Today, Fantasy Campers arrive at the Indians’ spring training facility in Goodyear, Arizona to find their nameplates on their lockers and their own Tribe uniform hanging neatly inside. This is the day baseball action begins and so do many new friendships that will endure.
Sunday is an evaluation day of sorts, especially for new campers that the ex-Major Leaguers haven’t seen yet. Campers rotate among four drill stations – infield, outfield, pitching and hitting –and are given instruction in those disciplines by appropriate ex-Indians. You may get advice on fielding grounders by the likes of Carlos Baerga or Mike Hargrove, shagging flies by Rick Manning or Cory Snyder, different pitching grips by Len Barker or Rick Waits, and hitting tips from Pat Tabler or Joe Charboneau.
The former Indians players – who pair up to manage and coach the teams throughout the week – take stock of what they see among the campers. Then on Sunday evening, a draft is held for the ex-pros to choose their teams. Campers can request being with up to three other players, so if you go to camp with a couple of family members or friends you can be assured of landing on the same team. And make no mistake – the ex-Major Leaguers still have their competitive fire and truly want their team to be the one that claims the Fantasy Camp championship.
Camaraderie builds not only among the campers (especially those on your team and in your locker area), but with the former Indians players. They’re truly a bunch of great guys. Very approachable, helpful and always willing to share stories of their playing years. They usually eat breakfasts and lunches at the training facility with the campers and many hang out with the gang at the hotel bar in the evenings.
In my four different trips to Fantasy Camp, I’ve had the privilege to hear Bob Feller talk about his career (even when he as in his late 80’s, he could tell you what he threw to someone like Ted Williams pitch-by-pitch in a particular at-bat). I’ve heard Len Barker recount his perfect game from May, 1981, then had the chance to bat against him in the Pros versus Campers game (more on that in an upcoming post). I never tired of listening to pitchers Gary Bell and Mudcat Grant relive their lasting friendship and what they encountered traveling together through the segregated South back in the day. One of my favorite moments was being in the trainer’s room with few people around when another camper asked Mike Hargrove about the heartbreaking loss in Game 7 of the ’97 World Series. He gave an honest and detailed response from his prospective as manager, and you could feel his emotional pain that still lingered a bit.
Perhaps the biggest pleasure of Fantasy Camp is becoming teammates and friendly competitors with a group of Tribe fans from around the country and from all walks of life. You hang out for a full week with some of the coolest, funniest, most interesting people you’ll ever meet. A teammate the first time I went to Fantasy Camp was a big, lovable guy with a son named Brian who was quite a quarterback in high school. The lad grew up to become the starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns in 2013-14. Other teammates have included a literal rocket scientist, a hospital CEO, a youth pastor, a guy who trains repairmen to climb and work on gigantic cell phone towers, and even my own son, Kyle.
After the teams are announced on Sunday evening, campers prepare for full-on baseball during the coming days. It’s a time that will be filled with some great plays, lots of bloopers, nail-biters, blowouts, plenty of bonding, sore muscles, blisters and loads of fun as teams vie to compete in the championship game at the week’s end. It’s a shared experience that connects people in a way only team sports can. I’m still in touch with some of my teammates from my first Fantasy Camp eleven years ago.