I wasn't really sure what to expect from this camp. My dad had gone for the last three years and he absolutely loved it, and I knew he really wanted me to go with him. While I am a huge Cubs fan, I'm not real into the teams and players that came before my time, and from what I knew about the camp, most of it was old time players from the late 60's/early 70's. Plus I haven't played baseball in about 15 years. I was looking forward to the trip, but at the same time, I was afraid that it wouldn't meet the high expectations that had been set.Sunday - Day 0We flew into Phoenix, AZ on Sunday afternoon. A fellow camper who we had never met spotted us at the airport and offered us a ride to the hotel. I guess the Cubs jackets gave us away. Arriving at the hotel and walking around as other players and guests trickled in was rather surreal. My Dad and Uncle were like celebrities. Everyone knew the Miller team, and wondered where my other uncle, was. After a number of years at the camp he had opted not to attend this year. The ongoing joke for the weekend in regards to his absence was that there was a three Miller limit, and I was taking his place.
There wasn't a whole lot else going on Sunday, until that evening when there was a meet and greet dinner where we were introduced to this year's coaches and they went over the itinerary for the next day. The following ex-Cubs were in attendance this year. Many of them were from the '69 Team, but as that team gets older they've been bringing in a number of the '84 team members, which is cool for me because that's really the first team I remember.
- Randy Hundley, stats
- Fergie Jenkins, stats
- Billy Williams, stats
- Ernie Banks, stats
- Ron Santo, stats
- Glenn Beckert, stats
- Larry Bittner, stats
- Rick Reuschel, stats
- Joe Pepitone, stats
- Jose Cardenal, stats
- Gene Oliver, stats
- Keith Moreland, stats
- Leon Durham, stats
- Jody Davis, stats
- Rick Sutcliffe, stats
- Lee Smith, stats
- Steve Trout, stats
- Bob Dernier, stats
- Todd Hundley, stats
- Willie Wilson, stats
- Ron Coomer, stats
- Ed Lynch, stats
There were 8 teams of 13 or 14 players, and each had two players assigned as coaches. Except my team. We had three, but I think that's because Cardenal doesn't do much in the coaching department, and Coomer had to sub for another team because Jenkins wouldn't arrive until Wednesday. Lee Smith was the other coach of our team.Monday - Day 1
Monday morning started bright and early. The hotel provides complimentary breakfast, but based on past experience, my Dad insisted we go elsewhere. So we became regulars at the breakfast place across the street. After that we'd grab our gear and head on out to the ballpark.
The first real butterflies in your stomach, I can't believe I'm doing this moment came when they opened the doors to the clubhouse at 8:00AM and you see those Cubs logos on everything.
Once we were in, we went to our lockers to get our uniforms. Everyone I had talked to so far who had been to the camp before talked about that first time walking into the locker room and seeing the locker with your name on it, and all your gear, and what a thrill that was. And they were right. Again, it was very surreal, seeing all this all this equipment and knowing that in a few hours you are going to be out on a beautifully manicured field playing baseball.
After everyone is dressed, and has upgraded to a uniform that actually fits, we gather in the meeting room. We're introduced to the players that hadn't arrived yesterday, and told what to expect for the remainder of the day. After the meeting we're to go out and do some stretching, followed by batting practice, and then two five inning games.
They use a pitching machine instead of live pitchers at the camp. Some people may question that, but it is definitely a good thing. If we had to use live pitching, no one would be able to throw by the end of the week because their arms would all be dead. And besides, who wants to sit there while some clown who hasn't throw in ten years walks seventeen people in a row?
The only problem with the machines is that they were pitching real slow. To practice for the camp my dad and I had gone to the batting cages a few times. We had been practicing on 7o and 75 mph pitches. The machines at the camp were probably around 50, and it took a while for me to adjust. I would think about swinging, then wait, then wait some more, then wait a little more, then swing and still be way out in front of the pitch. I struck out my first time up, and it wasn't until my second or third at bat in the second game that I finally started hitting well.
Ten players play in the field, all the normal positions, plus an extra outfielder. Center field is converted to left center and right center. Everyone bats. If you can't run, because you got hurt at some point in the week, as many people did, you would still bat, just someone would pinch run for you. There is also a six run limit per inning, unless you were losing by more than six going into that inning. I don't think we ever scored six in an inning, although we certainly gave up that many on more than one occasion.
Most of our games that week came down to the final inning, and final run. We lost many games by a single run, which kind of sucked, but at the same time kept it exciting. Our first game was one of those we lost by a run.
The second game though, we came back from down 13-3 to to win 16-15. The guy before me in the order hit a two out single to drive in two runs and win the game. I also had the distinction of making all three put outs in one inning in that game. I was playing second base and the first two guys popped/blooped it over the first baseman, and both times I was able to get there to make the catch. After about 5 guys got hits, someone else blooped it over the first baseman, in almost the exact same spot as the previous two, and there I was. That was the fielding highlight of my week. From there I'm pretty sure I averaged 2 errors for every clean play I made.
After the game, you hit the showers, put on your civilian clothes, and head back to the hotel to let your body recover from they various aches it has acquired after spending a whole day playing baseball as opposed to sitting on its ass in front of a computer. When we get back the next day, our uniforms will all be washed, the grass stains will be removed, our cleats will be polished and we'll be ready to start again.Tuesday - Day 2
From here on out, we fall into the same routine. Arrive around 8, hang out with the players, and get dressed by 9, have meetings until 10, then play a seven inning game, followed by lunch and another game.
Tuesday's meetings began the kangaroo court where coaches would fine players for various offences they committed the previous day. Things like not wearing a helmet to the plate, or forgetting it was your turn to bat, or making some boneheaded play would get you a fine of $5-$20, which went to Ron Santo's Juvenile Diabetes charity
. Joe Pepitone played the judge, and it was basically a half hour of the players clowning around, ripping on us and each other, and telling stories from back in the day.
Tuesday was rather cool and overcast, and we were expecting rain, but it still beats the sub zero weather that Chicago had at the same time.
Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam was on my team, and since he was sick on Monday, today was the first day he played. I was huge fan of Pearl Jam in high school, so it was as much of a thrill to meet Eddie as it was to meet many of the Cubs players. He was actually a really nice guy and a pretty good baseball player. He's in some of the pictures of me in the outfield below.
I played outfield for most of the week. I grew playing second base, and a little third, but the fact that I was the youngest guy on the team (you're supposed to over thirty to attend, and I don't turn 30 until March) and could run fairly well, meant that I was needed in the outfield. Plus I had a tendency to let the ball go through my legs, when I was at third, although to be honest almost everyone seemed to have that problem.
Whenever you see someone not familiar with the outfield, you'll see them camp under a fly ball only to have it sail over their head. The natural instinct is to get under the ball like you would do if someone threw you a pop up while you were playing catch. The problem is, the ball is coming at you at a rather high velocity, so if you get under it, its going to keep on going, and you are going to look like an idiot. You have to get to where the ball is going to land, and let it come to you. Seems obvious, but when you are out there, not so much.
My biggest frustration of the week is that I know this, I know how to catch fly balls, I've done it at a fairly competitive level on my little league traveling team 15 years ago, yet I still let about half of the balls that came to me sail over my head. I caught a fair amount, but I also missed many that were right to me and should have been caught. Here's a few nice series of me making a running catch, compliments of photographer Ken Carl
Here's one that I almost let get over my head, as you can see by the awkward way I'm leaning back to grab it.
And here's another series. I'm not sure if I catch this one or not. It looks good, although in the third image, that round white thing behind Eddie to the right looks strangely similar to a ball. Although it could be a leaf or something too. I'll pretend I caught it. See look, there I am throwing it back.Wednesday - Day 3
On Wednesday we were scheduled to play against the Brewer's fantasy camp. Half our teams would go there for the morning, and the other half would go in the afternoon. Unfortunately, it was still overcast and there was a high chance of rain, especially in the part of town where the Brewers play. So rather than busing us over there where we might get rained out, we decided to try to get the games in at our park and opted not to play the Brewers.
We managed to get the morning game in, but in the afternoon, we weren't so lucky. It started to rain as we were heading out to the field, and it started raining harder as we started warming up. Soon it was an all out down poor, and we even got a little hail. Our hopes that it would blow over soon and we could get back out there were dashed as we saw large puddles forming in the outfield. Even if it did stop, they wouldn't let us out on the field in that condition.
So we headed back to the meeting room and were treated to a number of stories from the players. By this point, we're half way through the week, and my whole body is sore, so I don't mind missing a game. As long as its only one that we are missing.Thursday - Day 4
We were told not to report to the clubhouse until noon on Thursday because they needed extra time to fix prep the fields. Since it rarely rains in Arizona, they didn't put a lot of money into a drainage system, so it took a significant effort to get the fields ready. When we got there at noon, two of the fields were ready, one was close, and one didn't look so good. There was a small lake in left field. It wasn't quite as bad as it looked though. They would literally squeegee the field, pushing the water to that lake in left field, where they had pumps draining it off. Just to give you an idea of how much the Cubs players care about the campers, Randy Hundley himself was out there for two hours pushing water around so we would get to play. Eventually, the field was ready and we were able to get a few shortened games in. We actually managed to win them both, which is more wins than I think my dad and uncle have in the past three years combined.
That evening my wife and my mom flew in. They would see some sights the next day and then catch our afternoon game, and then they would see us in the "Big Game" Saturday and attend the final banquet.Friday - Day 5
On Friday the sun was back out and it was a beautiful day for baseball. I was sore all over, but it didn't matter. I had one more day to get through, and I didn't care how bad I hurt after that. I'd have a year to recover before next time. Despite the appearance of a warm dry day, the field was still pretty wet, and I managed to pull a hamstring and both quads slipping in the outfield trying to run down fly balls. I almost made it through the week without having to visit the trainer, but after Friday's games I definitely needed some ice. My wife was able to get a few movies and pictures of me in action on Friday.
Here's one of me doubling to right center. Ron Coomer told me to jog into second, and then they got the ball in fast so I had to sprint the last 30 feet and slide, which didn't feel so good on the previously mentioned pulled muscles. The camera is sideways, so you'll have to tilt your head.
And here's me hobbling home on the next batter.
That evening, the campers treated our coaches to dinner at Don and Charlies
, a favorite steakhouse and sportsbar in the area. Check out the virtual tour on the site. The place had more sports memorabilia than I've ever seen. If you are ever in the Scottsdale area I'd recommend trying it out. During spring training you are likely to run into a number of ball players there.Saturday - Day 6 - The Big Game
The big game is where the campers play against the former pros at Hohokam Stadium
, the Cubs actual spring trainging ballpark. Everyone gets to bad once against the pros, and each team gets an inning in the field. It didn't seem like a big deal to me. One at bat and one inning, so I wasn't really that excited about it, but it turned out to be a really great time. The weather was absolutely perfect, and they did everything they could to make it seem like a real game.
We all lined up before the game and they announced our names, and let us tip our hats to the crowd. They played the national anthem and everything.
Our team came in sixth place so we got to play the sixth inning. It was fun just sitting in the sun cheering on the other teams for a few innings. In the fifth inning we got to go down the third base line to warm up, or hang out in the dugout to watch the fifth place team.
We used live pitching for Big Game, so we actully got to hit against a professional pitcher. They weren't throwing that hard, and they wanted you to hit the ball but if you fouled a bunch of pitches off, or took too many they'd throw in a curve ball or two to make you look silly.
Most of the teams got to bat against their coach if he was a pitcher, but for some reason Lee Smith didn't pitch. They brought a few other players in for the big game that weren't part of the camp so I ended up getting to hit against one of them. I can't remember his name though. My goal was to not strike out, and hopefully make solid contact. I told myself I was going to take the first pitch, but it was just sitting there asking to be hit, so I swung and blooped a single over the second baseman's head. Not the best hit in the world, but not too bad. This is the movie of my at bat, and running the bases on the next batter or two.
In the field for the game I only had one play and it went way over my head. I don't think there was much I could have done. I was playing more or less straight away center and since they weren't hitting it too far I was playing in a bit. Todd Hundley crushed one over my head. It wasn't one like I talked about before where I got under it and watched it carry over me. As soon as it was hit I turned arround and sprinted backwards towards the wall and it still landed out of my reach. I was a little disappointed because had I been playing back more I could have caught it, which would have been pretty exciting. The final score of the game was Pros 22 campers 21. The campers have only won once in 25 years.
That evening was a banquet a local country club. It was the 25th anniversary of the camp, so they had a bunch of special tributes to Randy. Eddie Vedder sang a song about the Cubs that I'm pretty sure he made up. I number of people were filming the banquet, and I was hoping that someone would have put it on youtube by now, because it was a great song, but alas no one has. Also each camper was presented with a ball autographed by each of the coaches, and first time campers like myself also got a special Randy Hundley logoed baseball bat.
And that was it. The next day we flew home to watch the Bears lose the superbowl.
If you are a Cubs fan this should be on your Must-do-at-Least-Once-in-Your-Life list. You will have the time of your life. If you aren't a Cubs fan, I have to question your judgement skills, but would recommend finding your team's camp and attending that. You'll thank me later.
If you are interested, there are a ton of pictures at Ken Carl's
site, and all the pictures my wife and I took are here
Originally posted at blog.pokerwords.com