1/21/12 – Day Four of the 2012 Phillies Phantasy Camp
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.