THURSDAY, JUNE 27, 2019 --
Sadly, my major league baseball career ended before it had a chance to begin.
It was 1969 and I hadn't turned 17, but I had everything going for me. Almost.
I was tall, left-handed, played first base and visualized how good I would look in a Clarke High School uniform as a catalyst to the bigs. My shortcomings were minor. I was slow, couldn't hit and about half the time I stopped a ground ball before it went through my legs. But it was nothing that couldn't be overcome.
Yet when Coach Jack McDonald posted the list of the 15 players on the varsity roster of my Long Island high school, I was somehow left off. I read it up and down, backward and forward, side to side. There was no Roy Berger. A sad day for both me and the future of the game.
With my college scholarship and major league potential gone, I went to the bullpen and decided to become a journalist of the nastiest kind: a sportswriter. If I couldn't play the game I sure could criticize everyone else who thought they could.
A month after graduating college I became a sportswriter. That gig lasted two months before I went to the dark side and became a corporate PR man. My sportswriting pen along with my baseball uniform were mothballed.
They stayed boxed up for more than 40 years. In January, 2010, I finally put on a Major League uniform. It was for the Pittsburgh Pirates and, despite growing up in New York, the Pirates were my boyhood team.
This deferred-dream-come-true was a fantasy, of course. A Fantasy Camp, in fact. I was at Pirate City in Bradenton, Florida, the spring training home of the Bucs. It was Pittsburgh Pirates Fantasy Camp
when all of us who never were became the real deal for a week.
If you want to have the best week of your life, I can highly recommend a baseball Fantasy Camp. You hang with legends of the baseball past and some contemporaries in worse shape than you. You laugh more than you have in ages. Desire is the only criteria. Well, that and disposable income.
About 60 percent of the major league teams now have camps, some for a week at their spring training sites, some for a weekend at the home ballpark. Weeklong camps in Florida and Arizona run anywhere between four and six grand. If you're a baseball guy, it's worth every dime. Ladies, too. Most camps have a few women that come to play. The New York Yankees even have an entire ladies camp
Want to find the Fantasy Camp run by your favorite team? Just google it and play ball. But hurry. Some 2020 camps are already sold out.
During my camp experience, I shared the field with about 70 others who dreamed we could be major leaguers. For that week we were. We played (terribly) and were coached by our childhood heroes. My 2010 moment in the Florida sun happened to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the 1960 World Champion Pirates. There to guide us and tell stories deep into the night were luminaries such as Bob Friend, Elroy Face, Vernon Law, Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon and the big hero of the 1960 Series, Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski.
The campers were divided into six teams and managed by the ex-pros. My manager was Virdon, the former Pirates centerfielder who later skippered the Pirates, the Houston Astros, the Montreal Expos and the Yankees, now my team. In 2010, Bill Virdon actually wrote my name on a line-up card. If I'm dreaming, please don't wake me!
Despite some reservations--What was I doing trying to play baseball at 57 years old coupled with a flight booked for the next day in case this was a complete disaster--the week kept getting better. I held my own with the other old guys, batting .421 against pitchers throwing anywhere between 35 and 50 miles per hour. Not terrible by any means considering they were my first at-bats in 42 years. In fact, I wish Coach McDonald could have seen me to realize the mistake he made in 1969 leaving me off the Clarke High roster.
A few years earlier I told my wife that a baseball fantasy camp was something I wanted to do. She encouraged me. I told her it would be a one-and-done deal. She said see how a week goes before you make that judgment. In 2018, I finished my 13th fantasy camp. My wife is very smart.
Over the years, I've been a Pirate seven times, a Yankee five times and, for some reason, a Detroit Tiger. I've become the world's oldest journeyman.
As the years have passed, bases seem further apart and my bat slower to get around. It's tougher getting up after trying to field a ground ball. Tracking a pop-up is a cross between vertigo and an alcohol bender the night before. But to put on that uniform and spend a week with your peers and former major league heroes who now are also your colleagues is absolutely wonderful. It's a drug. It's addictive.
The first former big league pitcher I faced in 2010 was Zane Smith, a one-time Pirate, Brave and Red Sox. I'd never seen a pitcher throw 80 miles per hour before. At least not when I was standing in the batter's box defending myself. Somehow I put a bat on one of Smith's pitches and chopped it to the shortstop. In a bang-bang play, he got me by only a dozen steps at first.
The hardest pitch I ever faced was undoubtedly the 85-mile-per-hour fastball thrown in 2012 by four-time World Series champion Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez. Despite having Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, Paul Blair, Homer Bush, Jake Gibbs, Oscar Gamble, Ron Bloomberg and Roy White in the field behind him, El Duque took no chances with my big stick. He drilled me in the right thigh. Damn it hurt. Still does.
A year earlier, at the 2011 Tigers fantasy camp, I got my first hit off a former major leaguer. Southpaw Frank Tanana threw a pitch that sawed my bat in half. The ball rolled about 12 feet down the first base line and stopped. Everyone was bent over laughing. Not me. It took me about 30 seconds to huff down to first, but I got there. In the box score a hit is a hit. I also got one off hard-throwing former Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson. Another Yankee, Tanyon Sturtze, had me shaking when I stepped in against him. Sturtzy and chin music are partners, no matter how old and inept a batter he faced.
I've attended baseball camps after shoulder impingement repair, rotator cuff surgery and, in January, 2018, I had a bat in my hand five months after a quintuple bypass. My rehab goal had been to be well enough to make the Pirates camp
My experiences as a 13-time vet of the fantasy camps has produced two books. The Most Wonderful Week of the Year
was published in 2014 and I wrote Big League Dream
in 2017. Both are available on Amazon
. Bill Mazeroski wrote the foreword for Most Wonderful Week
and Bucky 'Fuc*ing' Dent did a great intro to Big League Dream
The universal fantasy camp mantra is: "Start slow and gradually taper off." If you're tempted but think you can't do it, you're wrong. Age and skill level don't matter. It's adult little league. If you make an error (and you certainly will) nobody cares. If you swing and miss (and you will, many times) you are the only one embarrassed. It's more laughs than watching the Marlins or Orioles play. -- Roy Berger
ABOUT ROY BERGER
Roy Berger writes the twice-monthly Sunday Morning Coffee
blog, which covers life, love, politics and, of course, sports. He recently retired after 20 years as president and chief executive of Medjet
, the travel medical assistance membership plan. He most recently wrote for JoeSentMe about travel insurance