How It All Began, One Camper's Look Back At His First Camp
Here's a look back at my first camp at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Although the location has moved west, this experience is what I try to bring to each new camp.
"Well, it has finally happened. I have wanted to do this for 10 years and now I finally get the chance . . . I’m on my way to Fantasy Camp, more properly known as the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp.
I left Los Angeles at about 1:30 pm (PST) bound for Orlando. The arrangements were made late and the non-stop flights were either booked or too expensive. So what’s a couple of stops. No big deal, at least I don’t have to change planes. The plane was less than half full; this was going to be OK. First stop Phoenix. Oops, there goes the rest of the plane. Not one seat empty and what was worse, kids. Don’t get me wrong, I have two of my own and I love them dearly, but these were young kids, kicking my seat from behind, jumping up and down in the seat in front, and crying off to the right. (I had a window seat so at least I had only the plane engines to contend with on the left.) What a way to start my sports fantasy!
I endured the six and a half hours and arrived in Orlando at about 11 pm (EST). Bob, from the Dodgertown staff sent to pick me up, met me on my way to the baggage claim. Bob’s a retiree, transplanted to Vero Beach from Pennsylvania, who works at Dodgertown during Spring Training. We gathered up my bags and headed for the van where Paul was already waiting. Just one more camper to pick up and we were off.
It’s about a 2-hour drive from Orlando to Vero Beach and there’s not much to see at 12:30 am on a foggy, humid night/morning, so we talked, introductions first. Paul is from Albuquerque and he’s been here 4 times. Bill’s from Reno and it’s his third camp. Then comes my first taste of camp stories. The veterans begin filling in the rookie on what to expect and what goes on. I heard about the guy who got other campers together two and a half months before camp began to practice. They practiced for the full time leading up to camp and then ended up on the same team at camp. It just happened, a coincidence, really! . . . Yeah, Right, Sure. Naturally, their team won it all that year. Then there was the time when this guy showed up late the night before camp started (like us), but instead of getting a good night’s sleep, he went out drinking. He came in at 3 am, plastered and had to get up in 3 hours. Wouldn’t you know it; he went 5 for 5 that afternoon. Wonder what Lasorda would have to say about that.
The commute seemed to fly by. Found out that I should get a lot of playing time. Seems that there is always a need for a pitcher who can get the ball over the plate. Hopefully, I’ll be one.
Got to Dodgertown at about 1:30 and was cheerfully greeted by Chris, in charge of the late night desk. Checked in and off to my room where everything was laid out for me, a Dodger Spring Training t-shirt; fruit, wine and munchies basket; and the camp information sheets. Settled in to snack and review the itinerary and the next thing I knew it was 7:30 and time for a new day.
Started the day with a jog around Dodgertown for my first look in the daylight.
The main accommodations area is laid out like a motor court with 92 units forming a lazy looking ‘17’ laying on its side. I'm told that Vero is unique in this regard. The spring training facility and accommodations are all within the "Dodgertown campus." Also located on the campus is a swimming pool, volleyball, basketball and tennis courts and BBQ pit area although after looking at the schedule, I don't see how there'll be any time to enjoy these facilities.
The Conference Center which houses the dining, conference, fitness and locker rooms is a short walk from the rooms. A little stop to check out the fitness room and there’s Jerry Reuss working out. I introduced myself and then I was off again. Heading out from the Conference Center, Vin Scully Way leads between 2 practice fields to Holman Stadium and south of Holman is the Dodger Pines Country Club and Golf Courses. The jog took about 15 minutes so I’d guess the path was about a mile and a half long.
After a quick shower and change, I stopped in at the office. Most of the campers won't be coming in until later but nevertheless, it was starting to get a little hectic. As I turned to leave there was Steve Yeager coming in. Having previously met Steve, I reintroduced myself, had a few words and then went on to take some pictures of Dodgertown.
At 11:30, the locker room opened and campers gradually started coming in, bringing their equipment. Returning campers brought their own uniforms from previous camps. Being a rookie, my uniform was hanging on my assigned locker. . . Well, the home jersey, belt, and socks were. See each camper gets two complete uniforms, home whites and away grays, with our names and selected number on them. Being a Little Leaguer in LA during the early 60’s, my idol was Sandy Koufax (it didn’t matter that he was a lefty and I throw right); so naturally, I selected his number, 32. Anyway, I was told that the away jersey was due in tonight, and since rookies were to wear the home whites for the afternoon workout, I grabbed some pants and was set.
Some of the guys went to lunch while the rest of us took our time dressing and got to know each other. Met Phil who was in the animation department at Disney, Paul from the night before was there, and so was the Duke. Yeah, Dodger great, Duke Snider arrived and joined in the chat. As lunch ended, the locker room filled as everyone got ready for the initial workout that began at 2. The excitement and anticipation grew and I don’t think it was just coming from me. Everybody was looking forward to getting out on the field.
By 1:45 almost every camper was on practice field number 2, starting to stretch and throwing a ball around. At 2, we were all directed to left field and began the workout with a 15-minute stretching session with Hall of Fame Dodger trainer Bill Buhler. You should have heard the grunts and groans as Bill put us through the same pre-game stretching exercises the pros perform. Now, normally, 15 minutes of stretching would not seem like a big deal, but in 80+ humid degrees, I was ready for it to end 5 minutes before it did. Where was the water, where was the Gatorade. Oh yeah, over there in the middle of that crowd of middle aged men surrounding Bill’s golf cart. Hey, save some for me!
A little rest and a couple of cups of Gatorade and we were ready. We were divided up into three groups and sent to different stations. I was with the first group and went over to the infield, the second group stayed in the outfield and the third went to the batting cages. John Shoemaker, the hitting coach for the Dodgers San Antonio farm club, and Jim Stoeckel, pitching coach for the Vero Beach Dodgers, were working the infield drills and for the next 20 minutes we took ground balls at each position on the infield. First hand thrown, then modified double plays and finally grounders off the bat.
Next it was out to center field where former Dodger catcher and White Sox and Mets manager Jeff Torborg put us through the paces with fly balls. Each camper took about 10 - 12 flies, analysis and instruction from Torborg and then the 20 minutes were over.
After a brief stop for water, we were off to the batting cages where we were met by former Dodger hitting coach, Reggie Smith, who schooled us in the finer points of proper hitting. A few batting cage ground rules, then it was on with the batting glove and helmet and into the cage. With the pitching machine laying the ball right in there and Reggie watching and critiquing our various batting styles, I got a lot of cuts, some good contact and I felt in the groove. Now it was time to test my new found hitting prowess on live pitching. And so it was over to field 1 and hitting just like pre game at Dodger Stadium. Seven cuts and out for the next guy, then five and finally 3. It’s amazing how fast it goes by and just like that it was over - time to go in. Next stop for me was a shower. I stuck my head in the trainer’s room but one look and I could see current Dodger head trainer, Charlie Strasser had his hands full. You wouldn’t believe the number of campers in there getting iced down. I shouldn’t talk; I’ll probably be there tomorrow but not today.
Showered and dressed, I was ready for the 6:00 cocktail party with an appetizer buffet that could have been dinner. I sampled the faire and listened in as Jerry Reuss reminisced about his playing days and his no-hitter against the Giants. But for an error by then shortstop Bill Russell, it might have been a perfect game, but Jerry wasn’t complaining. Hey, how many pitchers have thrown a no-hitter in their careers. And speaking of Russell, he was in a group with Reggie, Steve Yeager, Jay Johnstone, Davey Lopes and Rick Monday. Bill had stopped by with his wife for dinner on their way up to Orlando where he will take over the reins of the Tampa Bay minor league team. So I joined the group and got to talk to Bill about his new position.
By 7 it was time for dinner, not that we really needed it with all the appetizers. But off to the Dining Room we all went for a great buffet which included Prime Rib, fish, chicken and all the garnishments. I grabbed some prime rib and then a chair at the table with Reuss, Johnstone, and Strasser, with Rick Monday at the next table. Now this was an experience because, you see, Reuss, Johnstone and Monday have this reputation from their playing days as real pranksters and that’s what we talked about, some of their more famous, or should I say infamous activities, most of which I cannot repeat. Soon, too soon, dinner was over and the instructors were off to a meeting regarding the next day’s activities and I was off to my room for some well needed rest.
Friday began bright and early as that annoying buzzing of the alarm went off at 7. I rolled out of bed expecting my body to ache from the workout the day before. Surprisingly, although my mind was saying, ‘it’s too damn early’ my body was fine. So it was up and over to the dining room for a light breakfast and on into the locker room to dress for the morning stretching. Since yesterday was an optional workout, and not everyone was here, today was the official start of camp. And naturally the activities had to begin with camp introductions.
We met at Holman Stadium where we were introduced to the Dodgertown staff. Guy Wellman, the camp director, introduced the instructors - former major leaguers Duke Snider, Carl Erskine, Clem Labine, Reggie Smith, Jay Johnstone, Jerry Reuss, Rick Monday, Steve Yeager, Jeff Torborg and Davey Lopes as well as current minor league coaches Travis Barbary, John Shoemaker, Jim Stoeckel, and Joe Vavra. After the intros, we took the field for our morning stretch. Now I felt those aches as my muscles begged me to stop. But I figured if I can just get through it now, tomorrow things will be better.
After stretching, we split up again with the 25 rookies going over to the batting cages and the veterans staying at Holman for an inter-squad game. It was scouting time or rookie tryouts. All the coaches met us at the cages and watched as we ‘took some cuts.’ While the other coaches took notes and rated us, Duke and Jay gave us some pointers. Duke pulled me aside and though I was making decent contact, he told me I wasn’t following through and finishing my swing. When it was my turn again, I got back in and, what d’ ya know, the hitting got stronger. After thanking Duke for the batting tip, I also thanked him for something else.
See, back in 1958, when the Dodgers first came to L.A., my grandfather used to take me to the Dodger games at the Coliseum (b.d.s. - before Dodger Stadium). After one game, we were leaving late (we always stayed until the end of the game, but this time we were among the last to leave) and there by one of the tunnels was the Duke surrounded by a few fans. Now I was just a kid of 9 and I don’t know if my grandfather knew that this was where the players came out or if it was just luck, but we went over and I got Duke to sign my baseball glove. That glove sits on my bookshelf today with a lot of fond memories.
After hitting, we were directed to the pitching mounds. Before we started throwing, Carl Erskine, Jerry Reuss and Clem Labine gave us some instruction in the basic elements of pitching, consistency, balance, ball movement, and most importantly, mental preparation and concentration. To paraphrase that oft heard quote, pitching is "90% mental and the other half physical." Well, a big part is certainly mental. With the quick instruction concluded, we got on the mound. As I started to warm up, even before I really started to pitch, I must have been doing something right, because I could hear my name being passed back and forth between some of the instructors. Then after only 10 - 12 pitches, mostly in the strike zone and with that popping sound coming from the catcher’s mitt, Carl came over and told me that that was enough, don’t throw too much because I’d need it tomorrow. So I stopped, stood and watched as the other rookies threw and a couple had pretty good arms. When everyone had a chance, or rather when the instructors had seen enough, we moved on to practice field #2 for catching instruction and infield and outfield work anyway.
Jeff Torborg and Steve Yeager talked about proper catching positions for giving signs and receiving the pitch. My thighs were a little too sore to hold the catching crouch for a long time and although I said I would put on the tools and help out if needed, I was real glad that I didn’t have to then. Davey Lopes met us at second base and went over what he knows best, the finer points of fielding ground balls, especially those hard ones up the middle. From the instruction we went right into taking some of those grounders. I went to 2nd base and worked on the short throw to 1st and the even shorter toss to the shortstop on the double play. The last thing I wanted to do is hurt my arm trying to make the long throw from deep short to 1st, and miss pitching tomorrow. After a few rounds, it was out to center for fly balls with Rick Monday and Jay Johnstone. Pretty easy stuff there, the balls were shot at us off a converted pitching machine, we just had to get under it. Good time to practice the form.
Before we knew it, it was noon and time for lunch. We were all looking forward to lunch, not just to eat but because the instructors were going to meet and assign us rookies to teams so that after lunch, we could have our first game, though it would be with our coaches pitching. I took the opportunity to grab a sandwich and visit Charlie in the trainer’s room. Oh, I didn’t mention that while hitting, I fouled one off my left foot. Charlie said there wasn’t much that can be done but put ice on the bruise so there I was with an ice bag strapped to my foot with an ace bandage for 15 minutes. (Charlie was right though; it still hurt when I walked.)
While waiting for the team assignments to be announced and I got to know a little more about my fellow campers. There are three attorneys (excluding myself), an optometrist, a couple of venture capitalists (money guys) and a guy that sells fire engines ( and the clown of the camp). There are also three fathers with their sons. Two of the fathers brought their sons as birthday gifts and it made me think of my own son and whether I’ll be up to this when he's 30. Well that’s only 12 years away, I’ll be 61, we can hope . . . right?!.
At 12:45, the list came out. I was assigned to the Vero Beach team with Monday, Yeager and Vavra as my coaches. Our first game was at 2:30 against San Bernardino headed by Davey Lopes, Carl Erskine and Travis Barbary and which had on its roster the only actor in camp, Jonathan Silverman. But first we were going to take some live BP (that’s batting practice against a pitcher not a machine). A quick change of uniforms (we were the visiting team in the game so we had to put on our away grays) and on to field #2 for hitting. Vavra threw to us just as he does to the pros at Dodger Stadium. I did better, at least no foul balls off the foot. Did I mention that we all use wood bats? There’s no aluminum here and it is great to feel a good solid hit off of a wooden bat. We hit in groups of 5, each hitter getting 2 rounds of 5 hits each and a third round of 3 hits. Then it was off to field #1 for the game.
We played a rather uninspiring game. I started in left, batted 6th with a pop up and a ground out until the top of the 9th when we finally started to rally. With bases loaded in the 9th, I got a single up the middle for an RBI. We scored 5 runs that inning but the rally was too little, too late and we lost 11-5. More importantly, though, we all had fun.
From the game to the showers and then back to the room for a couple of hours relaxing and writing. The dining room opened at 6:45 but most didn’t start straggling in until 7:30.
With dinner comes some camp rituals. First Ralph Branca holds court and assesses fines to campers who have screwed up during the day. This being the first court session, fines were passed out to one camper who came to Dodgertown wearing a Boston Red Sox T-shirt, and two others who came wearing Tampa Bay Devil Rays hats. Other fines went to guys in the dining room with hats on, one guy who had his hair in a poor example of a pony tail, campers and coaches who were caught smoking (and those who fessed up to it before being caught so the fine was less), and another guy (the camp clown) just because. It was all in good fun and the money all goes to this year’s camp charity, the Volunteer Action Committee of the United Way.
When the judge ended his session, we went into camper awards. Each team’s coaches selected a camper for his outstanding play in his respective game and that camper got a Mr. Potato Head as his trophy. One camper received an award for the outstanding play of the day, in this case a diving catch of a fly ball to center. With the awards handed out it was now time for the talk of the night and tonight’s subject was on Umpiring in the Big Leagues. It was really just some reminiscing by Dutch Rennert and Bruce Froemming, two of the National League's best. We really got to hear it from the umpire’s side and got to hear how some of the players stuck it to the umpires, all in jest. In fact, Bruce told us how Jay Johnstone really got him with a rather elaborate practical joke. He had Bruce convinced that he was going to put on an umpiring clinic in Japan for really big bucks. The story was great.
After a dinner we adjourned to the lounge for drinks, a little poker, pool and, of course, more stories. Back in my room by about 11 - my roommate's already sawing some pretty big logs - and it’s time to turn in. Another big day tomorrow.
A new day. This afternoon we have our first camper only games and everybody’s excited and anxious to get them started. But first, we have a few hours to fill. Instead of stretching first thing, we're having another, more in depth, catching seminar from our resident catchers, Torborg and Yeager. Only one problem, it’s kind of cold and windy this morning. No problem for the Dodgertown staff, they just pushed back the netting in the indoor batting cages and we got our instruction in there.
You have to understand, there is some instruction. We got about the same info, maybe a little more, as yesterday’s session, but what really makes the session are all the stories. Who was good at picking off signs and how do you stop them. Or if the sign stealer was on your team, how did he relay them to the rest of the team. Better yet, we get some real insight into either how smart some of the great pitchers were and how dumb others were. For me, and many others, it’s those stories we want to hear.
Well we wrapped up the catching session and went right into stretching. It might be my imagination, but as I told myself yesterday, it was actually getting a little easier and, of course, it’s good for us. Fifteen minutes of stretching and then we split into our teams for batting practice. Vero Beach stayed in the indoor cages and in just a few minutes the netting was put back into place and ready to go. Two of the cages had machine pitching and in the remaining two we got to hit off Vavra and Smith. Reggie gave us some breaking pitches and as we were to later find out it was good that he did.
Lunch followed by a quick change into our white uniforms and out to Holman for the afternoon game. Though I figured I'd get the start, before leaving, for the field Yeager and Monday confirmed it. I was already excited and now the excitement level increased 10 fold. And for me that is saying some because I am generally a subdued kind of guy. Just ask my wife. Anyway, this was going to be my first competitive start since High School and I wanted to get going so bad, I left the locker room without a wind breaker and more importantly my belt. I discovered the lapse when I got to Holman Stadium and began to do some light stretching.
Now it wasn’t that my pants were not going to stay up or anything like that. With the food we have been served while here, I am positive I won’t have that problem. But I certainly didn’t want to be caught out of uniform for fear that I’d have to face the judge at dinner later. So, I jogged back to the locker room and ‘killed two birds with one stone’ as the saying goes. I completed my uniform while getting warmed up. I was back in no time and no one noticed I was even gone.
The game started promptly at 1:30 and since we were the home team, we were in the field first. For my first effort in quite some time, the start of the game went fairly well as I allowed only a single in the inning. Unfortunately that was not going to be the case for the rest of the game. We got touched up for 4 runs in the 2nd and 4 more in the 6th before I came out. The team was a bit more supportive emotionally then on the field but hey, I had a great time. We ended up rallying again in the 9th but it came up way short as we lost the game 15 to 3. Oh, I did go back into the game in the 9th as Neil and I switched positions from the way we started the game. That’s right, I ended the game catching while Neil pitched. Good thing I went to the Yeager/Torgborg clinics! I ended the game pitching 6 innings, giving up 8 runs and hitting 2 for 3 ( 2 singles and a fielder’s choice). After the game and in the locker room I was feeling great as Peter, Len, Neil, Hatch, Todd and the rest of my teammates stopped by to compliment me on my pitching.
Following my shower, I stopped by to see Charlie in the trainer’s room and iced my shoulder. Just about everyone else was in there too as Lasorda had come in today, had watched our games and was now giving us his special kind of critiques. Fifteen minutes under the ice pack made my shoulder feel great. I was ready for another 6 innings ‘ what the heck, why not the whole 9, but that was for tomorrow.
Before dinner, I stopped in the lounge and reviewed the video tape from the day’s game. It was the first time I'd actually seen myself pitching and the form needs a little work. As we began to leave for the dining room, I heard a ‘Stoney’ from the doorway and there was the skipper, Lasorda, waving for me to join him, Bill Buhler, Dodgers traveling secretary Billy DeLury and Jonathan Silverman at dinner - I was honored. After dinner, as we did yesterday, we had the daily camper awards. But first we were filled in on how the Mr. Potato Head award came about. It seems that this was a LA Dodger tradition as the team, in earlier years, would award the little toy statuette after each game to the player who had the best game that day. Well, to my surprise, I was the one to get the award for our team this night and ‘Hutz’, my 2nd baseman got the ‘Play of the Day’ for his great backhanded grab of a fading line drive that kept me out of some trouble.
With awards handed out it was time for tonight’s speakers ‘ Jerry Reuss and Jay Johnstone who, in their playing days with the Dodgers, were known to stir things up a bit and we weren’t disappointed as we got some great laughs hearing about some of their pranks and practical jokes. The evening ended after a game of Dodger trivia (not one of my better games) and a few more stories about some of the older players and days gone by.
Day four started as had the previous three; an early breakfast in the dinning room, to the locker room to dress, and then out to field 2 for the morning stretch. But today was double header day and so following the morning stretch, it was directly to field 1 for pregame hitting and fielding. Our team was determined to stop the losing streak at 2, or at least make it respectable. The first game was coach-pitched so that each team could save its pitchers for the second half of the twin bill later in the afternoon.
Having been the catcher in the last inning the day before, I grabbed my catcher’s glove as well as my fielder’s glove in anticipation of being called upon to relieve Neil. However, when we arrived at the field, Yeager asked if I could handle shortstop, since Ron had bruised up his ribs yesterday and they were real tender this morning limiting his ability to throw. I said sure, grabbed my glove and went out to field grounders as we began hitting practice. I took quite a few grounders before it was my turn to hit and felt fairly confident that I could fill in but not replace our regular shortstop. After we all took pregame hitting, we still had time for some outfield and infield warm up before our opponents arrived. With a little help on positioning from Coach Monday, I was as ready for the challenge.
As the game got underway, our earlier determination quickly dissipated as San Bernardino was quite successful at hitting off their manager Torborg and we couldn’t hit a lick if our lives depended upon it off Vavra. And I was not prepared for the amount of activity that I got at short. I was either moving to my right for a grounder just out of my reach, going out into left for the cutoff and relay on line drives into the gap, or moving to my left in a vain attempt to cover 2nd on possible double plays. And finally there was my big moment, a pop fly to deep short/shallow left. I turned, I glided back, a little faster, I reached and then, pop, I felt my left hamstring, just above the knee give and I hobbled to a stop. The ball fell just out of my reach. I was done for the game at the very least and was immediately sent to the trainer for whatever patching up Charlie or Matt could do. It was only the 5th inning of a nine-inning game that had quickly and miserably gotten out of hand. When the game finally ended, it wasn't close and it wasn't pretty.
Despite my good intentions to fill in at short, I couldn’t help but think that I had let my teammates down even though I obviously had no control over the injury. So I was determined that I wasn’t going to let this get the better of me and I was going to try to be available for the second game if I could help in some capacity. After lunch, I went back into the trainers, had my leg wrapped with an ace bandage and then headed over to Holman for the second game. We were playing Albuquerque now for the second time. They had beaten us in our very first game by a rather large margin, but we looked at this as the start of the second half of the season and a chance to turn it all around. Albuquerque was 3 and 0, we were 0 and 3 but that didn’t deter us. Len was on the mound, I was ready to go in to relieve if needed, and as the game began our spirits began to lift. We held the other team scoreless in the first two innings as we posted 2 runs in the bottom half of each frame. Each team had scored once as we approached the top of the 7th, the last inning of this shortened game. Then the roof fell in, they rallied to score 4 and tie the game. We were unable break the tie and we went into extra innings. Finally in the top of the 9th they scored once to take the lead. We made a valiant try, putting runners on in the bottom of the 9th but we couldn’t bring them in and we suffered our 4th loss in as many games.
Although this is a camp and we're all here to have fun, grown men can become a little competitive. Did I say a little? Anyway, remember that intro to the ABC Wide World of Sports, ‘the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat . . .’ Well we were suffering the agony all right and all the ‘it was a great game’ comments were not helping the situation any. The only thing left to do . . . head for the Lounge. Maybe a couple of beers would help, . . .ah, make that a 6-pack, . . . no better yet, make it a case . . . .
It was Western Night and BBQ steaks, ribs, and chicken with baked beans, chili, and corn on the cob was on the menu for the affair. Many of the campers were decked out in jeans and cowboy boots as straw hats and bandanas were made available compliments of Dodgertown. Tradition calls for the BBQ to be at the pit area near the pool, but the weather in Vero the last two days has caused the nights to be down right cold. So everything was moved indoors. The judge returned to hold court and after the fines were levied, the daily awards were given out. The evening ended with some entertainment in the Lounge. Though Nathan junior was somewhat embarrassed, Nathan senior kept us laughing with his standup comedy routine; then Nathan senior was somewhat embarrassed as Nathan junior preformed a rather unusual feat of magic which might qualify him for an appearance on one of those Guinness records shows. Silverman provided a dramatic reading of ‘Casey at the Bat’ and the duet of Erskine and Smith provided a couple of tunes on the harmonica and drums.
Tomorrow the Campers play the Instructors (talk about a losing streak, I’m informed that the Campers have never won), following yet another chance to end our teams losing streak.
As the banner hanging across Jackie Robinson Avenue puts it, ‘Its Great To Be In Dodgertown.’ It’s the next to last day of camp today, we’ve got two games left but San Bernardino pretty much has this year’s camp championship wrapped up. As for us, we’re still shooting for an end to our losing streak. Maybe it will be today.
Nine o’clock finds us out on the field for morning stretching before the games begin. As I lay on the outfield grass lifting first my right leg, knee to chest, and then my left, I hear the faint moans and groans from my fellow campers. Last night was a real sight in the trainer’s room, the ice was piled on groin pulls, quads, hamstrings, backs, shoulders and elbows, and yes, even a rib cage. This morning though was the time for the heating pads to be brought out, the atomic balm to be applied (in your choice of heat level, mild and medium ‘ they left the really hot stuff at home), and the calves, quads, hamstrings and groins to be wrapped. But even with the best the trainers had to offer, I could still hear those groans and moans.
The morning was warm and the stretching helped to break a sweat if not to relieve some of the aches and pains. As we ended with a short jog, it was on to the batting cages to get in a few cuts before game time. Yeager and Monday were reluctant to let us in the cages, trying desperately to come up with something to break the losing habit but most of us took some hacks anyway. About 15 cuts and I had had enough. I was off to field 1 to get ready for the game. We were playing Albuquerque for the second time; they had shattered my pitching debut in the 2nd game of the ‘season’ and I was determined to avenge myself. Fortunately, the rest of the guys felt the same and as the game got underway, we took control. Being the visitors this time, we started off by scoring 10 in the 1st inning, giving me a very comfortable lead to work with. I measured up to the challenge by shutting down Albuquerque’s offense. I said shutting down, not shutting out. By the end of the game they had scored 8 but we had added 6 more and came out on top in this one. The drought was over; we were 1 and 4.
It was a long, hot game and we were the last to get back to the locker room for lunch. Nevertheless, we savored the victory over sandwiches and cokes. Then it was back to Holman Stadium for the event of the day, the traditional match up between the Instructors and the Campers. For some of us, myself included, this was kind of like my field of dreams. I was going to play, even pitch, on a pro field against players I grew up watching. So even though I had already pitched a long morning game, I was anxious to get my turn on the mound.
Just as the festivities were about to begin with player introductions, the place started to buzz. Another of my dreams was about to unfold. We had a surprise visitor. There in the opposing dugout talking to the Instructors and some of the fans was Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. We all wanted desperately to meet, shake hands with and get autographs from Sandy, but that was going to have to wait, the game must go on. Fortunately, Sandy went up to the press box and stayed a while.
The Instructor-camper game, it turns out, is more than just another game for us. The game is publicized in the local Vero Beach papers and fans come to watch. And all the money collected from tickets and concessions goes to the designated charity. The game starts with all the pomp and circumstance of a major league all-star game. First the campers are individually introduced and we run onto the field and line up on the first base line. Then its time for introductions of the Instructors, who the crowd has really come to see. Introductions are followed by the playing of our national anthem by Carl Erskine on his harmonica and then a hearty "Play Ball" by Bruce. So that every camper gets an opportunity to play and we are not too embarrassed, the game rules are slightly modified. Each team plays the instructors for two innings. Campers stay at bat until 3 outs are made or half the team has batted, whichever takes longer. Instructors can only hit until 3 outs are recorded or they score two runs, whichever occurs first. After a camper team has played two innings, the next team comes in to play two. The order is determined by the team standings and since we were in last place, we wouldn't be playing until the 7th and 8th innings.
Besides playing against the pros in front of a couple of thousand fans there is some additional incentive for the campers. Each player on the team that scores the most runs against the instructors gets a special T-shirt to commemorate the occasion.
Since our turn on the field would be late in the game, we relaxed in the stands and cheered on our fellow campers. I took the opportunity to search out the camp photographer and get him to follow me to the press box to where my boyhood idol had retreated in order to watch the game. Sandy is a quiet man who prefers to spend his retirement years out of the limelight. But on this occasion he was quite hospitable and provided spectator and camper alike with autographs and pictures. For me it was a treat to just sit next to him, joke about my uniform number (32, of course) and have my picture taken with the man I consider to be the greatest left-handed pitcher of all time. That picture will find a prominent place on my office wall when I get home.
It finally came time for us to take the field. After my morning outing, my arm needed a rest but I was not going to let this opportunity go by without giving it the old college try. Though I only got one out in the inning before the instructors scored their two runs, I enjoyed breaking off a curve to Lopes and trying to hit the corners on Yeager. Hitting, well let's just say, I did get wood on the ball. When I stepped up to the plate, Torborg was catching and Reuss was pitching. Jeff told me that Jerry was going to lay the ball right down the middle and sure enough that was right where it was, only at about 90 mph! The next pitch was a little less intimidating and I was able to make contact with a little grounder to Lopes at 2nd for an out but it made my day! What an experience to face a major league pitcher. I can only imagine what it would be like to face that 95 mph fastball or that big league curve before 30,000 screaming fans.
The game ended with, you guessed it, the instructors winning. But we stayed after the last out for another tradition, to encourage Carl Erskine's son Jimmy, mentally challenged since birth, as he ran the stadium bases for an imaginary home run.
There were no heads hung in dejection after today's defeat. Instead we seemed to float back to the locker room for our showers and ice packs and an amazing demonstration of physical strength by Jerry Reuss as he lifted 3 campers at once from the locker room floor. Boy was the money flying as campers laid odds on whether he could or could not accomplish the fete.
Dinner was followed by awards followed by the Brooklyn players, Snider, Labine, Erskine, and Branca, giving us some perspective on the Brooklyn days and what it was like to play with players like Robinson, Reese, and Hodges.
The attrition has now become noticeable. There are less than half the usual campers (maybe 20 in all) out this morning for stretching but the same if not more moans and groans. The sun is shining and it is a light day as we have one last game to play. We are looking forward to continuing our winning streak of one and becoming a bit more respectable.
Definitely no pre-game hitting, no pre-game infield, just a little throwing to get those sore arms warm and loose. That must have done the trick though because we started off with a bang. A bunch of runs in the first and the 5th and 3 hours later we had this game handily won. We demanded to extend camp by another week so that we could show everyone else that we were as good as we had looked on paper. But instead, Monday and Yeager broke out the champagne and we celebrated the victory and the season.
The game took so long that some of us had to miss lunch if we were going to participate in the pop up and hitting contests that were just getting started. I tired my hand at the hitting contest, was only mildly successful and was eliminated from the championship round. Peter from San Francisco and Steve from Riverside battled it out with Peter inching out Steve in the end.
Then it was time to shower, change and pack up our lockers. Only one problem, Brad, the kid from Toronto, whose locker was next to mine, couldn’t find his clothes. It seems that he had gotten on the Instructors' the wrong side after he taped their uniform jerseys to the lamp posts outside the conference center the night before, and a couple of the Instructors (we won’t mention names but their initials are SY and JJ) decided to treat this rookie right. Oh, Brad found his clothes all right. They were set out on a chair in the middle of the locker room, for all to see, encased in a block of ice. Well that will teach him not to mess with a pro ball player!
Before dinner, the lounge was packed not just with campers but also Dodger staff who had arrived early for Spring Training which was to begin the next day with pitchers and catchers reporting. So there were Davey Johnson, Charlie Hough, Mickey Hatcher, Rick Dempsey, and Claude Osteen added to the mix and swapping stories with the instructors and campers alike.
Dinner was as good as it had been all week. We were joined by some of the Dodgers staff and coaches. John Shelby and Mark Grudzielnick stopped by and Dodger GM Kevin Malone answered a few questions on the status of some ball players and the outlook for the ‘99 Dodgers.
We watched the play of the day; a good backhanded stop of a sharp grounder down the 3rd baseline that was turned into a double play and then it was time for end-of-camp awards. Steve from Riverside cleaned up with the Golden Glove award, batting title and selection to the camper all-star team and Jonathan ‘Silverstreak’ won the Rookie of the Year and all-star selection. David took Vero’s potato head award, bad hips and all, and Carl got the play of the week trophy. In all, it was a great ending to a great week. Following dinner, everyone retreated to the lounge to exchange congratulations and goodbyes.
With camp over and everyone catching vans and taxis to the airport, just a few of the pros starting to arrive and the staff in pre-spring training meetings, Dodgertown seems deserted. It is a good time for reflection on the camp and the Dodgertown experience.
First of all I must give a ‘tip of the Dodger cap’ to the Dodgertown staff. Now, I know it is the staff’s job to make sure that everyone has a good time and that they did. But although this was work for them, you could not tell it from their attitudes toward us. Everyone from the clubhouse and grounds guys to the dinning room personnel and front office staff truly appeared to enjoy working here at Dodgertown and that attitude came through to us loud and clear. There was always a smile and a hello whenever they passed you or you needed assistance with something. Some of them even remembered your name, not necessarily because of a formal introduction but just from associating it with the name on your uniform or hearing it being called out in the buffet line. That is just not something you generally see or hear, even in the highest rated resorts.
Each camper had his own reasons for coming, expectations as to what he will or will not receive. I have expressed mine here in this journal and can only say that I feel truly lucky to have been given the opportunity to participate in this experience. It is true that this is, generally speaking, not the ‘vacation of a lifetime’ that the whole family might enjoy. I know my wife would definitely prefer a trip to Europe, the middle or far East, or even a cruise of the Caribbean. But in listening to the others talk about their childhood dreams and memories, previous camp experiences, whether here or at other pro camps, there was no doubt that this experience, from a baseball lover's point of view, was one that has had no equal and will never be forgotten.
The guys who attended came from all parts of the country, though most were either from California or New York, and represented a variety of professions.
We had our lawyers and doctors, investment consultants and insurance types, contractors and cops. We had guys who could play, former college or minor league players, and guys who could barely swing a bat.
But we all had one thing in common, the love of baseball and the love of the Dodgers.
I can only hope that I get the opportunity to return again someday.
Mark "Stoney" Stone
Note: As stated at the outset, this journal was written during my first camp experience in February 1999 at the Dodgers' then Spring Training home in Vero Beach. Since that camp, I attended eight more camps put on by the Dodgers and have now operated more independently, all of which strive to live up to the standard set by those original camps. Many have said that I have reached that goal even though we have moved west. I hope you have enjoyed reading this account as much as I enjoyed living it and invite you to live your own at one of our future camps.