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Essay: Old Heroes Never Die, and They Might Throw BP; How I Survived Fantasy Baseball Camp

  • The author stands with Detroit Tigers legend Willie Horton during the Tigers’ fantasy camp in January in Lakeland, Fla.

  • Former major league catcher Mike Heath secures a pitch that eluded the author’s swing during a game at the Detroit Tigers’ baseball fantasy camp in Lakeland, Fla., in January. Courtesy photograph

Special to the Valley News
Published: 3/28/2018 11:49:41 PM
Modified: 3/29/2018 12:03:02 AM

There’s a scene in the movie The Natural, when Roy Hobbs is given his New York Knights uniform, and the equipment manager says to him, “Welcome to the majors.”

I got the same sensation when I went to the locker room of the Detroit Tigers’ spring training facility in Lakeland, Fla.

Hanging in my locker was an official Detroit Tigers uniform: the simple, classic single pinstripe around the collar and down the front of the shirt, the legendary Gothic D on the chest. It’s a look sported in the past by such former Tigers as Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline.

Embroidered on the back of the uniform is my last name. This is the official Tigers uniform, right down to the stirrups.

I’ve made it to the majors. At least in fantasy.

This is, after all, fantasy camp.

It’s 1968. I’m a fourth-grader living in Ann Arbor, Mich., and like most of my friends, I am caught up in Detroit Tiger fever.

The previous year, the Tigers lost the American League pennant to the Boston Red Sox of “Impossible Dream” fame. The 1968 Tigers dominate, led by pitcher Denny McLain, the majors’ last 30-game winner. A two-out, ninth-inning Willie Horton line drive clinched No. 30. The Tigers go to rally past St. Louis to win the World Series; my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Olsen, cheerfully allows us to watch one of the games during school.

Now, nearly 50 years later, it’s January 2018, and I am at the Tigers’ spring training facility for a week of fantasy baseball camp. On this 50th anniversary of that ’68 title, one of the first retired Tigers I meet is Horton, now walking with a cane but sturdy (and revered) as ever.

The Tigers have operated a fantasy camp for 30 years, giving old folks like me the chance to suit up and play baseball wearing official Tigers gear on the same diamonds that the players use in spring training. There are about 100 campers (average age: 57). The players are divided into eight teams, each coached by two former major league Tigers, some immediately familiar, others less so.

A few of the campers are young and still pretty good. Many of them, like me, were never very good to begin with. Four of them are women, all of whom can play. One camper is in a wheelchair, which doesn’t prevent him from batting (which he does well) and taking the field.

I’m there with my two brothers. The older one is attending his 19th consecutive camp. The younger one and I are rookies. The three of us are assigned to a team coached by the charmingly irascible ex-outfielder Steve Kemp and the easy-going former left-handed pitcher Nate Robertson.

Each team plays six games in three days, followed by a tournament to determine the champion of the week. One of the retired Tigers suggests that campers take it easy on the first day, and then slow down from there.

I refuse to believe that anyone can get sore just from playing baseball. I am so, so wrong.

There are five immaculately manicured playing fields at the facility. We eat in the same cafeteria as the spring training pros. The tables are festooned with baseball cards and pictures of virtually every Tiger ballplayer from Sam Crawford to Miguel Cabrera, and the walls feature framed jerseys of the ballplayers whose numbers the organization has retired.

We are joined not just by a couple dozen former Tigers, but by a small number of very young (and very athletic) prospects who are joining the Tigers’ system at the entry level. Most of these players will not make it, but a few of the young men I am eating with may eventually become major leaguers.

I haven’t swung a bat since I quit playing softball about 25 years ago. I have not swung at a baseball since I was a freshman in high school, when pitchers discovered I could not hit a curve ball. It doesn’t take me long to be reminded that hitting a pitched ball is the hardest single act in all of sports. I strike out a lot, but I later beat out a grounder to first base, probably the highlight of my week.

Major League Baseball’s forceful and unambiguous prohibition against gambling in any way on anything related to the game is prominently on display in the locker room, as well as its blanket policy prohibiting the use of tobacco. After every game, we throw our uniforms in a large wheel-away laundry hamper and the rest of our gear (socks, undergarments) on a loop that resembles a lanyard. Just like the major leaguers, all of our gear appears in our lockers the next day, freshly laundered.

At night, most of the campers drink a lot of very cheap beer and embellish upon their exploits in that day’s action. I resist the impulse to buy craft beer and drink it from a glass.

In the middle of the week, we take a short drive from the facility to play a game at historic Henley Field, the Tigers’ former spring training park, where the likes of Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth once competed and which is now Florida Southern University’s home field. While I am now getting on base with something that approaches regularity, I’ve developed an annoying habit of misfiring every time I toss the baseball to first base from my station at third.

The game ends on a bang-bang play at the plate, with our runner thrown out to end the game. This being fantasy camp, I ask the umpire for permission to kick sand on his shoes. He agrees, and I do. The call, however, stands.

Thursday night is autograph night and features some of the members of the 1968 championship team. A lengthy line of campers patiently waits for signatures from the Hall of Famer Kaline, an equally long line snakes in front of pitcher Mickey Lolich and a third seeks Horton’s signature.

I am not interested in getting anything signed, but I see that no one is lining up for Kemp’s autograph. I now know him well enough to test his sense of humor, so I grab a paper napkin and write, “I owe you $1,000,” under which I place a signature line and print his name in block letters. He takes it from me and doesn’t bat an eye as he writes on the napkin.

Instead of his signature, however, he writes a two-word epithet that is not appropriate for a family newspaper.

Having engaged in some good-natured hijinks with a grizzled veteran, I no longer feel like a rookie. I post the napkin in the dugout the next day. It gets laughs.

On the final day, the entire camp plays the ex-big leaguers in Publix Stadium, where the Tigers play their spring training games and where their Class A affiliate plays its regular-season games. The stadium is beautiful.

Before play begins, each camper is introduced over the loudspeaker, as if we were playing in the All-Star Game, by longtime Tiger radio voice (and 1968 backup catcher) Jim Price. He introduces me as something like, “Charlie Bootray, from Dedford, Va.”

Each camper team bats through once and plays the field twice. It makes for a particularly long day for the retired big leaguers, some of whom graciously play for 16 or 18 innings.

Robertson is on the mound for my at-bat. He is tossing as gently as he can, but I whiff at his first two offerings. An immediate prayer to not strike out appears to do the trick, and I loft a pop fly to short for ex-major league shortstop and current Tiger first base coach Ramon Santiago to track down.

Afterward, I have a newfound respect for ballplayers who grind it out for 162 games a year since, after eight games of seven innings each, I hurt in places I did not know I had. And I find myself wondering if a year’s worth of batting practice might pay dividends for camp next year.

Then it dawns on me that most players peak at the age of 32, and I have 26 years on them. I am officially retired.

But I’m keeping the jersey.

Charlie Buttrey is an attorney, high school track coach and unapologetic Detroit Tigers fan from Thetford, which is somewhere north of Dedford, Va. Maybe.

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