BY DAVID EISENSTADT
Special to the Tribune
When my eldest son Harris was nine, we spent an idyllic week watching Major League Baseball spring training games in and around Dunedin, Fla., the Toronto Blue Jays spring home. Twenty-three years later, we revisited central Florida to celebrate his 31st birthday. However, this time there was a major league difference. We didn’t watch, we played. Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland became our January home as we shagged flies, worked the batting cages, ran wind sprints and stared down pitchers throwing 70 mph heat.Twice Harris’s age, camp was a bit tougher for me, even though I play B’nai Brith Executive League Fast Pitch and InterSynagogue Slo-Pitch. Harris played hardball for Colby College in Maine a few years back and took it in stride.
Tigers Coach Dick Tracewski, a veteran infielder with the Tigers and the Dodgers shares infielding tips with shortstop Harris Eisenstadt (centre) and his father first baseman David Eisenstadt (Photo by Rick Dupler)
Some 15 major league teams run similar camps, but the Jays don’t. While Harris grew up rooting for Lloyd Moseby, John Olerud, Fred McGriff and Ernie Whitt, we had another choice and since I am a Tigers alum, our option was easy.
I knew that most of the campers would be game ready, so last fall I began working with personal trainer Deborah Basch, knowing injuries meant riding the pine. Harris plays hockey in New York and LA and was in shape from the get-go. Bunking in at the Tigers winter home, the Holiday Inn Lakeland, Harris became the third Eisenstadt to wear Tigers blue following left-handed pitcher Harry Eisenstat (1938 – and no relation) and me (2005). In true baseball tradition, the stats flowed. We were two of 84 campers, average age 51.2. Sixty per cent were from Michigan; one was from the Philippines. There were five Canadians, four father-son tandems, four women, four sets of brothers. Each of six teams had 14 players coached by two former Tigers. The camp mood was bouyant with last years’ American League champion Tigers considered a definite 2007 World Series contender.
Everything happens at Tiger Town, a five-field complex with pitchers mounds, batting barns, training and locker rooms, classrooms and cafeteria. We were thrilled to see numbered (Harris #31;me #1) and named home white and road grey uniforms hanging in our respective cubicles. Dressing quickly, we attended ‘kangaroo court’ a tradition of being fined for missing a game, showing up drunk or playing poorly. Campers were admonished for wearing cleats in the cafeteria, missing belt loops or forgetting a glove on the field. Modest fines levied, all in good fun, went to ‘Jack’s Place’, a Michigan charity helping autistic kids, headed by former ’68 Series catcher Jim Price. We then went through warm-ups led by the trainers and were ready to play two games daily for the week. Before taking the field, former Tigers pitchers Mickey Lolich and Jack Billlingham taught us about pitching; Willie Horton demonstrated hitting; Dick Tracewski (Sandy Koufax’ Dodgers roommate) helped the infielders and Rusty Kuntz (today a Pittsburgh Pirates coach) worked the outfielders. Tigers broadcaster Price handled the catchers.
How did the week go? Playing for Billingham and Kuntz, Harris hit .571; I hit .400; our photos and stats were to be printed on personalized baseball cards.
Harris, Game 1: Won 6-5 on a big first inning; went 0-2 with a walk. Scored a run. Played short, pitched and saved the last inning.
David, Game 2: Continued to play six of seven innings at first. Coach Kuntz said, “Your play at first is growing on me” in reference to keeping low and blocking balls with my body when my glove didn’t make the snag.”
Harris, Game 3: Won 9-1, went three-four with two long triples to the right field warning track. Started at short, pitched the final inning for second save.
David, Game 4: Missed a hard first-inning, down-the-line grounder. Redeemed after picking up a less hard-hit shot in the 2nd.
Harris, Game 5: Went 2-3 at short and left field; garnered third save in the final inning.
David, Game 6: Another solid game at first but terrible at the plate; hit a hard grounder to short (6-3) and a strikeout. (No contract coming now.)
Harris said, “We won second place to play the Championship Game, where we got smoked 11-3. It was the third game of the day and we all ran out of gas. I ripped my knee, felt no pain but I felt lucky to be playing ball with my Dad.”
Saturday capped the week as campers played against coaches in the jewel of Tiger Town, Joker Marchant Stadium, where all spring training games happen and is the home of the Single A Lakeland Tigers. It was fun to watch the former Tigers taking the campers so seriously. Before the first pitch, we were each introduced by name, number and hometown to a crowd of about 500. We stood on the third base line, caps over hearts, for the US national anthem. Between innings I helped handle the PA duties. It may be my next career.
Hanging together, Harris and I squinted into the Florida sunshine, and counted our good fortune.