The Greatest Pain
The collision at home plate opens a nasty gash on Ray Krohn’s left ring finger. Thus begins a last-day-of-camp shift from fantasy to reality for the 36-year-old commercial door installer from Fletcher Hills. Krohn drags.
This 5-foot-7, 145-pound frame from the San Diego Padres’ spring training stadium in Peoria, Arizona. He boards a plane for Lindbergh Field. On touching down in San Diego, Krohn immediately goes to Urgent Care. The finger is infected. An Urgent Care doc sends him to an orthopedic specialist. Krohn gets four stitches and spends a night in Grossmont Hospital, pumped full of antibiotics. It’s four days before he can go back to work.
Reflecting on the carnage, Krohn—nicknamed “Flea” during fantasy camp—sums up his experience succinctly. “It was,” he says, “the best week of my life.”
Flea speaks for nearly all 27 campers (including me) who participated in the Padres’ first-ever week-long fantasy camp. February 4-11 was an injurious week we wouldn’t trade for anything. Simply put, it’s the greatest pain.
The program is in its fifth year—this is the first time it’s been held in Peoria. Preceding camps were four-day events at Qualcomm Stadium. The fantasy camp premise is simple. For $2,800, you get to pretend you’re a major-league ballplayer for a week. A camper gets a full team uniform, a locker in the Padres’ actual spring training facility and unlimited use of a training room and professional trainer.
Best of all, retired major-leaguers—Nate Colbert, John Curtis, Mark Grant, Randy Jones, Gary Roenicke and Norm Sherry—are on hand to coach, cajole and carouse with campers. (Current Padres manager Bruce Bochy and general manager Kevin Towers also make appearances.) Rest assured: A baseball fanatic will be able to die happy after receiving batting tips from the likes of Colbert, who twice hit 38 home runs for the Padres in the early ’70s.
“This is called a fantasy camp for a reason,” says 6-foot-5 Mark Hoekstra, a 36-year-old camper, commercial real estate manager and grandson of renowned local developer Ernie Hahn. “Everybody has a different fantasy. My roommate thinks he could have been a major-leaguer. His goal was to get that reaffirmed—to hear from the pros that he has some raw talent, and that if his talent had been formed and guided, maybe he had a chance to make the majors.
“There are some guys here who are expecting to get a contract at the end of the week. But for me, I’m just a huge fan of the Padres. I’m a season ticket-holder and go to 40 games a year. I wouldn’t enjoy doing a camp with, say, the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants.”
Not so for camper Mike McClellan. This is the third big-league fantasy camp he’s attended in the last year. “I’m not a very good ballplayer, but I have a good time,” says this 43-year-old native of Lubbock, Texas. A former contractor to Airborne Express who now lives off his investments, McClellan went to the Dodgers camp at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, and the Texas Rangers camp at the Ballpark at Arlington.
“Dodgertown is the supreme camp of them all,” McClellan says. “They get more than 100 people at a time for a camp. Dodgertown has more pros, and there’s more tradition involved. But the Padres camp costs about half as much and really isn’t all that different.”
For David and Morgan Brenner, the week in Peoria is about more than just playing baseball. It’s a father-and-son reunion. “I heard about this on the radio,” says David, 37, a financial planner living in Cardiff. “I called my dad and told him I had signed up. He was excited for me, but I could tell he wished he could do it, too.”
Baseball, says David, was the bond that cemented their relationship. “Growing up, that’s what our summers were all about. He coached me. And every weekend, he’d throw me batting practice until his arm would fall off.”
Morgan Brenner, who lives just outside Philadelphia, admits he was jealous of his son’s decision to go to Peoria. “Then one day, I’m watching the Penn State football game and Dave calls,” says the retired life insurance executive. “Apparently, he connived with his mother and then he told me that I was going, too.” And so here they are. Asked midweek how it feels to be playing baseball at age 68, Morgan, who symbolically wore uniform number 68, gets a twinkle in his eye. “At this age,” he smiles, “it feels good to be doing anything.”
However many decades you’ve lived through, there’s nothing more intangibly wonderful than being able to call a major-league clubhouse your own. Want to reach nirvana? Freedom from pain, worry and the external world starts with the sight of a pinstriped uniform bearing your name and dangling on a metal hanger hung inside a wooden locker (also adorned with your name). Anyone who can’t find religion on first sight of his very own major-league locker was born without a soul, and may have even been spawned by the devil himself.
A second component of this nirvana comes in the form of clubhouse attendant Bruce Wick. It’s Wick who washes your dirt-and-grass-stained uniform every evening. And each morning, your garments—including socks, jock and orthopedic ankle wraps—are hanging neatly in that perfect rectangular locker that bears your name. I believe freedom from the mortal shackles of laundry engenders a level of task-oriented focus achieved only by baseball players and Tibetan monks.
While ethereal nirvana may be within reach here, utopia, unfortunately, is not. There’s a legal system amok in a baseball clubhouse that doesn’t come close to the standards achieved in Utopia. In Sir Thomas More’s classic work of fiction, citizens on a deserted island belong to a society that enjoys a “perfect” system of politics and law. In the brotherhood of baseball, however, there’s the Kangaroo Court.
Kangaroo Court is where Judge Judy meets XFL football. The court’s “legal” proceedings are genuine. Fines are levied, paid and donated to charity—but court cases are really Seinfeldian productions about nothing. The retired pros run this show. Attendance is mandatory. Randy Jones is district attorney. Nate “Tight Noose” Colbert is judge and jury. There are no appeals. You’re free to defend yourself, but that just annoys the Honorable Judge Colbert (who openly encourages bribery).
I’m fined $3 for wearing a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt under my uniform. Other campers are sued for arriving too early at the locker room. Forgetting to wear a batting helmet. Urinating on the field. The camp’s photographer is fined for being late. Fantasy camp director Ken Nigro is hauled into Kangaroo Court because of the camp’s headquarters hotel. The hotel is a half-hour from the ballpark, surrounded by strip clubs (with names like The Alaskan Bush Co.) and proximal to freight trains with late-night-blaring horns. He’s found guilty of reckless indifference to the comfort of campers; the case sets Nigro back $12.
“Court reporter” John Curtis says Kangaroo Court is one of the best examples of what it’s like to be around pro ballplayers. “It really demonstrates what the clubhouse atmosphere is like,” says Curtis, a lefty who pitched in the majors for 16 years, including three seasons (1980-83) with the Padres, and while still in the pros wrote sports stories for the San Francisco Examiner.
“You keep loose by bringing your teammates up on charges. Looking at it from the outside, it can be hard to understand. I’ve been in other workplaces, and I feel like a Kangaroo Court could work at, say, a scientific software company. But it’s not going to happen,” Curtis says. “Athletes are put in situations where we go in public and sometimes fail miserably. You have to develop a sense of humor, and this fosters development of that.”
A fantasy camper is wise to develop a strong sense of humor regarding on-field play. I was an above-average high school ballplayer. And I still play hardball in a local adult league. But the first time up against Curtis, I whiff. He sits me down with a high fastball. Curtis is throwing only about 50 miles per hour—about half the speed players see in the majors. Still, in my mind, I’m not facing a 52-year-old man. I’m battling against professional baseball player John Curtis. But no matter who’s throwing the ball, three strikes and you’re out.
This is not to say I completely stink up the place. I finish with a .733 batting average—negotiate on that, Alex Rodriguez. And I manage to play all nine field positions during the course of the week. Still, pride knows no fall like the one following an abbreviated inning of pitching. Three bases-on-balls cause Randy Jones to visit me on the mound—and not to offer me a pit beef sandwich. In 1976, Jones won the Cy Young award with a 22-14 record —including an astounding 25 complete games. Not because he fears I’d break any of his records, Jones unceremoniously lifts me, two batters—and two more walks—later.
For the week, campers split into two teams, and we play each other twice a day. Sometimes the pros pitch; sometimes we pitch to each other. The climactic conclusion to camp is the last day, when each camper team plays against the pros. Let’s forgo any pretense of suspense here. Pros don’t lose to fantasy campers. Period.
Throughout the week, we campers commit more errors than all the state legislators who voted for energy deregulation combined. Guys let balls roll through their legs. Outfielders break in on batted balls that soar over their heads. First basemen need fishing nets to haul in all the one-hoppers to the bag. One afternoon, rejecting the ease of uttering three simple words—“I got it!”—a shortstop and a right fielder go after a pop fly and collide with an upending force that would make The Rock shudder.
Which brings us back to the training room—my favorite aspect of the whole experience. Every morning, I visit Clete Sigwalt, a professional trainer whose full-time job is with the Philadelphia Phillies. Sigwalt dutifully tapes my right ankle and quadricep. Hey, weekend warrior athletes, how cool is this! Since I turned 30—six years ago—it’s as if my sports career (if you can call it a career) has consisted of one part sport, two parts broken bone or torn ligament and three parts rehabilitation. If feasible, I would have had Sigwalt tape me like a mummy before every game.
Aron “Red” Wister concurs on the benefits of the training room. “Clete gets me ready to play every day,” says the 31-year-old commodities manager from Scripps Ranch. “Nobody else on my team really wanted to catch. So I said, ‘I’ll do it’—and I’m really getting my money’s worth.”
But that also means Wister is bending his 225-pound frame behind the plate for about five hours a day. Wister was often on a training table next to mine at the end of each session, he with giant towels filled with ice wrapped around each knee—and his right hand wrapped around a Coors Light. Our treatments differed mainly in that I had my ankle and quad wrapped—and went with my left hand around a Bud Light. For therapeutic reasons, of course.
There’s not room—nor place in a family magazine—for all the stories that unfold during this camp. We all laugh when Norm Sherry (this guy caught Sandy Koufax, for crying out loud) is “fired” after the camper team he’s managing loses its first five games. The doctored-up USA Today announcing his firing is classic. Padres scout Gary Roenicke regales campers with tales of playing under Earl Weaver, and of winning two World Series rings as a member of my beloved Baltimore Orioles. Amiable Mark Grant, a former Padres pitcher and now a Channel 4 broadcaster, shows us why baseball is a sport played by men but inhabited by the spirit of boyhood (I can’t be more explicit, but look for my new Web site, www.markgrantisnuts.com).
A search for the essence of fantasy camp, however, brings us back to the father-and-son Brenners. It’s late in the week, and 68-year-old Morgan Brenner still hasn’t reached base safely. Whenever he comes to the plate, outfielders move way in; infielders relax, ready for an easy out. Morgan is making contact. But the ball isn’t falling in for him. Then it happens. A seeing-eye looper falls safely into left field. Morgan puffs toward first base. When he gets there, every camper stops and applauds.
“For a guy who had a career .265 average in high school [in the 1940s!], even though it was a bloop, it was a base hit,” says Morgan afterward. “That’s a line drive in the box score.” Right after the hit, an umpire retrieves the ball for Morgan, who accepts it and retreats to the dugout.
“Seeing my dad get a hit was the highlight for me,” says David Brenner. “That was just very special. It was a little hard for me to see, though—because of the tears in my eyes.”