank each and every one of you for stopping by, reading, and taking the time to comment, send me an email, or pass it along to others.

Today (2/3) at 6:45 PM, listen live to the Phillies Talk podcast. I will be discussing the Camp with the folks at Fightin Phillies
Just this week, my blog was featured on the MLBlogs homepage, The 700 Level, and Big League Stew (Yahoo Sports MLB blog), as well as plugs via Twitter from Phillies Nation and Mike Meech of TheFightins.com.
Thanks again!

1/22/11 – Day Four of Phillies Phantasy Camp – Awards Banquet

Earlier in the day, we had been told there would be a shuttle available to take us to the Phantasy Camp Awards Banquet. At the time, I found that funny, as the banquet was located right across the street at the Clearwater Beach Sheraton Sand Key hotel ballroom. Who would take a bus for a 30 second ride?

At 7 o’clock, guess who was singing a different, gravelly-voiced, Tom Waits-esque tune? I think I was first in line to board the bus.

Before dinner, there was a cocktail hour for everyone to mingle, share their stories, and with heavy hearts, start the process of saying our “goodbyes” (or “hello’s” for the first time… better late than never).  The Legends funneled in to the room, and everyone clamored to get any last minute pictures and/or autographs from their favorite players. Personally, I was not interested in getting autographs or photographs taken with the Legends for myself. Living in Manhattan, I see celebrities quite frequently, so the idea of an autograph to me has no connection to the person. I’d rather have the memory of a conversation, or a funny or interesting story about the person, which is exactly what I got at this Camp. No photograph or autograph could make up for that. Also, every Camper received an autographed baseball with all the Legends, so there was no need to stop the ex-Phillies for their John Hancock’s… ‘wipes hands’… that was easy.

Bob Boone

However, I did ask family and friends before I left if they had any requests for autographs. I had been procrastinating all Camp, so I needed to go down the list and get this done. I made my way round the cocktail hour (and later after dinner) and got all the specified signatures. Along with my notes from this Camp, my Moleskine book is now filled with these autographs. If I ever become wildly famous from this blog, I’m selfishly keeping this book and selling it on eBay. A couple thousand dollars sounds like a good opening bid, right?

The partition walls on the one side of the room slid open to reveal the large ballroom where we would be dining. Each table was adorned with a Phillies jersey, customized with every team name. After sitting down, putting in our dinner and drink order, etc., Scott Palmer approached the podium at the front of the room to start out the banquet.

He started out by asking for a moment of silence for Dallas Green, the Green family, and everyone effected by the tragic shooting that occurred in Tucson, AZ only two weeks before. It was a wonderful gesture and very touching.

Then it was time for the awards. The Legend coaches were called up to award the MVP for their respective team. Our MVP was a no-brainer. In fact, Pete Wichterman was also deservedly deep in the running for the Camp-wide Cy Young Award.  He lost out to Tony Carfagno of the Red Barons, who had now won the award three years in a row. If there is any proud, on-the-field moment I can take home with me, it’s the fact I got a solid line drive single off of Tony in our first game.  After a few more awards and the presentation of the World Series Trophy to the champion Red Barons, then came the highlights of the night. These were the awards that could not be quantified with statistics. They were the awards that embodied the spirit of the Camp and what it all was truly about. I had a sense of pride, as I had formed relationships with most of the folks who won these and other awards during the evening…

——————–

My friend Gene Mattioni won the team MVP Award for his squad, the Sky Chiefs. I was absolutely thrilled for him. This was the cherry on top for him. In speaking with him and his wife Marie on a consistent basis for the last couple months, since Orientation, they both were living for this experience. Gene went to a trainer, lost 20 pounds and became the Rock of Gibraltar at second base for the Sky Chiefs. His vim, vigor and child-like excitement was infectious. Every time I would run in to him during the course of a day, he would come over and give me a big hug.  With the biggest smile, he would ask me every single time, “are you having fun?!” Not only did he ask me this out of genuine interest, but in a “can you believe this is actually happening to us?!” way. It was so charming. Marie was right there with him. She couldn’t have been more thrilled to see her husband like this.  As she so eloquently told me in an earlier email, this gift to him, she thought, was just that… a gift. But she came to realize it was an “investment”. I still can’t get that out of my mind.

I went over to their table after dinner to congratulate Gene on his award. I can’t even describe the look on his face. It was priceless. He told me he was so excited to show this off to his lawyer buddies back home. I could see him now regaling them in tales of Camp with enthusiasm of a young child.  That’s what this Camp is all about.

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Hank Wagner approached me and introduced himself on the first day of Camp. He told me he was the father-in-law of an old schoolmate of mine, Christian. I had reconnected with Christian on Facebook, and in response to one of my posts about Phantasy Camp, he informed me that his father-in-law and two brother-in-laws would also be participating. Even better, he and his wife would be joining them to watch them in their games. Hank let me know that they were there and brought me over to introduce me to his two sons, Tim and Dan. For the rest of the Camp, whenever I saw them, they would come over, ask how I was doing, etc. Just a lovely family. Older brother Tim was chosen as the MVP for his team, the Mud Hens, while his dad, Hank, won the “Charlie Hustle Award”. As most baseball fans know “Charlie Hustle” was the name given to the former Phillie, Pete Rose. He was a hard-nosed player who left everything on the field. He set the tone and got the ball rolling each and every game. This award would be given to that one Camper who exemplified that attitude. In an earlier game, my friend Sam Daley had slid in to second base, covered by Hank. Unfortunately, there was a nasty and accidental collision that made Hank look like he was run over by a truck; a nasty forehead gash and the shiner to end all shiners. Yet, Hank did not miss a beat. Most men would have probably taken themselves out for a game or two, but Hank kept plugging away, game after game. The funny thing was, Sam was hoping to win the award when he entered Camp, as Pete Rose was his favorite player’s growing up. Instead, he directly contributed to Hank winning it instead. Sam emulated Pete’s hustle all right, however, Hank played the unwanted and unexpected role of Ray Fosse.

But what really touched me was that all three of the Wagner men got to play on the same team together. And at one point, Tim took the mound while his father assumed his place behind the plate. A son pitching to his father at a fantasy camp of their favorite team, surrounded by former Major Leaguers… it still giv
es me the chills thinking about it. I was so happy that these men got the incredible opportunity to live out this dream. Not surprisingly, it also made me emotional. I would have loved the chance to be an infield or outfield tandem with my dad. I don’t think anything would have made me happier than sharing the field, in the Florida sun, with Papa Tom. But it brought me so much pleasure that these outstanding guys got that chance to live out these once-in-a-lifetime moments. That’s what this Camp is all about.

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The most touching moment of the night came when a fellow Driller was awarded with the “Tug McGraw Inspiration Award”. Duke McLaughlin had told us during the Camp the story about how he got to come down to Clearwater. He had been saving up for years to attend Phantasy Camp, but every time he would come close to his goal, those funds would be reallocated to help out one of his 10 children or someone close to him. For his 70th birthday, his children decided to surprise this selfless widower. They pulled together their money and purchased a Phantasy Camp experience for their loving father.

Scott Palmer told Duke’s story with such compassion and heart.  He explained how Duke exemplified the spirit of the award named after the much-beloved Phillie pitcher. Duke gave up on his dream of Phantasy Camp many times for the good of his family and friends. He always put himself second. His family lovingly repaid him by granting his wish. With two of his sons in attendance, it was very hard to keep the eyes from not watering up.

Again, I thought of my father. He was exactly the same type of man as Duke. Family came first. His dreams would not go fulfilled unless his loved ones were happy. And like the Wagner’s, hearing Duke’s story and seeing his dream come true? That’s what this Camp is all about.

——————–

As usual, the night ended at the hotel bar. Everyone was there, taking in their last evening in baseball heaven. Gene and Marie were there at the end of the bar. Gene, still with his award, was enjoying a celebratory scotch… my man. I spoke with brothers Mike and Jack Lynch, who had looked forward to sharing this experience together. I also came across Joe Gibley, who I had met the first night of Camp (and another winner this night… winner of the “Andy Seminick Award” for catching every inning of every game).

“So?… what did I tell you? Greatest time of your life, right?”

Joe, you couldn’t have been more correct.

——————–

Off to bed. Tomorrow is the day all us Campers have been waiting for.

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