The Boys of Spring

What It's Like to Go to the Orioles' Fantasy Camp

A 65-year-old baseball fan tests his limits.

By Jerry Kammer December 30, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Somewhere around the time I became a teenager in the summer of 1962, I attended an Old-Timers’ game at Memorial Stadium in my hometown of Baltimore. The only thing I remember about it was my puzzlement at the way the old-timers ran the bases. They looked old, almost comical, swaying left and right. Like ducks, I thought.

Now, more than half a century later, I understand that arthritis was the probable cause of the peculiar locomotion. Now the arthritic duck is me. I have two artificial hips, for which I am grateful every day. Before I got them I had the mobility of the Tin Man—rusted tight until Dorothy grabbed an oil can and lubricated him for the trip to Oz.

And now I can tell the story of my own trip to a land of wonders. Several years ago in January, while my neighbors in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., were suffering through another snowstorm, I was stepping off a bus from the Sarasota airport into the sunshine drenching the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex, part of the Florida spring-training home of the Baltimore Orioles.

I looked past the palm trees to a wall that was an Orioles Mount Rushmore in paint. It carried the images of six Baltimore immortals: Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Jr., each a Hall of Famer. At the age of three score and five years, I had come as a participant in the Orioles’ annual Dream Week.

I came in the spirit described by Frank Deford, a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame and a son of Baltimore, who wrote: “If you really care for a ball club when you are young—really care—I don’t think you ever get it out of your system, wherever you go, whatever the team does. It’s like any first love, a fantasy you see all the more precious through your imagination’s rear-view mirror.”

This deep loyalty to the hometown team is one of baseball’s great fascinations. It not only ties individuals to the team, it binds entire cities and regions together. Psychologists say such emotional instincts are part of our evolutionary equipment for forming large societies that cohere around great rituals and ideals that affirm our righteousness against rival groups. That’s why Orioles fans can call up at will the glory and euphoria of World Series triumphs in 1966, 1970 and 1983, while repressing memories of defeats in the World Series of 1969, 1971 and 1979.

The Orioles are a big part of my hometown’s identity. So what a thrill it was to walk into the clubhouse in Sarasota and find something amazing waiting for me: Hanging from a hook in a hardwood cubicle was an Orioles jersey with my last name on it. I stopped to soak up the moment, then texted a photo to my wife. The message: “When I was a kid, I KNEW this would happen.”

That’s why another name for Dream Week is fantasy camp. This one is a bucket-list indulgence, especially for me and the 10 campers older than my 65 years. It’s part of the process of negotiating a compromise—surrendering gracefully the things of youth and refusing to go gently into that long postseason.

We are at the far end of the camp’s age distribution, which the Orioles have defined as beginning at 30 and ending when the last dog dies. Our group of 114 men and three women included seven in their 30s, 45 in their 40s, 41 in their 50s, 19 in their 60s, and five men in their 70s. The oldest, a 77-year-old retired dentist, came to camp with his 70-year-old best friend, a cardiologist he met after being rushed to the hospital with a heart attack. That was four decades ago. He is still going strong.

The Orioles charged a little over $4,000 for a package that included mid-January batting practice indoors at Oriole park at Camden Yards, a round-trip flight from Baltimore, most meals, use of a clubhouse loaded with exercise equipment, daily laundry service for our uniforms, and access to trainers gifted in the art of tending the pulls, strains, and pains that would have campers lined up at the training room every morning and night. Coolers were stocked with beer and soda, and buses shuttled us to our resort hotel on the beach of Lido Key.

Most of us probably had gone through a calculation that Cornell psychology professor Thomas Gilovich has described to The Wall Street Journal. While some people choose to spend their money on items they can keep for years, others go for experiences. “If you’ve climbed in the Himalayas, that’s something you’ll always remember and talk about, long after all your favorite gadgets have gone to the landfill,” he wrote.

Dream Week’s principal activities were the 10 games—one every morning and one every afternoon—played by the 12 teams into which we were divided. But for many of us, those were the shiny gadgets, and the week’s highlights were the opportunities to socialize with the two dozen former players who had come to coach us while renewing their bonds with each other.

The oldest, looking remarkably good at 80, was Jim Gentile, who described the indignity of having to haggle with Orioles management for a $30,000 contract after hitting 46 home runs in 1961. Many were veterans of the 1983 team that battled through one of the most dramatic, maddeningly inconsistent and ultimately triumphant seasons in the history of the O’s.

That was the season of Orioles Magic, when they persevered through two seven-game losing streaks, won their division and then stomped the White Sox in the American League Championship. A week later they celebrated their World Series win against the Phillies in the usual champagne-drenched locker room where catcher Rick Dempsey—the Series MVP and now a Dream Week coach—took a call from the White House and told President Reagan, “You can tell the Russians we’re having an awful good time over here playing baseball.”

Baseball and Baltimore

In 1957, when I began playing Little League, the Orioles had a rookie third baseman named Brooks Robinson. He was a man of surprising social as well as physical graces who played his entire 23-year career in Orioles orange and black, and made baseball’s All-Century Team. In an era when slugger Reggie Jackson moved from town to town, getting a candy bar named after him and becoming the prototype of the mercenary genie released by the onset of free agency, Brooks stayed with his team. Wrote Gordon Beard of the Associated Press, “He never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore people name their children after him.”

That’s just one sign of the importance of the Orioles to Baltimore—and the importance of Baltimore to baseball. Let’s talk about how Baltimore saved baseball—a story about Babe Ruth and Cal Ripken and Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Everyone knows that Babe Ruth transformed the game with his titanic home runs. Most aren’t aware of Ruth’s heroics in pulling the game from the public wreckage caused by eight members of the Chicago Black Sox accused of throwing World Series games in return for payoffs from gamblers. As baseball historian and documentarian Ken Burns wrote, “After the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal corroded trust in the sport, baseball was rescued by the advent of the incomparable Babe Ruth.” The Babe—aka the Sultan of Swat, the Caliph of Clout, The Great Bambino, the Big Bam, the Wazir of Wam—gave fans a reason to believe again.

Seventy-six years later, after the game had suffered the disillusionment of the players’ decision to walk off the field rather than accept the salary caps demanded by owners, it needed another redemptive jolt. The strike played out like a tawdry tale of greed and ego in a country increasingly worried about the great divide between the super-rich and the rest of us. Ripken dispelled that disillusion with a glorious run as the Iron Man, a superstar with a lunch-bucket ethos and a love for the game.

The Sept. 6, 1995, nationally televised celebration of Ripken’s 2,131st consecutive game, breaking Lou Gehrig’s record, was one of the most cathartic and euphoric moments in baseball history. It gave Ripken a place close to Ruth in baseball iconography and the story of Baltimore. Burns wrote, “It is baseball’s rare good luck that both times the modern game seemed in mortal peril, it has been saved by the achievements of an extraordinary individual from Baltimore.”

Burns also saw a continuation of Baltimore history with the beginning of a transformational era of baseball-stadium architecture. “It all started in Baltimore, naturally, with Camden Yards,” he wrote. “The Orioles’ new park was the progenitor of a style that came to be known as ‘New Major League classic,’ a deliberate attempt to evoke the beloved original concrete and steel ballparks built in the 1910s, unlike the multiple-use cookie-cutter suburban stadiums that had proliferated in the 1970s.”

Paul Goldberger, then architecture critic of The New York Times, hailed the ballpark as “a building capable of wiping out in a single gesture 50 years of wretched stadium design… This is a design that enriches baseball, the city and the region, all at once.” It miraculously transformed baseball architecture, ending an era of monstrously clumsy stadiums.

Fantasy vs. Anatomy

Speaking of clumsy, it’s time to acknowledge the event that harshed my Dream Week Mellow.

The warnings were in the air, carried by soft whispers and confirmed by silent shakes of the head. One told of a former camper who broke two ribs stepping off the bus from the airport. Another featured a guy who fractured his wrist diving back to first base. Others concerned diverse dramas of muscle, ligament, cartilage and joint. The word went out to dial our exertions back. Its most concise formulation was a wry aphorism: “Start slowly, then taper off.”

Bill Stetka, the camp’s amiable director, waved the caution flag at our first group meeting in the cafeteria, where we had a fine breakfast and lunch every day. “Nobody is being scouted,” he admonished us. “Nobody needs to blow up his hamstring on the first day.” He laid out the rules intended to minimize pounding for those of us with compromised skeletons. There would be liberal use of “courtesy runners,” for example, so batters wouldn’t even have to run to first base.

But alas, Stetka’s Monday morning warning couldn’t forestall my folly, which had presented itself on Sunday afternoon, after we had donned our uniforms, loosened up with group calisthenics and fanned out to shag flies or take grounders. It was a sort of scouting minicamp. The former players who would coach the teams took notes they would use to arrange an even distribution of talent and age in that evening’s “draft.”

I took my position at third base. That was my first mistake, the tragic flaw of hubris amplified by an absence of geriatric self-awareness. I was an old guy remembering a young right arm. It had thrown a no-hitter when I was 12. When I was 17 and my batting average had sagged as the speed of pitchers had accelerated, my arm and glove were my only dependable tools, and they allowed me to play at third or behind the plate. Even when I was 45 I won $85—$5 each from 17 colleagues in the Arizona Republic newsroom who bet I couldn’t throw a football 50 yards.

Before Dream Week, I had tried to prepare my arm despite the limitations imposed by winter. Mostly I tossed a lacrosse ball against a wall in an alley behind my office in downtown Washington, D.C. I was following an old pattern: Loosen up the shoulder and you are good to go. But on this day, my shoulder was not the issue. I was about to receive a lesson in anatomy, specifically about an aging body’s loss of elasticity.

I joined four or five other guys on the infield dirt at third. We joked about the oceanic distance over to first base. Someone suggested we put a relay man by the pitcher’s mound. Someone else wondered if the rule for courtesy runners could be expanded to allow for courtesy throwers.

Like some of the other guys, I heaved my first throw to first on a bounce. For my second grounder I moved up on the infield grass, fielded the ball, shifted it to my right hand, cocked my arm and brought it forward—a sequence my arm had performed tens of thousands of times. Then came my introduction to the cruel reality that as we get older, our muscles, along with other tissues, lose elasticity, the simple ability to accommodate strain.

My arm traced its arc toward the release point. When it got there and my wrist began to snap forward, something like an ice pick stabbed the inside of my forearm, just below the elbow. The ball dived and careened toward second base, like a pheasant winged by buckshot skittering into the brush. I loosed an involuntary scream.

The pain was bad. The embarrassment was worse. The Orioles trainers would tell me what an MRI would confirm. I had torn the flexor pronator. It was a muscle I had never heard of, a name that sounded as sinister as it was strange. It made me think of Lex Luthor, comic book megavillain and Superman nemesis. It had brought me low for the sacrilege and absurdity of trying to play Brooks Robinson’s position at age 65.

I was stunned, a little depressed, and self-pitying. My arm had betrayed me, I thought. It had gone over to the dark side, joining the conspiracy of my arthritic hips. Was this how Caesar felt in his fatal final game against the senators in Rome? Et tu, Brute? You, too, right arm?

But the arm I was lamenting wasn’t just a remnant of my long-lost claim to mediocre athleticism. The ability to throw is basic to our identity as human beings, as Homo Erectus. As an article in the Journal of Anatomy notes, “The hominid lineage began when a group of chimpanzee-like apes began to throw rocks and swing clubs at adversaries…this behavior yielded reproductive advantages for millions of years, driving natural selection for improved throwing and clubbing prowess.”

So don’t ask for whom the flexor pronator tears. It tears for thee. Mine had ripped like a rusted cable on a suspension bridge, plunging my fantasy into the depths of Sarasota Bay. Within a few hours the internal bleeding and swelling had turned my entire forearm into a thickened technicolor mass of red and purple and orange and black. Fortunately, the blown arm was the only bad thing that happened to me during the week. It was followed just a few hours later by the best thing.

At the camp’s opening dinner Sunday night, when the results of the draft were announced, I learned that I would be a part of Dempsey’s Dippers. That was the team coached by Rick Dempsey, the fiery, tough, funny catcher who was my favorite Oriole in the generation that followed Brooks Robinson. Sportswriter Richard Justice said Dempsey became “one of the most popular players ever to wear the [Orioles] uniform…by diving for foul pops, blocking the plate and throwing out base runners, by being a blue-collar guy in a blue-collar town.”

On Monday morning, I overheard Dempsey tell his assistant coach, former Orioles pitcher Dave Ford, that the team had already had a casualty. “It’s this guy Kramer,” he said, pointing to his clipboard. “Blew his arm out.” I told Dempsey I’d like to play and that first base might work. So he penciled me into the line-up for a few innings in a few games. I got a couple of easy assists on ground balls. At the plate I was terrible. My biggest contribution to the team was a walk that loaded the bases that was followed by another walk that brought in the winning run. By Thursday I gave up the charade and watched the remaining games while sitting on the bench in street clothes. So there wasn’t much fantasy on the field for me.

But there were plenty of wonderful moments. Some came in the after-breakfast meeting, where there was an abundance of playful banter among the players and the coaches, who were awarding the symbolic gold ropes for outstanding individual performances as well as brown ropes for conspicuous achievement in screwing up. The brown ropes were more fun. One went to a catcher whose failure to catch a pitch allowed it to drill the umpire in the shoulder. Another went to a guy whose effort to cover second base for a force out came to an abrupt end when he tripped over the bag and “went down like he was hit by a sniper.”

1 kammer tfzyko

The writer, diving to make a catch.

An Evening with Dempsey

My favorite part of Dream Week was the customary evening when each team treats its coaches to dinner, and the coaches reciprocate by treating the team with stories of old. Our evening gave us the chance to hear from Rick Dempsey, who passed around his 1983 World Series ring. Here are three Dempsey nuggets.

About catching Jim Palmer, the Hall of Fame pitcher (who appeared at camp for a few hours and had his picture taken with individual campers and his old teammates): “When the count was 0 and 2 he would say, ‘Call for a fastball, low and outside, and put your glove up about an inch from the corner.’ So I’d do it and I could catch that ball with my eyes closed. That’s how good his control was.”

On playing for the late Earl Weaver, the irascible manager legendary for both his berserk encounters with umpires and sometimes his own players, and for his ability (well ahead of the statistical compilations chronicled in the book Moneyball) to draw maximum advantage from match-ups and situational analysis: “Earl was an ass, but he was the greatest manager I ever played for.”

On why he participates in fantasy camp: “I love it that you guys love the game enough that you’re willing to come down here and make fools of yourselves.”

Dream Week was indeed a wonderful week. It strengthened my connection to the team, reaffirmed my identity as part of the city it represents. I have only two regrets. First, that I didn’t ask Mike Boddicker to show me how he threw the “foshball”—the forkball change-up hybrid he used to whiff 14 bewildered and hopeless White Sox players in Game Two of the 1983 AL championship series. I could have initiated contact many times but just didn’t want to intrude. We did have a conversation one day, as I waked past him in the clubhouse. I remember every word:

Boddicker: “Good morning.”

Me: “Good morning, Mike.”

The second regret should be obvious: I wish I had come to fantasy camp 20 years ago, when I was a young man of 45.

Jerry Kammer, a lifelong Orioles fan, grew up in Baltimore, graduated from Notre Dame, and was a Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard. In 2006 he won a Pulitzer Prize for helping to expose a congressional bribery scandal.

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