A 50-something's voice rang out as a bright, white baseball broke through an impossibly blue Clearwater, Fla., morning sky. As the ball nestled into a waiting glove, a man with gray hair popping out of his red Phillies cap said, "I haven't heard those words in 40 years."
As he spoke, it was like a soothing balm had nestled over his very soul. He knew he was in the right place at the right time, even though his time as an athlete was long past. Like Don Ameche jumping into the fountain of youth in the movie "Cocoon," this longtime baseball fan was reversing the aging process. Welcome to Phillies Phantasy Camp 2009.
Most of the 140 of us who escaped winter's grip for a chance to hold a bat and ball came as strangers. As always, they found a locker in the Carpenter Complex with their name on it. Everyone came to Clearwater as champions.
They spent the first morning relearning fundamentals. Von Hayes and Jim Eisenreich hit fly balls in the outfield, while others learned how to run the bases from former Phillies speed demons Juan Samuel and Bobby Dernier. Still others "turned two" under the watchful eye of the 1993 double-play combination of Kevin Stocker and Mickey Morandini. And everyone had a chance to hit in the cage while The Sarge, Gary Matthews, took notes.
The campers' performance, or lack of it, would be grist for the player draft that took place during lunch. Everyone, if they asked, was a first-round pick. Like I said, this was their phantasy.
That first afternoon was opening day -- five games on five fields. The team I played on was managed by Milt Thompson, hitting coach of the World Series champions, and coached by former Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico. During my first at-bat, I was hit by a pitch on my elbow. I could almost hear the late Whitey Ashburn in the broadcast booth telling Harry Kalas, "Harry, that was a 59-mph fastball that a 59-year-old player couldn't get out of the way of!"
It's amazing how quickly a roster of 14 strangers becomes teammates. Early in that first game, we had to check the lineup card to see the first name of our first baseman. A supportive "C'mon, Mr. Doyle" somehow doesn't cut it. It didn't take long before we also knew what he did for a living, how many kids he had and that he couldn't jump if the throw from second was high.
But honestly, Phantasy Camp is as much about people as it is about baseball. It's about Dick and Kelli Wenger, who first came here for their 25th wedding anniversary. That was 15 years ago. This winter, they returned to celebrate their 40th. The gemstone for 40 is supposed to be ruby. Regardless of the year, Dick and Kelli will always prefer diamonds, thank you.
Phantasy Camp is also about Phantasy Camp Ironman Joe Polovoy, who returns every year. The 62-year-old veteran actually looked younger this year. I swear he sneaks into the complex while everyone is sleeping and runs the bases backwards.
Unlike hockey, baseball doesn't have enforcers. Don't tell that to Army Capt. Ross Peterson. In between tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Peterson found himself in a Phillies uniform.
And he wasn't the only one soldiering on in Clearwater. One of my teammates, Maj. Mike Jensik, must have shared the same "travel agent" with his fellow Army officer. Maj. Jensik, also in between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought along his father, Ron, a smooth-fielding shortstop who served in Operation Desert Storm. ESF, the company that runs Phantasy Camp without a hitch, made only one mistake this year -- not putting the Captain and the Major on Sarge's team. Mike and Ross, we salute you.
Dan Spaziani, nobody understood you. Spaziani shocked everyone by telling Mitch Williams that he was going to hit a home run off him. When Williams asked how that was going to happen, Spaziani, not lacking for confidence or common sense for that matter, told Williams to picture Joe Carter at the plate. The Wild Thing good-naturedly promised that he would plunk the "Spaz Man" during Sunday's Legends Game. There must have been a sale on flak jackets, because Spaziani came to home plate in a trash can, with his bat poking through the can's opening. To make a long story short, The Wild Thing took out the trash with three quick strikes.
By the end of the week, everyone was sore and smiling. The soreness will fade away, but the memories they took from Phillies Phantasy Camp will last a lifetime.
Scott Palmer is director of public affairs for the Phillies. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.