“Mets fantasy camp,” my childhood friend Jeff Ahn texted me out of the blue on a Saturday evening in early September. “What do you think?”
The moment I received the text I knew I had a big decision to make. Since starting The Examiner almost exactly 10 years earlier, I had barely spent seven waking minutes away from work, let alone seven days. As for my family, I’m there for nearly everything, and I quickly realized the camp would conflict with my older daughter’s cherished annual talent show, a school event co-chaired by my wife no less.
For those not familiar with fantasy camp, it’s a vacation experience where attendees get to live out their sports dreams, in professional uniforms, coached by former professionals, playing on professional fields, officiated by real umpires. I had been familiar enough with the opportunity to know exactly what Jeff was asking about.
As much as I would miss my family, it dawned on me that I was already pondering ways to celebrate my company’s 10th anniversary, and what better way than living out the ultimate Mets fan fantasy?
Several days after the original text, having weighed all the factors, I updated Jeff on my decision:
“I’m all in!” I exclaimed.
What eventually followed in late January at the Mets immaculate spring training complex in Port St. Lucie, Florida was a week like no other, a dream come true, a virtual return to childhood.
Beer, Stretch, Laundry
One of the first mind-blowing experiences was walking into the clubhouse, and seeing our personalized uniforms (which staff would launder for us daily) neatly hanging in our personalized lockers. Seeing “Stone” emblazoned on the back of my Mets home and away jerseys was certainly a thrill, and as I walked through the clubhouse I was excited to see all the amenities available to us, from the seemingly endless supply of free beer chilled in the deli-sized fridge to the training room area where the staff would eventually help us stretch out our sore muscles and apply all sorts of magical potions to aid our aching middle-aged bodies. (30 is the minimum camper age.) In fact, as we hit the field for the first time, a camp-wide stretch was led by a staff member from the Mets Fantasy Camp sponsor, Hospital for Special Surgery.
Feeling relatively limber, it was time for the nearly 100 campers (including two brave and awesome women) to be evaluated by the 16 or so former Mets in attendance. We split into groups of about 20, rotating between the facility’s various baseball fields to test our skills in all facets of the game. At one station we flagged fly balls in right field, shot from a cannon-like machine at home plate, manned by Mets World Series legend Mookie Wilson, a fabulously nice guy. In left we were fed liners in the outfield by speedster Rodney McCray — famous for running through a wall when in the minor leagues — and had to rifle the ball back to him. (The night prior, at a welcome dinner, when asked if he was still in good shape, McCray lifted his shirt to show us his six-pack abs. Question answered.)
On another field, Brooklyn native Kevin Baez, a former Mets shortstop, took notes as we tried to turn double plays in the middle infield, and scoop balls at first base. (We’d later learn that Baez previously coached at a baseball camp Jeff and I had attended along with other friends back in our teen years.) Nelson Figueroa, a former Met and now a smooth-talking broadcaster with the team’s SNY TV station, helped oversee the pitching evaluation. Despite some insightful tips from the effusive Figueroa about arm position, once I sailed a pitch well above the catcher’s head and past a fence behind him, I decided to reject Jeff’s suggestion that I pitch during the week like I did growing up. I could still throw relatively hard but command was proving elusive, especially as I was still shaking off the rust.
Take That, Turk!
The highlight of the evaluations for me was the hitting station, where I batted against John “Bad Dude” Stearns, a legendary tough guy of his era, still a commanding presence at 66. Good natured chop-busting is central to the culture of the camp, and during fielding drills I struggled with a couple throws, still trying to regain form after decades away from competitive baseball. The evening before my friends and I were hanging out at the hotel bar, and bantered for much of the time with former Mets pitcher Turk Wendell, a colorful character best known for his many superstitions, including brushing his teeth between innings. So once I stepped into the batter’s box, already friendly with Turk, he was eager to talk a little trash from behind the backstop where he was scouting the “talent.” Feeling comfortable at the plate, I crushed a few balls to left-center field, earning praise from Stearns. “Good,” he said after one hit. Then I whacked another. “Good job,” he said again. This time a bomb. “Good job, two more,” Stearns barked. And another ball smacked to the outfield. “Somebody mark this guy down,” Stearns instructed his fellow former pros scouting the campers.
“He can’t throw,” Wendell replied tauntingly. Soon after the comment, another pitch from Stearns followed, and I again deposited it to deep left. “Put him at first base,” Stearns roared after the final hit, responding to Wendell’s jab. “Rotate. Next!”
Band of Brothers
Once the evaluations were complete, the former players went behind closed doors to draft fair teams. Camp organizers do allow requests for friends to be together, and Jeff and I were placed on the same squad, along with two other friends of Jeff, his college buddy Jonathan Meisel, a slick fielding, line-drive hitting shortstop, and Jeff’s fellow youth baseball coach for their sons’ team, Joel Sunshine, an all-around good player with a pitching leg kick uncannily similar to that of former Met and fantasy camp roving coach Dwight “Doc” Gooden.
One of the greatest parts of the week was bonding with teammates. It was striking to me how baseball served as the common denominator for this group of guys — strangers mostly — coming from such diverse backgrounds. I quickly became close with Joel, a Long Island attorney, and Jon, an Atlanta-based pediatric surgeon. That was more expected, since Jeff connected us all. But within a matter of a day or two our entire team really gelled, like we were high school teammates who had grown up playing ball together. I talked movies and politics with Mike Vrabel, a commercial pilot with U.P.S. and former Air Force captain from Sparta, New Jersey. I discovered that my teammate Sal Alfieri, a soulful restauranteur living in Dallas, was undergoing dialysis but was nevertheless intent on living life to the fullest at fantasy camp. From learning about Colonel Wally Rustmann’s military career and Tom Kopin’s forthcoming first child, Jonathan Webb’s southern roots and Pat Ponath’s visit to the Iowa “Field of Dreams,” Tod Wooley’s golf and ski trips to Dave Merbaum’s law practice, we shared our back stories with one another. As unofficial team poet and Springsteen devotee Mike Vrabel put it, we became a “band of brothers,” despite coming from vastly different backgrounds and perspectives. Congress could learn a thing or two from the culture of team sports.
Three Ducks on the Pond
Some of the serious conversations aside, the week was dominated by laughter, with new inside jokes being developed seemingly minute-by-minute. It was also a thrill to be back around the sounds of the game. Not just the distinctive and magnificent sound of a wood bat squarely hitting a round ball but also the inane yet delicious chatter that permeates all baseball dugouts. It had been more than 20 years since I had reminded a teammate up at bat that there were “three ducks on the pond,” and turned out I missed that kind of ridiculous verbal mishmash more than I realized.
Dugout life also helped reintroduce me to the art of cleanly cracking sunflower seed shells with my teeth. But when I wondered aloud to my wife before departing for the trip whether the week might also include a new tobacco chewing habit, she informed me I should remain in Florida if I started dipping. (I made sure to pack Big League Chew bubble gum instead.)
Each of the eight teams were assigned two coaches from the roster of former pros, and we were managed by Doug Flynn and Bobby Wine, both former Gold Glove winning infielders. At 79, Wine possessed incredible baseball knowledge and intuition from a lifetime around the game. It was best on display when before one pitch he called out to Jeff in centerfield to move in and shift closer towards left field to a spot Wine had in mind for a righty pull hitter, and a moment later the ball was struck to Jeff’s new spot in shallower left-center. Flynn, a gifted storyteller, mesmerized us over lunches and dinners with stories, from what triggered various bench-clearing brawls in his day to insights into the personalties and work habits of some of the era’s all-time greats, from Big Red Machine teammate Pete Rose on down.
Front Row Stone
Despite ultimately beating a catcher’s tag at home-plate during a mid-week game, I probably didn’t endear myself to Flynn when I ran through his stop sign at third base to score a run, but he got me back a day later by helping to propagate my new nickname, “Front Row.” One morning, late for the camp-wide morning stretch, with all the campers already separated in about seven rows of 14, I decided the best thing to do was to position myself in front of the front row, by myself, so I wasn’t cramping anyone’s space by stretching too close to them, with the lines already formed. That was a mistake. One of the leaders of the stretch quickly noticed where I was standing, and dubbed me Front Row. With Flynn leading the way in subsequent days, my teammates rooted me on using my unfortunate new monicker. (“C’Mon, Front Row, you got this!”)
Speaking of bad names, our squad was assigned what I consider the worst team name in baseball history, “Fair & Honest.” Think about it. “Let’s Go Mets!” has a wonderful ring to it. Try cheering on a team named Fair & Honest. Painful. I guess no week can be 100 percent perfect.
Losing But Laughing
The Fair & Honest crew got off to a more than fairly slow start on the field, losing our first three games despite having what we considered a pretty talented team. Speaking of talent, there was a wide range of ability levels at the camp. A couple of the guys had played Division 1 college baseball and even some pro ball, while others just loved the game and had barely competed since Little League. Most guys, like me, fell somewhere in the middle. But we all shared a love of the game, and although everyone wanted to win, a spirit of encouragement and support blended seamlessly with everyone’s competitive fire. Even though the Fair & Honest crew didn’t advance to the championship game under the lights at First Data Field (that was won by a team led by a former Rice University pitcher mixing nearly 80 mile per hour heaters with nasty breaking balls), we did win three of our last four games and, as far as I’m concerned, led the league in team chemistry, with barely a minute passing all week without a laugh.
On the final evening, we gathered for an awards dinner and cocktail party, and I erupted with excitement when Jeff was deservedly named camp-wide Rookie of the Year and, separately, our team’s Most Valuable Player. Having played high school baseball with Jeff down on Long Island, his excellent play came as no surprise but it was still wildly impressive to watch him dominate the competition all week, both at the plate and on the mound. As for me, I did end up batting a healthy .412 with a .583 on base percentage for the week (not that I checked the camp stat book) and despite one comically brutal inning at third base, played solid enough defense in the outfield and at first base.
In the clubhouse one afternoon, as a group of guys were in the hot-tub unwinding, one of the camp veterans from another team mentioned how the week comes down to a series of little moments that marinade over time and become great, lifelong memories. So true. Here are some of mine:
I remember catching a fly ball in left field with one out and the bases loaded and firing a perfect one-hopper to the catcher to prevent the runner on third from advancing on a tag up.
I remember unloading a perfect relay to the third baseman from left and nearly nailing a runner at home.
I remember the first time making good contact at the plate in a game, and getting robbed by the shortstop.
I remember a joyous sigh of relief after my first hit in a game, after struggling in the first day’s games.
I remember reaching second on a double, then noticing two brothers from the other team speaking to each other in their native Italian tongue, unsuccessfully trying to lure me off the bag and fool me with the hidden ball trick.
I remember batting against former Cy Young Award runner-up Pete Schourek in our game against the pros, hitting a ball “out of the stadium,” but unfortunately out of the stadium behind the backstop, foul, before striking out on a deadly off-speed pitch.
I remember getting all the outfielders (four outfielders, in fact) to shift to right field against former Met lefty hitter Mackey Sasser, with Sasser, on the next pitch, expertly serving a liner to left, making fools of us amateurs.
I remember meeting former Mets manager Terry Collins at a local restaurant/bar, and then bumping into him again a couple nights later, even though he was not affiliated with the fantasy camp.
I remember shooting the breeze with Doc Gooden, a childhood hero, and eventually exchanging text messages with him about possibly attending a friend’s son’s Bar Mitzvah.
I remember posing for a photo with Eric Hillman, a 6’10” former Met pitcher who wasn’t even the tallest guy at camp; that distinction belonged to fellow camper Alan Herbert, a happy-go-lucky resident of Taunton, England who stretched an incredible 7’2” and attended not just our week but also the first week, a rare two-week camper.
I remember an epic battle with a talented opposing hurler in our team’s final at bat of a game, down two runs, with a man on base, fouling off seven straight strikes before going down on a K. (Tip your cap to the pitcher moment.)
I remember former Met Lenny Harris telling me the story of how he was gipped of the single-season pinch hit record.
I remember receiving compliments on my swing from former Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda during an impromptu one-on-one batting practice session between games.
I remember former Met Todd “Tank” Pratt telling us how once you step to the plate, even if it’s your brother pitching, the hitter must embrace the mentality of wanting to destroy and humiliate the man on the mound, because that’s what he’s trying to do to you.
I remember almost being nominated for a “Golden Rope,” the award handed out to the previous day’s best player at the morning meeting, but having one of my “achievements” — getting hit by several pitches — announced as that of one of my gracious teammates.
I remember receiving the first highlight reel of the previous day’s games one morning in my hotel room, and seeing myself multiple times in the two-minute video, hitting and fielding, and in that moment marveling again at the camp’s unbelievable attention to first-class quality and detail.
Was it Heaven?
As the week continues to unfold in my mind like a great dream you don’t want to end, I think back to that text from Jeff five months ago: “Mets fantasy camp. What do you think?”
I think it was the most fun I’ve ever had, beyond description, beyond words.
“Is this Heaven?” Shoeless Joe Jackson famously asks in “Field of Dreams.”
“No,” Ray replies, “it’s Iowa.”
That scene resonates for anyone lucky enough to feel emotionally attached to baseball. But, for me, it rings truer than ever following my weeklong visit to Mets Fantasy Camp, a seven-day dream come true that only enhanced my love for our National Pastime.
Was it Heaven? No, it’s Port St. Lucie.