Opportunity to play game with Detroit Tigers greats a thrill for lifelong major league wannabe
LAKELAND, Fla. — Knowing my passion for the game (I play on two softball teams — fast and slow pitch), my family decided that when I turned 60 last summer, a week away from Canada’s winter playing hardball would be a fitting way to celebrate my milestone.
I had the opportunity to really learn to “play ball” with some of the Detroit Tigers greats of the game at a one-week, all-inclusive trip to their spring training home-away-from-home, Tiger Town, here in Lakeland, Fla.
My odyssey began Jan. 23, at 5 a.m. when I awoke five hours ahead of my flight to Tampa. Just like childhood summer camp, I couldn’t sleep from anticipation. Bunking in at the Tigers’ winter quarters at Holiday Inn Lakeland, about a 35 minute drive south of Tampa, I joined 89 other older “kids” who also love (to play) the game.
Camp director Jerry Lewis presented the week’s agenda and our routine began immediately. The Tigers and Lakeland boast a 68-year love affair as a spring training destination, the longest in the major leagues and this is the 22nd year for their fantasy camp. (The Toronto Blue Jays no longer hold a fantasy camp, but there are 12 to choose from throughout Florida and Arizona.) Tiger Town’s crown jewel is Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers play their spring training home games. The complex includes five fields, batting cages, pitchers mounds, clubhouse with training and equipment rooms. Lots of green grass for tossing balls and shagging flies to relive one’s youth. We started, in baseball tradition, generating our first stats: average age, 49; oldest camper, 84; two father-son duos, four women and four Canucks. Several campers had up to 19 years of attendance to their credit. My team coaches included Tigers’ legend, outfielder/designated hitter Willie Horton and 1968 World Series relief pitcher Jon (King Crab) Warden. It became quickly evident that players had to be in better than average shape, which made me really appreciate a pre-camp baseball regimen set by Debra Basch, my personal trainer.
It was quite a rush entering the Tiger Town clubhouse, going to my cubicle and seeing my home white and road grey Eisenstadt-lettered uniforms, with my number, 1, hanging in readiness. These uniforms are keepers.
Tigers slugger WIllie Horton tutors David Eisenstadt in the finer points of getting comfortable at the plate and staying focussed.
Dick Tracewski, World Series champ with Detroit and Los Angeles (at right), compared notes with Eisenstadt about Dodgers teammate Sandy Koufax.
Camp began with Kangaroo Court, a timeless baseball tradition where players were fined for serious infractions such as dropping balls or striking out. Other misdemeanors included wearing cleats into the Tiger Town cafeteria, mismatched uniforms or forgetting a glove on the field, which resulted in levies from $2 to $15. It was all for a good cause as these fines are donated to a new autism research facility in Michigan headed by former Tiger catcher and now broadcaster, Jim Price.
The day started with on-field stretching led by trainers, followed by batting cage and pitching and catching instruction. One thrill was a personal batting clinic with Horton. It had been 42 years since I’d hit a hardball with a wooden bat, and his tips were invaluable. Hall of Fame veteran nominee Mickey Lolich made certain, as a hitter, I understood the differences in pitches, from a change-up to a curve, from a slider to a fastball.
We won our first game 16-10 and I went one-for-three with pitchers throwing 88-to-112-km (50-70-mph). That night, Horton, Warden, Lolich, Price, Dick Tracewski, Mike Heath, Rusty Kuntz, Juan Berenguer, Johnny Grubb, Milt Wilcox, Milt Cuyler, Dave Rozema, John Hiller and Doug Bair signed autographs for adults behaving like awe-struck kids.
Day two, I walked my first at bat. New Yorker Jay Crawford, batting behind me (he hosts ESPN2’s Cold Pizza ) hit a big-blast triple. I definitely learned that 90 feet between each base is a long way.
That game saw me get two good hits, which made up for being stalled on base because of two outs and a slower runner ahead of me. Playing under the lights at nearby Henley Field helped us jell as a unit and we won 5-0 against the team that eventually took the week’s championship. Although I experienced another solid outing at the plate and in the field, I knew I should keep my day job. Mid-week had some off-field fun. Tigers Radio (1270 AM in Detroit) ran a remote broadcast and I was interviewed live. Apparently the show has listeners because Jerry Lewis (not that Jerry Lewis) told me he “received a half-dozen calls about the Toronto guy talking about his fantasy camp experiences.” Our team ended the regular season tied for third with an even win-loss split over six games. My best performance came in our semi-final playoff game where I hit two singles in as many at bats, driving in a run.
Lots of batting cage practice for Eisenstadt
|My stats included 19 at-bats, four runs, five hits, two walks, two strike-outs and one run-batted-in for a .263 average. They say a major leaguer has it “made in the shade” if he can achieve a .270 average. Since I’m at .263, I’ll continue to enjoy the sunshine.
The final daytime match at Henley Field saw 90 Campers get an opportunity to bat once and take a couple of innings in the infield against the former Tigers who had been coaching us all week.
We lined up alphabetically along the first base line prior to the game. Every player was introduced by name and number while running to home plate, past photographers and videographers capturing the moment, tipping our caps to the crowd of about 150 cheering fans.
Maybe I’ll reconsider my day job?
David Eisenstadt’s day job is as a public relations consultant in Toronto.
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