Cubs’ pitchers and catchers will have their first official workout of spring training on Tuesday, but many players have already been practicing at Fitch Park, and that includes me. Last week I finished the incredible experience of participating in the week long
Randy Hundley Cubs Fantasy Camp. Hundley the former Cubs catcher originated the idea of the fantasy camp back in 1982. This past week marked the 31st year Hundley has given fans the experience of what it’s like to go through a Cubs big league camp. The camp allows campers to be managed and coached by former Cubs greats like Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, or in my case Lee Smith and Keith Moreland.
This is not six days of sitting by the pool chatting with the former pros (although that does happen) instead it’s about baseball…more specifically playing baseball. From Tuesday at 2 PM until Friday at 3 PM, we played roughly 57 innings of baseball. To put that in perspective, if you had played a full MLB 9 inning game each day during that time, you would play 36 innings. After the campers are good and worn out from a week of playing against each other, they play a final game against the coaches/former MLB players on Saturday. Sure you are having fun and meeting your big league idols, but for most campers playing that much baseball meant pushing the body beyond it’s normal endurance. This made the week more along the lines of an adventure vacation.
Campers must be at least 30 years of age; I think the bulk of the group fell in the 40 -65 year old range. One camper was 80 years young! Normally I would take a lot of photos and video, but Randy already had those bases covered. I wanted to take in the full camp experience and not be worried about documenting it all. This blog isn’t a day by day itinerary of camp, just some thoughts and highlights of an amazing week. I need to give props to Erik James at Active Bodies for helping me get prepared and in shape for this camp.
Like many of you, I was a wanna-be ballplayer. My baseball playing career never worked out as I had hoped. One of those past roadblocks included a tryout consisting of two timed 60 yard sprints, three throws, and no hitting. Yup, no hitting. I ended up telling that coach what I thought of his tryout, and in hindsight, I’m sure I could have been more diplomatic. But I’m digressing. Chronologically I am a middle aged man…but in my head…I’m still 25 years old physically, and think I can do the things my 25 year old self could do. So, even though it was my first ever Hundley Camp, I wanted to play well. I suppose it’s the Walter Mitty in me. I had only three on-field goals – to have fun, play solid defense, and hit over .500.
Hitting .500 is a less daunting task when hitting off pitching machines as we did in the camp (with the exception of the game vs the pros on Sat.). Human pitchers have so many more variables. The pitching machines meant there were no walks; this really keeps the pace of the games moving, and a lot of action in the field. The machines were set just fast enough that some campers occasionally struck out, but mostly it made for a hitters game.
Playing baseball again was an incredible experience, and if you follow the BOS-WW facebook page, you know that my Keith Moreland/Lee Smith coached team won the camp title with 7 wins and 1 loss. It was a blast to play for Zonk, and Lee Arthur.
One of my highlights was warming up before a game by playing catch with Zonk. I have a special attachment to that 1984 Cubs team, as that year was my first spring training doing the public address at the old HohokamPark. My teammates on the Moreland/Smith team were a great group of guys, and some pretty good ballplayers as well. In fact, every one of the campers I met during the week was friendly and good natured on and off the field.
I’ll spare you most of the details of the campers on-field exploits, other than to say, I don’t think there were any serious injuries and everyone seemed to have a great time. As for me, I achieved my three on-field goals, with having fun being by far the most rewarding. Off the field the fun didn’t stop all week.
Our morning meetings were a riot, as the pros gave each other a lot of crap, and fines for being late etc. All of which went to a great cause – JDRF. Campers were fined as well. Some camper offenses during the week included wearing a batting helmet into the outfield, and pulling a Milton Bradley thinking there were three outs instead of the actual two. At the Friday morning meeting, each former MLB player told a humorous story, and I was literally crying from laughing so hard. I can’t go into most of them here (this is a PG-13 blog…okay…maybe PG-17) other than to say, when a story ends with Ronnie Woo-Woo being chased around the team bus, it’s a good story.
At the BBQ by the pool on Thursday night, I had the chance to talk at length with Bill Buckner. At 63 years young Bill looks to be in great physical shape, and last year he became the hitting instructor at the Cubs short-season A-ball Boise Hawks. Buckner lives in Boise, he says the position is a nice fit. Some of the things I learned from Billy Buck in our chat were: 1) the ESPN 30 for 30 film “Catching Hell” on Steve Bartman, in which Buckner did extensive interviews, allowed him to really close the chapter on that infamous play in the 1986 World Series. 2) That Boise has occasional heat inversions, keeping temperatures at the city level colder than surrounding higher elevations. 3) He was excited his son Bobby had just signed with the Cubs as a free agent. And 4) that the beer in the keg was pretty darn good.
Lee Smith regaled us with numerous stories in the locker room, several of which surrounded legendary Cubs clubhouse manager Yosh Kawano, as well as what a huge prankster Ryne Sandberg was. One needs to tune in a proper ear when Lee Arthur gets going in his Louisiana drawl, but if you do, you’ll be laughing for a while. Keith Moreland told the story of how he got sucker punched in a dugout clearing brawl, and how he planned to exact payback. Another highlight was hearing Willie Wilson sing some R&B tunes during Karaoke at the bar, including a smooth rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” At one morning meeting, current Cubs players Jeff Samardzija, James Russell, Steve Clevenger, Chris Rusin, and Blake Parker came in for a chat with the campers. I could go on and on with the stories but I don’t want to turn this into an epic tome.
As for the big game on Saturday against the pros, the former major leaguers have the odds stacked in their favor. Including bringing in ringers like 37-year-old former MLB player Shea Hillenbrand and a host of young faced ballplayers I hadn’t seen all week. It’s all in good fun, and we gave the pros a good battle before going down 15-13. At dinner one night Zonk confided to our team, that he wouldn’t be able to play all the innings during the week that we did, unless he had some serious time to train and prepare. I did prepare, but at the end of the week, the muscles in my legs screamed no mas…no mas. I was clearly past that 25-year-old vision of myself. It was an exhausting physical experience, but one I would do again in a skinny minute.
Unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of Al Schuth, schuthphotography.com.