I think of my parents every single day. It’s been more than 20 years since my mother passed away. For my father, only two.
I am an only child, so his death had an especially profound effect on me. Last year, Phantasy Camp was not just a baseball experience. It was therapy. It was redemption. It was a tribute. It was the happy ending to a tragic tale, and at the same time, the perfect beginning to the new, ever-expanding story of my life.
This year, Camp has had a very different feel to it. I’ve come down to Florida knowing what to expect… physically and emotionally. I needed his support last year to let go and enjoy the moment. Now, he’s just hanging out on the bench, playfully making fun of my hitting, having a few beers, retelling the same old jokes over and over (laughing at himself before he even gets to the punchline), and making friends with every single person in Clearwater.
I miss him so much.
And in these last two days of Camp, those feelings couldn’t have been any stronger.
This is starting to get old. Another beautiful day on tap. Another day full of baseball.
Fellow Campers are showing each other pictures on their phones of snow-covered neighborhoods, sent from their loved ones in the Philadelphia area. My wife follows suit and shares with me the now white taxis speeding down second avenue.
I love snow in the winter. I love New York City. Currently I have sunburn on my neck and face. I’m wearing shorts at 7 AM. For right now, I’ll take this.
Ricky Jordan replaced Ricky Bottalico on the bench at this morning’s Kangaroo Court. No one asked why. It was probably for the best.
After the daily awards were given out, our GM, Rick, approached the bench and presented the judges with several bottles of wine in response to the last two days-worth of vino-related infractions. The Cutler men are my type of guys. They love their food. They love their wine. And they love sharing it.
Luckily, no Drillers were called up to stand trial today, however, my friend and Camp roommate was not immune. Sam looked perplexed as he approached the stand and was read the case. Then it dawned on him midway through.
Clearwater Air Park sits right down the road from the Carpenter Complex. Yesterday was a busy day for the air park, as there were a steady stream of large, low-flying cargo planes coming and going over the complex all day. Sam stepped to the plate yesterday as the first batter to start the game. He then called time and stepped out of the box. One of the cargo planes was straight ahead, distracting him. When asked by the umpire, Sam said the plane was “in his line of sight”. Well, this caused befuddled looks from all three judges, prompting Larry Andersen to ask, “are you a couple thousand feet tall?” Sam did not hear the end of this for the rest of the Camp. Every time a plane flew overhead, people jokingly called for time.
Once again, this proves you ALWAYS have to watch what you do or say at Phantasy Camp… or else.
Back to the action on the field. The Drillers entered the day with a record of 2-1. We still had a shot at playing for the Championship Game. It was very simple and obvious: we had to win this morning’s game for any chance.
But first things first. We had to warm up.
All the kinks were worked out. Let’s play two!
As was the case in our first game, I would be catching our staff ace, Steely Dave. Unlike last time, the both of us would be in there for the full seven innings. But just like game one, we left the field victorious.
We played the Ravens, coached by Bob Boone and Jim Eisenreich. Their first batter? Sam. I promised myself to make no jokes about planes. Although, as I started to become more comfortable behind the plate, I was contemplating using a little strategy not unlike John Candy in this clip. (NSFW)
We had a great pitching duel going against the Ravens pitcher, and longtime Camp veteran Bill Rodebaugh. Like most every pitcher, he was successful against me, sending me down on strikes twice.
For me personally, this game was all about my defense. Early in the game, I was a half a step short of catching a foul ball behind the plate. After already making a play in front of the plate in the first game, I was determined to add a foul ball to my catching “bucket list”. I had come close last year and was determined to get one this year.
My dad knew my strength in baseball was my defense, and not my offense. We spent countless hours in the backyard after he got home from work. He’d hurl the ball as high as he could into the fading sunlight, not caring what obstacles I had to avoid… a nasty hill, large rocks, etc. This is why I patrolled the outfield for most of my playing days. I could catch anything that came my way. Catching one foul ball behind the plate would be my gift.
I had told the ump after I returned that wanted to get one so bad. Very encouragingly, he told me I would.
Later in the game, another one skyrockets above me. I can hear it was hit very well, so I may have time to get my bearings, locate the ball, and catch it. I threw off my mask and spun around two full turns. I may have even added another half. I could not find the ball. All I can hear is people yelling, “up! up! up!” Where the hell was it? It’s clearly in range.
With my back to the mound, the ball dropped a couple feet in front of me. How did I miss this? Usually, when a foul ball is hit, it travels upwards. I was not looking that way. For some reason, I kept my head straight ahead.
As the inning ended, I strolled back to the dugout and found my coach, Mike Lieberthal smiling and laughing, all while shaking his head is utter disbelief. He didn’t have to say anything. But he did. He just kept asking why I wasn’t looking up. I could not give a valid reason. As if that wasn’t bad enough, while I was taking off my gear, Bob Boone, who was making his way to coach first base, took a detour and heading towards my direction. With a huge smile on his face, he reached out and put a hand on my shoulder. I immediately started to laugh because I knew what was coming. “The first rule in catching is to always look up when there is a foul ball. You’ll never go wrong if you follow that.” Two of the greatest, longest-tenured catchers in Phillies history. Gold Glove winners. All-Stars. In the space of one minute, I was teased about my catching “skills” by both men. My game-winnng double the day before was definitely my top highlight of the Camp so far. This may have just tied it.
The game moved along. We were ahead, but it was still tight.
Steely Dave was pitching a great game. As another pitch arrived, another foul ball was hit. Third time was a charm. There it was, easy as pie. My first foul ball. Absolutely satisfying.
Surprisingly, I would quickly forget about that one.
Another inning passed. Another pop foul. This time, hugging the third base line. I immediately spotted and locked in on the ball. As I got closer, I heard my teammates yelling “Dave! Dave!” I knew right then that Steely Dave was also hurdling towards the ball. I never took my eyes off the prize, but I heard his footsteps. I knew this could be disastrous. The ball was Earthbound. My arm was stretched out, and my glove was open, getting ready to catch the ball. Just as it was about to land, I see out of the corner of my eye, Steely Dave, diving headfirst at my feet, as to avoid the full-on collision. I toppled over him, on to my back, forming a lumpy pile of humanity. I quickly looked in to my glove. Just like something out of Bad News Bears, I gazed in awe and what just happened. I caught it. I raised up my glove to show the ump.
I returned to the plate, the ump waiting for me with a congratulatory fist bump. OK, that just topped everything.
We took our turns at the plate and broke through the wall. We plated run after run. I even found myself working a walk, finally improving my On Base Percentage. It was over.
This was, without a doubt, our most impressive win. Every single player contributed. Stock and Lieby admitted that this was the toughest game ball decision they had to make, so they gave more than one. Steely Dave got one for his stellar pitching performance. As for the hitting star, it could have been anyone… well, except me. But this time, it went to Ed Keith. We all thought poor Ed was going to be sidelined after hurting his hamstring in the very first game, but he roughed it out every single game. He was playing come hell or high water. This game, he came through with a couple huge, run-scoring hits. Everyone agreed on that one. Ah, but then Lieby added one more. There would be a ball given for the “defensive play of the game”.
Two in a row.
Dad, this one has your name all over it. Thank you.
It was back to clubhouse before lunch. Like I said before, I’m not a catcher. I’m used to big gloves to help catch fly balls in the outfield, not beefy, stout catcher’s mitts. My left hand begged me for a little relief. I made my first trip to the trainer’s room. I walked in and saw Sam, laying on the table getting his ankle wrapped. During our game, he got caught in a rundown between second and third base. He slid awkwardly towards third, and it took him some time to finally get on his feet. He finished the game, and the rest of the Camp, but that ankle swelled up like a San Francisco Giants outfielder’s head. I got my hand wrapped up and numbed it with ice. I took a photo of him on the table. He returned the favor.
While in the clubhouse, we learned that the 3-0 Clippers were upset in their morning game, which meant there was a three-way tie for first place. We would be in the running for the Championship Game! Ah, but all hopes were quickly dashed as the tie-breaker would be determined by runs allowed. That 17-run debacle the day before would be our undoing. We would be playing for third place. Even though we gave up a lot of runs, we also scored the most runs out of any team in the Camp. So basically we were a classic American League team.
So our last game would be purely for fun. Of course ALL the games are fun, but this had no pressure involved. We could take it relatively easy and be ready and healthy for the big three-inning matchup against the Legends tomorrow. However, this game did have a little something “extra” to it. We would be facing the Sky Chiefs, coached by Greg Luzinski and Terry Harmon. What was so special about a fourth place team? This team featured former Philadelphia Eagle, Ike Reese.
We headed over to Richie Ashburn field for our last regular game of the Camp.
The guys got warmed up. We were loose and relaxed. Let’s have fun.
Dave Mongeluzi took the mound and my platoon-mate, Howie Cutler, assumed catching duties. The first batter Dave faced was none other that Ike Reese.
Ike hit a slow dribbler down the first base line. Pretty much everyone in the Camp would have be thrown out in that situation. However, Ike is a professional athlete. I think he got to first base in about seven steps. Everyone on the bench just “oohed” and “awed”. There ain’t nothing you can do about that.
To be completely and totally honest, I really don’t remember too many specifics about the game. I know we lost, but I don’t even remember the score. I was having too much fun talking with my teammates and our roving cheering section, which included Dave and Jim Roberto’s children.
David (Dave’s son) had been recruited to be our new batboy, after Joe Stackhouse left the Camp early to attend a special award ceremony for his son, thus leaving an open position. After my first at-bat which resulted in a strike out, he approached me, and with the manners of the politest young man, started giving me pointers about what I was doing wrong. He told me he was working with a hitting coach back home and remembered a lot of his advice. David told me to stand further up in the plate. My positioning in the back was causing me to swing late. I listened very attentively and told him if I got on base next time, he was getting a special mention in my diary.
OK, he was going to be mentioned anyway, but I had to sweeten the deal somehow.
My next at bat, I got up there and gave him a special look after I took my position in front of the plate. Wouldn’t you know it, I was making contact, hitting foul ball after foul ball. I got the count to 3-2 and ripped a grounder that was misplayed by the third baseman. Sure, it was an E5, but I had a fantastic at bat. I got to first and immediately pointed my finger at David. I gave him a huge smile and nod of my head. He returned the gesture. Best. Bat Boy. Ever.
I was eventually sent in to play centerfield for a couple innings. After a couple hard hit line drives came my way, and a putout, Ike Reese stepped up to the plate. He hadn’t hit the ball hard all game, but he had the power to put a ride in to one. He also was pulling the ball, so I shaded him to right and took a few extra steps back. Well, wouldn’t you know it, he hits a long gapper between the leftfielder, John Ashcom, and I. Our scouting report had too small of a sample size apparently. I tracked the ball down and by the time I squared myself to throw to the cut-off man, he was already a good 3-4 steps to third base. I did mention he was fast.
The throw was made to third to nab him, but it skipped under the glove, and Ike made his move, sliding into home for a “Little League home run”. Or, you can hear it from him yourself. Yes, that centerfielder he speaks of is me.
Well, the outcome didn’t quite favor us, but we became a small footnote to a funny story.
The best part of this particular game though, and the whole Camp for that matter, was watching the interactions of all the fathers with their children. This Camp would soon be over and to watch everyone in the final hours of this experience was touching. Steely Dave and his dad Phil… cheering each other on, giving words of encouragement in-between innings. Rick… beaming like the proud father he is of his son. Howie… thrilled to be sharing this trip with his dad, whom he clearly loves with all his heart. I recall Rick greeting Howie at the dugout after he provided a clutch, run-scoring hit, and gave him a hug and kiss on the cheek. Dave, Jim, and Joe… playing quick games of catch with their wonderful and lovely children right after the conclusion of every single game.
This is more than a fancy trip to play baseball. This is about family. This is about fathers playing catch with their sons when there is no more light to the day. This is what I wanted for my father and I, but never had the chance to do so… but nothing made me happier than to watch others around me relish in the joy of this Camp and their family. That’s what this is all about.
Tonight was the awards banquet, complete with a cocktail hour outside by the tiki bar. This more than made up for the cancelled outdoor luau from the first night.
The weather was gorgeous this night. Couldn’t we just stay outside and receive the awards here? I really didn’t need to go back inside.
As Sam and I made our way up to the bar, we noticed a very familiar face hanging out, signing autographs, and taking pictures with folks. Darren Daulton, the longtime Phillie catcher and member of the famous ’93 Macho Row, had made an appearance. His Hawaiian shirt and deep… deep tan, were unmistakable. I snapped a picture of him with fellow Driller teammate, Paul Kirsch.
We made our way back in to the hotel ballroom for the banquet. Like last year, the table were adorned with the jerseys of our team.
Team MVP’s were first given out. And the award for best Driller goes to… Steely Dave! Our own personal Mark Fidrych, circa 1976, had taken home the prize. His solid pitching on the mound and smooth stroke at the plate made him very worthy of the award. In a very kind gesture, he returned to our tables and thanked every single one of us, saying if it wasn’t for us, he wouldn’t have received it. He said he would loved to chop up the award into 12 individual pieces and mail them to us.
I think my teammates can say, without a doubt, this actually may happen. Dave, you just keep it buddy, you deserved it!
Here is Dave with his proud father and rock at second base, Phil.
The banquet was filled with wonderful moments, including John Kruk receiving a plaque commemorating him for his work with Iraq War veterans. Truly touching.
The Maje McDonnell Award was given to Camper Craig Gerhart. I’m going to save this fellow for my next diary entry…
The banquet ended with a fantastically-produced montage of photos from Camp and hilarious shorts featuring the Legends. I must say, this presentation far exceeded the one shown at last year’s dinner. That ended the banquet on a very high note. So why stop the flow?
Off to the hotel bar for one final night of imbibing and saying goodbye.
Tomorrow will be the best.
My legs feel about 300 pounds. I’m developing a really nasty bruise on my right thigh from a pitched ball. My left hand, specifically my thumb, is not happy with me.
But I could not be in better spirits. It’s another stunning day in Clearwater, projected to be in the mid-70’s. My team is coming off of an impressive opening-day win, and all of a sudden, we are thinking “championship game”.
The training room has already grown a large appendage from it’s door, full of moaning Campers. I must say though, this year I saw much less people take their place in line to get wrapped, rubbed, iced, and dunked. There seemed to be a lot less (serious) injuries. Everyone was in much better physical condition.
I asked my lockermate how his hand was this morning. Yesterday afternoon, his throwing hand had an unfortunate encounter with a line drive, causing his thumb area to swell up and turn a very interesting shade of blue. He was worried about his status for the rest of the Camp. In more than an hour, I would truly find out how he was faring.
We head to Bright House Field for our second Kangaroo Court session. Can Steely Dave make it a sweep?!
Before the judges were introduced, and after the morning announcements, awards were given. The Camp likes to recognize the “Gamers”, the most outstanding performances of the previous day, and the “Gomers”, the not-so-outstanding. Last year, the Drillers were the first team to get a collective Gomer Award for our drubbing on day one. I distinctly remember that game, as I was thrust into catching after a layoff of about 30 years, which coincidentally felt like how long the game lasted.
Well, to keep the tradition alive, even in our moment of triumph, veteran Driller Joe Stackhouse was given the dubious prize for a particular run-down play. Now, I must dispute this because honestly, I don’t think it was his fault, but damn, it sure was funny. Joe was caught between third base and home. The catcher, running him back to third, threw to the fielder covering. The throw, I thought, went low and plunked him in the helmet. It was almost like a classic Three Stooges moment. It felt like they all stood there in disbelief as the ball made a comic “doink” sound off of his helmet. Now, clearly this was not under Joe’s control. Others disagreed. What “officials” saw was Joe reverting back to his soccer days, and lean his head into the ball, as if he trying to get the ball past a goalie. So, poor Stack was given the unfortunate award.
This wasn’t the end for other members of the Drillers. For a second day in a row, the first Camper called up for Kangaroo Court was John Ashcom, our player of the game. During his hitting drills in the morning in the batting cages, John faced live pitching. He wanted to try hitting from both sides of the plate. So they decided to turn on the pitching machine. He then asked if the machine had to be turned around. What he meant to ask was if the protective screen for the pitcher had to be turned around as those favor right or left-handers. Clearly an honest mistake, something I most likely would have said. Ah, but any little mental misstep in this Camp will be caught and used against you. So for the rest of the Camp, poor Ash was the victim of many-a-“switch-hitting” joke, mostly from Larry Andersen.
This wasn’t the end for us though. Our GM Rick was also called up. Everyone knew this was coming. Rick was being chastised for the bottle of wine incident the night before at the Bull Session. Rick told them he would gladly buy Larry a case of whatever beer he would like and have it sent to the radio booth during the season. This just got him into more trouble as he was only offering beer, not wine. His trial did end on an unjustly opinion by Ricky Bo, calling the one bottle he gave them “horrible”. He claimed it was pure sugar. Apparently Ricky has never heard of dessert wine. The next time, Rick should just give him a nice aged bottle of Ripple or Thunderbird. It’ll be cheaper. Then he and I can then share in the good stuff.
It was off to Robin Roberts field for the first of two games today. Spirits were high. We were loose. Let’s get this going!
I would be starting today at DH with Dave Mongeluzi getting the call behind the plate to catch his friend and veteran Driller, Jim Roberto. Howie would later finish off at catcher, making it the only game where I did not have to put on the gear.
Immediately, I started liking our chances. The Bay Sox ran into some pitching issues the game before and had to resort to using their one Legend coach, Von Hayes, to pitch a couple innings. Today? The lockermate with the swollen hand was taking the mound. In my head I assumed this could potentially lead to our second win with a pitcher who was not 100%. What happens when you assume?…
We came right out of the box and staked a 2-0 lead, yada yada yada, it was time for lunch.
Well, we did have another impressive offensive showing, putting up seven runs. The problem? The Bay Sox easily surpassed that number… by ten. The final was 17-7. And just like that, our Championship Game hopes took a turn for the worse. We still had a chance, but any tie-breakers would come down to “runs allowed”.
So how did I do? Well, I can proudly say I did not strike out. I actually contributed to our offense, going 1-3 with a double and an RBI on ground out that I can only describe as being very similar to Willie Mays Hayes’ “hot shot towards the hole”. In fact, mine was also to the second baseman, but I didn’t leg it out. I do believe I also said “oops”. (FYI, this video is NSFW)
In the field, I patrolled left. My defensive line showed one putout and two run-towards-the-warning-track-because-the-ball-is-easily-over-your-head plays. That pretty much summed up the game.
Oh well, you have to dust yourself off and forget about it. It’s baseball. Have fun.
Most importantly, it was now lunchtime.
Our next game was at Joe DiMaggio field, which is situated just outside of the Carpenter Complex. Last year, due to rain the night before, the field was unplayable, so we were forced to play at Bright House. Life is tough. Of course, this was also the site of our Gomer Award-worthy game.
Let’s move on.
We boarded a bus for the quick ride over. This was the perfect time to recharge.
During warmups, a race between Kevin Stocker and Stack’s son around the bases took place. It was a photo finish, and I think that photo is still being developed.
After Little Stack lead everyone in a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, it was time to redeem ourselves against the Lookouts, coached by Milt Thompson and Scott Eyre. This would also be the first time I would play against Martha Eyerly. Like last year, Martha was the only female player in Camp. Her and I had struck up many conversations, but never had the chance to face her in a game. As she had already been beaned by a couple pitches this year, I feared she would take revenge on our squad.
Just like the last game, we came right out and scored four quick runs. Our offense again was clicking on all cylinders, with hard hits from Dave Horowitz and Stack. Ash knocked in the first run and Mongeluzi ripped a hot shot down the third base line, plating two more. The tide was turning.
Ash was our starting pitcher and threw one helluva game, but the Lookouts offense was not to be outdone. In the bottom of the 6th, we had fallen behind 8-6. Things were looking grim again and the Lookouts were showing swagger.
Then the wheels started falling off. Their pitcher lost his control. Walk after walk lead to us evening up the score and eight apiece. I strolled up to the plate with two outs, and bases loaded. Just then, they brought in a new pitcher. As I went back to the dugout to let the reliever warm up, Mongeluzi, easily the most positive and vocal voice for the team, kept encouraging me for this upcoming at-bat, even throwing in a “this would make a great story for the blog”. Trust me, it was definitely in the back of my head as well Dave.
The best aspect about a situation like this is, you still have an inning to go if you don’t score. You’ve already made a huge move by tying it up. Really, the pressure is quite low. I took that attitude up to plate with me and it worked like a charm. After working the count, I got a hold of one and sent it flying over the leftfielder’s head. I didn’t even reach first before I started pumping my fist in the air. A two run-scoring double. Without a doubt my best hit of the entire camp. Nothing but the sweet spot. I could strike out every at bat for the rest of Camp and I would not care. I had this.
Steely Dave was brought in to close the game and I finished off behind the plate where I took over midway through the game. We shut the door and left the field on top.
Whether in victory or defeat, Stock and Lieby always award a game ball to someone on the team. For the first time in two years, I finally got it.
Man, that felt good.
So for the second day in a row, we headed to the clubhouse on an extremely high note. We were 2-1, currently tied for second place. There was only one 3-0 team, and two with 2-1 records. We still had a shot.
It was another ride back to the hotel, and another miraculous sunset greeted us over the Clearwater Memorial Causeway.
This evening’s event would be a dinner outing with our team. Again, we went to the Island Way Grille, a really fine place to eat, even for this jaded New Yorker. Last year I sat next to Lieby and got to speak to him about, well, everything. He recounted the day he was drafted and all the excitement and craziness of that moment. This time, I sat near Kevin, and like Mike, told us of that fateful day when he got the call from the Phillies’ Lee Thomas. Just fascinating. We spoke of his other ventures post-MLB, including his annual TV announcing of the college world series, and all the details about his preparation leading up to a game. Do you know he sleeps through half the game?! It’s mostly pre-recorded.
Anyways, we had a fantastic meal, topped off with some extra sushi courtesy of Howie. Now I am a sushi hound and this… was incredible sushi. The spicy tuna roll? VERY spicy. Domo arigato Island Way!
We got back to the hotel relatively late, and, well you know now how this day ends.
Big day tomorrow! Will we turn our franchise around and make the championship game? Will I learn to properly use my catcher’s mitt and stop dropping pitches? Will I carry over my success at the plate and stop whiffing? Will I NOT end my night at the bar? The suspense must be killing you.
You can read about Day Two from last year’s Phillies Phantasy Camp here.
My father always preached to me that if you have consumed a decent amount of alcohol in a given night, in addition to drinking a lot of water, ALWAYS take two aspirin before your head hits the pillow to prevent any morning uneasiness. It never fails. Thus, my morning started out great… other than the fact it was 6:30 AM.
A good breakfast and incredible weather got the day off on the right foot. As I waited to board the bus, I ran out to the back of the hotel to catch the sun rising.
I exited the lobby and was greeted by this automobile. I was really hoping this was the “veteran bus”.
Even though it’s been a year since last Camp, the bus ride over to the Carpenter Complex was as familiar to me as the back of my hand. The veteran bus I rode on pulled in to the parking lot and I immediately got chills. The sun rising over Mike Schmidt Field every single morning, casting the most beautiful shadows over immaculate diamonds is a nothing short of miracle.
As we came off the bus, a sandwich board directed us to the other entrance to the clubhouse. We would not be experiencing the pomp and circumstance like the rookies, but that’s OK. This is THEIR moment.
As the rookies were listening to Scott Palmer’s emotional speech and the voice of Dan Baker reading off their names outside, I made my way to my locker and found my brand new uniform. I’m so happy this moment did not lose any of it’s luster. I still got goosebumps seeing that crisp and perfect jersey.
I had some time to take a breath and get ready to greet the rookies when they entered. I started hearing laughing and went to investigate. Ike Reese’s locker had already been targeted for some good old-fashioned hazing.
I was then instructed to take my place and welcome the rookies. The looks on their faces as we clapped and cheered for them… I know that very well. That gave me so much joy to be a part this special moment for them. Every single one of them looked like little kids. I’ll never forget entering that clubhouse for the first time. I hope they don’t either.
Ike Reese made his way in, filming the moment on his smartphone. I heard his howling laughter when he came to his locker.
In the middle of chatting with some familiar faces from last year, and talking with the new guys, I got myself suited up for our first Kangaroo Court session.
I made a point to get out to Bright House Field a little early to snap some photos, maybe even catch some current Phillies doing some morning workouts, just like last year. There were rumblings of a Vance Worley sighting, but no dice. No bother. The weather was absolutely stunning, so much warmer than last year. I just took it all in.
Kangaroo Court was ready. The judges’ garb was laid out. Let’s get blue!
Scott Palmer spoke first, laying out the day’s events, where to go, when to go, etc. A few words from the head photographer, ESF folks, and the crew chief for the umpires (complete with day’s first F-bomb)… then came the judges. Larry Andersen, John Kruk, and Ricky Bottalico took their spots on the bench, along with Mickey Morandini as the court-appointed defender. The F-bomb count immediately surpassed 100 within the first 10 minutes. That was fast.
The very first person called up was Dave Steel. I had met Dave the night before at dinner. His father, who I remembered from last year, had given his son the Camp as a gift, and they would both be on our team this go round. Dave, as I would come to find out throughout the entire week, is a renaissance man. Steely Dave had been charged in the case of “premature cupulation”. He apparently wore his cup from the hotel to the clubhouse, then later went looking for it, as he thought it was missing. This was definitely a sign of things to come with big Dave.
More laughs ensued as case upon case was heard, usually followed by Morandini’s catchphrase, “I got nothing”. Ike Reese would be the last victim of the day, charged with skipping Milt Thompson’s hitting clinic the day before.
We made our way back to the fields where we got our pictures taken with the Legends. Afterwards, I returned to the clubhouse to change in to the red batting practice jersey, as to separate the veterans from the rookies. After some group stretching, the rookies were summoned to their various stations for specific drills (hitting, outfield, infield, pitching, and base-running). Us veterans shagged flies, took grounders, and split up for a quick pick-up game to get us loose. This was much more relaxing than the constant rotating around the complex that the rookies were going through.
Standing out in the green of the outfield, taking in the warm Florida sun, hearing the sounds of fungo bats, just me and a fly ball… pure baseball heaven.
Before the morning session ended, there were rumblings coming from two different fields. On the Richie Ashburn, cheers were overheard as Ike Reese, taking batting practice from Ricky Bottalico, parked one over the rightfield fence. No offense to Ike, but he had a horrible-looking swing. But… he was a professional athlete. He’s a VERY strong man. If you are in shape the way Ike is, it doesn’t matter how bad you look at the plate, you are bound to get a hold of one and muscle it out of the park.
Here’s Ricky Bo giving Ike some post-AB tips.
Over on the Mike Schmidt field, an extra special Phillies guest was making the rounds. There he was… one of the greatest Phillies ever… Dick Allen.
Unfortunately, Allen had retired a year after I was born, so I never got to see him play. Oh, but I have read enough about him and heard plenty of stories from my father about his skills to know he was THE man. It was amazing to hear all the Campers saying how Allen was their favorite player when they were growing up. This was their Mike Schmidt.
Plus, how can anyone NOT love this?
After that, it was back to Bright House for lunch. Seriously, this is tough work.
Scott Palmer got on the microphone and announced the teams. It was finally time to get down to business. I knew three of my teammates would be returning, so I chose to once again, play for the Drillers, coached by Kevin Stocker and Mike Lieberthal. I had been contemplating a switch to a new team, just for the experience of having new Phillies Legends as my coaches, but I had such a blast with Stock and Lieby, and knowing the stellar guys that would be coming back, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
During the draft, Ike Reese was sitting next to me. He was chosen for the Sky Chiefs, coached by Greg Luzinski and Terry Harmon. Luckily, we would get to face them later in the Camp.
So it was off to Steve Carlton field to get ready for our first game against the Mud Hens. We were greeted by our player representative, Joe. He was the Drillers’ rep last year and I was so happy to have him back. This year, the Drillers added a General Manager to the mix. Folks who sign up as GM’s at Camp are given the opportunity to help draft players and be a part of the team-building experience. Our GM this year was a lovely man named Rick. As it turned out, his son Howie would also be playing with us. This now made two father-son combos that would be on the team. I was absolutely thrilled to be a part of this, to see the joy in each other’s faces… but at the same time, not surprisingly, I experienced moments of sadness.
This is what my dad and I should have been doing.
As to be expected, I started the game at catcher. Before the lunch break, I saw Lieby who said to me, “Sarge, you ready to catch?!” I had a feeling even before Camp started I would be tabbed to take the spot behind home plate. Even though that’s not my first, or even 7th choice, I was actually looking forward to it. To be completely honest, the only thing I don’t like about catching is all the damn gear! Other than that, it’s a pretty great position… well, there is the constant strain on your knees and legs, the foul balls off you various body parts, the everlasting pain on your catching hand… OK seriously, who in their right mind says, “I want to be a catcher”?
Our opening day starting pitcher was Steely Dave. He had really nice velocity and occasionally threw a fork or drop-arm. As the game went on, we found ourselves in a pitcher’s duel. That is until the 4th inning. We pulled ahead 2-1, and in the 5th, broke out the whoopin’ sticks. Five runs on eight hits. Our star of the game, John “The Mailman” Ashcom, delivered with a big single. The floodgates opened. Five consecutive singles. The Mud Hens retaliated with one run, but we returned the favor with one of our own, courtesy of Ashy’s double. Steely Dave ran in to some trouble and was relieved by veteran Driller, Dave Mongeluzi. Dave closed the game and we started out the Camp on a high note, winning 8-4 with 14 hits. Definitely a huge improvement over last year. All of a sudden, we had the Championship Game on our minds!
How did I do? Let’s just say, I had fun watching my team win. I caught four innings and patrolled rightfield at the end. I pulled out my best Carlos Ruiz impression by fielding a squibber in front of home plate, and throwing a perfect strike to first. I didn’t have the new hockey-style masks, but the traditional backwards batting helmet/mask combo, so I’m hoping my whipping-off of the mask looked pretty cool… I’m sure it’s didn’t, but I’d like to think so.
At the plate? It wouldn’t be one of my patented batting performances if I didn’t start out the Camp with two strike outs. The first looking, of course. The third was a “broken bat” grounder to second base. Later I started taking pictures of the bat, to which Stocker threw out one of his hundreds of little sarcastic comments, this one about my “massivly shattered bat”. Yes, it really was just a tiny crack, but I don’t care.
As if the day couldn’t have ended better, we followed the most amazing sunset all the way back to the hotel. Unlike last year, the warmer weather and clear skies created absolutely stunning scenes of natural beauty each day on our return trip. Every night looked like a painting filled with the most vibrant of reds and oranges. I wanted to take pictures on the bus, but this was the one time I just wanted to take it all in. I waited until I got back to the hotel to capture the last moments of the day.
The night ended with the Bull Session. All the Legends gathered, took questions from the audience, and told stories of their playing days. This is just another opportunity for some good-naturing ribbing on each other. Rick, our team’s GM, got up to ask a question, but before he could, made a nice gesture that would end up backfiring on him. He had procured himself a couple bottles of wine from the Phan wine and cheese tasting a couple hours before. Rick, who is a big lover of wine, had opened a bottle for us at dinner. He told Larry Andersen that he would like to give him some as he knew he loved wine. The problem was, there about a half a glass left. He brought up the red and an unopened bottle of white dessert wine. Well this just caused all sorts of “you got to be kidding me?!”-type of responses. Larry proceeded to down the remaining wine like the champ that he is.
Rick was sure to be called up tomorrow morning in Kangaroo Court.
There were many great quotes from the Legends, but my two favorite came from, not surprisingly, members of the ’93 Phillies. A Camper had asked Terry Harmon about playing in Connie Mack Stadium, as he was the only Phillie there to do so. John Kruk blurted out, “He played when the managers wore suits!” Classic.
The last came from Mickey Mornadini, who ended the session with a story about former Phillies pitching coach and Brooklyn Dodger, Johnny Podres. In 1993, Danny Jackson was pitching in Cincinnati. Jackson was giving up a lot of homeruns, and in turn, the stadium would set off fireworks. Needless to say, it was like the 4th of July. Podres walks out to talk to Jackson. When Danny asked Johnny, “What the hell are you doing here?”, Podres responded, “I’m just giving time for the fireworks guy to reload.”
And with that, we retired to the bar, yada yada yada, it was a helluva day.
After going through the usual rigmarole of checking in baggage, shuffling through security, removing my belt, shoes, etc., then putting back on said belt, shoes, etc., I finally was able to relax and get something to eat inside the JetBlue terminal at J.F.K.. The first thing I notice is the song playing over the speakers in the food court: John Fogerty’s “Centerfield”. Last year when I arrived at Tampa International, I had a similar experience with The Verve’s “Lucky Man”. That really set the tone for that particular Camp: emotional, sentimental, and a sense of life returning to normal with Camp being the perfect end to my year.
This time, “Centerfield” couldn’t have been any more appropriate. I was returning to my team. I wouldn’t be looking around like a little kid in rightfield, taking in the wonder of standing on the same fields that many great current players have taken their positions on (well, not quite as much).
I was ready to play.
As if I wasn’t already in a good mood this morning. That made it even better.
While in flight, I decided to take a break from my book (nothing will put you more in the mood for sunny Florida like a story about a zombie apocalypse), I put on my headphones and kept the baseball music theme going with the amazing soundtrack to the movie “Moneyball”. I don’t want to sidetrack here, but Mychael Danna’s compositions (as well as songs by This Will Destroy You and Kerris Dorsey) are absolutely beautiful compliments to that fantastic movie.
Anyway, let’s return.
After a thankfully uneventful flight, I made my way to the luggage claim, and was greeted with this sight.
Why thank you. And top billing I see. Very nice. I’m sure they would have put us at the bottom if they knew my prowess (or lack thereof) at the plate.
I had some time to kill before I met up for the shuttle to the hotel. So back to the zombies!
I made my way over to the rendezvous point. There they were; Phillies hats, shirts, jackets, and duffle bags. Now it’s finally hit me. That perpetual smile I will have for the next five days appears. I see a fellow camper, John, whom I met last year. He comes over and we exchange all sorts of pleasantries and he tells me how much he can’t wait to read my take on this year’s Camp. I then meet another John from Connecticut. John signed up right for Camp after Christmas, so he never got to experience orientation. He really did not know what to expect. I was more than happy to fill him in. We spoke of our love of the Phillies, having to live amongst Yankees and Mets fans, and our excitement for Camp.
We sat next to each other on the bus and continued our conversation. He told me a very funny story about a time in 1995 when he was driving his family and came across a rebroadcast of a 1966 Phillies game on the radio. He mentioned how he remembered this specific game and thought he’d have fun with his one son. He woke him at the moment before a grand slam was about to hit. “I bet you he hits a grand slam right now”. Whack! Later, when By Saam announced Tony Gonzalez to the plate, his son inquired about this player. John’s response? “We must have picked him up on the waiver wire.” John proceeds to predict another home run, which miraculously happens. His son, or course, is in disbelief. He eventually admits his deception. Classic.
We arrive to the Marriott Suites on Sand Key. Deja vu all over again. The lobby is decked out exactly the same with banners and balloons. The Marriott staff are all sporting Phillies caps. They take our luggage away, and off to the check-in tables I go. “Welcome back”s and “Great to see you again”s from everyone at ESF. I grab all my stuff and head to the room, past Jim Eisenreich and Ricky Bottalico, who was making his way to the Carpenter Complex for one of the various pre-camp clinics.
I wind down a bit in the room. My roommate Sam arrives not too long after me. I met Sam last Camp. Since he lives just across the river from NYC, we’ve had a couple car rides to and from Citizens Bank Park in the last year. He settles in and we make our way to the tiki bar to quickly dispose of our two complimentary drink tickets.
The heavy rain that followed us from the airport had finally subsided which meant we could enjoy our drinks al fresco.
In addition to some seagulls who joined us at the bar, three porpoises also made their presence known in the waters next to the hotel. Really, I can skip the actual baseball part of this trip. I’ll just stay here.
The rookies went in for their introductory meeting, most likely filled with countless jokes and threats of Kangaroo Court from Larry Andersen. The veterans met separately for a quick pow-wow. We were given white t-shirts with “Phillies Phantasy Camp Alumni” written on them. We would be wearing these as we welcomed in the rookies tomorrow morning in the clubhouse. As the rookie meeting was winding down, the veterans were introduced along with all the Phillies Legends.
John Kruk was late.
Unfortunately, the rain earlier in the day caused the welcome reception/luau to be moved indoors. It was still a great time to connect with old teammates and campers from last year, and finally meet, in person, folks who I had been speaking to via email who were going to Camp for the first time.
Before I made my way to the hotel bar, I headed back to the room to drop off my t-shirt. Von Hayes got in to the elevator and commented on my new maroon Adidas sneakers. Just as he was finishing telling me how he like the color, Mickey Morandini gets on and immediately repeats Von’s sentiment. Mickey then turns to Von and says, “that color was from your era”. Von responds by saying how much he hated those uniforms and how he had such problem lining up the stripes from the jersey to the pants.
It’s stuff like this that truly makes this Camp worth coming down for. Fashion talk with two former Phillies.
I returned to the bar, yada yada yada, I was asleep in my bed.
Ah, but this time, I learned from my rookie mistake from last year. Mind the booze and take aspirin before bed, because this is what I have to look forward to tomorrow morning…
You don’t want a hangover ruining this. I’m ready to play.
Spike Eskin today reported on Ike Reese’s recent trip to Phillies Phantasy Camp. There are two audio clips of Ike speaking with Michael Barkann and his Sky Chiefs coach, Greg Luzinski. A good portion of the interviews deal with a disputed inside-the-park home run that he hit in his last game on Saturday.
That would have been against my team, the Drillers.
And that centerfielder who’s head he hit it over? That would be me.
I will most definitely get more in to this game later. In my defense, Ike had been a dead-pull hitter during the entire camp, so I shaded him towards right. And what does he do? He splits the gap. Nice poke Ike!
This is Ike taking warmup swings before his first at-bat against us, with The Bull in the background. He legged out a screaming dribbler to the pitcher.
The 2012 Phillies Phantasy Camp is unfortunately over. However, my body will vehemently disagree with that statement.
Just like last year, this experience was the ultimate dream for any baseball nut, specifically us Phillies Phans. The weather was PERFECT. My team rebounded from last year’s disappointing finish to end the Camp on an extremely high note. And in addition to former Philadelphia Eagle Ike Reese’s appearance as a fellow player, there were some other fantastic cameos… Dick Allen, Darren Daulton, Vance Worley, Jim Thome… and I’m sure I missed a few others.
So please keep checking back during the week as I post my daily recaps filled with plenty of stories, lots of photographs, and detailed batting stats.
(Can someone actually have a negative batting average? I may need to apply theoretical mathematics to compute that.)
Last year on this date, I gave my last words before heading down to Phillies Phantasy Camp for the very first time. Please, indulge me as I do it again.
The Phantasy Camp experience for me last January was more than just a chance for me to look silly in a real MLB uniform and play baseball with former Phillies players. It was a form of therapy. It was a tribute. And it was exactly what the doctor ordered.
Tomorrow, I’m traveling to Florida as a seasoned vet. This time, I pretty much know what to expect. And I could not be happier about it.
Unfortunately, I may not get that same exact sense of awe that washed over me on that morning when I first saw that Phillies jersey with “Sargent 31″, but others will. I may not achieve that same high playing on the pristine grounds of Bright House Field, but others will. I will not get starstruck hanging out with players whom I watched on the TV and listened to on the radio growing up, but others will… and I am really excited for those folks!
I’ve had a lot of people who are going to camp for the first time, write me with every question conceivable over the last several months. They all have that same child-like anticipation that I had last year. And like a parent with his children on Christmas morning, I think I was more thrilled to talk about the Camp than they were. Just like my dad who always put himself second, I will be just as enthusiastic for the newcomers (and my returning friends) as I will for myself.
This is a truly special experience. That is what it’s all about.
Now, take us out Killer!
*Like last year, I will not be ‘live blogging’ from Camp, but I will be putting up daily recaps starting next Monday 1/23. The urge may come over me to send out a Tweet here and there, so if you happen to do that sort of thing, why don’t you follow me @BTSargent?*
…are batting gloves and mitts.
This is what the weather is like on this fine Sunday morning in New York City.
And this is what Clearwater is looking like right now.
So far, the weather forecast is looking fantastic in Florida… highs in the 70’s, little or no rain. If this continues, this will be much more pleasant than last year. Even though we only had one day with rain, it was definitely on the chilly side. Knock on wood, AKA my big noggin, this will be perfect.