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Fantasy Baseball Camp: Choosing Your Camp

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Baseball campDie-hard baseball fan Roy Berger still has a few things to check off his list before he officially grows up.  

After getting stand-up comedy out of his system, he decided to relive his youth at Major League Baseball fantasy camp. Read on for his daily reports from the field.

Every boy growing up in the impressionable 1950s and 1960s wanted to be a Major League Baseball player.

Our heroes were bigger than life. Our young emotions swung on every win and loss. We cared much more about our favorite team than did our idols.

We couldn’t appreciate it at the time but there was something romantic about the relationship. These guys actually got paid to play the game we worshiped and they were making big bucks—some even up to $20,000 a year.

Baseball gloveLast spring at a conference I talked to colleague who had just spent a week at the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp. He’s a New Jersey guy who knew nothing about the Royals except that a buddy from Kansas City invited him to go along.

Every fantasy camp has former great players in attendance for the week to help sell the program—they rub elbows with the wannabes like us and actually coach the teams during camp. My colleague couldn’t name any of the Royals “greats” that were there. It didn’t matter to him; he said the experience was incredible and he couldn’t wait to go again.

Fantasy camp is something I’ve been toying with for a while. I probably only needed a push to commit but as the years went by and my body started to give way, that push got much tougher. When I came home and told my wife about the Kansas City experience, she pointed out the clock is ticking and insisted that I do it the following winter.  In other words, I got pushed!

Kansas City is home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Find out more with the Off the Brochure Travel Guide to Kansas City, Missouri.

Virtually every team holds a fantasy camp at their respective spring training headquarters in January. Of course, the Yankees have to be different and they hold two at their training facility in Tampa: one in November; one in January.

Baseball pitchAmong the ex-Major Leaguers that campers have had a chance to play ball with included: Chris Chambliss, Bucky Dent, Al Downing, Ken Griffey Sr., Tommy John, Mickey Rivers, Darryl Strawberry, Mike Torrez and Neil Allen.

Neil Allen? Who on earth is Neil Allen?

I’ve been a Yankee fan for 30 years and never heard of Neil Allen. I’m not sure Neil Allen is a household name in the Allen household.

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So I Googled Neil Allen. It appears he was a Yankee in 1985 and 1987 with a career won-loss record of 58-70.

If I was going to play ball with any Allen, I’d rather throw with my old summer camp chum Joe Allen spend the equivalent of a semester’s college tuition with Neil.

Pitcher pitchingStill, as a devout New York Yankee fan, it seemed there was no decision to make. Except for one thing: In my youth on Long Island, all the kids were either Yankee, Dodger or Giants fans, and some caught on with the Mets as they emerged in 1962.

Not me. I was a staunch Pittsburgh Pirates fan. My Dad was a Pirates fan so I “got it honest,” as they say down South.

My affinity for the Pirates remained strong through the 1960s. As the nights got deeper and the old AM radio signals got clearer, I couldn’t wait to pretend to be sleeping only to hear Bob Prince call the Pirates game on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh. Latter-day Tylenol PMs never let me sleep as soundly as a Pirate win.

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I can still recite the starting line-up from that team. Houk-Groat-Mazeroski-Stuart-Skinner-Virdon-Clemente-Burgess and the starting rotation of Friend-Law-Haddix and Mizell.

Catching a ballThat was the World Series the Pirates beat the brash Yankees four games to three despite being outscored in the series 55-27. It was the series that the Pirates won Game 7 when Bill Mazeroski took a 1-0 fastball from Ralph Terry deep over the left field fence at Forbes Field in the bottom of the ninth as Yogi Berra could only turn and look. It was the World Series where I danced around my living room, emulating Mazeroski, as he ran the bases in triumph. It was my earliest baseball memory. And maybe, just maybe, October 13, 1960 was the best day of an 8-year-old’s life!

So on a lark I went to the Pirate Web site to see if they had a fantasy camp. My eyes just about stuck to the Pirate site when I saw the 2010 fantasy camp was the 50th anniversary of the 1960 World Championship team!

I couldn’t believe it. For one week my earliest childhood sports memories could come alive at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida. I told my wife, “I think I’m going to do it.” She said, “Yankee camp.” I said, “Nope, Pittsburgh Pirates.” I’m not sure she understood.

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Kent Tekulve, former great Pirate relief pitcher is the fantasy camp director; Joe Billetdeaux is the camp coordinator. Among the legends that were taking part in this year’s camp are 1960 heroes Bob Friend, Vernon Law, Joe Gibbon, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon and, of course, Bill Mazeroski.

PiratesAlso serving as instructors and coaches at camp are more contemporary names: Steve Blass, Dave Cash and Rennie Stennett from the 1971 World Series championship team along with Sid Bream, Mike LaValliere, Zane Smith, Grant Jackson and Jerry “Rolls” Reuss.

I was close to enrolling but two things I had to do first. First, I wanted to know a little about the demographic of the typical camper. There are 75-80 campers for the week ranging in age from 30 through 70, with the average age in the mid-50s. I was told I would fit right in.

The next step was to see if I could hit a baseball. My throwing has become a struggle over the years but if I couldn’t come close to seeing or hitting the ball, I was staying home.

I found an indoor batting cage and put the speed at 60-70 mph. I made contact with the ball.

I sent the Pirates a check.

I leave for Bradenton tomorrow morning. I still don’t know if this is a good idea.

By Roy Berger for PeterGreenberg.com.

Check out Roy’s next report: Fantasy Baseball Camp: Preparing for the Field.

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