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We Are Family: Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp, Part 2

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Roy Berger is back at Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp. Find out how he stacked the odds in his favor in part one, and read on to see what it’s like to return to the field with some old friends and new faces.

So far, so good.

ThomasInterview

A special moment for Thomas being interviewed for the camp DVD as the winning pitcher and one of the stars of the game.

The Pirates like to tie a theme around their annual January fantasy camp. This year, it’s the 35th anniversary of the 1979 World Championship team, which was the last World Series the Pirates won.

The 1979 team is best remembered by the “We Are Fam-i-lee” persona from the famous Sister Sledge song of the day. The Pirates won 98 regular season games in 1979 and swept Cincinnati in the National League playoffs, only to run into the American League buzzsaw Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. The Bucs fell behind three games before they knew what hit them.

In what was then a rally for the ages, the Pirates came back and won Game 5 at home, before heading to Baltimore  for the must-win Games 6 and 7. Pittsburgh blanked the Birds in Game 6 with a 4-0 win, setting up the winner-take-all Game 7. Behind manager Chuck Tanner and World Series MVP (and one of my Pirate heroes) Willie Stargell, Pittsburgh won the deciding game 4-1 to claim their third championship of the modern era (1960, 1971), and what would ultimately be their last.

The Pirates remained competitive through the ’80s, and then the losing started. After 20 straight years of below .500 baseball (beginning in 1993 and mercifully ending last season), they qualified for the playoffs and a future that looks bright.

This year’s fantasy camp will end on Friday and, true to the 1979 World Championship theme, we’ll play a one-day series against the Baltimore Orioles fantasy campers (located in nearby Sarasota) to give us all a fantasy taste of 1979. Very special touch by the brass at both camps.

The 1979 “Fam-i-lee” is well represented this week as 12 of the 16 coaches in camp won rings that year. Incredibly 15 of the 16 coaches at this camp have Pirates World Series rings. When you consider there aren’t too many Pirates World Series rings in the baseball marketplace these days, it’s a pretty impressive feat.

Last night at the opening banquet, we were introduced to pitchers John Candelaria, Grant Jackson, and Don Robinson (who each won a World Series game in ’79), along with Bruce Kison and Jim Rooker. Catchers Manny Sanguillen, Ed Ott, and Steve Nicosia were there as were speedy outfielder Omar Moreno, sluggers Mike Easler and Lee Lacy ,and infielder Rennie Stennett. The rest of the coaching roster includes 1971 Pirates World Champions Steve Blass and Dave Cash, and the 1960 World Champs are represented by Bill Virdon. Former catcher Mike “Spanky” LaValliere is the youngest of the bunch and the only coach in camp that doesn’t have a World Series ring. That’s a championship line-up that would be tough for any other camp to beat.

However, there are two conspicuous absences this week: Fantasy Camp Director Kent Tekulve, who lead the league with 94 relief appearances in 1979 including closing out Game 7, is ill and will miss his second consecutive camp.

Book Cover (2)The heart and soul of Pirates Fantasy Camp, Hall of Famer and 1960 World Series hero Bill Mazeroski, is unable to attend for the first time in 15 years. Maz has become the marquee name of camp. Instead, he is back in Pittsburgh due to an unavoidable conflict in schedule. Maz, who was kind enough to write the foreword for my book, The Most Wonderful Week Of The Year, has a presence around camp that is larger than life. His void is a big one.

This morning, for the first and only time this week, all 96 campers had breakfast together and were healthy. There are 30 rookies in camp and they’ll soon learn why the dining hall gets less and less crowded each morning. While breakfast will continue for the rest of the week, good health won’t, and today was the last time everyone will be ache and pain free. Injuries started once the first pitch was thrown, and tomorrow morning half the campers will be at breakfast; a quarter of the camp will be lined up the in the training room for treatment and the remainder will remain in bed.

Following today’s breakfast, the Pirates have a tradition where all the campers leave the Pirate City dining hall together and march in unison about 200 yards to the clubhouse. For the vets it’s exciting, meaning the dawn of playing ball is only a few minutes away. The rookies enter the gorgeous oak paneled clubhouse and see (for the first time) their uniforms hanging in a major league locker room. The smiles on their faces are priceless.

Alphabetically arranged, colleague Thomas Brooks’ locker was about nine down the row from me, where his white Pirates home uniform and black away jersey hung with his chosen #17 inscribed on the front and back.

He’s wearing #17 as a tribute to his son Gabe, whose baseball number is 17. Seventeen is not a significant number in Pirates history–present day it’s worn by first baseman Gaby Sanchez, while one of this year’s camp coaches, Lee Lacy, also wore #17. So did Phil Garner, Dock Ellis, and my first base idol, Donn Clendenon.

However, the most prominent name to wear #17 for the Pirates was actually the first to wear it. Back in 1936, Johnny Dickshot donned the jersey for the very first time. Yep, Dickshot. The good news for him was names were not worn on the back of uniforms! If Johnny didn’t have enough of a burden to carry, he also had a nickname. Wikipedia refers to him as ‘Ugly’ Johnny Dickshot, as Johnny was the self-proclaimed “ugliest man in baseball.” Poor guy.

Johnny Dickshot is a bloke I’ve never heard of, but one I wish I knew. He was born John Dicksus but changed his name to Dickshot. I would have loved to ask him why, and what he was thinking.

Of course, Thomas tells me he’s never heard of Mr. Dickshot either. My first response was ‘yeah, sure’ but after thinking about it, why on earth would he have chosen #17? Thomas’ worst nightmare this week will be if things don’t go well and he becomes Thomas Dickshot.

As I walked over to my locker, I was glad to be reunited with my familiar and comfortable #56. With no Dickshot to idolize in my 2010 rookie camp, I chose #56 for a guy born on May 6. I wore #56 Pirates logo (2)with the Tigers and Yankees; the only time I strayed was last year at this camp and decided to try #60 to commemorate my age and the ’60 World Championship Pirates team. I had the worst camp I’d experienced, couldn’t hit the ball straight, lost four in a row, got banged up with a hip flexor, and thus decided to scrap 60. Glad to see 56 this morning!

We then headed out for the morning evaluation game, with the coaches walking around with clipboards evaluating the wanna-be’s. Nobody kept score, the games were only five innings, and everyone was encouraged to try and stay off the disabled list.

Thomas threw an inning on the mound, with a strikeout and a couple of hits, but worked out of a bases loaded situation. Offensively, we both had good games (with two hits in three at-bats each, and six RBI’s split among us). Camp-wide there were no casualties.

The campers headed to lunch while the coaching staff settled into the green room and conducted the player draft to set-up teams for the week. You never know when you are drafted, I’d have to figure I was a fifth or sixth round kind of guy. This year I know I wasn’t selected at all. Instead, I was piggy-backed with Thomas, who I’m certain was a first rounder or very early second round pick. We were packaged as a duo in a pre-camp arrangement. Today, I became the baseball lexicon of the ‘player to be named later.’ I was a throw-in. Don’t-want-him-but-have-to-take-him kind of guy. I love it.

Campers nervously paced, waiting for the white smoke, and finally the teams were posted a couple of hours later. We were selected to play on Team Vaughan, coached by 1979 champs Rennie Stennett and Omar Moreno, both with impressive major league resumes.

Each of the eight teams is named after Pirates’ greats of yesterday. Arky Vaughan played for the Pirates from 1932-41 and hit .318. There is no Team Dickshot, but Johnny and Arky were teammates for a few years.~

Opening games were mid-afternoon (with the temps in the low 60′s), overcast, with a light, intermittent rain; enough to be a distraction but not to stop play. The intensity level was noticeably turned-up. Our opponent was Team Stargell, coached by Grant Jackson and Manny Sanguillen.

Thomas uniform

Thomas keeps alive the great #17 legacy for the Pirates, first worn by Ugly Johnny Dickshot in 1936

We very much liked the make-up of our team when it was posted and the play on the field validated that feeling with an 8-3 win to get the six game regular season off to a good start. The feeling of a win was something I’d forgotten over the past couple of camps.

Our game was designated as a ‘TV’ game which meant it was recorded with play-by-play commentary for the post-camp DVD. Thomas made the most of the moment, pitching two innings and getting credit for the win. He was saluted as one of the three stars of the game and held over for his very first post game interview by television host Joe Klimchak.

T-Bone threw the ball hard and gave up no runs on two hits, two walks, and struck out a pair. He had to ice down his arm, which hadn’t thrown a fastball in over two decades.

At the plate he was 1-2 with a walk and two RBI’s. I was 0-2 and got hit by a pitch in the foot, ultimately coming around to score the run that put us ahead for good. It was also the run that gave Thomas credit for the win. A very good Medjet and Birmingham combination!

My defense continued to supersede my hitting; today I managed to save a ball in the dirt that stopped a Team Stargell rally. Thomas was solid at third base after his two innings on the mound.

I did have one thing happen in my second at-bat that probably has never happened in the very long history of this great game.

Camp rookie Dale Dmitrzak was on the mound and, before he threw the first pitch to me, he yelled, “you know I read your book don’t you?” Then catcher Ken Watts says, “so did I.” I just lost it and couldn’t stop laughing. It worked. Dmitrzak got me to ground out weakly to first, but it was an exchange that will be hard to top the rest of the week.

A good start and a good game for T-Bone. However, not yet worthy of an early flight home cancellation phone call to Southwest. With a doubleheader on Monday, I want to give it another day to be convinced, but it feels good to finally win one!

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By Roy Berger for PeterGreenberg.com 

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