The writer’s son, Harris, smacks a hit during one of this team’s six regular-season games.
It was yet another surreal moment amid seven days of pure fantasy. In the game that capped the Detroit Tigers baseball camp — against the retired pros who had coached me — I found myself staring down 1968 World Series pitcher Jack Billingham in the first inning.
He froze me by throwing two quick inside fastballs, both thumping emphatically in the catcher’s mitt. Then I remembered Willie Horton’s wise words: “Get comfortable, dig in, figure out the strike zone, get ready, relax, and make contact.”
I whacked the next pitch into shallow left field, and to my surprise beat the throw to first. There really is something about mixing a supportive crowd — 500 of my team’s friends and family in the stands — and adrenalin.
Baseball in Florida isn’t just for major-league pros warming up at spring training. When Canada’s amateur players, tired of the winter snows, yearn for the dog days of summer, seven days of “winter baseball” in January is a terrific tonic. There are about 15 major-league fantasy camps in Florida and Arizona that let wannabes play for their favourite team and rub elbows with childhood or adult heroes at spring-training facilities. This happens before the real players arrive in mid-February.
When my eldest son, Harris, asked me to join him at the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp to celebrate his 31st birthday, I leapt at the chance. I play on softball teams in the summer months, and while I’m twice as old as him (and he’s twice as good as me), I’m in good health and in reasonable shape. Mostly, though, I was excited to be his teammate.
A Toronto Blue Jays fan, Harris grew up cheering on World Series winners John Olerud, Fred McGriff and Joe Carter. But the Jays don’t run a fantasy camp, so last year’s American League champs seemed like the next best thing.
To prepare, I began a regimen with a personal trainer to ensure I’d be ready to play and not ride the pine. (I also prepared mentally for the disappointment of not being offered a Major League Baseball contract.) Harris, however, works out regularly and played Division II ball for Colby College in Maine, so he was ready from the get-go.
Harris and I both landed in Tampa within minutes of each other early on a Sunday afternoon. We then drove an hour to bunk at the Tigers’ winter home: the Holiday Inn in the town of Lakeland. The Tigers and Lakeland have been spring-training partners for 69 years, the longest such connection in the majors.
At the afternoon orientation, we mingled with the other participants before heading off to dinner in the Tiger Town commissary, a historic room with glass-topped tables displaying Tigers baseball cards and walls bearing numbered shirts and photos of legends Ty Cobb and Willie Horton, to name just a few.
David Eisenstadt, right, and Harris Eisenstadt, middle. (Rick Dupler)
The next morning we were thrilled to see our names and numbers on home and road uniforms hanging in our lockers. Wearing home whites, we stepped onto the green grass of Tiger Town, the five-field baseball complex with batting barns, training rooms, pitchers’ mounds and classrooms. Before lunch, we were put through our paces. Former Tiger alumni Horton taught us to hit; Dick Tracewski, the infield; Rusty Kuntz coached the outfielders; and Mickey Lolich and Jack Billingham shared pitching tips.
Following batting practice, we were fired up to play six seven-inning games over the course of the week against fellow campers, with a championship game for the top two teams. Eighty-four wannabes — five Canadians, four women, four father-son combos, one father-son-daughter trio and four sets of brothers — averaging 51 years of age suited up and were divided into six teams with two ex-Tigers coaching each squad.
HERE, THEN, IS A HIGHLIGHT-REEL ACCOUNT FROM HARRIS AND I OF OUR WEEK PLAYING FOR KUNTZ AND BILLINGHAM:
Harris: We won 6-5 on a big first inning. Barely held them off the rest of the way. I went 0-2 with a walk. Didn’t have my timing together. Pitched and saved the last inning. Scored a run. Played shortstop, except for that inning on the hill.
David: Played solid first base but missed a high pop fly in foul territory. Billingham said, “Eisey, you played that like a pro. After missing it, you looked up at the sky. Well done.”
The writer flies out to left field. His team played six seven-inning games over the course of a week against fellow fantasy campers, with a championship game for the top two teams. (Rick Dupler)
Harris: We lost a tight 2-1 game. Hit the ball well; tripled to the left-centre gap and singled to centerfield. Thought I was up with the bases loaded, but players ahead of me hit into a double play. The other, younger team had more depth. Again played shortstop, except for an inning in left field.
David: Played six of seven innings at first base. Shoulder hurt from long warm-up tosses to third and short. Harris returns my two-hoppers with hard-thrown shots that usually find my glove. Between innings, Kuntz said “your first-base play is growing on me.” This complement was the result of blocking the ball with my body to make an out.
We quickly put this narrow loss behind us, going on to win our next three games handily.
Harris: This was the third time we faced these guys, and we beat them 1-0 in a well-played game. Pitched the last inning for my fourth save. The third out clinched our trip to the final as I tossed a come-backer to my dad at first. Struck out looking on my first time up on a curve that hung me out to dry. But I followed with two hits.
David: Went 1-3. Out on a grounder to short and a K. I like first base, but I’m keeping my day job.
Game 7 (for the championship)
Harris: We got smoked 11-3. Kept it close for a few innings, then we started playing bad defence with too many errors. Went 3-3 with two singles and a double. Despite the outcome, I still felt lucky to be playing with my Dad.
David: Missed another fly ball against the fence and Kuntz threatened to bench me. But he didn’t. Went 1-3. Last at-bat, I faced a 21-year-old, fireballing at about 75 miles an hour. Got the count to 3-2, then laced the ball into left-centre for a solid single. Best hit of the week. Too little too late, but it felt great.