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DREAM TEAM Fantasy Camp 8

I want to introduce the Bombers, my team, in my own fashion, as an homage to a solid group of men. I am assigning pseudonyms instead of nicknames for my ease of use. You know my nickname!

Short pre-amble: I am going to have to do some time travel here, so bear with me. My impressions are that of the whole week, and there might be redundancies with previous articles. The following is in no particular order, except the last player.

I think it is best to have a wingman when you go, as Cousin and I did. There was another pair, young guys in their 40’s who are friends, socialize with their families, and play a lot of rec ball. It showed. These two are great ballplayers, and I call them “Washington” and “Jefferson.”

Both had mad skills, and both suffered through each game, clearly in pain. “Washington” didn’t talk much, but I looked to him as the natural leader, though he was reluctant to assert himself. Except on Friday, when our game was canceled, he invited the team for some batting practice off a machine in the batting cages. Most of the team went, and I just showed up for support without taking any swings. I had only so many left in me.

Washington took a not-so-hot situation and made it a chance for the Bombers to get better, without being heavy handed. That is leadership.

And I kept using his wrong first name, would then apologize, and soon in my excitement after he smacked or caught the ball I would call him the wrong name, again. And again. He smiled through it.

He also saved my life. When I was playing that single infamous inning in left field one round of artillery was coming my way and Washington, in left center, starting shouting at me, “Put your glove over your face!” I did. The ball fell about two feet behind me. I could have been killed. He told me there was no shame in wearing my catcher’s mask in the outfield going forward, and he wasn’t kidding.

That same inning a ball was hit sorta kinda between us and I did my Easter Island statue imitation, pointing at it. My legs were on fire, my back was mush, and I just wanted to sit. “All yours, John,” I said. That was still not his name, no matter how many times I used it.

“Jefferson” had tremendous skills, too. He alternated with Washington at 3rd, SS, and the left side of the outfield. I caught him for an inning and it was frightening. I only saw the ball if I accidently caught it and when he hit a batter, the same guy, twice. (Note that when there is a hit batter a runner is placed on first and you get to keep hitting.)

The guy Jefferson hit is a friend of mine, 70 years old, a retired Merrill Lynch money man who cut his teeth on the Wall Street trading floor back when it meant something and who can take a punch. But my teeth hurt after the second shot, and it was clear that Jefferson was the one injured. He didn’t pitch again, and although he didn’t complain he was clearly disappointed. On Thursday he would do me a solid that changed my camp experience, the infamous “Jefferson Plan A.”

Washington and Jefferson hit a ton, too, combining for 27 RBIs in eight games.

The next two guys weren’t paired up but they both made the All-Star Team (with Washington).

“Wilson” was a veteran camper, around for many seasons, a lefty who had outstanding power to right center, batted .700 legit with 14 RBIs, and was a clear net asset defensively patrolling left and right center. The team gained from his institutional knowledge of the camp and we were his captive audience. He was popular and it seemed like everyone in the camp knew him, veteran campers, coaches, and staff. Pushing 50, Wilson has real talent at baseball and much professional success.

“Reagan” was a real hero off the field. Retired firefighter/EMT, mid-fifties, the coaches discovered that he could handle first-base and his play transformed the team. He was one of our most consistent defenders and a reliable hitter. Reagan’s son is a Marine and that put him in the stratosphere for me. He could do no wrong.

“Happy” is the most positive snake-bit man I have ever met. He had the patience of Job. The airline lost his luggage, then sent it back to his home about 2,000 miles away. With only his carry-on bag, in which he had sneakers, his glove, toiletries and shorts, he checked into the hotel and went out for a jog the day before camp.

And he got hit by a car, which stopped only so Happy could climb off the hood. Then it sped away. The bruise on his thigh, from hip to knee, was startling and ugly; it was the size of Canada and pulsed it was so angry.

“Holy crap! Are you okay?” Said everyone.

“Oh yeah, fine. My leg hurts, though.” Happy smiled.

“Did you call the police?” We sang in chorus.

“No, I thought I might have been in the wrong.”

Happy showed up with a glove his son gave him: University of San Diego Toreros glove, pastel blue and off-white, never broken in in. I presumed he would be in my class of play, marginally crappy to awful.

Happy was lights out in the outfield, made a diving acrobatic catch (one of only two I saw all camp from any club), and tied for the highest batting average for our team. The dude played exceedingly well and he was injured beyond human endurance.

This is the kind of team player he was… Happy would have a staff runner assigned when he batted. His runner would get on base, and then two batters later he would run for someone on our team even more lame than he was.

Happy, the nicest guy I have ever met, is completely without guile. I am not a hugger, but I wanted to hug him goodbye.

“Whiskey” and “Tango” were both veteran campers. Whiskey was our cheerleader, effervescent, and he helped organize lineups in the early stages of play. I didn’t realize until Friday he was just telling everyone “Go where you want,” but there you have it. I looked to him for much guidance. We all made physical errors, some real doozies, but Whiskey made a couple mental errors which he acknowledged but didn’t let them get him down. He paid me a high compliment last week. Said I was a “mensch.” I know what it means and he didn’t seem like the kind of guy who would throw it around. I am as appreciative as I am unworthy.

“Tango” was our senior member, over 70 years old, and was always willing to take any position on the field. A steady glove, he caught tricky fly balls in the outfield and handled himself competently in the infield. He made me look good twice in one inning when I bounced a couple throws to him for easy outs. Tango made my terrible throws look like just another day at the office for him.

The camp has a “Best Camper” award that we vote on for the person who most exemplifies the Yankee spirit of championship. I voted for Tango. Longevity matters, and his sunny disposition fit in well with the group. Tango could also cuss like a drill sergeant. Real colorful, too. I admire that.

“Bashful” had the locker across from mine, and I confess to not remembering his name at all until Friday, which happened to be the first day I heard him speak. Physically fit, quiet and reserved, a team player who waited until everyone had a spot in the field and then he would fill the gap, even if he didn’t want that job. That’s valuable beyond words, and he also batted almost .600 legit. Bashful was hurt like us all, but he shook it off each day. Respect.

“Tin Man” had the ugliest leg bruising I have ever seen on a live body. I thought he might require a double amputation. Tin Man ruptured both hammies and both quads. But he suited up every day, did split duty with other walking wounded (like me) in the outfield, and kept the good chatter up. A fun, quick-witted guy to have on the team, he showed me many kindnesses by helping me with the catcher’s gear at the turn of innings. His business has contracts with the DoD and he loves Marines. Definitely want to have a beer with him. His mother-in-law lives in the town next to mine so I know he’ll need a place to hide when he visits her.

Which leaves my Cousin and “Ace.” Ace was our shortstop, pitcher, and top hitter. He would be awarded the camp’s Best Player Award, Senior Division, and at 62 years young he made players 30 years his junior look foolish when he was on the hill. Nasty two-seamer, a powerful four, and a curve the pros exclaimed “whoa!” the first time they saw it. During the Greats game they all came up in the box because they wanted to try it. Ace didn’t give them too many chances though they fouled off several.

Ace pitched 8+ innings of shutout baseball over four days, and at the plate he had a double, a triple, and an inside the park HR, and nine RBIs, batting a team high .724. Man, he threw a lot of strikes and the umps loved it.

Ace told me what he was going to throw, we made signs, and for some inexplicable reason for his first pitch each inning I forgot to give a sign. Talk about a mental mistake. So he would throw a four seamer that smashed my glove. After that he shook me off a lot, and I even gave him shit for throwing this or that in a given situation and gave him my reasoning. Remember that I had not played ball in almost 50 years and Ace played in tournaments all over the country for over 40 years.

Ace just smiled, like an indulgent father. What a ballplayer.

And my Cousin, my favorite ballplayer of all time. He smashed one to the 316 sign in deep left in one game, and fouled off 15 pitches in one at bat from our coach in another, so much so that we all started yelling at him, coaches and umps included. Funny stuff.

You hung in there when injured, Cuz, and I know you want another shot at it all.

Thank you, my Cousin, my wingman. Instead of a miserable week of self-loathing, you made me laugh hard and long. I’m still laughing.

Thank you, Bombers.

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