The 1938-39 Detroit Tigers lineup included left-handed pitcher Harry Eisenstat. As a Canadian infielder, I joined their alumni roster as the latest Eisenstadt to sport Tigers blue, for seven terrific days in January 2005.
My week was as good as it gets. Meeting superstars of yesteryear, honing my baseball (hardball) skills, staying healthy, swapping tall and short tales. What a vacation!
This Fantasy Camp life-bonus was a special birthday gift which my family made into reality. Only 13 MLB teams (excluding the Toronto Blue Jays) hold Fantasy Camps. Detroit’s offerings were appealing and the Eisenstat link was a bonus.
I made three commitments prior to attending Camp: get into better shape (to reduce the possibility of injury); don’t play like a rookie; and don’t expect a contract to return to join the team.
Last Fall, I began working with personal trainer Debra Basch. I adhered to a regular gym regimen and went to Camp more fit than I’ve been in years. I made new friends and didn’t play like a rookie. I wasn’t too disappointed when no contract arrived.
Camp Director Jerry Lewis hosted 90 ball-playing wannabees at the Detroit Tiger Town complex in Lakeland, Fla., near Tampa. We were booked into the team hotel….Holiday Inn Lakeland, with meals at the hotel and Tiger Town cafeteria, a facility steeped in eye candy memorabilia.
Lakeland and the Tigers have a 68-year relationship as a spring raining destination, the longest in Major League Baseball.Joker Marchant Stadium, the jewel of Tiger Town is where the Tigers play Spring Training “home” games. The complex includes five other fields, pitchers mounds, batting cages, and a clubhouse with training and equipment rooms.
DAVID EISENSTADT listens as pitching great Mickey Lolich explains the tricks of the trade.
The bases are loaded and Eisenstadt is ready for action.
Campers were divided into six teams and the stats started to flow – average age, 49; oldest camper, 84; four women; two father-son combos, four Canadians. Many were veteran campers, with up to 19 years of attendance.
My coaches included Tigers’ slugger Willie Horton and 1968 World Series relief pitcher Jon Warden. Entering the clubhouse on day one and seeing my “home white” and “road grey” Eisenstadt-lettered uniforms, and number 1, hanging in readiness was a rush.
Next came “Kangaroo Court”, a timeless tradition where ballplayers were fined for infractions such as breaking curfew, striking out, etc. Our misdemeanors included wearing cleats into the cafeteria, wearing the wrong undershirt or forgetting a glove on the field, which resulted in fines from $2 to $15. The cash collected was donated to a Michigan autistic research facility started by Jim Price a former Tiger catcher turned broadcaster.
We started with trainer-led on-field stretching led, followed by batting cage, pitching and catching instruction. I had a personal batting clinic with Willie Horton. It had been 42 years since I’d hit a hardball with a wooden bat, and his tips were invaluable. Hall of Fame Veterans-nominee Mickey Lolich also made certain I understood the differences in pitches, from a curve to a change-up, a fastball to a slider.
We won our first game 16-10 and I went one-for-three with pitchers throwing 88-to-112-km (50-70-mph) heat. That night, coaches 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 children.
I walked my first at bat on the second day. New Yorker Jay Crawford, (he hosts ESPN2’s “Cold Pizza”) batting behind me hit a triple. I was quickly reminded that those 27 metres (90 feet) between bases is a long run and was barely puffing as I rounded third on the coach’s wave to score at the plate.
I got two solid hits, which made up for being stalled on base because of two outs and a slower runner ahead of me. That evening we played under the lights at nearby Henley Field where we jelled as a team, winning 5-0 against the ultimate championship squad.
Early the next morning, I had some off-field fun. Detroit sports station AM1270 ran a remote broadcast and I was interviewed live. Apparently the station has listeners because Jerry Lewis said he received calls about the Toronto player describing his 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.
My true (not fantasy) stats included 19 at-bats (AB), four runs (R), 5 Hits (H), 2 Walks (Bases on Balls), 2 Strike-Outs (K), and one run-batted-in (RBI) for a .263 average.
The final daytime match at Henley saw all campers take a couple of innings in the infield and bat once against the former Tigers who had been our coaches for the week.
Prior to the game and US national anthem, we lined up alphabetically along the first base line. All players were introduced to the crowd by name and number, running to home plate, past photographers and a videographer … while tipping our caps.
What a memory!