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February 12, 2010

Living The Dream

Tigers Fantasy Camp

by David Laurila

For a few minutes, I felt like I was 12 years old again. Not in a "you better do your chores" way, but a "hey Dad, thanks for the game of catch" way. It happened in Lakeland, Florida, where I was observing the Detroit Tigers' Fantasy Camp. All I had to do was look around, because there they were: players who wore the Olde English D when I was growing up in Michigan, throwing a ball against the side of the barn and listening to Ernie Harwell on an AM radio.

Yes, I write about baseball for a living. That means I spend a lot of time in clubhouses, and for that reason there is nothing special about talking to a Justin Verlander or a Brandon Inge. I admire their skills, but they're just people who happen to play baseball for a living. But Willie Horton and Mickey Lolich? They're different. When I was 12 years old, Horton and Lolich weren't people who happened to play baseball; they were MAJOR-LEAGUE BASEBALL PLAYERS. They were photos on baseball cards. They weren't people you actually talked to.

Unless you go to fantasy camp.

What is a fantasy camp? In short, fans pay to put on the uniform of "their team" and play baseball under the tutelage of players they once idolized. The Tigers do their camp every January, in a pair of one-week sessions at their spring training complex, and the campers are grouped into teams coached by the former players.

Lenny Malach, a 56-year-old painting contractor from West Bloomfield, Michigan, attended his eighth camp this year-a majority of campers are repeat customers-and he enjoys the conversations even more than the competition.

"I come here for the camaraderie," explained Malach, who plays in a men's senior league when he isn't overseeing paint jobs. "It's a great bunch of guys, and the coaches are great. They get to know you and you get to know them. They tell you the intimate stories of their baseball careers, which you don't read in newspapers or hear in interviews. That's because it's a private fraternity, but you kind of become one of them, and you hear everything. It's fascinating."

My ears perked up a little when I heard that. Intimate stories about their baseball careers that you DON'T HEAR IN INTERVIEWS? Wait... aren't interviews what I do? I asked Milt Wilcox about this.

"That's one of the good things about coming down here," said Wilcox, who pitched for the Tigers from 1977-85. "It brings back memories to see the guys you played baseball with, like Dan Petry and Larry Herndon. Steve Kemp is here this year. Dave Rozema is here. You sit around with those guys and talk about the old days and, of course, you're here with a bunch of Tigers fans who just love baseball. You get to tell stories and they sit there and listen. Sometimes they'll tell you stories that you've forgotten; it might be something that you did in a game that they remember, and you don't, so it works out for both sides."

I probed further, asking if the players actually relate to the campers as well, confidants.

"You tend to get to know them more than just regular fans," affirmed Wilcox. "They're down here living their dream, like we lived our dream, and you can see it in their eyes sometimes when they do something extraordinary, or even when they mess up in the field. We'll tell them, 'Look, it was just like us; we had games just like that.' You kind of relate to each other."

Relating is one thing. Talent level is another. According to Jon Warden, who pitched for the Tigers in 1968, the camps have their share of bloopers, some of them of the injurious variety.

"We had a guy last year out catching fly balls, with the sun at his back, and the ball comes right over his glove and hits him right between the eyes," described Warden. "His glasses and everything went flying. Just this year we had a guy who paid for both weeks of camp and on the first day he went into the batting cage, took three swings, and pulled a calf muscle. He could barely walk for three days, but he still came out the last day and pitched an inning."

It isn't as though the campers can't play. Many of them can, and at a higher level than you might expect, especially those who are closer to cashing social security checks than they are to sorority mixers.

Victor Pajunen, a 69-year-old retired teacher from Chatham, Michigan, has already left the day job behind, but not so the occasional turn on the hill. Bearing a physical resemblance to a late-in-his-career Lolich, the left-handed Upper Peninsula native pitched three effective innings in the camp's week one championship game. His velocity wasn't anything to write home about, but there were plenty of strikes and, it should be noted, not a snow shovel in sight.

"It's always been my fantasy to be a major leaguer, and this is the closest I'll get to it," shrugged Pajunen, who was participating in his 17th camp. "Why am I here? I just like to play baseball. Plus, the players have a lot of good stories and it's fun to be with them. It's also nice to get away from the snow for a while."

Pajunen wasn't the oldest player to suit up in week one. That honor went to 80-year-old Doug Peck, a catcher on the 1951-52 University of Michigan team, who does more than simply show up at fantasy camp; he dons the equipment and gets behind the plate. Doug Peck is an impressive man.

Not all of the campers are old-the youngest participant in week one was 29-nor are they all men. Three of the 59 campers on hand for the earlier session were women, and a few more were scheduled for the second week. One of them was 40-year-old Lisa Knoell, from Macomb Township, Michigan.

"This is my fourth camp," said Knoell, who joined 84 other campers for week two. "My husband got it for me the first time, for my birthday. It's something I've always wanted to do. I've been playing ball since I was seven and I know how to play. I usually play softball, so to get ready for this I make sure to take a lot of batting practice. It's definitely fun to prove a lot of the guys wrong, the ones who think, 'Oh, I've got a girl on my team,' and then you come up to bat, the outfielders move in, and you hit it over their head."

Power hitters and banjo hitters, male and female, younger and older, the campers come to Lakeland not just from the Great Lakes State, but from anywhere you might find a Tigers fan. In week one, 17 different states were represented, as was the province of Ontario. So was, quite remarkably, Taiwan. As Warden put it, "You meet people from all over, and from all walks of life. We get doctors, dentists, CPAs, and truck drivers, but when they put that Tigers uniform on, there's no identity as to who the people are. For that one week, they're all Tigers."

Few people tell a story better than Warden. Not just at Tigers Fantasy Camp but anywhere. Warden makes his living as a public speaker, and as a comedian, so if something goofy is happening on the field, the gregarious left-hander is usually right in the middle of it.

"A lot of crazy things happen in a fantasy camp," explained Warden. "I do the kangaroo court, which is where people who mess up get fined. I'm the judge, and I do some crazy things myself. One of the funniest things that has happened is that we had a guy who had lost an eye in a hunting accident and wore a black patch over it. His name was Baker. He was on the team that I was coaching, and on about the third day I said, 'Where's Baker?' He said, 'Right here, Coach.' I said, 'You know, this isn't the Pirates camp, it's the Tigers camp!' Now, Kaline was there doing that camp and he was almost crying. It was one of the longest laughs I've ever had. The next day was picture day, and one of the guys went out and bought 15 of those patches and we had our team picture taken with everyone wearing one. We really have a good time. We get guys for missing a belt loop, and if their zipper is down I'll fine them two bucks for trolling."

Warden is not only the camp's clown prince, but being a native of Columbus, Ohio, he is also an ardent Ohio State Buckeyes supporter. According to camper Krysten Segesta, an attorney from Eastpointe, Michigan, that was just cause for a practical joke.

"Warden is always going on and on about Ohio State and how great it is," explained Segesta, "so we had been trying to think of some way to 'get' him in a funny way. Fellow camper Fred 'Puffy' Puffenberger approached me under the guise of attorney-client privilege, and as he laid out the plan, all I could do was laugh. I was immediately on board with the idea and the execution was flawless. Puffy recruited another camper, Bob Radder, to help out, because Bob was someone Warden would never suspect. I borrowed a hanger from the women's locker room and drew up a sign that stated, 'OSU diplomas take one.' Bob had the roll of toilet paper and the plan was in motion. Tuesday night, after their team's evening game, Bob put the sign in Warden's locker. Bright and early Wednesday morning, I was in the locker room waiting to hear his reaction, and it worked like clockwork. Within two minutes he was yelling 'Leach, I know you did this; it's your writing on the sign!' Rick [a quarterback at the University Michigan before playing for the Tigers] denied any knowledge of said sign. Warden mentioned it in kangaroo court that morning, even offering a reward for info. On one of the last days, Bob came clean and Warden told him he was probably No. 80 on his list of suspects."

Warden is funny. Dave Rozema is nuts. Fans of a certain age will remember his reputation as a flake, and based on a 20-minute conversation over a cold beverage, I won't argue otherwise. That's not to say the erstwhile right-hander-Rozema was a Tiger from 1977-84-is a bad guy; quite the contrary. But he acts like a left-hander. Somewhere in the middle of his story about showing up to his first camp with shoulder-length hair and yellow spikes, it occurred to me that he looks and sounds a little like Bill "Spaceman" Lee. Or maybe it was when he was talking about his infamous karate-kick injury or the barroom brawl on opening day. (Yes, sometimes even writers get the good stories. As for repeating them here well, let's just say I'm writing a book.)

The other former Tigers who were in Lakeland? Some of them I've mentioned, others I haven't. They were all personable, certainly. (Are there nicer guys than Dave Bergman, John Hiller, and Dan Petry?) They all have great stories, which might be the best reason to go to a fantasy camp. The older ones made me feel like I was 12 years old, but I already said that. To close, here is what one of them, and one of the campers, had to say:

Milt Wilcox: "It's a fun experience, and if someone really likes baseball, they should probably do one of these camps."

Danny Yarger, a doctor from Watersmeet, Michigan: "I was at the running of the bulls in Pamplona two years ago. This is better."

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