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A baseball fan's fantasy week

The team sits in the dugout during a game at Royal's Fantasy Camp in Surprise, Ariz.
Kelly Famuliner
The team sits in the dugout during a game at Royal's Fantasy Camp in Surprise, Ariz.

  For major league baseball fans, this next week is an important one. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training and players at the rest of the positions follow suit in the coming weeks. But each year, hundreds of baseball fans get an even earlier start…at baseball fantasy camps. KBIA’s Ryan Famuliner is one of those people. He shares his story of a week of baseball spent in Surprise, Arizona.

It just sounds so good, at least to me and the other 71 campers out here. The repetitive smack of the ball hitting the mitt. Finally, the crack of the bat. Then anticipation, what will happen? He dropped it. At fantasy camp, there are a lot of errors. Alan Fuchsman, a 56-year-old from Kansas City at camp for his seventh time explains:

“There’s guys that don’t get a hit all week. I think they have as much fun as anybody. So it’s not about ability. Obviously, if you watch me play.”

At fantasy camp, for a week, you’re a baseball player. You put on a uniform with your name and number on it, go out to morning stretches, and then play 7-inning games every morning and afternoon.

51-year Tim Clark is here for his second year: “Obviously we’re not kids anymore, and we’re not as good as we used to be, but it’s so much fun at least to replicate it. You know it truly gives you that fantasy that says, you know what, hey, this would be cool if this was my job.”

37-year-old Wes Campbell is here for the first time. He’s a little jittery.

“Just trying to relax, cause you’re so nervous. You want to do well. You’ve only got a few days to prove yourself and play well,”

Why’s he trying to prove himself, though? I mean it’s just baseball, right? Well, yes, but you’re playing it in front of the guys you grew up watching.

This is the Kansas City Royals fantasy camp. Fans from all over the country, but mostly from the Kansas City area, come to Arizona for it–even some fans that are in their early 80s. Most teams in the majors hold these camps each year, and retired players come back and serve as coaches.  

All the guys you’ve heard from so far ended up on the same team–and the three coaches were all former Royals: Bill Pecota, a utility infielder, John Wathan, the “Duke,” a catcher and former Royals Manager, and third baseman Major League Hall of Famer George Brett.

49-year old Rob Berryhill ended up on this team too. “My son’s middle name is Brett, so you can kind of image who I wanted to meet or get a chance to play with.”

George Brett says, while they’re the coaches, it’s mostly up to the players to determine how the games go.

“It seems to me our team always has the most fun. We let them play wherever they want to play. I don’t care if you can play or not, go out play shortstop. You guys are the ones that paid the money and you should get to do what you want to do, play the position you want to play.”

But this is just part of what happens at fantasy camp. Bill Pecota explains, you find out even more about what it’s like to be a ballplayer.

Just like camp when you were a kid, you sit around and make new friends with other campers. But then, the retired players grab a beer and sit down next to you. Start sharing stories about their days on the field. And it’s surreal, but these guys get to know your name. It’s a chance for them to also get to hang out with some of their old ballplayer friends, and just be regular guys for a week.

Six of the players on this team had such a good time together the year before, that they came back. Two of the newcomers, Curtis Johnson and Rich, have been friends for about 30 years.

“I’ve probably been nagging him about 7 or 8 years, back when I originally heard about it. And he was always a wimp,” said Johnson.

“I don’t know, I just never felt like maybe I was good enough athletically to do that, and it was kind of a bucket list item for him. Finally this year I decided to come and also bring my son along as well, so the three of us kind of went out there together."

Father and his grown-up son, well a grown-up that wants to play baseball all week. But father and grown-up son playing catch during warm ups all week, cheering each other on in the field, hitting behind each other in the order, drinking beers in the clubhouse, and then reliving it in all in the hotel room–one night talking for so long that that they all of a sudden realize their wake up call is just a few hours away.

Rich is my dad. And those were the things we did.

On the next to last day, each team of campers gets to play against the old pros for a few innings–in the main stadium the Royals use for spring training games. Wes pitched for the first time since he was a kid.

“Walked off the back of the mound, took a deep breath, came back up, toed the rubber, and Jermaine Dye is standing in the batter’s box staring at me. I think I needed some new underwear at that point.”

Dye got on… and ended up getting to third. I was catching, and that meant if a ground ball was hit, I’d need to step out and be ready to block the plate and try to tag Dye, the 6 foot 5 inches, 245 pound MVP of the 2005 World Series, and I was wearing a wireless microphone that would surely be destroyed.

I wasn’t actually upset that ground ball got through the infield. My wife was in the stands, and I didn’t want her to see me decapitated.

Later, Wes managed to get Frank White, whose number is retired with the Royals, to ground out to end the inning.

“Yea, I never was good enough to play in anything, I gotta tell you, it’s been incredible out here. I think I’ve played about the best baseball I’ve ever played in my life. "

So you get some stories of your own to tell over a beer later–on the field and off. Like one night, our team went out to dinner.

Campbell, Clark, Berryhill, Johnson and Rich Famuliner tell the story:

“We’re sitting in this little dive Mexican joint.”

“Drinking some margaritas and beer,”

“all of a sudden this dude comes out of nowhere.”

“Guy was challenging everyone to arm wrestle, 500 dollars a wrestle.”

“He started directing some questions, aren’t you George Brett?”

“It was more of, dude was trying to give him a bunch of crap.”

“Then he says to John Wathan, he says something like, well who are you, the batboy?”

“And the look on Duke’s face was priceless, he looked like steam was gonna come out of ears.”

“At that point, John Wathan said, well why don’t you just get the bleep out of here?"

“And then there was somebody to my right that pushed him, and then”

“There was two campers, and then four campers, and then 8 campers, and then.”

“The manager, the owner of the restaurant comes over and says, you know, sir you, need to leave.”

“He was escorted to the door by us fantasy campers, but uh.”

“You know I got back to the hotel that night, and I thought, you know, this is a little realistic exposure to major league life that I never expected when I came here. He’s just out with his buddies, having dinner, and then somebody decides that that’s their opportunity to be a big shot.”

We sure weren’t Hall of Famers on the field, but that night we got to see what it’s like to be one off it. How else would you ever experience that? This one night alone would be like a dream for Royals fans.

Then, before you know it, you’re back to regular life. The fact that you were 3-for-4 and tagged that guy out at home last game, isn’t that important to those people whose emails you ignored last week. After all, it was just a fantasy. But there was some reality mixed in, too.

Scarlett Robertson joined KBIA as a producer in February 2011. She studied psychology at Lake Forest College and holds a masters degree in journalism from Syracuse University. Scarlett began her professional career in psychology, jumped to magazines and then came to her senses and shifted to public radio. She has contributed to NPR member stations WAER in Syracuse, KUT in Austin and Chicago’s WBEZ.