Dreams come true at Phantasy Camp

Dreams come true at Phantasy Camp

Phillies uniforms were on the field again last week. Not the pros, but a bunch of grown men participating in a sold-out Phillies Phantasy Camp. Scott Palmer, the team's director of public affairs, served double duty as a camper and a reporter. His video reports can be found linked off this story and elsewhere on Phillies.com.

The Beatles were right, money can't buy you love, but it can buy a fantasy. Just ask the 140 Phillies fans who showed up last week at Phillies Phantasy Camp in Clearwater, Fla. Waiting for them in the clubhouse of the Carpenter Complex were pinstriped Phillies uniforms with their names and numbers on the back. Making the moment even more special, if that's possible, the campers were greeted by the dulcet tones of Harry Kalas announcing their name, hometown and uniform number.

Thanks to the Phillies and ESF, the company that runs Phantasy Camp, it's possible to live life as a Major Leaguer. The players dressed at the very same lockers and they played on the same diamonds that hundreds of Phillies players have over the last 40 years.

But as they say on those late-night TV commercials, "That's not all." These Phantasy campers rubbed elbows with Phillies legends such as Greg Luzinski, John Kruk, Mitch Williams, John Denny and camp commissioner Larry Andersen. That's just a partial roster of the former Phillies who put the campers through their paces.

The campers came from all walks of life. Some were corporate executives, while others were cops and retired firefighters. Simply put, men from different walks of life who share the same passion. Baseball. Phillies baseball. It's great how putting on a uniform makes everyone equal.

The only position in life that matters at Phantasy Camp is where you play in the field. Ed Alioto fought fires in Philadelphia for 34 years. Last week, he was fighting off breaking balls as he made his 12th Phantasy Camp appearance. Growing up in Puerto Rico, Carlos Alvelo, now 60 years old, played ball against future Major Leaguers like Willie Montanez and Jose Cruz. Now, for one week, he's pitching against Juan Samuel.

This was my rookie year at Phantasy Camp, and I was drafted by Ben Bertino to play on the Sea Dogs. Bertino takes advantage of the program's General Manager's option. It's a chance for some of the older guys, whose playing days may be behind them, to still be part of this big league fun. Bertino will never forget his first Phillies game. It was in 1948, at Connie Mack Stadium, where he was fortunate enough to catch two foul balls off the bat of Richie Ashburn.

Bertino must still enjoy a well-struck foul ball, because as a hitter, it's my specialty. But that's the great thing about being at camp. It brings back memories of when you were eight and played for the Gophers. In those days, you couldn't wait for school to be over so you could ride your bike to the field. Here, it's even better. There's no school. You wake up and take a bus to a Major League Spring Training complex.

Phantasy Camp is also about bonding. Fred Blanchard, a Navy pilot assigned to the Pentagon, grew up playing baseball in Olney, Pa. That's why he was intrigued by the name of a Philadelphia policeman named Charlie Kline in his camp player profile book. Blanchard lived two blocks from a Charlie Kline as a kid and played ball with him. Sure enough, that first day on the bus, despite not seeing each other for 38 years, they recognized each other. Instantly, they were 10 years old again, playing catch and catching up on their lives.

Don Hoover, the head baseball coach at Valley Forge Christian College, came to camp with his friend from Lancaster, Pa., Glenn Nissley, a colonel in the Army National Guard. Col. Nissley knows something about being "on base." Two years ago, he served for a year in the Anbar Province of Iraq, a place the military refers to as the wild west. His brigade suffered heavy casualties. This is a man who knows what it's like having to write letters to the parents of a solider killed in action. If anyone in Clearwater deserved a break from reality, it was Col. Nissley.

And then there were the Gulatis. Actually a lot of Gulatis, including father Jack and sons Chuck, Mike and David. Talk about a family reunion. The Gulatis not only spent some quality baseball time together, but their team -- which was coached by former Phillies Milt Thompson and Ricky Bottalico -- closed the deal. The Lookouts, with Jack as general manager, won the Phantasy Camp World Series, upsetting the heavily favored Sky Chiefs. And, in yet another case of fantasy replicating reality, Jack was rewarded with a victory pie in the face.

The week wrapped up on Sunday with the Legends Game at beautiful Bright House Networks Field. Each team played three innings against the Phillies Legends. In the interest of full disclosure, I did not have a good at-bat against John Denny. The 1983 National League Cy Young winner started me off with two breaking balls that I couldn't have hit with a tennis racket. After I fouled off a fastball and took a pitch outside for a ball, J.D.'s patience was wearing thin. He threw me another curve that started on the outside corner. By the time I swung and missed, I swear it was headed for the first-base dugout. Sure, you can say I whiffed. I would prefer to say that I am one of the few baseball fans who can say he saw a Cy Young Award winner's breaking ball up close and personal.

Eventually, every Phantasy must end. And so it was that we took our uniforms off very slowly Sunday afternoon, leaving the world of make-believe for the reality of everyday life. But we carry with us memories of old-time baseball, and more important, newfound friendships. Fantasies eventually end, but teammates are forever.

Scott Palmer is the Phillies' director of public affairs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.