Results tagged ‘ Scott Palmer ’

A Kiwi in the Sun

When I first started this Phillies Phantasy Camp Diary, one of the first comments I received was from a fellow who attended the Camp back in 2007. What immediately struck me was the fact that he was from Australia. I could not believe someone from a country where you are more likely to swing a cricket bat rather than a Louisville Slugger, traveled such a long distance to play baseball in Florida.

Cut to the Rookie Meeting during the first night of Camp. The emcee, Scott Palmer, spotlighted a few campers that were quite noteworthy, including Luis Liceaga, who was attending his 11th straight Camp. One Camper who was given a special mention was a guy named Mike Macdonald, who made a very similar trek as the Aussie Phillie back in ’07. Mike came to Clearwater all the way from Auckland, New Zealand.

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On the night of the Awards Banquet, Mike’s incredible experience was about to get more special. He was given the “Maje McDonnell Award” for being the one player at Camp who “has personality and is a class act both on and off the field”. This garnered a huge response from the appreciative crowd.

Unfortunately, since the Drillers never played his team, the Sea Dogs, I never had a chance to meet and chat with Mike while we were down in Clearwater.

But thanks to the power of the Internet, specifically, Facebook, I have finally been able to speak with Mike on a regular basis. Our conversations range from New York City, to cricket, to the two of us being fellow drummers. (Check out Mike’s former band, The Warners). I recently asked Mike if he would be interested in answering a
few questions for the blog and he was more than willing to share every wonderful memory of his Camp experience.

Sarge: When and how did you come about becoming a Phillies/baseball fan?

Mike: I first went to the U.S. in 1986, to be in a summer camp counselor in Raymond, Maine. The locals were, of course, totally obsessed with the Red Sox, and talked all day about the games. Camp was late June through August, and the Sox were going well that year. So I started getting hooked into the game as their enthusiasm rubbed off onto me. But when I came back home, there was no baseball, so I forgot about it. In 1993, I got pay TV, and they had baseball on their sports channel. It
was September that I got the service, and I started watching the games, and we only got two a week, but of course it was a good year for the Phillies, so we got to see them a few times, and then thru the World Series. Looking at the other teams, they were all like super athletes who went out to WIN WIN WIN. The Phillies looked more like a bunch of guys who turned up on the day, didn’t shave, didn’t comb their hair, and just woke up. I thought if I was a baseball player, that was the sort of team I’d want to play on, and they always looked like they were having fun, win or lose. And more than any John Kruk always looked and acted like I think I would, if I was there. I also liked the way Lenny Dykstra played.

S: How do your friends and family react to your devotion to baseball?

M: The people down here don’t get baseball at all, and they are not sure why I like it. Rugby is our biggest game, and the true fans of it don’t talk to me when they know I don’t like their game. But to each their own. Our national game is played in the rain and the cold of winter, and it’s a group of guys rolling around in the mud. I
went to see Phillies versus Mets at Shea on a perfect hot sunny Sunday in the summer. I know which conditions I like to watch a game.

S: What was your motivation to attend Phantasy Camp?

M: Watching baseball on TV is always so much fun, so I thought it must be better to play, but its the chance to play with the pros that made me want to go to Camp. I don’t really have motivation to want to play it every week, and wouldn’t really have the time to do it. There is a little bit of baseball down here, and maybe it’s growing, but you can’t compare it to the experience of the Phantasy Camp. Of course there was going to be great players at the Camp, but I figured there would be a lot of guys like me, so wasn’t worried about my skill level. I was more worried that I don’t know the game and ex-pros like the rest of the Campers.

S: Did you ever play any sort of organized baseball in New Zealand?

M: I played lunchtime softball at school, but had never played baseball until Phantasy Camp. My last hit at softball would have been 1980 I guess.

S: Which Legend did you most want to meet at Camp?

M: I wanted to meet John Kruk, as I saw so much of me in him, and his attitude. I mean, he’s 110% professional, as much as they joked around at Camp, they can’t help but be good at what they were paid to do, and loved doing every day. They will always be ball players. I also wanted to meet the other ’93 Phillies, as they were the first players that I watched play and made me want to be a Phillies fan.

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S: How was it to win the “Maje McDonnell Award”?

M: I was blown away when I won the award. I didn’t know the story behind the man, apart from the stories from L.A. (Larry Andersen) and the video clip of Maje that we saw, but the fact that they picked me as the winner means that I must have left a mark in their minds. I talked a few times to L.A. and Scott Palmer, and they, like so many others, were just blown away by the fact that someone would come halfway round the world to be at the Camp, and that I knew about the Phillies, have been to
games, and wanted to be part of it. And then L.A. asked me to give a little speech… I don’t really remember what I said, but I seemed to say the right things, and my speech was enjoyed by everyone. Some asked me afterwards if I knew I was getting the award, as they thought I had pre-written the speech. But no, I was stunned when L.A. said I had won. I knew I wasn’t going to get an award for my playing, but to be picked out of everyone was incredible.

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S: What were your favorite and most memorable moments at Camp?

M: So many great memories, but I guess getting my first ever base hit in our third game was probably the top, as it showed me that I could play, and it felt so great to run the bases. Pity I never got a run, but was only three steps away from home plate before being thrown out, so I almost made it. Also hitting Ricky Bo’s (Bottalico)
pitch in the Legends game was great. I got thrown out at first, but to be put out by John Kruk was not a bad thing. And L.A. had heard that I wanted to meet Kruk, but was never near John to say “hi”, so at the end of the second day of camp, L.A. took me to the pro’s locker room, where I spent about 10 minutes talking one-on-one to Kruk and Dave Hollins. John and Bull (Greg Luzinski) signed a ball for me, and spoke to Kruk a couple more times after that. He didn’t know what to say when I said that I was a Phillies fan and at the Camp mainly because of him. Dave Hollins suggested that maybe I was insane. The interaction of the pros was great to see. Just like when Ricky Bo was telling me how to run home form third as soon as the ball was hit in our game when I was on base. The opposing Legends said he was full of sh!t, and what the hell does a pitcher know about running… great stuff.

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S: Will you return to Camp some day?

M: I would love to go back to Camp. For me, just like going to the August reunion, it’s simply a cost factor that’s stopping me. My Camp experience was well in excess of twice the costs of everyone else, with the extra flights to get to America and over to Florida, as well as our exchange rate of around 75 cents to your dollar, and going to Camp means it will be a few more years until I can afford to go back and watch the Phillies play at home.

S: Finally, how will the Phillies do this year?

M: Some good wins at Spring Training, but I am reading a few stories about Chase Utley, and some others with broken bones (Domonic Brown)… so who knows. Its a long season (I don’t know how they do it every year), but we all want to see another win, so I’ll pick good things for 2011… as I’m sure we all are.

1/20/11 – Day Two of Phillies Phantasy Camp – evening Bull Session

The clock said 6:45 PM, but it felt like 2 AM. Everyone on that bus ride home was either falling asleep or showing off their various ice packs and wraps, compliments of the fine folks in the trainers room. But in the end, you know we all had an absolute blast this day. No amount of pain or weariness could have put a damper on what we just experienced.

After the bus arrived, I had only about an hour to get ready for the evening’s Bull Session. I made the mistake of lying down on the bed to “rest my eyes” as my dad would have said. I fell asleep for about a minute then woke up in a panic. Just like my dad, my one quick bout of snoring roused me from my sleep. I really needed to get my second wind or else I would have conked out for the rest of the night.

The Bull Session took place in the hotel ballroom where we had our first night’s Rookie Meeting. We sat with our team and coaches. Luckily, our tables were situated in the front row, stage right. Some of my teammates had already sat down with their dinner. I was getting ready to join them, as the other table was completely empty. At the same time Stocker took a seat at the empty table and joked that no one wanted to sit with him. I had to oblige. More of my teammates joined the table. Stock told us all about his career in baseball, stories of his minor league days with Lieberthal, getting called up to the Majors, etc. He also told us about his post-baseball career, his family, and living back in his hometown of Spokane, WA. I knew of Stock’s time with CBS Sports as a TV analyst during the College Baseball World Series (he played for the Washington Huskies during his college days), but I did not know that he is the owner of a smoothie company, Emerald City Smoothie. If they only had these in New York… I am such a sucker for these smoothie joints. Stock, do you deliver?

After dinner and few drinks to help with our muscle pains (no, really, that’s all they were for. I have read that 9 out of 10 doctors recommend Canadian Club for aching quads), the Legends were called up to the stage by Scott Palmer. For the next hour or so, Scott would ask different Legends to extrapolate on the Phillies and different aspects of the organization as it stands now (their recent successes, their ability to bring in top level pitchers to a non-pitcher-friendly park, their future, etc), and talk about how that relates to when they played for the team. As the night went on, it turned in to the evening version of Kangaroo Court, no thanks to the hotel bartender taking orders and refilling the Legends during the session.  Mitch apparently is also a fan of the CC. Good taste my man. Greg Luzinski is not only a connoisseur and big fan of red wine, but also all of us who have purchased a ton of BBQ from his stand at Citizens Bank Park. He made it very clear he was extremely grateful of our patronage. When you put out a product like he does on a daily basis, you are guaranteed return customers. That kielbasa is pure heaven.

Von Hayes spoke about rookie Domonic Brown and the impact he could have on the Phillies’ future. He said that it is essential that Brown have a great mentor when he finally arrives full time. When he first came to the Phillies, Hayes mentioned how Garry Maddox was the key to his understanding of the outfield better. With Garry being one of my all-time favorite players, that really warmed my heart.  Other discussions revolved around each position and the current players that occupy that spot (Dave Hollins talking about third base and Placido Polanco, Marty Bystrom, Warren Brusstar and Dickie Noles talking about pitching, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and the work ethic of Roy Halladay, etc.).  The conversation stuck on Halladay and how his presence on the team has influenced so many players and impressed all the Legends. John Kruk, on the other hand, could not understand how anybody, including Halladay, could come to the park hours and hours before game time. “The game is only three hours long!” When discussing his diet of cheesesteaks and hot dogs, he quipped, “at least I was happier than Roy Halladay”.

It’s no secret that Kruk’s weight and physique have always been one big punch line since his playing days. The Legends, especially Mitch Williams, have no problem facilitating that running joke. But all kidding aside, what I found interesting was how many of the Legends who had played with Kruk will animatedly tell you how incredible of an athlete he was.  Lieby said Kruk loved (and still loves) to play up that persona, but when he played, no one took that field with more gusto and athletic prowess.

Kruk came up again during a great story about Mitch Williams hitting Barry Bonds during a game. Williams was discussing the appropriate times to send a message to a player or other team (strangely, he was once ordered to bean Bob Boone… who hits Bob Boone?) Williams had hit Bonds and Barry had some words for him on his way to first base.  He kept chirping to Kruk, saying he was going to charge Williams if he did it again.  Kruk, stood aside, held out his arms toward Mitch and said, “go right ahead, be my guest”.

Kruk got another crack in at Williams’ expense. Mitch told a story of when he gave up nine hits in a row in a Minor League game, to which Kruk loudly responded, “Mitch didn’t give up a walk to nine straight batters?! Unbelievable!” That got the crowd roaring.

And speaking of Minor League war stories, Larry Andersen contributed a fantastic story about his last game ever. While doing a brief stint in the Minors at the tail end of his career, Andersen arrived to the ballpark in not-so-optimal condition i.e. hungover. This particular game was “Miniature Bat Giveaway Day”. The kids in attendance had figured out that banging the bats against the metal bleachers would make a loud and obnoxious sound… and they kept it up. Andersen could not take it anymore. When he was called to start throwing in the bullpen, he told the coach, “didn’t you hear? I’m retired”.

A few Campers were able to throw out some questions to the Legends later on in the session. Someone had asked Bob Boone if he knew the whereabouts of the ball used on last pitch of the 1980 World Series, as he was the last person to touch it. In his very cool and quiet way, he slyly smiled, nodded his head and said, “I have it”. One of the Legends chimed in and joked that he has about 25 of them that he tries to sell every year. Hilarious.

But my favorite moment of the night came at the beginning of the session. When Scott Eyre was introduced, Scott Palmer mentioned that Eyre has a l
ittle phrase written on the underside of the bill of his cap. Eyre said he would look at the phrase all the time during a game to put everything into proper perspective. What did it say?

“Have Fun”

And that right there, is what baseball is all about. People forget this is just a child’s game. We forget about being in our backyards as little kids, running around, scraping our elbows and knees sliding and making diving catches. We forget about the simple joy of having a catch with our father, or brother, or whomever, and the snap of the leather coming from an extremely worn down baseball.  We forget about straining our eyes in the fading light as we try to squeeze out every second we can before we can no longer see the ball on a long summer’s day.

That’s what baseball is all about. That’s what this camp is all about. It’s about bringing back the excitement of having teammates and cheering them on, no matter what happens in the field. It’s about the camaraderie and sharing the pleasures this game provides us all.

This is what I wanted to experience with my father.

He’s not with me anymore in the physical world, but he definitely has been with me here in heart and spirit. His positive influence and love has made me appreciate this game for what it is… just a game.

“Have Fun”

 

1/20/11 – Day Two of Phillies Phantasy Camp - afternoon


 

“You Are Here… on your way to lunch”

 As I started typing this, I realized I omitted a couple items from the morning workout and drills. Along with the infield, outfield, pitching and batting drills, there was a baserunning workout with the new third base coach for the Phillies, Juan Samuel. Ashburn Field was not quite up to par for the groundskeeper’s standards, and they wanted to save it until the afternoon games. So our baserunning clinic involved us rooks huddling around Sammy at home plate. He spoke about the basics of running starting from home plate and moving from station to station. Baserunning just seems natural: run straight. If the ball went further than you expected, turn at the next base and run straight again. Repeat and rinse if necessary. OK, obviously there is much more to that, but it’s incredible to hear it from an expert who ruled the base paths in the ’80′s. For the rest of the camp, when I did find myself hustling down the line, I found myself recalling Sammy’s tips, and most importantly, actually stayed on feet.

Right before Scott Palmer announced that lunch was served, we had a quick BP/fly ball-shagging session on Schmidt field.  I met a great fellow named John in rightfield. He had told me he had been really enjoying reading the blog. We stood and chatted for a while before I headed in for a couple swings. After a few hacks, one of the many player representatives stepped up next to the cage and simply said, “Shorten your stride”. Next pitch, I hit the ball square on the barrel and sent it screaming in to leftfield. It’s like these people know what they are talking about or something.

I made my way to Bright House Field for lunch. The buffet was situated under the same tent where Kangaroo Court was held a couple hours before. Since everyone ended the drills and workouts at the same time, there was quite a long line that extended past the bar of Frenchy’s. However, this provided me with front row seats to the small parking lot below. Why would this be exciting? Well, you’d be excited too if you got the nice surprise of seeing Ryan Howard strolling to the main batting cages located directly underneath where we were standing. I already knew this, and saying it will be redundant, but man… he is a big dude.

I promptly replaced all the calories I burned missing and overthrowing baseballs in the morning. Scott Palmer appeared to announce the teams. The Legends and GMs had conferred and made their selections. I felt like I was back on the playground being chosen for a pickup baseball game, except the kids are ex-Major Leaguers.

Amazing.

My name was finally read off. I selected for a team called the Drillers, coached by Kevin Stocker and Mike Lieberthal. That really jazzed me up. Those two were easily some of my favorite Phillies. These two West Coasters were famous for their laid back and friendly personalities. I was excited to get this started. I made my way to Ashburn Field to meet my team, my player rep, my two new coaches, and to finally get ready to play some games. We huddled around outside our dugout. Stocker came right out and introduced himself and within a minute, I knew this was going to be a blast. Stock seemed to get the idea of this camp experience down pat. We were here to play baseball, get advice from ex-Major Leaguers, but most importantly, we were here to have fun. Lieby was not quite as vocal; more chilled, but still had that same loose attitude. This was Mike’s first year participating as a Legend at Phantasy Camp, so my impression was that he was probably still trying to feel everything out.  Stock informed us that we were the only team out of ten that were completely full of rookies. Images of the Bad News Bears started creeping in to my mind.  Kevin read off the lineup, which he assured us, was filled out at random. Positions were set, but they let us know that if we want to switch with someone else, we could do it at any time. If we wanted to come out, no problem. If we wanted to go back in, not a problem. This had all the seriousness of a family reunion whiffle ball game.

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One of my dad’s more classic moments happened on a beach in North Carolina during a marathon session of whiffle ball. At one point during a game, someone made a diving catch, which resulted in a dramatic end-over-end tumble. Later in the game, I was facing my dad and hit a line drive right back to him. He didn’t move or react. He stood there, cool as a cucumber, and snagged the ball nonchalantly. He waited a couple seconds, then dove to the ground and rolled on the sand, pretending he just made a highlight reel-worthy catch. We could not stop laughing for the rest of the day. I still smile when I think about that.

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So out I ran to take my position in leftfield. I only had one fielding opportunity when a seeing-eye single came my way. I quickly realized that I probably wouldn’t be getting many more chances this game. Our man on the mound, Pete Wichterman, was a captain and starting pitcher for LaSalle University, and our opponents, the Red Barons, were getting mowed down one by one. Unfortunately, we were facing another buzz saw in Tony Carfagno. Tony, as I came to find out, had won the Camp’s Cy Young award the previous two years. Wonderful.

In typical Bryan Sargent-style, I struck out swinging at my first at bat. I was just sizing him up… yeah. The rest of the game was a fantastic pitcher’s duel. Because of this, and the fact that all 14 members of the team bats, no matter if they are in the field, my number of trips to the plate were limited. I eventually moved to third base. As I took my position, I had another one of those “where am I?” moments. Juan Samuel, one of the two Legends coaching for the Red Barons, along with Ricky Jordan, was standing there coaching third. I gave him a tip of the cap, said “hello Juan” and turned my attention back to the game, shaking my head in disbelief. Again, no fielding chances. That was probably best for the team’s success.

The Red Barons got us for t
wo runs at the top of the last inning. I took my second at bat against Carfagno, and I am proud to say, hit a solid line drive over the shortstop’s head for a single. If I don’t get another hit for the rest of the Camp, I’ll be happy knowing I got a knock off the best pitcher in Camp. We couldn’t manufacture a comeback and lost our first game. Did it really matter? Hell no. Stock and Lieby drove that message home in their post-game talk. They showered nothing but compliments, and maybe a few good-natured ribbings that we all quickly learned was Stock’s calling card.

Due to an impending rainstorm, another game was added to the schedule in case games had to be cancelled the next day. Our second game was supposed to be on Joe DiMaggio Field across from the complex, but because it’s condition was not optimal for playing on, we were “forced” to move our game to Bright House Field. Normally, this does not happen until the Legends game on the last day. So this was an incredible treat. It was only day two, and I was going to be stepping foot on to the same field where the Phillies play their Spring Training games. Sorry, I believe that’s my jaw on the ground. Let me get that out of your way.

With one game now under my belt, there was something else that really warmed my heart and brought me back to my childhood: playing baseball with a wooden bat. I learned how to play baseball with a wooden bat. We only used wooden bats in my first couple of years of Little League. This is a small aspect of the game I truly miss. Nothing feels or sounds sexier than a baseball hitting a wooden bat. Speaking of which…

On our way to Bright House, the sound of what my friend Sam referred to as a “howlitzer”, was blasting from the underbelly of the stadium. I deduced that this must be Ryan Howard taking batting practice (it was confirmed later that it was indeed Howard, as well as rookie prospect Domonic Brown). Now, the echoes of the tunnel did amplify his hits, but still… the “authority” of that sound, again from Sam, was overwhelming.  Like I said before, there is a regular person hitting a baseball… then there is a Major Leaguer. Just awe-inspiring.

Now, an issue arose right before our first game. It seemed that we had no catchers on our team. All the players who had “catcher” as their preferred position were snatched up in the draft. Thus, it was like pulling teeth to get folks to volunteer for the position.  We arrived to our dugout at Bright House. Stock came over to me and asked if I could be catcher for this game. As much as I wanted to run away screaming, I figured this was going to be problem for the duration of the Camp. I was sure I would eventually have to catch at some point anyway, so I might as well get it over with.

As far as I can remember, I have only caught twice in my life. Luckily, both instances were documented on film.

When I was three years old, my dad decided I should try and catch in our house. To make the experience authentic, he equipped me with his black glove and a beach toy to sift sand, attached to a baseball cap with a piece of twine for my mask. He lobbed a large plastic baseball to me in our living room. Baseball-reference.com doesn’t seem to have any statistics from that performance.

The other time was during my first year in Little League in Claymont, DE in 1982. According to my dad, it was the longest game he ever sat through. Apparently I didn’t do a very good job actually catching the baseball. I would just let the ball go to the backstop, get up, retrieve it, then throw it back to the pitcher. Repeat and rinse. I believe I was sent down to the minors after that game. Bless your soul dad.

I suited up and got a few tips from Lieberthal. Then I realized: I’m getting advice from a two-time All-Star and Gold Glove-winning catcher! Wow. I waddled out to home plate, got my bearings (holy sh!t, I’m catching at Bright House), and introduced myself to the umpire. He also gave me a few pointers, most likely more for his protection. Can’t say I didn’t blame him. He must get his fair share of bruises and knocks calling these games at Camp. Lucky for him, I was going contribute a few more war wounds to his collection!

The game ended before it even started. Our opponents, the Bay Sox, led by Marty Bystrom and Von Hayes, were a force to be reckoned with. They exploded for six runs in the first and eight runs in the second inning.  If I wasn’t feeling any pain earlier, I was feeling it now. After the first inning, I came back to the dugout. Stock greeted me very encouraging words. Mike stopped me, and with a big smile said, “you did a great job back there!” I smiled back, glowing in the fact this famed catcher just complimented me on my play behind the plate, thanked him very much, then asked, “how the hell did you do this sh!t?!

Even though I was playing baseball in these glorious surroundings, enveloped in a warm, late afternoon sun in the middle of January, the whole game was a complete blur. I was bumped up to cleanup in the batting lineup. I went 0 for 1 with a walk and strikeout. But to be honest, I don’t even really remember those at bats. My goal was to finish out the game the best I could behind the plate. I wasn’t that adept with a catcher’s mitt, so there were many instances of me completely missing the pitch and immediately hearing a loud “whack” followed by a painful “ungh!” I felt so bad after awhile. He kept reassuring me it was OK, but still. In between watching balls flying out past our outfielders and having baserunners pass me at home, I experienced my first foul ball-tip-straight-in-to-my-helmet. Luckily, there isn’t much up there to get injured
, so all was good. I also came very close to making a decent play catching a foul ball. Again, I do not know how catchers are able to pull off that move. The disorientation factor is through the roof.  During the second inning, there was a dispute about the number of outs. Some coaches had one. The umpire had two. I joked with him that I had three and the inning was over.

After the dust settled, the Drillers were once again shut out, this time by the score of 18-0. It wasn’t even close. Eh, what are you going to do? It was still a lot of fun. The twenty or so people in the crowd made me feel like I was playing for the Florida Marlins. This Camp thought of everything to make this a true Major League experience!

I headed back to the clubhouse, very sore and very tired. I groaned as I peeled off layer upon layer of my uniform. Playing baseball never hurt so good.

1/20/11 – Day Two of Phillies Phantasy Camp - morning

What kind of person would maliciously set my alarm for 5:15 AM? Oh the evil that resides in the heart of men…

No, I thought it would be prudent to wake up before sunrise and join some of my fellow campers for an organized early stretch in the hotel. Rookie mistake.

Right before I left for Florida, I felt that I was fighting off the early stages of a cold, or something along those lines. Last time I checked, five hours of sleep after being up for close to 20, flying for three hours, and partaking in some late afternoon-into-night imbibing is not quite the best way to stave off a little bout of illness. The stretching was very helpful, I admit. It also helped that we were situated right next to the breakfast buffet line. Nothing says “motivation” like the smell of cooked sausage. Larry Andersen joined in on the stretch and provided much needed color commentary. I felt better… as better as I could get. Pounding headache and froggy throat aside, I hit up the buffet line and took a seat in the ballroom where we had our Rookie Meeting the night before. On the tables were “Phantasy Update” newsletters. Very similar to what you would see on a cruise, it gave the highlights from yesterday’s events as well as the schedule for that day, the weather forecast, and any other pertinent information.  I was in such a haze, I couldn’t remember if I had even spoken to anybody. I apologize to anyone right now if I forgot our early morning conversation. I finished up and still had 45 minutes to kill before the first bus left for the Carpenter Complex at 7:30. Guess who was going to be setting his alarm MUCH later tomorrow?

I exited the hotel in to glorious early morning weather. It was still quite cool out, but the sun told me it was going to be a perfect day for baseball. I loaded my company-issued Phantasy Camp gym bag in to the belly of the bus, made my way inside, and plopped down in a window seat. To get us in the mood as we made the 20 minute-or-so ride to the complex, the 2010 video yearbook of the Phillies, “Great Expectations” was playing on the hanging TV screens. The video started with some highlights from the year, then proceeded to show them arriving and working out for Spring Training… right where we were going, and where we would be spending the next four days at. I have never come down to Florida to see Spring Training games (another excursion my dad and I never got to do).  This was all going to be very new to me. I was definitely that kid going to Disneyworld for the very first time.

We pulled up into the narrow parking lot, flanked by two of the most beautiful, pristine ball fields I think I have ever seen, except in a Major League park of course. There are not too many things more beautiful in this world than an untouched, perfectly manicured baseball field with the early morning sun shining on it like a warm, glowing spotlight.

The rookies congregated in front of the main entrance to the clubhouse, situated between Ashburn and Carlton Fields. In addition to Bright House Field, the main stage for Phillies Spring Training games as well as home to the Clearwater Threshers, there are four smaller fields in the complex, all named after Phillies Hall of Famers: Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, and Richie Ashburn. There is also a field outside of the complex, named after the Yankee great Joe DiMaggio, which it also utilized by the Phillies. As we waited to be let inside, over the loudspeaker came the familiar voice of Dan Baker, the long time public address announcer for the Phillies and Eagles. He read off the uniform number and name of every camper in attendance. As he continued, Scott Palmer emerged and spoke over Baker’s announcements. I wanted him to stop so that I could hear my name! Scott, I love ya, but quit yapping for two minutes! But, as soon as he broke in to his speech, the undertone of Baker’s lineup really set up the moment so beautifully. Palmer’s voice dropped a few steps and he gave us a very brief, but emotional speech that emphasized this common dream we have an are about to live out and how special this moment will be… one that many people will never get to experience. He ended it with a simple, “welcome”.

As we funneled in to the clubhouse, Dan Baker’s lineup announcement was still echoing through the complex. Just like me leaving the airport to the Verve’s “Lucky Man”, this made me feel like I was in a movie. Dan Baker was the voice of God calling us all in to heaven.

Baker’s voice was quickly drowned out by the sound of cheering and clapping. Veterans, clubhouse personnel, Camp representatives, etc. were all there to enthusiastically greet us and direct us to our locker. Photographers and videographers were capturing every step as we looked in at amazement. As it was alphabetical, my locker was situated near the last row. On my way there I would look down the other rows and see everyone else’s reaction to their beautiful new uniforms. It was a sight to behold.

I finally arrived at my row. It was a tight fit. Most everyone had found their locker and were already taking pictures and marveling at their surroundings. I really wanted to savor the moment and take my time. With the amount of people I had to maneuver through, this wouldn’t be a problem. I finally arrived. There it was, on the left-hand side. The whitest, crispest, most stunning uniform I have ever seen. Sargent. 31. I have never seen the color red so solid and pure in my life. It was like the Phillies organization had used the most exotic and expensive dyes in the world just for my name and number. Also hanging in the locker was a pair of red pinstripe pants and belt, a personalized red batting practice jersey (our “away” top), a short-sleeved Phillies red t-shirt and a long-sleeve mock turtleneck with the Phillies logo on front of the neck. In the back of the locker was a “laundry loop”. That was to be used for all items that weren’t part of the main uniform. The clubhouse guys came around to show us how to use it and attach our clothing items on them. It was way too early for us to deal with such complicated technol
ogy like elastic bands and plastic clips.  Much like the room full of monkeys on typewriters, we eventually figured out “The Loop”.

After I squeezed myself into my uniform, dotted my “I’s” and crossed my “T’s”, I took a quick tour of the clubhouse to get my surroundings… the bathroom, the shower, the trainer’s room (see you guys soon!), and the huge snack/break room with a couple large TV’s, beverage dispensers for water and two kinds of Powerade, and buckets upon buckets of David sunflower seeds and Double Bubble gum. Before I headed out, I stopped to have a formal photograph taken of me in my poor excuse of a batting stance.

I exited the clubhouse and made my way to Bright House Field where we would have the first of our daily morning player briefings and Kangaroo Court sessions. At this point, I left my camera behind in the locker as I was not sure how easy it would be to tote it around from field to field, so unfortunately, the amount of photographs taken this day were low in number.

We all congregated under a large tent set up next to Frenchy’s Tiki Pavilion in right field. Scott Palmer ran through what to expect for the rest of the day and night, and some other basic information. Before he introduced Larry Andersen, John Kruk, and Mitch Williams, the Kangaroo Court judges, he warned us campers, as well as the folks who were there as part of the Phan and General Manager packages, that every morning, these sessions would be very blue. So blue in fact, they did not allow any audio or visual recording. The sign outside of the tent drove it home…

Andersen, Kruk, and Williams entered donning black robes and British-style judicial wigs. Mickey Morandini acted as the public defender for each camper brought before the court. Mickey looked very official in his uniform and clip-on tie. Very classy. I won’t get in to specifics because this blog would be even more excruciatingly long. To sum it up; there was plenty of laughin’, cussin’, roastin’, dippin’, and a health serving of general depravity.  I wouldn’t have expected anything less from this crew.

Now it was off to have our picture taken with all of the Legends. Since it went alphabetically, I had plenty of time on my hands. Until then, a couple player representatives held another organized stretching session and throw-around in the outfield of Schmidt Field.  It was just like you see in clips of Spring Training… just a lot of strolling, stretching, chatting, and goofing around. Where do I sign up for this job?

Finally my turn came to sit with all the ex-Phillies and have our photograph taken.  As I approached, several of the players, almost in unison, yelled out, “Inky!” I knew immediately what they were talking about. For those not familiar with the ’93 Phillies, former Texas Ranger Pete Incaviglia was brought to the team that season for his power at the plate. Like the vast majority of that team, he rocked a mullet/long hair and constant facial scruff.

No facial hair in this one, but it would eventually come…

My appearance had immediately struck a chord with the players and reminded them of their former teammate. Once that name was thrown out, the rest of them laughed. I knew I was going to be in trouble for the rest of the Camp. I noticed Jim Eisenreich was standing right behind the empty space that would be my spot on the bench. Jim looked at me and said, “Hey! It’s me, Jim Eisenbise!”

——————–

Finally, it was time to start actually playing some baseball. I almost forgot that’s what I was there for. To evaluate the rookies, the Camp held four 15-minute drill workouts. Based on these, the Legends and GM’s would make their selections at the lunchtime draft for their respective teams. The first workout for me was for infield. I reported back to Schmidt Field and met with Mickey Morandini and Terry Harmon on the pitchers mound. Mickey caught sight of me, smiled, and said, “Hey there Inky!” Oh man…

Memories of my childhood came flooding back. Just like in Little League, we formed two lines at second base and shortstop. Mickey would hit the shortstop a grounder, throw to second and complete the double play at first, then switch. I was very pleased with myself for consistently making the clean pickup and throw on both ends. I heard the reassuring words of Harmon and thought my plan of playing the outfield would immediately be in jeopardy. But it didn’t matter. It just felt fantastic being out there in the sun, throwing the ball around and hearing the snap of leather.

The next workout revolved around pitching. We reported to the pitching mounds located between Roberts and Schmidt Fields. This should be interesting. I pitched one inning in my life in Little League: two strikeouts and a triple. I made my way up and my goal was jus not make a fool of myself, i.e. no bouncing to the catcher or throwing to the catcher NEXT to mine. The first handful were over the plate, which, in my mind, was a complete success. Can I go now? No? Damn. The more I threw, the more they started straying outside the strike zone. My catcher stopped me before it got worse and someone would eventually get hurt.

As I was waiting to move on to the next workout, we noticed a commotion in the outfield of Schmidt Field. Some poor camper had gone to catch a fly ball and tore his Achilles tendon. A cart had to be brought out. He eventually had to leave Camp and return home. We all felt a pit in our stomach for the guy. He just got there, just like the rest of us. Now he couldn’t even stay and just hang out. I think we all had this underlying fear that could easily happen to any of us. Maybe I will reconsider those early morning stretches.

Now on to my biggest weakness: hitting. We went inside to the batting tunnels, which held four separate netted hitting areas. In three of them, Legends and player reps were switching up and throwing batting practice. Ex-Phillie and hitting coach Milt Thompson was holding a quick evaluation in the fourth cage. If I had any notion that I possessed somewhat of a decent swing, it would have been quickly brought down to Earth in these five minutes. Luckily I don’t, so why get embarrassed? I tried to utilize some pointers he gave out to fellow campers before me. I took a few swings and stopped me. Like everyone else, his mantra was to get us to make our swing rhythmic to the beat of our heart. If that’s the case, then my swing must look like I’m suffering a massive arrhythmia. He asked me to step back and took a swing, demonstrating his method. Now, there’s Joe Schmoe who gets around on a pitch, hits it square on the barrel, and makes that beautiful sound of wood cracking and launching a baseball. They actually may even look pretty decent doing it. Then, there is a Major Leaguer swinging and hitting a baseball.  Night and day. Not even close. Milt Thompson is not a big guy at all. In that split second, he was Superman. I felt like I should have apologized to him for wasting his time and offered to buy him a beer later. Wow. I took a few cuts off of a player rep throwing BP, then moved on to the next and last station.

This was the one I was looking forward to. Back to Schmidt field for the outfield workout with Jim Eisenreich and Von Hayes. We stood at the warning track in centerfield and Eisey would hit one to us. Nothing more than that. The first one he hits to me was an in-betweener, so I let it bounce… past me and to the wall. Beautiful. I’m going back to the infield. I liked my results much better there, thank you very much.

Lunchtime.

Fantastic, I can’t mess that one up.

1/19/11 – Day One of Phillies Phantasy Camp



The first and only other time I flew in to the Tampa International Airport was almost ten years ago. For two weeks, my dad had rented a beachside condo in a town south of Clearwater called Indian Rocks Beach. I was only coming for several days. He was already there and met me at the airport. As a surprise, he greeted me with a large sign that said, “Famous NYC Drummer…Sarge”. I was never so joyfully embarrassed in my life.

This day, on my way to the baggage claim, I came across that familiar waiting area. It seemed eerily empty, especially considering how incredibly excited I was at the moment. I felt like he should have been there.

As I rode the escalator down to baggage claim, I heard music playing through their sound system. My luggage came out miraculously quick and as soon as I picked up my bag, the song “Lucky Man” by the Verve started blaring through the room… one of my absolute favorite songs. Such a fitting moment. I immediately felt like I was in a movie, moving in slow motion through the airport, with this tune providing the emotional soundtrack. The song faded out as I exited into the Florida sun.

It was perfect weather. The air had that feeling of spring finally arriving with that first warm day of the year. I rode the cab the whole way with the window down and a cemented smile on my face. As we got closer to the coast, a mysterious fog came rolling in and blanketed Clearwater Beach. My perfect scenario of relaxing by the tiki bar outside in the warm Florida sun would have to be altered a bit.

The taxi pulled up to the hotel and then it all truly hit me. The massive windows in the front revealed the entire lobby, which was filled with people in Phillies paraphernalia, Phillies pennants, and a huge banner welcoming everybody to Phantasy Camp. A porter in a Phillies cap came out and whisked my bag away before I could say “Chooch”. Just like Orientation, an army of Camp workers greeted me. A canopy of red, white and blue balloons led you to the assembly line of friendly folks ready to get the experience off on the right foot… room keys, a folder filled with every piece of information we will need for the next five days, our oh-so-important V.I.P. pass to be worn at all times, and credit card info so that we don’t need to fumble with cash when the bar closes. Convenient and dangerous.

I entered my 7th-floor room and made a beeline for the deck. Me, and every other guest were treated to a stunning view of Clearwater Harbor.  Beautiful. Of course, the true majesty of the harbor would have to wait, as the fog was getting progressively worse. After getting my wits together, I made a call to my new friends, Gene and Marie Mattioni, the first people I met at Orientation and since, have been conversing with consistently on email. I met them both at the tiki bar by the pool. Gene “The Machine” couldn’t stay, as he was getting ready to go over to the Carpenter Complex to participate in the fielding clinic given by Kevin Stocker and Mickey Morandini. So while Gene hit the field, Marie and I hit the bar. During our conversation, we had our first Legend sighting. Across the way, pitcher Tommy Greene was placing his beer order. A couple guys behind us said out loud what I thought at the same exact moment: “He’s a BIG dude”. Not only was he tall, but also he was fit as a racehorse.  They asked him how well he was able to pitch, fearing a matchup during the Legends game on Sunday. He calmed everybody’s nerves by saying he only throws off-speed stuff now to save his arm. I’m quite sure whatever he would throw would somehow make it past my flailing bat. The guy DID throw a no-hitter.

I then met John Mentzer, whom I made contact with through a Facebook page dedicated to Phantasy Camp alumni.  I met some of his buddies and decided I would go back to the room to rest a bit before the night’s festivities. Before I got back to the room, I caught a glimpse of Greg Luzinski and John Kruk shaking hands in the lobby. I shook my head waiting for the elevator. I still could not believe this was all happening.

Feeling as rejuvenated as possible, I made my way back to the tiki bar for a quick drink before heading to the Rookie Players’ Meeting in the hotel. As I sauntered up to the bar, I was greeted to image of John and his friends arriving with cold cases of beer, secured from another bar up the way from the hotel, accessed by a semi-secret boardwalk in the back. John and I gave a quick toast to our fathers before cracking in to his case of beer… welcome to Phantasy Camp!

I entered the ballroom in the hotel and went for an empty seat up front to hopefully get some good photos. The official Countdown Clock hit all zeroes. It was time to get down to business. Scott Palmer was the first to the podium and enthusiastically welcomed everyone to Camp. That same familiar message was driven home once again: We will have the time of our lives. After some basic information, Commissioner Larry Andersen took the microphone and gave his do’s-and-don’ts in typical L.A.-style. Most of his advice centered around the uniform, and how to properly wear it. Any infraction would most certainly earn you a round trip ticket to the next morning’s Kangaroo Court.

The microphone was passed around to everyone in the room to introduce themselves… our name, where we were from, preferred position(s), and our favorite Phillie. My answer of Garry Maddox elicited a response from Palmer of “The Secretary of Defense!” Out of about 90 rookies, only me and one other camper mentioned Maddox. All the usual suspects were chosen as favorite players, but Michael Jack Schmidt was hands-down the clear winner. Schmidty technically could have been my choice, but Maddox was the first one to truly have a direct influence on my style of play. I couldn’t play third base or hit the ball with power and authority; so needless to say, I had no connection to Schmidt on the field.

The highlight of the meeting came next with the introduction of all the Legends. One big surprise was the late-minute addition of Scott Eyre. Eyre was a middle reliever for the Phillies in ’08 and ’09 and instantly became a fan favorite. I guarantee he will be a fixture at Phantasy Camp for years to come. Mitch Williams and Kruk were mysteriously absent from the intros, which of course, caused laughs and conjured up images of where these two were holed up.

As I made my way out of the ballroom after the meeting ended, I was introduced to another camper who had found my blog online. Sam Daley and I have the dubious distinction of the only two attendees who live and work in the New York City area.

Back to the tiki bar we went. This was already becoming a bad trend.  A luau was served poolside amongst tiki torches and ominous fog. While waiting in line to fill up my plate, another person whom I had spoken to via email had introduced himself. Joe Gibley was a returning veteran who hailed from a town not too far from where I was born. We took a seat and chatted. Legend Terry Harmon came over and asked if he could join us. Incredible. Now, I must admit, of all the Legends at Camp, I knew the least about Terry. I know of him from baseball cards, general research and stories from my dad. Within the first five minutes, I knew everything about Terry. He was genuinely interested in our stories. When he was told that I live in New York City, he quickly chimed in about his daughter who lives in Brooklyn. We talked of our careers. He mentioned how he worked for the Philadelphia cable sports channel PRISM back from it’s inception, then moved over to a couple different shopping channels, including QVC. He was very interested in hearing about my photography and this blog. He had such a warm personality and reminded me so much of my uncles on my father’s side. Terry went from virtually unknown in my eyes to becoming my favorite Legend, just like that.

I met back up with Sam at the bar and mulled around, chatting amongst the rest of the Legends who were making the rounds. As the weather got chillier, the crowd slowly filtered inside to the hotel bar. Before we followed suit, we joined a small group huddled around a standing heater, keeping warm while speaking with Jim Eisenreich. This was the one Legend I was very eager to meet.  The discussion ranged from baseball-related topics like former teammates, steroids and Pete Rose, to his career outside of baseball and his children. At this point, just three of us were left outside as they were closing up the bar. Jim, Sam and I were oblivious to the cold and the not-to-subtle message from the hotel staff for us to move it inside.  I finally had the chance to tell Jim one of my favorite stories about my dad.

When I was in 6th grade, my math teacher’s name was Charles Eisenbise. My father was an accountant, so he was most concerned with my grades in math, so he would get to know those teachers the most when parent-teacher conferences rolled around. Now, my dad had a funny and endearing quirk where sometimes he would not be able to pronounce a person’s name correctly, no matter how many times he said it. This was not for a lack of trying or a sign of disrespect, it was just one of those little hiccups of the mind that he could never stop. My dad could never get Mr. Eisenbise’s name right. I heard every permutation: Eisenbisen, Eisenbach, Eisenreichen, Eisen-*trail off*… Cut to my junior year in high school. The ’93 Phillies are in full swing and Jim Eisenreich quickly becomes one of my dad’s favorite players. He loved everything about the man. His quiet demeanor, his work ethic, letting his bat and glove do the talking, his charity, and the odds he constantly had to overcome with his Tourette Syndrome. He was an inspiration to my dad and continues to be to millions of others. The very first time my dad saw him play, he says, “I really like the play of that Jim Eisenbise fella”. That got me a VERY big laugh from Jim.

We decide to finally make our way inside to the hotel lounge. A good portion of the Legends were there, continuing their conversations with us fellow campers. Von Hayes made his way to the bar where Sam promptly bought his a rum and coke. This wasn’t a big deal since there was a “5 for 1″ special on drinks that night.

Thank you, I’ll be here all week.

I pulled out my iPhone to show Von the picture I took of him in 1989 at Photo Day at Veterans Stadium. Von gave me a little head shake followed by an “oh wow”.

The crowd was thinning out and the bar was getting closer to last call. We joined a small group next to Larry Andersen and joined in the conversation. At one point, I turned away. When I turned back L.A. told me to open my hand, and put in to my palm his 1993 NLCS ring and 2008 World Series ring. The ’93 ring was certainly a nice piece of jewelry, but as anyone who has seen a World Series ring in person, especially more recent ones, you know how absolutely monstrous they are. This was no exception. It weighed a ton. And for some reason, he was letting this poor slob handle it.

The 1993 NLCS Champions Ring
The even bigger 2008 World Series Champions Ring

We didn’t have to go home, but we couldn’t stay there. We left the lounge for our respective rooms. L.A. joined Sam and I in the elevator, but not before he got one loud parting shot to Ricky Bottalico before the doors closed. I believe the term he used was “sh!t for brains”.

Welcome to Phantasy Camp!

——————-

I made my way to my room, swimming through a ridiculous fog that had consumed all of Clearwater Beach. I entered my room and found a little gift left by the Phillies Phantasy Phairy: a note from Michael Rouse, the executive director of Phantasy Camp, welcoming me to camp, a Phillies cap with the Phantasy Camp logo and a rally towel as seen at all postseason games. Why do I have a bad feeling this poor little guy was destined for Game 7 of the NLCS this past season? At least he found a good home with me.

If the rest of the night wasn’t special enough, it was this small little gesture that truly made me feel this was going to be one hell of an experience.

To learn more about Jim Eisenreich’s work with children suffering from Tourette Syndrome, please visit the website of his foundation, The Jim Eisenreich Foundation.


1/13/11 – Under a week to go!

The Phantasy Camp folks sure do know how to build excitement. I got another email yesterday giving the official “seven days until Camp” proclamation. This message included last minute stretching tips and such so we can “beat out that throw to first by Stocker”. In the last email they had a “Meet the Legends” section, highlighting two Legends who will be in camp. The first two were Larry Andersen and Scott Palmer. They gave a quick bio of each and what we can expect from them at Camp. Andersen’s of course needed no explanation. I think the Campers know exactly what we are in store for from Larry.

Yesterday they featured Greg Luzinski and John Kruk. At the end of Kruk’s description, it ended with, “A staple at Phillies Phantasy Camp, John Kruk will provide expert advice in batting and fielding but will show his true supremacy as a Kangaroo Court Judge each day”. Luckily, I have no problem making fun of myself, so I think I’m pretty prepared for any good ribbings these guys may give to me, but still. This is John Kruk. The man traded his uniform number, #28, to Mitch Williams for two cases of beer. Who does that?… OK, I could see myself doing that, but that’s besides the point. 

Here’s another picture from Photo Day back on June 3rd, 1989. Kruk was traded the day before from the San Diego Padres along with Randy Ready for Chris James. Nothing like showing up for your first day of work at your new office and having to parade yourself. I’d probably want two cases of beer too. Here you can see him behind Dickie Thon with the first of his four uniform numbers, #11.

This is why the Phillies Camp is one the most popular in all the Majors. I can’t imagine a better cast of characters to play baseball with, share stories, and joke around with. It is going to be something else.

1/10/11 – Other experiences…

When I first started my Phillies Phantasy Camp diary I was curious to see if anyone else in the web-o-sphere had done anything similar. It’s really slim pickings out there I tell you. I was kind of surprised that more people haven’t taken the time to share their time at Camp with the rest of the world… not only at Phillies Camp, but for all the other Major League teams.

I was contacted back in August by a former Camper who had stumbled upon my blog. He created his own blog, more for his friends and family, to keep them up to date on his trip halfway around the world. You see, he was from Australia. That’s a dedicated Phillies fan. Here is his blog from his experience back in 2007.

Public Affairs Director for the Phillies, Scott Palmer, has written a couple articles (here and here) detailing his experiences in Clearwater in the last couple years.

There’s Ballpark Bob who writes for the website fantasybaseballdugout.com. He provides a very quick synopsis of his trip, including a brief video.

We have this nice video/photo compilation of a Camper Jason Frankel’s experience in 2008:

I’m curious to know if there are any other blogs, diaries, articles or videos swirling around that I missed? I’d love to hear more about other people’s experiences at Phillies Phantasy Camp!

12/16/10 – “We’d like to introduce…”

At three 0′clock yesterday afternoon, I got very excited. At 3:01, I had the chills. Cliff Lee was back, wearing a Phillies uniform again. This time, for good. At the end, I became a giddy schoolboy. I don’t think I’ve been this excited for an upcoming baseball season… and this is after four straight years of baseball nirvana. Excellence on the diamond has almost become old hat for the Phillies, but with the addition of Lee, this just turns it up to 11.

You could see it everyone’s faces. The moderator, Phillies Public Affairs Director Scott Palmer, stood in front of the podium to introduce Ruben Amaro Jr. and Cliff Lee. Scott has a very distinctive smile, one that all Philadelphians know from his days on Channel 6. I saw that smile firsthand the night of the Phantasy Camp Orientation. It’s a truly genuine smile…. So there he stood, in the corner of the press room… the same room I started my Orientation in… and beamed. He beamed like a little kid on Christmas morning. His joy over the return of Cliff was clearly obvious.

Ruben spoke first and had the exact same smile. This was more than just landing a big free agent. This was bringing pure elation to a loving and devoted fanbase. Amaro has been a Phillie from birth: From his father, a former Phillie, to growing up in the area, to having two tours with the team as a player, to working his way up through the front office to General Manager… today, he was simply a fan.

After the press conference was over and Amaro had handed Cliff his old number 33, MLB Network’s Matt Yallof and Phantasy Camp Legend Mitch Williams (both Comcast Philadelphia alumni) interviewed Lee. Mitch, who makes no bones about the fact he is still a tried and true Phillies fan, also fell under Lee’s spell. As comfortable he was questioning him and being as objective as possible, you could see how excited he was about his return… the whispering, the joking around… A truly special time in the franchise’s history has been taken to a whole new level.

Other than his constant reiterations about how much he wanted to be in Philadelphia and play for this team, the one statement that actually got me to say out loud, by myself, “yes”, came after a question about Lee “leaving money on the table” and not taking the much bigger contracts offered to him by the Yankees and Rangers:

“I guess I did. I mean, I could potentially earn this in a shorter term, so whatever. It’s plenty of money. When you hit a certain point, enough is enough. It’s a matter of where you’re comfortable, where you’re happy, where your family is most comfortable, what team gives you the best chance to win.”

Two hours earlier, about 90 miles south of Citizens Bank Park, Jayson Werth was introduced to the Washington Nationals. If you saw the press conference or have been reading Werth’s comments, you know that the Phillies-Nationals games will be very interesting now.

But my favorite quote of the day from Werth easily had to be this:

“I’ve been to the postseason a lot the past few years, and that’s what it’s all about.”

*thud*

11/16/10 – Orientation


When I first inquired about Phantasy Camp way back in March, I was told an orientation meeting would be held sometime in November. That seemed like an eternity, especially since the baseball season hadn’t even begun. Well, the World Series has ended, the weather is colder, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s November already. Only two months to go until camp, and after last night’s orientation, it has finally sunk in. Months and months of emails, letters, research, speculation and anticipation came to a head yesterday, one floor below Citizens Bank Park. I haven’t even stepped foot onto the field in Florida and I know this will be one of the greatest experiences of my life.

The weather was lousy. Rainy, windy, and chilly. Citizens Bank Park looked like an ominous monster when I exited the subway station. None of the lights were on, save for a few small points of illumination. No cars in the parking lots. As I got closer, I saw a huge banner in the final stages of being hung above the third base entrance, celebrating Roy Halladay’s Cy Young Award that he won only a couple hours before my arrival. Of course, that award was well-deserved. Yes, he didn’t achieve the predicted Herculean stats like 30+ wins and a ’68 Bob Gibson-esque ERA, but he gave us a season the likes Phillies fans haven’t seen since “Lefty”, Steve Carlton.

When I arrived at the south entrance on Pattison Avenue, I met a gentleman and his wife who were making their way in as well. We entered the lobby, going past some impressive memorabilia (game-used bats, balls, the lineup card from Halladay’s NLDS no-hitter against the Reds, etc.). We took the elevator down. The gentleman, Gene, asked me if I was playing or just going as a “Phan” (the camp offers packages for players to bring down family members and friends to accompany them, and will provide them with fun excursions and of course, seats at all the games). I told him I was playing and he gave me a funny, “uh oh”. It became immediately obvious that I am definitely one of the youngest players. Little do they know, they can probably run laps around me. This was also Gene’s first time at camp and he and his wife were very excited about this whole experience, as to be expected.

We came off the elevator and walked right in to the Phillies media room. Other than the army of camp employees manned at numerous locations, a table of food, and balloons, the first thing that caught my eye was the oh-too-familar backdrop and podium everyone sees when the Phillies hold a press conference to introduce new players, coaches, etc. This is when it truly hit me.

I checked in and finally got to meet Joanne LeVeque, the wonderful enrollment coordinator I have been speaking to on and off for the past eight months. She and the other women checking campers in were like rays of sunshine. A perfect way to start the night. From there I went on a Phantasy Camp conveyor belt, going from table to table to meet other employees who were in charge of different aspects of the experience. At each table, every single person gave the widest of smiles, welcoming me to camp, asking me if I was excited, and telling me how much fun I will have. If you have ever been on a cruise, then you know how enthusiastic the crew is toward you and your fellow passengers. Now, turn it up to 11 and you have these folks. Yet, since this is a relatively small group of people, and not a boat full of 1,000 people, you are truly made to feel like a king.

In addition to to all the various paperwork, receiving very cool, customized luggage tags, and a huge gym bag with an embroidered Phantasy Camp logo AND my requested uniform number, 31 (my favorite Phillie, Garry Maddox… yes!), I was given a form to fill out asking me if I have another fantasy I would like the players to fulfill for me. The women said they have done things in the past where players can recreate certain game scenarios (bottom of the 9th, game seven of the World Series, bases loaded…). I found a chair and sat down to gather my thoughts and calm down. At this point, I felt like a seven-year old in Disney World for the first time. My brain was going in a million different happy directions. I grabbed some food to help me stop my head from spinning, although those cookies probably didn’t help.

I sat with a clipboard, checking over my player bio that they will be putting in to a media guide. After that, I started looking at my fantasy request form. I was drawing a complete blank. How much more could they possibly do for me other than bringing down the entire 2010 team for me to have beers with? As I was pondering this, another couple came and sat next to me. I hear the gentleman say to me, “can’t figure out what to write, huh?” I laughed and said, “this whole thing IS fulfilling my fantasy.” The man introduced himself, and as it normally goes, I immediately forgot his name. He asked me if this was my first trip down and I said yes. He told me this will be his fifth year in a row and that it never ever gets old. I told him how thrilled I was to be doing this and had a feeling I would be signing up for it again as soon as I arrive back home. He closed his eyes and gave me a slow nod. He then paused, gave me a serious, yet comforting look, dropped his voice a few decibels, inched a little closer to me and said, “you will have the time of your life.” Unlike everyone else who had been rep
eating that phrase over and over to me, this time, I actually felt that statement reverberate in my bones. He was like some wise sage who knew the secrets of the universe. He also had a particular look in his eye that I have definitely seen before…

An old co-worker of mine named Mike attended the New York Mets fantasy camp a couple years ago. I remember him coming over to my desk to talk about his experience after he returned. His face told it all. He couldn’t stop smiling. It was one of those grins that is purely honest and true. He was like a little boy, not being able to talk fast enough to get all his thoughts and stories out. I also play softball with him on one of my teams. Whenever we had a chance, it’s all we ever talked about while sitting on the bench. I’ve always wanted to attend a fantasy camp, but he definitely was a catalyst in getting me to seriously start entertaining the idea.

I eventually filled out and turned in my fantasy request form (I’ll let you all know later if this actually happens). Now it was off for my uniform fitting. A few other campers and I were led through the maze-like hallways of Citizens Bank Park on our way to the clubhouse. On the way, our guide gave us a little tour of the area, pointing out certain rooms and lounges, including the lockers of the Phillie Phanatic and the umpires. The funniest moment of the night came at the expense of the said umpires. Our guide pointed out that the signs for every door also has a braille translation. The signs not to have braille imprinted on them? The ones to the umpire lockers and lounges. Goodnight, don’t forget to tip your waitress.

As we made our way closer to the clubhouse, we arrived at the batting cages used by the players. I particularly liked the Charlie Manuel Observation Windows on the left.

We came to an intersection. Left took us to the Phillies dugout and the field. Right took us to the clubhouse. I’ll be making that left come next August at Phantasy Camp reunion.

We made our way to the clubhouse, passing by the mailboxes for all the players and coaching staff. Funny enough, the first box I noticed was for Davey Lopes. No forwarding address has been given yet I guess.

Just like when I walked in to the media room just a half hour or so before, the reality of this experience hit me for a second time. Another platoon of camp employees were set up at different stations around the side of the clubhouse. We were first brought to a display table showing us all the different awards we can win while at camp. These would be given out at the awards banquet on the last night of our trip. These include Most Valuable Player, Gold Glove, Batting Champion (the trophy is a bat signed by all the Phillies Legends), Cy Young, “Charlie Hustle” for the “spark plug” of the team, an impressive ring for the World Series-winning team, including being etched into the Phantasy Camp Championship Trophy, and a “Maje McDonnell” Award, named after the Philadelphia sports staple, given to the player with the best personality and class on and off the field. Also, daily “Gamer Award” pins will be given out for on-the-field excellence. Once again, this is just another aspect of this experience to make the camper feel incredibly special.

While our guide was telling us about these great awards, I couldn’t help turning my head back and forth to look at all the different lockers. I was standing in the clubhouse of my favorite baseball team. This is where the Phillies have had numerous champagne and Bud Light showers for the past four seasons. Now I know that being able to visit everything I just mentioned is not that unique. Anyone can sign up for tours of the park and see what I just saw. My nine-year old nephew this past summer got to take a very similar tour when he attended his own youth Phillies camp. But you know what? I’ve never seen it, so damnit, I’m going to act like a little kid!

Next up was my hat fitting (oh man, Chase Utley’s locker). Luckily, I just got a haircut, so they didn’t have to send in the oversized Phillies cap they use to put on William Penn’s head on top of City Hall. With my hat and a jersey, I was now getting my picture taken for the media guide. You didn’t have to tell me to smile.

Before going over for my uniform sizing, the organizers softened the blow of how awkward I will look in stretch pants. The camp brought in three folks who will be sharing the five days with us. Down the line, I got the opportunity to shake hands and converse with Marty Bystrom, our own ’10 San Francisco Giants-style save-the-day rookie sensation, Scott Palmer, a sports anchor staple in Philadelphia, now the director of public affairs for the Phillies, and Dickie Noles, easily the one Phil I had the most baseball cards of. I swear I think all the card companies had a mandate that a Dickie Noles should be placed in every other pack. I’m glad that I finally got to meet the real thing and not have to keep looking at 36 duplicate ‘82 Topps cards. All three of them were absolutely charming, telling me how much fun I will have. Again, I could see it in their faces. They LOVE doing this.

Behind the red curtain I went to get fitted. I was brought over to a chair, situated right in front of Roy Halladay’s locker. The next thing I know, I was standing in my underwear… in Roy Halladay’s locker… the guy who just won the Cy Young Award earlier in the day….

Well, I just got my money’s worth. I can go home now. Thank you very much.

When I emerged, I was given a complimentary Dick Perez print commemorating Halladay’s perfect game earlier in the season. The women said that would be it and I can go back to the media room with a guide… or I can stick around and take pictures. I of course, chose the latter. The first thing I had to do was text message my wife from Carlos Ruiz’s locker. That got exactly the reaction I was hoping for from her. I went around the horn, snapping photos of everyone’s lockers… Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth…

I begrudgingly decided to leave, going with the same guide I came in with. On the way back we passed an impressive mural of photographs from the 2008 season, including a massive panoramic shot right after Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske. Directly across from this was a series of window box frames with the jerseys of all the Phillies players who have had their number retired by the club, including the great Jackie Robinson.

Everything was in order and was cleared to go. I stopped by the front desk to say goodbye to Joanne and thank her again for all her help. “See you in Florida” she said. And that was that. I waited eight months for orientation. I only have two months more to go.

I left the park and headed back up Pattison Avenue to the subway for the first step of my multi-stage trip back to New York. The weather was still lousy, but nothing could have brought me down at that moment.

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