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GAME BALLS Fantasy Camp 5

On Thursday Cousin and I are the first guys in, and as he goes right to the training table I saunter into the locker room, the first camper there.

My laundry loop is missing.

One of the BIG bennies of camp is that the attendants wash all your stuff. The uniform is a given, but also t shirts, socks, sliding trunks, you name it. Plenty of campers put some civvies in the loop, a simple and secure contraption I required remedial training on, and I believe one could put a used Michelin radial on the loop and they’d wash that.

The process of washing and drying is all there, adjacent to the showers, open and apparent. After the wash/dry cycle, the attendants hang up a clean uniform, the laundry loop, and fold a million plush towels for the campers.

Only now my laundry loop is missing.

No, not a prank. I was there before the morning attendants, and no one would do anything so juvenile. The attendants assure me “this has never happened” which is believable, and “they didn’t just walk outa here,” which is obvious.

The head guy asks to check my locker and bag. I allow it mainly because he is genuinely concerned, and his wheels are spinning behind his eyes. Nothing. Gone.

Campers start pouring in, my teammates especially. There are no secrets in a locker room even though everyone does not eyeball anyone, if you follow my drift. Modesty is always the word in locker room etiquette.

“My laundry is missing,” I announce.

I expected my teammates to rally and join me in ripping apart all 125 lockers looking for my gear. The ground swell doesn’t develop.

The head attendant asks me, “What was on it and what do you need to play?”

I rattle off a quick inventory, and the attendants replace all the items immediately… except although I still have my cup, there is no way to secure it.

I have to wear a cup. There’s nothing special there, but it is all mine. I have always worn a cup for all sports even before I had anything of prominence to protect. I wear a cup going out for ice cream.

Now the last two days have been problematic for me as the cup and the goofy-supporter-skivvies that it came with keep riding sideways over my junk. My constant adjustments are a real distraction in the dugout and locker room etiquette applies there, too. No one has said anything of value yet.

I am both pissed off and screwed. I announce I can’t catch, and the sheer horror of me playing nine in the field sobers and focuses my teammates and me – this cannot stand!

A ten-minute discussion ensues, with not just my teammates, but other campers in earshot. It got kinda raunchy, but the humor helped me keep my temper cooled and the situation in perspective.

“Jefferson” commands everyone’s attention with a natural presence and comes up with a workaround that would have made the Apollo 13 NASA ground team envious. I see the beauty of it immediately, telling the group if we don’t find my loop we are going with “Jefferson Plan A.” Grunts of approval all around.

I am still a little skeptical, as it is my undergarments we are throwing around, but it is time to cross the Rubicon. Cousin gave me an extra pair of his sliders which is tighter on me. I won’t go into the delicate details but the Jefferson Plan A was perfect.

It is so good, in fact, that when my laundry loop was returned later in the day, I continued to use Jefferson Plan A for the rest of the week.

Never let it be said that Jefferson and Cousin and my teammates didn’t just have my back. They had my balls covered, too.

So what happened? The attendants swear they did not return my gear and had already labelled a new laundry loop for me. They had assumed one of two possibilities: that I threw it in the trash since it stunk to high heaven, or it got caught in another loop and was hanging somewhere in another locker.

To make a short story longer, the laundry loop was hanging in my locker after Game two about 330pm. Somebody had it all day and just hung it up in my locker sometime between 115pm and 330pm. Not cool, but at this point I didn’t care. At least, not too much. For a while there I swore on my ancestors that I would have someone’s head on a stick in the parking lot if I ever found the guy…

Game one was on Field 2, the second-best field in the complex. We played the best team in camp and had our worst game, by far. We lost 25-10, though at one point we were losing 18 to nothing. These guys were organized and played all year long in their respective towns, holding each other accountable and encouraging better play amongst themselves. They phoned and texted and emailed each other all year long. They took first to third with shocking speed on anything hit in the outfield. I respected their commitment and told them so.

I made a ridiculous muffed play on a popup behind the plate, which hit my glove, and I lost my footing, fell flat on my ass, arms and legs akimbo. I then made a snow angel on the grass and the videographer who got it all on film is probably still laughing.

It was epic and hilarious and I made the blooper reel, my great distinction at camp. The shortstop on the other team, who caught my DEEP DIVE two days earlier, shouted “That’s a 9.1. You really nailed it.”

I had one routine play, 2 to 3. Bad day in the box, though, only one decent hit and still too many dribblers. My right hand is on fire. My legs are tighter than ever though my package is in excellent shape, better than ever, no digging and no adjusting. Cousin had a good game in the field, his leg improving by the hour.

The afternoon game is a drive to the field, the first “playoff” game and our best effort thus far, to a team that beat us once. We “run-ruled” them – if, after 7 innings a team is down by 15 runs the game ends after their last at bat. We won, 21 to 5.

Cousin hit the fence at 316 feet hard left and it was his best moment, the longest ball I saw, anywhere, hit all week. It is hard describing the sheer joy everyone had after that blast. Huge smiles from even the non-smilers.

I spoke privately and separately with both Mickey Rivers, who hugged me (well, he hugged everybody) and Jeff Nelson who I made laugh out loud while he slapped my chest, which prompted a lot of questions from coaches and teammates… I’ll never tell what I told them.

I caught five, outfield two, and had my first solid day at the plate, 4 for 5 legit. The coaches give out game balls for wins, and since it was our second W with the season coming to a close, Gil gave out six game balls. And I got the 6th, I guess for my good looks. As God is my witness I have given out a hundred game balls or more to Little Leaguers from New Jersey to California while coaching ball, but I never got one before. I felt silly, but it made my day. I had a couple Greats sign it and I UPS’d it to my brother in Charlotte. He is a Red Sox fan (Philistine!) and I made sure Mike Torrez signed it prominently.

Thursday night is Family Night and the camp hosts the real Yankee on-field reporter/interviewer from the YES channel, blond and beautiful, and she does some Q&A with the players during dinner in the pavilion. I am guessing almost 200 people are there.

The Greats are funny, fast, charming and witty.

El Duque gets the mic to close it out. He talks in broken halting English but we can understand each word. He tells the silent crowd he is an outlaw in Cuba and can never play ball there or for them in the Olympics. He thanks the Yankees for helping him become a US citizen and shepherding his career. Cuba’s restrictions have broken his heart, but he loves America. Then he thanks the Yankee family.

El Duque is choked up. We all are. Mic dropped.

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