By David Eisenstadt
Special to The CJN
APRIL 14, 2005 – LAKELAND, FLA.
In 1938 and 1939, “Hammerin’” Hank Greenberg led a Detroit Tigers lineup that included left-handed pitcher Harry Eisenstat. For seven glorious days in January, I joined their alumni roster as the latest Eisenstadt to don Tigers’ blue, albeit at the team’s fantasy camp. Learning to really play hardball, meeting phenoms of yesteryear, honing my skills, swapping tall tales, and generally having the time of my life made the week about as good as it gets.
The fantasy camp was a special birthday gift that my wife Rhoda, sons Harris and Evan and daughter-in law Sara made into a reality last July. Only 13 Major League teams (not including the Toronto Blue Jays) hold fantasy camps. Detroit’s offerings were appealing and the Eisenstat connection didn’t hurt. In preparation, I made three commitments: to get into better shape (to reduce the chance of getting hurt), to not play like a rookie, and to not expect a contract when the real spring training kicked off in March.
I started working with a personal trainer last September, becoming faithful to a two-day- to three-day-a-week gym regimen. When I entered camp, I was more fit than I’d been in years. I made a bunch of new friends and I didn’t play like a rook. It was disappointing when no contract arrived.
Under the guidance of amiable camp director Jerry Lewis, 90 wannabees took to the Tiger Town diamonds in Lakeland, Fla., about 40 minutes from Tampa. Lakeland has a 68-year love affair with the Tigers as the team’s spring training destination, the longest in the Major Leagues. The weather was great, the camaraderie rampant, and the instruction first rate. And for a baseball lover, what a day job!
The Tiger Town crown jewel is Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers play spring training “home” games. The complex includes five other fields, batting cages, pitchers’ mounds, a clubhouse with training and equipment rooms, and lots of green grass for tossing balls and shagging flies. Campers were divided into six teams. We immediately produced our first stats: average age, 49; oldest camper, 84; four women; two father-son combos, and four Canadians. Many were veteran campers.
My team coaches included legendary Tigers’ outfielder/designated hitter Willie Horton and 1968 World Series relief pitcher Jon (King Crab) Warden. Players had to be in better-than-average shape, which made me really appreciate the baseball program set for me by Debra Basch, my Toronto trainer. It was quite a rush to enter the clubhouse and see my cubicle with my “home white” and “road grey” Eisenstadt-lettered uniforms, Number 1, hanging ready. I was able to take them home for keeps.
Camp began with “Kangaroo Court,” a timeless tradition in which ballplayers are fined for infractions such as dropping balls and striking out. Our misdemeanours included missing a belt loop or forgetting a mitt on the field, which resulted in levies ranging from $2 to $15. It was all for a good cause, as the fines were donated to an autism research facility in Michigan headed by former Tiger catcher, now broadcaster, Jim Price.
The day started with on-field stretching led by trainers, followed by batting practice and pitching and catching instruction. I had a personal batting clinic with Horton. It had been 42 years since I’d hit a hardball with a wooden bat, and his tips were invaluable. Pitcher Mickey Lolich, a Hall of Fame Veterans nominee, also made certain I understood the difference between fastballs, sliders, curves and change-ups. We won our first game 16-10, and I went one-for-three against pitchers throwing 50 to 70 mph heat. That night, coaches Horton, Warden, Lolich, Price, Dick Traciewski, Mike Heath, Rusty Kuntz, Juan Berenguer, Johnny Grubb, Milt Wilcox, Milt Cuyler, Dave Rozema, John Hiller and Doug Bair signed autographs for adults, who reverted to behaving like awe-struck kids.
On day two, I walked my first time at bat. Hitting behind me, New Yorker Jay Crawford (he hosts ESPN’s Cold Pizza) hit a big-blast triple. I definitely learned that 90 feet between bases is a long way. But I was barely puffing as I rounded third on the coach’s wave, scoring a run.
That game, I got two good hits, which made up for being stalled on base because of two outs and a slower runner ahead of me. Such is the game! Playing “under the lights” at nearby Henley Field, helped us jell as a team and we won 5-0 against the team that eventually took the week’s championship. Mid-week, I had some off-field fun. Tigers Radio, The Sports Station 1270 AM in Detroit, set up a remote broadcast and I was interviewed live. Apparently some Michigonians were listening, because the camp director told me he received “a half-dozen calls about the Toronto guy talking about his Fantasy Camp 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, when I hit two singles in as many at bats, driving in a run. My stats included 19 at-bats, four runs scored, five hits, two walks, two strikeouts, one run-batted-in and a .263 average. They say a Major Leaguer has it “made in the shade” if they can achieve a .270 average. Since I’m not quite there, I’ll continue to enjoy the sunshine.
The final daytime match at Henley Field saw all campers bat once and take a couple of innings in the infield against the former Tigers who had been coaching us all week. Prior to the game and U.S. national anthem, we lined up alphabetically along the first base line. Every player was introduced by name and number while running to home plate, past a photographer and videographer to capture the moment… while tipping our caps to the crowd of about 150 cheering fans. Yessss!
By David Eisenstadt