How It All Began, One Camper's Look Back At His First Camp

Updated: Feb 25, 2021

Here's a look back at my first camp at Dodgertown in Vero Beach. Although this was a new experience in 1999, after 15 camps, the experience is still unique and exciting. We strive to bring this experience to each new camp.

February, 1999

"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 entire 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. I've had some experience so hopefully, I’ll be one of those guys.

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.

DAY 1:

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.

The locker room opened at 11:30 and campers casually meandered in to claim their lockers and stow their equipment. Returning campers brought their own uniforms from previous camps. Being a rookie, my uniform was hanging in 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 getting 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 would begin at 2. The excitement and anticipation grew and I don’t think it was just coming from me. Everyone 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 playing a little catch. 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 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.

DAY 2:

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 "strings area" the Dodgertown 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 8-10 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 and the rest of the week. So I stopped and watched my competition as the other rookies threw - it looked like we were going to have a good group of rookie arms. After everyone had a chance, or rather when the instructors had seen enough, we moved on to practice field #2 for catching instruction, infield and outfield work.

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 that morning. 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. And then 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. Anticipation was high not just for lunch but because the instructors were meeting and would then assign us to teams. Our first game was scheduled for 2:30 pm. 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, I got to know a little more about my fellow campers. There were 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 were also three fathers with their sons. Two 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. 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.

DAY 3:

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 how smart some of the great pitchers were and how dumb others. For me, and many others, it’s those stories we want to hear.

We wrapped up the catching session and went right into stretching. It might be my imagination, but as I told myself the day before, 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 weren't 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 4:

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 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