Every single one of those legs is sore.
This is a fantasy baseball camp, and a closer look at the bodies on the ground will reveal bald heads, ample guts and eyes that can no longer read the box scores without glasses. These are men with unfulfilled hopes in their hearts, and pictures of their grandchildren in their wallets. They have paid $3,000 to spend a week learning baseball from former major leaguers like Jimmy Piersall, Joe Pepitone and Bob Gibson. The $3,000 gets them the chance to play two games every day, in actual major league uniforms that are washed for them every night. It gets them seven nights at the Embassy Suites in Scottsdale, free breakfast and lunch for a week, 50 baseball cards with their picture on them, an autographed bat and ball, and the opportunity to be called "asshole" by guys they have stood in awe of for three decades. JIM MARSHALL IS SITTING on the bench at Indian School Park in Scottsdale, watching his team struggle. This camp has drawn 52 men, enough for four squads of players. Marshall is managing one of them. He managed the Chicago Cubs in the late 1970s, not very successfully, and isn't doing much better at the moment.
"I looked over there and I saw a guy fall in center field. I thought he was shot." Marshall, who lives in Scottsdale and is a scout for a Japanese baseball team, is given to remarks like this. He mutters them offhandedly, in a confidential tone, and in this way provides a running commentary on the action, kind of like the chorus of a Greek tragedy. Except Marshall is wearing a most peculiar-looking toupee.
He nods his chin at a figure in the distance. "I know if I gave you the ball right now, you could throw it better."
Suddenly a voice can be heard in the background shouting, "Christ all-fucking-mighty." It belongs to Jimmy Piersall, who's managing the team that's Marshall's opponent today.
Jimmy Piersall is famous for a couple of things. One of them is running the bases backward after he hit his 100th home run. The other is having had a nervous breakdown, the subject of a book and a movie titled Fear Strikes Out--and a great deal of raillery this week.
Piersall is wearing baseball pants that emulate the ancient flannels in their bagginess. They hover around his ankles. The crotch is pretty low, too, which makes him look a little like a rap singer, except that he's a geezer now, with gray hair and bifocals.
He's one of the better coaches, though, as far as teaching goes, with a lively way of getting his point across. When he's showing the outfielders how to backhand a fly, he tells them, "Wait until you're almost to it before you raise your hand. Then raise one hand. Guys who start like this"--he runs along with both hands raised--"are faggots. It blocks their vision."
Piersall doesn't miss a trick, from the blond with the ying-yangs on the tennis court a quarter of a mile away to the lousy outfield teaching going on at a Giants Instructional League camp on an adjacent field. "Lookadis shit," Piersall says contemptuously, watching an outfield coach tell the kids something immeasurably stupid. "How can you judge the ball off the bat?"
He doesn't put up with much, either, and today he's not putting up with Marshall's shortstop, a wiry, loudmouthed little guy who has been griping that Piersall's base runner is taking too long a lead. The guy has a point. Base stealing is mercifully forbidden in fantasy camp baseball, because the campers show more flair for how their stirrups are worn than for fielding.
Still, Piersall resents such officious interference and screams at the shortstop, "Who the hell are you to run the game, you little cocksucker?"
The shortstop, abashed, goes back to his position. Marshall has gotten into the fray in a perfunctory way and called the umpire an asshole. Later, comfortably back on the bench, he confides of the campers, "They're very competitive. We go at each other's throats to create the atmosphere."
IT TAKES ONLY a few days to establish that the team co-managed by Bob Gibson and Bill Campbell (who is universally referred to as "Soup") is the worst in camp. It is also one of the friendliest. It includes Frank Thompson, 48, who's in the freight-expediting business in Houston. When Frank runs the bases, which does not happen much, his stomach shakes up and down. When he gets back to the bench, he lights up a smoke and makes comments about other players in a Texas twang. He says he'd rent a car to see the town, but his feet are too sore to drive.
Then there's Mark Fields, a blond, bony-faced guy in his early 30s. Fields lives in Bakersfield, California, where he has an oil and gas leasing company, and follows the St. Louis Cardinals obsessively. Fantasy camp is his yearly vacation, although he once spent his two weeks driving the country, watching 18 baseball games in 14 days. He ate hot dogs at every ballpark.
And there's Paul Burbank. He's on the bench today because he pulled a hamstring his first day in camp. Burbank is in his early 60s; he has the gray-haired, distinguished looks of an eagle, and a New England accent. He used to be an oral surgeon at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and brings a jarring note of civility to many of the day's exchanges. He's been around baseball, though, as a college player, on a semipro team and in the Air Force. He's keeping score, which has involved, mostly, adding large numbers. The score is 24 to 0. Them.
Soup Campbell approaches the bench. He has done most of the coaching this week, because Bob Gibson arrived in camp late and radiated an aura of standoffishness when he did get there. A Hall of Fame pitcher who had a minuscule 1.12 ERA in 1968, Gibson had a reputation for headhunting and for unfriendliness, and seems to be trying to live up to the latter.
Soup, however, takes a "we're all in this together" attitude toward the travails of the week. At 43, he's younger than many of the campers. He takes the field when injuries incapacitate his team, and he takes its losing record with equanimity.
"I want to advise you that we need 24--no, 25--runs," he says calmly, looking at the scorecard. Numbers so big, you lose count. Bob Gibson joins him. "All we want is one run to save face," he tells the assembled players. Then he walks back to first base, apparently trying to get as far away as possible from the principals in the debacle. As if in compliance with his wishes, two guys get hits, including a huffing and puffing Frank Thompson. A third drives the requested run home. As the runner crosses the plate, Gibson leaps into the air, ball cap in hand, arm pumping the sky. "All you have to do is ask, Bob," one of the guys on the bench shouts.
JOE PEPITONE is explaining something to a little guy with a red beard and catcher's equipment.
"Don't talk to me like I'm a fucking idiot or I'll take you and throw you into the fucking fence, you prick," he is shouting at the top of his lungs.
The voice is Brooklyn-accented and loud. Pepitone wears a crown of luxuriant salt-and-pepper hair, parted in the middle and sweeping dramatically toward his collar. It is absolutely motionless in the breeze. Such elaborate styling befits the man who is remembered more for introducing blowdryers to the major league clubhouse than for anything he ever did as a first baseman with the Yankees. Even today, he travels with an entourage. Nobody quite knows who these people are, but they trail clouds of Little Italy and guys with nicknames like "Tuna." There is a short guy named Eddie and a large guy named Dominic. Dominic says he is a contractor and used to manage Joe Pepitone's restaurant in Chicago. Unusual friends are apparently nothing new for Joe Pepitone, who was arrested in 1985 for possession of cocaine. That means he will listen to a lot of nose jokes this week, as well as references to his days as a partier and womanizer. Pepitone's team is one of the better ones in camp. This, however, does not inspire him to learn the players' names.
"Lookadis guy inna outfield," he will moan. "Where am I gonna hide him?" This is repeated like an incantation. Another chant goes, "I don't like my first baseman." His first baseman is a gynecologist. Once when the guy drops a ball, Pepitone asks him, "Hey, you deliver babies. You drop a lot of those, too?"
Pepitone's manner makes an interesting contrast to Piersall's. Piersall tends to dismiss his players' fruitless efforts at hitting with a philosophical "can't do nothin' about tight assholes." He talks nonstop, and when he has no baseball observations to make, will fall back on a bizarre running commentary on political life in these United States: "We're giving $100 million to the Jews and we can't take care of our own. Do you think Russia's coming around us because they like us?"
Pepitone, on the other hand, can sink into gloomy silences. He is also given to addressing remarks to the universe, and questioning the vicissitudes of a Fate that will cause his outfielders to collide with one another, an event that causes him to raise both hands, Lear-like, to Heaven.
Pepitone is not very big on instructing his players, perhaps believing that they are hopeless.
Of course, the player he is shouting at just now is receiving instruction. The lesson is, "Don't be a red-ass." "Red-ass" means you are taking it all too seriously, considering that you are a scrawny little guy who used to be a newspaper publisher and can't play worth shit, anyway.
A few innings later one of Pepitone's outfielders makes a startlingly good catch. "That's a major league play in the sun," he says in genuine admiration.
THE FANTASY BASEBALL CAMP was invented in Scottsdale in 1983 by a former catcher for the 1969 Chicago Cubs named Randy Hundley.
Randy Hundley's red, frizzy hair is balding on top, but his snub nose still makes him look like a little boy, albeit an overlarge and dilapidated one.
"I was doing a kids' camp in Illinois, and I had a fella to say, `Why don't you do an adult camp?'" Hundley really talks like this, and with a drawling accent from the hills of Virginia. He calls himself a country boy, and uses the word "blooming" a lot. The strongest term that will come out of his mouth all week is "crap," although he usually says "poop." Hundley organized that first camp around the 1969 Cubs, who broke Chicago's heart when they folded in September and lost the pennant to the Miracle Mets. The 1969 Cubs are part of baseball mythology these days, like Bobby Thomson's home run. In fact, they are the subject of a book by Rick Talley. Before they became legends, however, they were goats. That was because of Dallas Green, who took over as general manager of the Cubs in 1981. Green booted out the members of the 1969 team, who were working as coaches and minor league managers and such, because he thought they had a reputation as losers. This did not sit well with them, and so the first fantasy baseball camp was something of a reunion for a bunch of guys who hadn't seen each other in a decade, but had a mutual grudge and couldn't wait for history to prove Dallas Green wrong.
That first camp included Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Ken Holtzman, Billy Williams, Bill Hands, Don Kessinger, and Jim Hickman. "It was like a religious experience," Hundley remembers.
It was also a stroke of marketing genius. Randy Hundley invented a business that now generates millions of dollars a year. Major league baseball clubs run fantasy camps. Private entrepreneurs run fantasy camps. More than a dozen different fantasy camp businesses flourish across the country. Hundley alone runs 11 every year, some for three days in Chicago and St. Louis, some like this one, lasting for a week. There are even basketball fantasy camps.
Almost no one thought they would work. When Randy Hundley called up Gene Oliver, another member of the 1969 Cubs, Oliver's reaction was, "No one's going to pay $2,000 to be made fun of and harassed."
He was right. They'd pay $3,000. And come back. Of Hundley's business, 30 percent is repeat. One guy has been to 55 camps, which means he has spent $150,000 over the past eight years to take batting practice and get yelled at. More important, he has had a chance to relive the conditions he enjoyed as a Boy Scout, and acquire a large store of anecdotes in which famous names figure prominently.
Almost all of the campers are either professionals--doctors, lawyers--or successful businessmen. There's an attorney representing television talent. There's the chief financial officer of a candy company in Chicago. There is only one black, and he's here courtesy of the Upper Deck baseball card company, for which he paints the portraits of the players.
A lot of the campers come from Chicago, because of the Cubs connection. A lot of them come from Southern California, because it is nearby. One man is 80 years old. One man is mentally handicapped. One man is dying of cancer.
Some are excellent ballplayers who've gotten out of shape. Others have more dreams than talent. For some reason, there seem to be a lot of short guys.
Coaches like Oliver discovered a surprising amount of competitiveness, given the fact that the clubhouse, as one camper says, looks like a MASH unit.
Oliver discovered something else. The fantasy camps were fun for the former major leaguers, too, for whom retirement had been a premonition of death.
"I played professional baseball 18 years. After that, no matter what you did, it was not fulfilling," Oliver says. "It's not a chore," he says of the camp. "This feeds our ego. They can tell us everything we ever did."
MIKE GREENWALD IS on the mound today. Being on the mound involves dropping balls into an automatic pitching machine, and it is a position usually reserved for the member of the team whose legs are in the worst shape.
Greenwald, however, has become the permanent pitcher for Jimmy Piersall's team because he drives people crazy, and this seems to give Piersall a perverse satisfaction, as well as a psychological edge. Today Greenwald is driving crazy the members of Soup Campbell's squad, who are still winless. Frank Thompson, Mark Fields and Paul Burbank are sitting on the bench, awaiting their turns at bat. These guys, perhaps because they have less hope of winning, have turned their attentions to the analysis of their fellow campers. Of Piersall's loudmouth shortstop, the word is: "He's somewhat of a groupie with the major league players." Of the man who has attended 55 camps, the inside line is: "He thinks he runs the place." But they are reserving their especial ire for Mike Greenwald.
Perhaps because he has not played baseball since childhood, Mike Greenwald does not know that he is violating a baseball rule against showing someone up. This is the rule that says you do not creep around the bases after a home run, grinding that last bad pitch into the face of the pitcher who is just then wishing he hadn't thrown it.
"All he's doing is dropping a ball in a pitching machine and he's laughing like he's throwing strikes," is how they sum up Greenwald's transgression.
As marketing director for Adohr Farms near Los Angeles, Greenwald knows more about selling milk than the rules of a game he's scarcely played, and he doesn't know enough to curb a glee that seems to come naturally to him.
Since this is his first camp--and most likely his last--Greenwald does not know that a couple of years ago a guy was showing people up. In the culmination of camp, the Saturday game in which the campers face the major leaguers at HoHoKam Park, Ferguson Jenkins and Soup Campbell struck out the offender on three straight pitches each. "They had no intention of letting him hit," one of the benchwarmers says with satisfaction, anticipating similar treatment for Greenwald.
Greenwald has a couple of other strikes against him. Tall, sandy-haired with glasses, he has a funny way of running like he's leaning backward. He attracts ridicule like a lightning rod. The players call him "Hollywood." Piersall calls him "Alice." "Hey, you want a fondue fork?" Piersall asks once, after Greenwald boots a ground ball. Even when Greenwald gets a hit, the abuse continues. "Stop there, you faggot," Piersall tells him as he arrives at first.
Today, Greenwald is assisting the umpire in distinguishing between balls and strikes. This leads to sufficient shouting and marching around the infield to attract the attention of Gene Oliver and Joe Pepitone, coaches for the game in the adjacent field. Abandoning their own teams, they trot over to the more interesting Campbell-Piersall contest.
"Red-ass city," Oliver says with deep contentment, contemplating men making fools of themselves. "Hey, Mike," Pepitone shouts, getting to the point. "You're a real asshole." Greenwald's is one of the few names he knows. Pepitone begins to jog back to his own game, then is struck with inspiration and makes a U-turn. "He gets me so mad," he says, referring to Greenwald and mincing in cruel imitation, "I could crush a grape."
Keeping score on the bench, retired surgeon Paul Burbank seems embarrassed by the turn the brouhaha has taken. Ever good-mannered, he turns helpfully to an observer and explains the situation: "I guess he's rather talkative," he says of Greenwald.
A KNOT OF MEN is taking batting practice before the morning game starts. One of them is Jerry Deichstetter, a 49-year-old steelworker from Chicago and a lifelong Cubs fan. Mentally handicapped, he has become an object of special consideration for the rest of the campers, who have on occasion asked the coaches to slow the pitching machine to give him a chance for a hit. He has also been singled out for the highest praise in baseball when a coach says of him, "Jerry here's our inspiration. He doesn't say a word, he just goes about his job."
Piersall's loudmouth shortstop is leaning on the fence, watching Jerry take his turn. He is Larry Friedman, a Chicago commodities broker, and he sounds like he took elocution lessons from Mayor Daley.
At 33, Friedman is one of the youngest campers and one of the best athletes. That he is rich is no secret. He enjoys the kidding about the size of the house he's building in Highland Park, Illinois, and he freely admits he earns $1.5 million a year. Around his neck he wears a gold Spanish doubloon that could double as a boat anchor. All this entitles Friedman to buy a lot of drinks for the former major leaguers, some of whom never earned more than $38,500. But snaring the friendship of former major leaguers is one of the reasons guys come to camp. In that department, however, Friedman faces tough competition from an import-exporter who rented a stretch limo, piled all the coaches into it and bought them all dinner.
"Hey, Jerry, rip the ball today," Friedman shouts.
"I gotta see what this guy's got," Jerry tells him, in mimicry of a big leaguer.
Also taking batting practice today is George Goodall. At 80, George is the oldest man in camp, and in a lot better shape than many. He plays with a glove that has become an object of curiosity and admiration. He got it while he was in the Army in 1942, through the time-honored process known as "midnight requisition."
George lives, as he says, "15 miles from Busch Stadium" in Belleville, Illinois. A retired pharmaceutical salesman--he still works a couple of days a week selling press-on labels--George has been to 24 camps so far.
Another attendee at the batting cage is Craig Deleo, a chatty fellow in his mid-30s from Southern California. With dark, curly hair and mustache and a bronzed complexion from working in the sun, Deleo has the build of a natural athlete.
He works for the Corona Clay Company, which he'll tell you redid the infield at Angels Stadium this year. Deleo chats about anything and everything, quietly and tirelessly, and has not a harsh word to say about anyone. Today he is pursuing the topic of how nice the Phoenix police are. Because he does tend to go on, a listener's concentration can wander, and so the start of this story is lost in confusion. The part he has arrived at now has to do with the police sending him home in a cab, rather than arresting him. There is also something about missing car keys.
"Some guys that come here," Deleo says, "they act like they're playing for a team. They're in bed early and they don't have any nightlife. When I come here, I want to get into the nightlife a little bit."
EVERY MORNING at 9, the coaches address the players, seated like schoolchildren on a bank of bleachers in front of them. The coaches stand around, leaning on bats, until it is their turn to talk. Possibly major league ballplayers could stand without the assistance of bats, but they seem unwilling to run the risk.
The idea of the morning meeting is to recap the previous day's game, but usually, the presence of an audience brings out the comedian in the coaches. One day Joe Pepitone arrives without his toupee. "Somebody stole my hair," he claims, sweeping off his cap to reveal a shiny dome.
The morning meeting also allows Bob Gibson to announce, the day after his team has finally won a game, "My club isn't as horseshit as I said they were." Jim Marshall takes the opportunity to accuse a fellow coach of having been drunk for three days, and hears the explanation: "You would be, too, if you watched my team. The only thing these guys have is a good net worth." Jimmy Piersall manages to summarize his own personality and much of the contradictory ethos of baseball in a couple of sentences on the subject of Mike Greenwald: "That SOB is really nuts, it's a pleasure to be around him. Plus that he's a faggot, but he can hit."
This morning, Randy Hundley is explaining the rules of Saturday's campers-versus-former-big-leaguers game. Every camper gets two at-bats and two innings in the field. The game usually goes on for hours, and Hundley is explaining that, to speed it up, he doesn't want to see the campers let a lot of balls go by waiting for the perfect pitch.
Bob Gibson jumps in and elaborates. "If you don't swing, you're gonna get hit in the fucking head." He steps back, and takes a golf swing with the baseball bat he's been leaning on. Another thought occurs to him. "We don't bunt on old pitchers, either. You get hit if you bunt."
The game itself turns out to be anticlimactic. Mike Greenwald strikes out twice but at least he doesn't get thrown at. Jerry Deichstetter makes contact with the ball, then heads uncertainly toward first base. Soup Campbell holds the ball until Jerry, encouraged by the men in the dugout, gets close enough to first not to be shown up.
Jerry and 80-year-old George Goodall get the biggest hands as the players are introduced over the loudspeaker at HoHoKam Park. There is really no need for a loudspeaker, since, with 52 men on the campers' team, there are more people in the dugout than in the stands.
THE CULMINATION of the fantasy camp is the Saturday-night banquet, at which the campers will be given baseballs autographed by the coaches, a videotape of the Saturday game, baseball bats and their last ration of shit.
Joe Pepitone is wearing a white shirt with unnaturally long collar tabs, of a style Brooks Brothers probably does not carry. He refers to it as his "John Gotti shirt," assuming everyone will recognize the name of the Mafia don. Larry Friedman is wearing a black shirt, a watch with diamonds around the face and no socks. Paul Burbank is wearing chinos, a white knit sport shirt and a navy-blue blazer.
There are scabs visible on almost every elbow, and there's one black eye. Its owner is already rehearsing the story: "I was standing talking to Gibby, and these two guys were throwing on the sidelines . . . ." Another man says he wants to put on his uniform, walk into the executive conference room and give his employees the Joe Pepitone treatment: "The first one of you cocksuckers to screw up . . . ."
Each coach is given a chance to say a few words. Jimmy Piersall gives an accomplished after-dinner speech of the kind he delivers for a living, full of jokes and reminiscences. Bob Gibson talks about his dislike of the press. Jim Marshall lists a dozen managers he played for, and says none would have helped his team. Joe Pepitone introduces his entourage, Dominic and Eddie, and says he never got any respect from his players. Randy Hundley singles out Mike Greenwald for his "infectious enthusiasm."
Greenwald is smiling. He has never, in fact, been caught without a smile. "What a great time this has been," he has said on any number of occasions. "This has been fantastic."
Craig Deleo is still talking. So far, he's gone to a Joe Diffie concert, had dinner at Rawhide and developed a warm friendship with a waitress at the hotel, with whom he is going to the Grand Canyon on the morrow. He's still in the process of getting his keys back. He left them in a car belonging to two young ladies he had met at What's Your Beef?. Some elements of his story still appear to be missing.
A couple of seats down, Larry Friedman is recalling how at last year's camp he got a hit off Ferguson Jenkins that went to the wall. "I watched it over and over and over and over," he says, his hand hitting the repeat button of an imaginary remote control.
Deleo, taking his usual Will Rogers approach to humanity, says confidentially, "You know, I used to think he was just loud and obnoxious, but he's really a nice guy."
Before the members of the four teams go up to get their bats and baseballs, Gene Oliver takes one last swipe. "I talked to the people at the airlines," he says, "and they said bats were considered weapons, so you have to check them. I said, `We've watched these guys all week, and you don't have to worry.'"
"I looked over there and I saw a guy fall in center field. I thought he was shot."
Pepitone asks his first baseman, "Hey, you deliver babies. You drop a lot of those, too?"
"That's a major league play in the sun," he says in genuine admiration.
One guy has been to 55 camps, which means that he has spent $150,000 over the past eight years to take batting practice and get yelled at.
"This feeds our ego," says one ex-big leaguer. "They can tell us everything we ever did."
"All he's doing is dropping a ball in a pitching machine and he's laughing like he's throwing strikes."
Possibly major league ballplayers could stand without the assistance of bats, but they seem unwilling to run the risk.
"We don't bunt on old pitchers," Bob Gibson warns the campers. "You get hit if you bunt.