Well folks, there's a saying in life that goes a little like this; "Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." To that end, I went under deep cover behind enemy lines in sunny Fort Myers, Florida to take part in the 2011 edition of the official Boston Red Sox fantasy camp. To set the record straight and to calm the fears of Golden Arm, I am not "becoming a Red Sux fan". No sir, I still am an ardent Jays fanatic and I can't envision that changing any time soon. Having said that, walking into the players clubhouse at the Red Sox Player Development complex, you gain a greater sense of what winning does to an organization and it's fan base. It's difficult not to admire the organization that does everything first class.
It became apparent very early on that first class was the tone for this entire camp. The clubhouse experience, the equipment, the fields, the interaction with alumni, pros, trainers, hall of famers, etc...., was all 1st class. I will attempt to recap my experience as best I can, but I will summarize it all in one word. Overwhelming. In any event, here goes.
Day 1. Sunday, January 30
My friend JJ (who is quite possibly Canada's biggest Red Sox fan) and I, along with Mrs. JJ, survived a 3am arrival at our hotel in Fort Myers. The day began with a 6:30am wake up call and a foggy drive to the spring training home of the Red Sox. We entered the facility via the Player's only entrance and walked past the batting tunnels and practice pitching mounds, that are used during inclement weather.
There are 5 fields at the complex, all of which are groomed to Major League standards (more on those later). A left turn is the clubhouse facility. Through the doors marked Players and staff only, I am immersed in the glory that is a professional baseball facility. I must say, I saw 50 and 60 year old men, war vets, family men, men of all walks of life shed a tear the moment they took their first steps in the clubhouse, and again, when they laid eyes on their lockers. It was really beyond any of my expectations, walking in, and finding my locker, with my name on it, and full complement of authentic Red Sox home and away uniforms, undershirts, socks, hat and jacket.
Some surprise items also adorned my locker including a personalized Rawlings souvenir bat (which I had all of the pro/alumni sign for me), a new MLB game ball, and few other items. I unloaded my equipment bag, threw on my undershirt and shorts and toured through the clubhouse while meeting other campers who were doing the same thing I was. Taking it all in. I ventured into the equipment room and was greeted by Brewser, the resident Bulldog. Brewser helps guard the heaven of equipment, and uniforms that will be used by the pros during spring training.
I actually saw two skids of bats and a sea of red practice jerseys. A quick pass through the trainer's/gym facilities and it was on to breakfast before the early game. The early game was an option that return campers had, to come to the camp a day early and play a bonus game. I was able to piggyback with JJ, who was is now a 3-time camp veteran and take part in the game. This game gave just the smallest hint of what was to come during the rest of the week. Playing on the greatest fields I've ever stepped foot on really was something else. Fielding a ground ball without worry of large rocks, bottle caps, weeds or other baseball altering hurdles was truly a pleasure. The game rolled along. I played 3rd base and SS and at one point, Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd showed up just in time to witness me fielding a short dribbler down the 3rd base line and making an off balance throw to 1st to get the runner. Let me say this. I don't consider myself a great ball player. Mediocre at best to be frank. But receiving praise from a former Major Leaguer certainly makes you think otherwise, if even for a moment. Back to the game. I went 2 for 3, with a reach on error and a hit by pitch, of which, the bruise lasted all week.
After the game, it was off to the showers and dropping your uniform and other equipment off to be washed by the clubhouse staff. Every day, I was greeted with freshly laundered uniforms, undershirts, sliding shorts, and even my jockstrap hanging in my locker. These guys must really love their job to put up with us campers. I swear it.
Later that evening back at the hotel, camp officially kicked off with a welcome banquet. At the banquet we met the pros/alumni who would be running the teams, mingled with fellow campers and partook of the open bar. Here's a list of the pros, in no particular order.
Ken Sanders (camp on field director)
Rick Wise (threw a no-hitter and hit 2 homers in the same game for the Phillies)
Dave "Hendu" Henderson (who was an incredible source for stories, some of which I'll share, '89 World Series champion)
Trot Nixon (his 2004 World Series ring is bigger than my first car)
Rich Gedman (my manager. Caught Roger Clemens' 20 K game in 1986)
Frank Viola ('87 World Series MVP, '88 AL Cy Young winner and great guy, was almost a Blue Jay in '92)
Chad Epperson (Red Sox roving catching coordinator/instructor)
Bill "Spaceman" Lee (his tales of his cross-Canada drive with an ever shrinking ball of hash were something to behold)
Dick Beradino (54 years in pro baseball!)
Dennis "Oil Can" Boyd (Some great stories from the days on the road, including Toronto)
Mike "Hit Man" Easler
Butch Hobson (Managed the Sox from '92-94)
Day 2. January 31 (officially day 1 of camp)
Arrived at the PDC, got half dressed for breakfast. Hit the bike for a warm up and stretch and off to the batting tunnels for a bit of soft toss to shake the cobwebs out a bit. A half hour later or so, back to my locker to get into uniform and head to the first morning clubhouse meeting of the week. These meetings, throughout the week, would serve as a forum for the camp director, the on field coordinator and team managers to recap the previous day, hand out fines in Kangaroo Court and set out the upcoming day. Today's meeting explained the morning stretch procedure and the evaluation drills that we'd all be subject to. There were various drill stations where the pros gathered and evaluated the players in advance of that night's draft. It became very apparent early on, that there are serious bragging rights up for grabs amongst the pros and they view the scouting and drafting process very intently. The draft took over 2 hours and when the announcement came down that the teams were about to be announced we gathered in one of the hotel's meeting rooms to hear the results. JJ and I were drafted by Rich Gedman (apparently in the early rounds) to be members of Gedman's bombers. His assistant coaches were Dick Beradino (currently a Red Sox player development consultant and in his 54th year of pro baseball), and Dave Smith. A few pops later and we retired for the night, looking forward to our first game action, and 2 games a day for the rest of the week.
Day 3. February 1st
1st game time is 9:30 am against Mike Easler's team. Another breakfast and another clubhouse meeting. Some fines were handed out and fortunately enough I managed to not catch any of the coaches eyes in a negative or comedic sense. Stretch on field at 9am and away we go. I'm slotted 3rd into the lineup and playing shortstop, after playing 3rd base all day for the evaluations. I find it kind of odd, having not really played much SS but excited about it nonetheless. My first at bat, I hit a pitch away for a flare over 3B and down the LF line for a double.
Those who know me and my game, know what kind of feat it is, for me to hit a ball anywhere left of the 2nd baseman, let alone down the LF line. We end up dropping this one 5-2 after not being able to keep the bats going late into the game. I left the game feeling comfortable at SS and looking forward to the afternoon game. After lunch and a uniform change we head back out for stretch and game. We take the field against Lou Merloni's and Trot Nixons DirtDogs. We jump out to a big lead and win this one 8 - 5, only made that close after 3 last bat runs by the DirtDogs. I went 3 for 3 with 3 runs scored with a 2b and 2 RBI's.
Day 4. February 2nd
Today's an exciting day. We get to play the morning game at City of Palms Park, where the Red Sox play their spring training games. The excitement is palpable amongst rookie campers like me throughout the clubhouse. For a lot of us, this will be as close as anyone gets to playing in pro stadium. Me and my brother from another mother, JJ, hop in our rental car, skip the bus and leave for City of Palms to get there as soon as we can. I'm bouncing in the car with anticipation. Adding to the experience is the absolutely beautiful Southwest Florida weather. We have our stretch and head for the dugout. My manager Rich Gedman pulls me aside and says I have the start this morning, tells me to have fun, and throw strikes.
My line was ok. I survive a shaky first inning and as the game goes on, am feeling better about my mechanics and pitch into the 6th inning, leaving with the lead. My final line shows 5.1 IP, scattering 9hits, and 3 ER. I had 4 BB's, which were early in the game and 5 K's. In the excitement of wanting to get to City of Palms, I forget my knee brace in the clubhouse and during my 2nd at bat, I rope a ball deep to right centre but my knee gives out, turning a triple into a single. I still manage to go 2 - 3 and add 2 more RBI's. This unfortunately will not be the last I hear from this wonky knee. We end dropping this one to Montgomery's Mavericks 7 - 5. Monty's pitcher threw a complete game 7 inning gem to get the win.
Our afternoon game is against Bill Lee's Lee's Lefties, who are the early camp favorites to take it all. Coming into this game they're 3-0 and we see in the very first inning why that is. All through their lineup they're roping the ball everywhere. At short, I have 4 very hard hit balls to me in the 1st, one of which I make a diving stop to my right to catch the ball on a line to end the inning. In the 3rd inning I have a pop up hit to shallow LF that I get a beat on right away chase it down, call off the outfielder and make the catch on the run, no problem. However, as I plant my leg to slow down my knee buckles out from under me and the next thing I know I'm laying on the grass with the trainer running to me. At this point, I fear that my camp has come to an end. A quick check and golf cart ride to the clubhouse and I'm laying on the trainers table with a ice machine compressing my knee. I get word that we end up dropping this one 11-2. Lee's Lefties are 4-0, and we're now 1-3, with the camp championship now looking to be out of reach.
Wednesday night has a mid week BBQ back at City of Palms. This was a great opportunity for us to mingle with the pros, and fellow campers, enjoy a few beers, and some great food. At one point in the evening I find myself sitting in the LF bullpen with Rich Gedman and Dave Henderson, while they recounted the '86 ALCS and World Series. It's quite astounding to listen to these guys talk baseball, especially about something as historic as the '86 playoffs. Now, we've all seen Buckner miss that ball in the World Series that allowed the Mets to win game 6 and go on to win the series in game 7. However, to hear the story from someone who was on the field, and wax nostalgic, truly was a thrill. Henderson told a great story to my man JJ about the time that Jose Canseco was traded by the A's, and how he was at bat and watched Canseco get called back from the on deck circle. See, on trade deadline day, normally for west coast teams, like the A's, if you made it to game time, you likely weren't going to be traded. However, because Canseco had fallen out of favor so much with the team, they waited until he was on the on-deck circle for his 1st at-bat before breaking the news.
Day 5. February 3rd
I spend the morning skipping game action vs. Epperson's Eagles. I'm on the trainers table again, being iced down and watching the pros who have reported for spring training early go about their thing, now that the fantasy campers are out of the clubhouse. Beside me a slew of Red Sox prospects lay down on the table to get stretched out for the day. They're actually pretty cool guys except for one, more on that in a bit. I chat briefly with Daniel Nava who celebrated his first MLB at bat by hitting a grand slam at Fenway Park. Ryan Kalish was next up and he actually shook my hand and wished me luck with my knee. It's refreshing to see these pro's are in fact human and have a job to do. Next person I notice is Jonathan Paplebon, who has just arrived at the PDC. Within earshot I hear him greeting fellow Sox players, and actually to my surprise, talking shit about the Fantasy Campers being around. On his way over to greet Kalish, Paplebon notices yours truly, a fantasy camper and asks me "What happened to you?" to which I reply that I'm "just another fantasy camper". Just one more note on this guy and I'll move on. If you go to the RedSox website and view an interview with Paplebon about the upcoming season, just imagine him saying the exact opposite, and you'll get what this guy was like to me, and other campers. Sadly, I'm not the only camper who has a story about him, that was similar to mine.
After spending the morning being worked on, I'm given the okay to try playing in the afternoon game, which, is back at City of Palms. Dick Beradino, one of our associate coaches has already slotted me into 1B, which is a tough pill to swallow after playing very solidly at SS, but I'm happy to be mobile enough to continue playing. I play well enough at 1B, hit a couple of balls hard, as the rest of the team did and we come up short again, 5-0. Gedman says in his post game meeting that we hit the ball hard enough to win. A quick count has us hitting at least a dozen hard balls that were literally right at outfielders. On the way out of the stadium Beradino asked me how my knee was and if I was still having fun. "How can I not?" I answered.
Thursday night we had a casino night. Chad Epperson, tiring of losing his money to JJ at the poker table, joins me at the roulette table and we clean them out. The stakes are Red Sox chips, which can be turned in to raffle tickets for prizes at the end of the week banquet. I start the night with 6000 chips and end with 12000. Our coaches are playing for the team and I learn that Gedman goes on a serious heater at the craps table and walks out with almost 75000 chips. He actually leaves the room at the end of the night with his shirt turned into a wheelbarrow to carry all of his chips. I had some great baseball conversation with Lou Merloni and Trot Nixon. Merloni shed some light on my Paplebon encounter which was refreshingly honest and direct. Nixon recounted what it was like to be a member of the 2004 team which broke the curse of the Bambino. Some great stuff.
Day 6. February 4th
We're out of the race for the championship game. However, we have the chance to play spoiler for Butch Hobson's Hornets. They need to win this game, and get help. Lose and they're out. I head out to 3rd base to give it a try. Had one ball hit to my left. I fielded the ball cleanly but didn't plant well on the throw and short hopped the 1st baseman, leading to my first error of the week. Back and forth we go, like we have done all week. And, like we have done all week, we take a lead into the late innings only to drop it near the end. Hobson's team gets a much needed win, but they didn't get the help they needed and they're out. I go 2-3 at the dish with an RBI.
The afternoon and final league game has us playing for pride against Epperson's Eagles. To echo what Gedman says to us at the end of the game, I wish we had played as loose and in the game all week, like we did in this one, which was never in doubt. We win this one easily 8-2. I end the game and the week going 1-3. My man JJ finshes this one going 3-3 and adds another RBI, cementing his status as a camp Silver Slugger and All-Star! I'm proud of him. It's revealed later shortly after we return from Florida, that he played most of the week with two cracked ribs after making a diving attempt at a ball at 1B. After the game we gather in the dugout like we always do for our post game chats. Gedman leads off and tells us it was an honor to be with us this week and he truly means it when he says that in all his years of coming to camp, our team, while not a winner, was truly one of the closest knit teams he's seen. Dave Smith thanks us for our love of the game and willingness to learn. Finally, Dick Beradino, a sweetheart of a man, thanks us for reminding him of what is great with the game of baseball. He stops, mid sentence to wipe a tear from his cheek. Behind his sunglasses and his hat pulled down low, he stops to check his emotions. He actually apologizes for getting emotional, saying he's had the absolute privilege to be around the game for 54 years, and he loves it because of guys like us, who play for the pure love of baseball. You'd have to be made of stone to not found yourself getting a little choked up. 14 grown men, from all walks of life, truly enveloped in all that is great about baseball.
Day 7. February 5th
Today the camp teams assemble at City of Palms Park, to each play 3 inning games against the pros. It's one last chance to enjoy City of Palms and the pro experience. Pre game lineup announcing, batter announcing by Red Sox radio personality Joe Castiglione. I'm told I'm gonna pitch if my knee can hold up. I take the hill and notice that the pros are for real. The first batter I'm facing is Trot Nixon, who earlier in the day hit a homer that I'm pretty sure is still circling the globe. I was in the tunnel to the clubhouse when he hit it, and it was so loud, it sounded like a shotgun went off. I managed to get Trot to make an out. Don't ask me how, I was still too jacked to be pitching to a world series champ that I forget the finite details. Next up was my manager Rich Gedman. A true pro, he steps in and tips his cap to me, and I acknowledge by doing the same. One fastball later, left a little too up, and a hard liner to right has him on 1st. As I was retrieving the ball from the 2nd baseman, I looked over at first, caught Gedman's eye, and nodded my head at him. He just smiled, and in the dugout after the game he told me that was one of his favorite moments from the week. I escape the inning only giving up 1 run. In the top of the 2nd, we end up banging in two runs and become the only team the last few years to take a lead versus the Pros. It turns out we campers are like the Washington Generals. Apparently, in the last 7 or 8 years of camp, the Pros have lost just once. We, as usual, drop this after giving up 2 late runs, making the final 3-2.
I fear this post is lengthy, and I know I'm walking on eggshells posting in such great depth about the Red Sox on a Blue Jays blog, but when it comes down to it, we all share the commonality of loving baseball, in all it's forms. I know that I've left out a lot of details. I'm actually quite amazed at how much I remember. It was such a whirlwind experience. I had an amazing time, and learned a lot about the game. If anyone from this camp is reading, thanks for sharing this experience with me. Thanks to all the trainers and clubhouse staff. Special thanks to Rich Gedman, Dick Beradino and Dave Smith. I wish that the Blue Jays offered a similar experience. At last count, roughly half of the MLB teams offer Fantasy Camp experiences. I've heard that the Jays at one point used to do it. I'm thinking about what alumni could be there, and what a camp it would be. Alomar, Hentgen, Carter, Olerud, Stieb and on and on.
Stay tuned in August, as I'll be playing a reunion game at Fenway Park.
See you at the home opener folks.