BY DAVID EISENSTADT
Ask most parents. Taking your son/daughter to a Major League Baseball game is fun. Watching him/her play is even more fun. But, playing on the same team in Detroit Tigers uniforms for a week in Florida makes the fun of fantasy reality.
When our older son Harris asked to play fantasy camp baseball with me to celebrate his 31st birthday, I was overjoyed. While I’m twice as old, in good health and reasonable shape, I was excited to be his teammate, even though he’s twice as good.
A Jays fan, Harris grew up cheering Joe Carter, George Bell, Jesse Barfield and Ernie Whitt . Toronto doesn’t run a camp, so as a 2005 Tigers Alum, our choice was a walk in the park. To prepare, I worked with trainer Debra Basch ensuring I’d not become a casualty on the bench. Mentally I also knew I’d likely not be offered a MLB contract. Harris played Division II hard ball for Colby College in Maine. He regularly works out and was ready from the get-go.
There are about 15 MLB fantasy camps providing wannabes the chance to play for a favorite team and get up close (and personal) with legendary heroes at spring training ballparks. This happens before the real players arrive in mid-February.
(L-R) Tigers Coach Dick Tracewski shares infielding tips with Harris and David Eisenstadt.
(Rick Dupler, Captured Expressions)
Playing a gig in Albuquerque the night before camp, professional drummer Harris and I aligned our schedules with him flying Continental and me Air Canada, both arriving in Tampa within minutes of each other on Sunday. We then drove an hour to bunk in at the Holiday Inn Lakeland, the Tigers “winter home”. Lakeland and the team share a 70-year love affair as a spring training destination, the longest in the major leagues.
On to orientation, renewing old acquaintances and making new friends, then off to dinner in the Tiger Town commissary, a wonderful historic room with glass-topped tables covering hundreds of Tigers baseball cards, surrounded by numbered shirts and photos of legends Cobb, Horton, Gehringer, Greenberg, Kaline, Lolich, Newhouser, to name a few.
What a thrill that first morning to see our names and numbers on home white and road grey uniforms hanging in our lockers. Dressing quickly we raced onto the green grass of the Tiger Town complex…with pitchers mounds, batting barns, training rooms, classrooms for the big leaguers. History was made as Harris wearing #31 became the third Eisenstadt to wear Tigers blue, following pro LHP Harry Eisenstat (1938) and me (2005).
In days past, players would be fined for missing curfews, playing drunk or missing a game. Today, campers were fined for less serious antics, like wearing cleats on the cafeteria floor, missing belt loops or leaving a glove on the field. Fines collected support a Michigan Charity for autistic children started by Tigers broadcaster (and former ’68 Series catcher) Jim Price.
On the field there’s stretching, bending and sprinting. Many were not in shape but I had no problem, thanks to my training regimen. Harris plays hockey and didn’t break a sweat.
Former Tigers aces Mickey Lolich and Jack Billingham taught us about pitching; batting champ Willie Horton showed us how to hit; Dick Tracewski, handled the infield and current Pittsburgh Pirates roving instructor Rusty Kuntz worked with the outfielders. Following batting practice, we were fired up to play two seven-inning games daily against fellow campers.
Eighty-four players averaging 51.2 years dressed and were divided into six teams, each with two former Tigers coaches. Five Canadians, four women, four father son combos, one father, son, daughter trio and four sets of brothers. Surprised only 60 per cent were from Michigan; there was one ballplayer from the Philippines.
Prior to the game and US national anthem, players stood alphabetically along the third base line. Each was introduced by name and number, running through home plate past photographers and videographers tipping caps to the crowd.
Basking in the bright Florida sunshine, Harris and I counted our blessings! (For Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp information call 313-471-2550 www.tigers.com)
(David Eisenstadt is Founding Partner of The Communications Group Inc., a Toronto based-public relations consulting firm)