By David Eisenstadt
SPECIAL TO THE STAR
When winter-bound Canadians start thinking about the boys of summer, baseball spring training can’t be far away.
Dreaming is one thing, but playing at a Major League Fantasy Camp is something else.
For my 60th birthday, my family presented me with the ultimate fan’s adventure — playing ball with some of the game’s greats at Tiger Town, the Detroit Tigers’ spring training complex in Lakeland, Fla.
Many baseball teams (although not the Blue Jays) have similar fantasy camps throughout Florida and Arizona. My diamond odyssey began with a flight to Tampa on Jan. 23 (after a night in which I could barely sleep from giddy anticipation). It was an awesome feeling to enter the Tigers headquarters at the Lakeland Holiday Inn and to meet 89 other older “kids” drawn by a love of baseball. Immediately upon arrival, director Jerry Lewis (not that Jerry Lewis) got us into our camp routine. Team meals were at the Tiger Town Cafeteria, just like the real Tigers, who have been coming to Lakeland for 68 years.
The jewel of Tiger Town is Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers play their spring exhibition games. It has five fields, batting cages, pitchers mounds and a clubhouse with training and equipment rooms.
What a rush to go into the clubhouse and see my name “Eisenstadt,” with the No. 1 embossed on the Tigers home white and road gray jerseys hanging in my cubicle. And to know that I could take them home with me.
Our contingent of Tiger wannabes was divided into six teams. And, in the best baseball tradition, here are some team stats: average age, 49; oldest camper, 84; four women; two father-son combos and four Canadians. Some veteran fantasy-campers have been coming here for 19 years.
My team was coached by longtime Tiger slugger Willie Horton and pitcher Jon Warden, but before we got on to the field we were introduced to yet another timeless baseball tradition, “Kangaroo Court,” a self-imposed justice system in which players are fined for infractions such as dropping balls, striking out, etc.
Our misdemeanours included missing a belt loop or forgetting our glove on the field. Fines were from $2 to $15 (U.S., of course) and were donated to a Michigan autistic research facility headed by former Tiger catcher, now broadcaster, Jim Price.
Our day began with stretching, followed by instruction in the finer points of hitting, fielding and pitching. It was a thrill to have a personal batting clinic with Horton, who crushed 325 homers in his 18-year career. All-Star and 1968 World Series MVP Mickey Lolich made sure I understood the differences in pitches from a fastball to a slider, a curve to a changeup.
After our first game, which we won 16-10 (my contribution was going 1-for-3), the camp’s 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 their awe-struck charges. In our next game, I learned just how far that 90 feet between the bases really is (a LONG WAY). After my lead-off walk, Jay Crawford (the host of Cold Pizza on ESPN) blasted a triple and I had to leg it home.
Former Detroit Tiger slugger and all-star Willie Horton offers batting instruction to David Eisenstadt.
Detroit’s all-star lefty Mickey Lolich, centre, is flanked by a Canadian contingent (beginning at left) Phil White (Kitchener), David Eisenstadt (Toronto), Bill Evans (WIndsor) and Mike Gosslin (Leamington) at Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, Fla.
Despite a decent outing at the plate and in the field, I decided it would be best to keep my day job. But I did get to experience one more side of the baseball life: I was interviewed live on Tigers Radio, station 1270 AM in Detroit.
Our team ended the “regular season” tied for third with a 3-3 record and my personal performance included five hits in 19 at-bats and one RBI, with a couple of walks thrown in. Our last game was a real thrill. After being introduced and tipping our caps to the crowd of about 150 cheering fans (and having a photographer capture the moment as we ran out to the first base line), we all got to play a couple of innings against the former major leaguers who had been coaching us. I can’t wait to go back.
Tuition to the week-long camp is $3,295 U.S. and does not include airfare. For more information, visit http://www.detroittigers.com or http://www.hihard1.com
David Eisenstadt is a Toronto-based freelance writer and long-time baseball fan.