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Most Wonderful Week of the Year: Pittsburgh Pirates Camp, Part 1

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At home, Ibis says, "Put me in.....I'm ready to play!"

At home, Ibis says, “Put me in…..I’m ready to play!”

Roy Berger is back at fantasy baseball camp. See if he can make up for previous losses by bringing in a ringer this time around at Pittsburgh Pirates camp. 

Drastic times call for innovative and unconventional measures.

Baseball fantasy camp VI begins for me Sunday morning and it’s time to stop the losing. It’s time for action. It’s time to sandbag. It’s time to bring in the ringer.

A year ago, when I returned home from Bradenton, Florida (and Pittsburgh Pirates camp, where I am tonight), I was feeling all of my 60 years of bumps, bruises, aches, pains, and (soon to follow) a little shoulder surgery. To compound the hurt, our Pirates camp team got off to a great start (winning our first three games), only to lose our last four.

Then, in Camp V with the Yankees this past November, we lost our first six games, running my personal losing streak to 10. A split in our final two games left me with 11 losses in my 12 games. I feel like the Knicks. I’ve had enough.

Pirates camp mainstay Kevin Kubala said, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, the goal is to have fun.”

I told the retired Pittsburgh area police officer in no uncertain terms: “bullshit.” It was kinda fun talking to a cop like that.

I’ve had fun at every camp. In fact, most have been a great time. During my first two camps, we went 10-5, and winning 10 out of 15 games was a lot of fun. Since then, my teams have gone seven up and sixteen down. Humble type of fun. Despite losing seven of our eight games, the most fun team I played with was a few months ago at Yankees camp. Now, I’m ready for some fun on the other side of the win-loss column.

So, upon my return to the MedjetAssist office in Birmingham early last February, Thomas Brooks (Medjet senior sales director) started peppering me with questions about the Pirates camp. Yadda, yadda, yadda, and he said, “You know, I think this is something I’d like to do.”

Faster than trying to score from third, I sprinted down to my office, printed off a 2014 Pirates fantasy camp application, grabbed a pen, and scooted back into Thomas’ office. I said, “Sign this!”

Brooks said he needed to run it by his wife first and that he would let me know the next day. Missy Brooks is a smart woman. She is an educator with a PhD. If Thomas honestly told Dr. Brooks my needs, there would be no doubt she would let him come on this missionary jaunt. Just to be on the safe side, I sent a note to Joe Billetdeaux (Pirates camp coordinator) to make sure he held an extra spot for Thomas.

Camp quartersThis 2014 Pirates camp, the 35th anniversary of the 1979 “We Are Family” World Championship team, turned out to be a very hot ticket, selling out all 96 spots at $3750 a pop within a couple of months.

Thomas (T-Bone around our office suite), is the perfect profile of what I selfishly needed to get me back in the win column- young, athletic, and ultra competitive.

At 40 years old, he will be among the five youngest in camp. Minimum camp age is 30, and the maximum is the ability to hold a fork and knife by yourself. This week has a 35 year old, two at 37, and three at 40, including our Mr. Brooks. The oldest camper is 80, then there’s a steep drop to the 60’s and 50’s, with the median age around 55.

Those who have read The Most Wonderful Week Of The Year or have followed my camp journals on a regular basis asked me if Thomas has any idea what’s in store. Well, if anyone ever had a potential double-whammy on his young shoulders, it’s T-Bone.

My history of bringing home healthy camp mates is even worse than A-Rod’s batting average in October. Detroit Tigers camp in 2011 with business colleague Pete (aka Fred), resulted in a pulled hamstring in his very first at-bat. There was the Yankees in 2012 (with long-time buddy, BarryO) who was in bed and nursing a compressed sciatica nerve four days before we were to report to Steinbrenner Field. Barry gingerly made it through what turned out to be a great week together with his only further injury being a pulled groin muscle, ironically on the same day his wife arrived. He said it had nothing to do with Joan being there, and I will continue to testify that’s a bunch of baloney.

Of course, the toughest pill to swallow was this past November with the Yankees, when my brother Mike tore a calf muscle in his fifth at-bat (after going 4-4), and his week and our dream ended.

Thomas said his goal for this camp was simply to be the first of my mates not to need extra time boarding the flight home,

On the other hand (and I probably shouldn’t be saying this), the baseball gods have been shining down on me through five camps with a couple of bumps and bruises on this rapidly aging body. But, I’ve never missed a turn at the plate, with over 125 straight at-bats and counting.

If staying healthy isn’t enough of a burden on T-Bone’s young 6′ 1″ shoulders, then he also has expectations to live up to. I didn’t decide to bring him along because I like being around him. He’s here because I need to win. Desperately.

Thomas grew up right outside of Birmingham and was a three-year letter winner at Pelham High School in both basketball and baseball. His baseball talents had him on varsity for three years, at third base and pitching. After graduation in 1991, he went to UAB and put away the uniform. These days he actively coaches his 13-year-old son, Gabe, in baseball, basketball, and golf.Thomas at the facilities

Even though he hasn’t played baseball since 1991, by fantasy camp standards, he’s in his prime. Most rookie campers have been 30 and 40 years away from the game when they first report. T-Bone is a virtual babe on the diamond.

Raising my hopes for the week (while piling a load of Billy Joel type pressure on Thomas’ back), is our baseball workout coach Jarrod Patterson. I’ve been training with JP over the last three years and Thomas used the former major leaguer with Detroit and Kansas City to get tuned up for this week. Of course, calling JP a former “major leaguer” is a bit like calling me a former “stand-up comedian.” While we both got paid for our gigs (JP did hit two career home runs and I think I got two laughs), neither one of us had any money left to buy dessert after dinner.

After working out with Thomas, JP said to me, “He’ll be among the top three or four players at camp.” Now we’re talking ringer status!

In reality JP’s words were probably what neither one of us wanted to hear. It turns the expectations up on Thomas and gives me some hope this 11 loss out of 12 game losing streak just might come to an end. Camp coordinator Billetdeaux called me last week and wanted to know if he should put us on the same team. “Well, yeah Joe, that’s my plan,” I shouted all the way to Pittsburgh.

While our athletic history together might be limited, it’s also not very good. We have teamed up on multiple occasions on the golf course. He plays to about a four handicap and, on a really good day, I’m a 16. Yet, when we play together he can’t break 90 and falls to pieces quicker than matzoh hitting the floor. My blood pressure climbs higher than his score.

So, in the event we continue to crash as a duo, I bought him a plane ticket home for Wednesday. If this week goes anything like our golfing history, Thomas will tank, my master plan will backfire, and the losing will continue. At that point, I’ll need to decide whether he is more valuable to me on the ball field or back in Birmingham, selling Medjet memberships.

Thomas comes to Bradenton excited. I welcome him very selfishly with high hopes and expectations. Come Wednesday morning we’ll see how this is working. He’ll either be stepping into the batting cage or going through airport security.



By Roy Berger for Get your copy of The Most Wonderful Week of the Year and come back for more Pirates Camp Chronicles.