There is no mistake to whom this bat belongs.
I awoke to bright sunshine and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. My first morning officially as a teenager! I hurriedly dressed and walked into the living room, where my mom and dad were waiting. Smiling from ear to ear, I was ready to feel the respect and maturity that unmistakably was to come with reaching my teen years. My parents greeted me with strained smiles. Dad said, "Happy Birthday, young man", handed me two wrapped gifts. Ripping the paper from them revealed two books about Star Trek. "Thanks, Dad!" He smiled, turned, and walked out the door. I looked at my mom, quizzically. "We’re getting divorced."
The last photo I have of me in a baseball uniform was my team photo for the Westminster American Little League 13 yr old All Star Team. We wore orange uniforms and my late 70’s long hair flowed from beneath an Orioles cap. I still remember some of the guys: Eddie Pimentel, Terry Burt, Sean Hudson. From the age of 9 to 13, I played every year and was an All Star every season. To say I lived, ate and breathed baseball would be an understatement.
As far back as I could remember, I wanted to play professional baseball. Every day after school, every weekend, we divided up teams and played in the street on my block, and when we did not have enough players, we played Over the Line. And when we did not have enough for that, we played Pickle. When it was just me, I used charcoal and fashioned a strike zone on the side of the garage and threw tennis balls for hours, striking out Cey, Garvey, Lopes and Russell. I cut out pictures of baseball players from the local newspaper, and at that time, it was always the A’s. Growing up in the L.A. area, there were not a lot of A’s fans, but I was consumed with baseball and specifically the A’s because of guys like Fingers, Campy, Reggie and the gang. I was going to be one of them, someday.
Me, the 44 year old version, rocking the high socks!
My dad packed up the car and moved into a cockroach infested apartment complex a few towns over, and my mom got a full time job working at a local department store. I became responsible for my brother and sister and we did not see much of my mom. My dad started working nights and sleeping all day, so I did not see him much either. When baseball season came around, I was told there was not enough money to sign up. Their divorce devastated our family, and I never played another game of organized baseball.
Until this last week.
Sure, I got into softball in my 30’s and really enjoyed it. The camaraderie, the crack of the bat, the chance to show off my arm and speed. I was always "toolsy". But softball is not baseball. There is a grandeur, a grace to baseball that is not found in any other sport.
Sorry, I can't invite you guys into the clubhouse. Thank Barry Bonds.
My plane landed Wednesday in sunny Phoenix, AZ, spring training home of our Oakland Athletics. Walking down the ramp I could feel the warmth and dryness, a marked contrast to the cold, overcast and damp Easy Bay I had left behind just hours ago. Somewhere along the way I became 13 again. Emails, work stress; the dross that weights us down and ages us fell off like scales and I was renewed. I was here to play baseball.
Oakland A's AZ. clubhouse workout room.
After all these years, he was still the first guy in the weight room getting ready.
Dave Henderson Baseball Adventures, or Oakland A’s Fantasy Camp, is held each year in Arizona. Guys like Stew, Campy, Rudi, Moore, Heredia, Odom, Babitt, come together for one solid week with men and women of varying degrees of talent, from all over the world, to be a big leaguer for a week. From the moment you step off the plane, you are treated the way the pros are, with someone to pickup your bags, put them in your room, and treat you like the god that we make baseball players.
Please don't hit anyone!
It feels selfish to write my experience from my perspective, because everyone who played had a story as well, a dream, and when woven together with mine, with the backdrop created by Hendu and his staff, it created an experience that I could never convey with mere words. The story I tell you will not be from the perspective of "I did this" and "I did that" but more from the cathartic journey of a 13 year old who, 31 years later, got a taste of his dreams. And it tasted good.
Definitely, one of the prettiest ball fields in all of baseball.
First of all, this camp was supposed to be about baseball. Yet, when it was over, it was more about the friendships and teammates. The phone call this morning, the day after I got home from camp, from my teammate Brian "Mutha F___" Goldenberg (more on how he earned that nickname later) or the text messages from Shooty about getting together for dinner with some of the guys from our team. Nursing a sprained shoulder from a diving catch and a fat black and blue bruise on my ribs from a fastball I could not get away from, all reminders of the week, but the memories and friendships will last a lifetime.
The camp was held at Papago Park in Phoenix AZ. Arriving at the facility at 7:00am, entering through the doors that said "Players and Coaches Only" and into the inner sanctum of where our heroes frequent. The clubhouse was like walking into an A’s museum, with memorabilia everywhere. Now, here is where it becomes surreal: Walking into the locker room, with my uniform hanging in my locker with my name on the locker. Next to me was Gary Wheelock, former major league pitcher and across from me was Bert Campaneris. I dressed in a dream-like state, completely overwhelmed at the grandeur of what was actually transpiring. Shooty Babitt was two lockers down. I had some issues with my belt until Shooty laughingly pointed out it was adjustable. Yeah, I was a bit distracted by it all. Walking out of the locker room, I passed by the trainer’s room, where Adam Rosales was working on his foot. Walt Horn, with the A’s for over 30 years, was to be our medical staff this week, along with Jeff. Chad and James, who are the Clubhouse managers, hooked me up with all the MLB lumber I needed.
Chad and James, Clubhouse Managers and all around awesome guys.
Real MLB wood.....candy store!!!!
This first day of camp we had drills, going from hitting, pitching and fielding, letting the coaches evaluate the talent in camp for their draft. The camp was to be split into four teams, two A’s teams, and two Mariners teams. The camps were combined to give us more competition for the one week playoff bracket. The managers were Campy and Shooty, Cadaret and Heredia, Brian Holman and Keith Comstock, Gary Wheelock and Mike Moore. I was drafted by Campy and Shooty and our team was called, "Soul Brothas"
The Soul Brothas!
My team consisted of PacMan, Wags, Chief, Doc, Scrap Iron, MG and BG, RatMan and Catfish. They called me "Sleep Train" (it's a mattress thing). For the next 5 days, these guys battled alongside of me, living out their baseball fantasies as well, and in the process, became friends I will have for life. Soul Brothas.
Shooty Babitt; judge, ballplayer, announcer, scout, comedian.
It would not be big league baseball without Kangaroo Court. Each morning, the Honorable Shooty Babitt would preside over the court proceedings. Kangaroo Court is where guys are brought up on charges by their teammates or coaches for various trespasses, such as running off the field after two outs, or, in my case, not realizing that your belt is adjustable. And there are fines associated with these charges. Now, if you are not a rookie, you know to answer everything with "one", as in "it only took me one minute to realize my belt was adjustable" or "I was only one foot off the bag when I was tagged out". Yeah. Notice I said if you were not a rookie. I led the league in fines. Whatever number you say, that's your fine in dollars. You have a chance to bail yourself out and reduce the fine with a joke, but most of my jokes did not go over well and resulted in a fine doubling.
Wandering the clubhouse....Nico Gallego
By far the funniest episode in Kangaroo Court (Besides me getting a bucket of ice water and shaving cream dumped on me) was Brian "BG" "Mutha F___" Goldenberg calling to task Shooty Babitt for mispronouncing his name. The first two days Shooty was writing on the lineup card "Goldberg" and calling both brothers "Goldberg". As Brian was calling Shooty out for this mistake, you could see Shooty getting pissed. When he was done Shooty let him have both barrels…"How about from now on your name is "Mutha F___" ?! "Mutha F___" get off the bench, "Mutha F___" you are up to bat, "Mutha F___" catch the ball, "Mutha F___" hit the showers. From now on your name is "Mutha F___". Then, Shooty looked at Mark "MG" Goldenberg and asked him, "How about you, you got a problem?" MG said "Nope, Goldberg is fine with me." The room roared with laughter. One of the funniest moments I have ever witnessed.
My nod to AN.....Rockin' the High Socks!
Our team, the Soul Brothas, did really well in the camp, and ended with a 5-2 record. Don’t let the title of the camp fool you, we played real baseball. There were some outstanding talents on the ball field, people who had the tools to be competitive. In fact, I have a new saying, "Bodies may age, but talent is forever." For example, on my team there was Mark Goldenberg, who, at 41, looked about 35 and played like 25. He was our most effective pitcher and was dealing. He was throwing at least a 70 mph fastball, with a great slider and curve. Then there was Wags, who is a veteran east bay police officer who launched the ball like he played in the bigs. Our team really gelled, and by the end of camp, we had become close through the fires of battle on the field. Our first baseman was Doc Conyers, who is a physician at Kaiser in Oakland and really did well with both the glove and bat. Joe "PacMan" Paclebar played an outstanding D and was great at the bat and was named the league MVP. Nick "RatMan" Rathosis played his heart out, as did Chief, who pitched despite needing surgery, and Catfish, who played the game like he was 20 years younger. And John "Scrap Iron" Lehman caught every single inning!
Wags and Chief pumping iron
I learned each day that being in shape and being in baseball shape are two vastly different states of being and that I was far from baseball shape, save my throwing arm. My quads were barking by day three. If not for Walt Horn and his staff, there would have been a lot of injuries. The walking wounded line grew every morning, and Walt and his staff would heat us up and ice us down after each game. The pros don’t even play a double header everyday, and by the end of the 7 days, I had played 9 games, one of which went extra innings, played 18 holes of golf, did one day of drills and participated in the Home Run Hitting Contest. Yet that did not stop any of us from leaving it all on the field, every game.
PacMan, Rat, Me and Wags
At night we would all get together to watch video of the games and sit around with the pros and ask questions and listen to stories. Asking Campy about throwing his bat at the pitcher, listening to Hendu’s experience when the stadium began to rock in ‘89, hearing the pros take on steroids and Pete Rose, listening to Holman’s account of losing a perfect game against the A’s in the bottom of the 9th with two out. Priceless. Slipping Hendu’s World Series rings on my finger, getting my ass chewed out by Campy for not going opposite field, or getting struck out by Mike Moore on a split finger fastball. Experiences I shall never forget.
Gold glove catch...yep, bragging. I earned it.
By the end of camp I realized that my fantasy was no longer a fantasy. I had attained what the MLB experience is really all about; the camaraderie with your teammates. If you ask any of the guys, none of them really miss the game. They are at peace with the time they spent on the field. What they miss, to a man, was the camaraderie in the clubhouse. I faced a Mike Moore split finger, I caught deep fly balls off the pro’s, I held Shooty Babitt at second twice with a hard and accurate throw to third from left field. I was named the Oakland A’s Fantasy Camp Gold Glove winner, and I hit a ball to the warning track on a major league diamond. While all that was fun and satisfying, the friendships I have with the Soul Brotha’s will endure.
As I write this I have tears streaming down my face, feeling the regret and pain of a dream unfulfilled finally heal. 31 years later, the 13 year old baseball player forgotten is remembered by the 44 year old baseball player I am today. Thanks to my teammates who made it possible. To Dave Henderson and his staff. To my friend Shooty Babitt. To Campy. And especially to B.
See you next year guys.
31 years later
Me and Campy
Hendu was going to come to our AN potluck but had a scheduling issue. Bummer!
Hey, I'm younger than Moyer!
List of guys I saw at camp:
UPDATE! Come to the AN Potluck tonight and meet some of the 2011 Soul Brothas!
This is just a sampling of the many, many photos I have from the camp. Enjoy.