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2015 Royals Fantasy Camp - Prelude and Day 1, Monday, Jan 19

This past January, I got to live the dream of playing baseball with the Royals. OK, so these were the Royals of yore, specifically, most of the 1985 team (plus John Mayberry and Jeff Montgomery):

Alumni pic

I moved the brim of my hat up so that you could see my face. The sun is bright. Oh, well.

My baseball career: short

I hadn't played baseball since I was 10 years old; I'm over 30 now. It's hard to enjoy playing when you're afraid of the ball. I remember being afraid of the pitch, and afraid of the bat vibration, and afraid that a grounder would kick up and hit me in the face, and don't even get me started on fly balls. My swing was a mess. I never "kept my eye on the ball" nor my back foot planted. My dad McGuyver'ed a number of set ups to try to fix these problems. He once drove a screw eye into a ball and hung it from the clothesline to teach me to watch the ball all the way; I still hit the twine more often than not. He would wrap my back foot in a belt with a nail driven through the bottom and then into the ground to keep it from moving during my swing. I remember pulling my foot up with the nail at least twice. Alas, my talents at the time did not include muscle memory or "learning by doing". Maybe they still don't. In hindsight, I probably could have done better if he had given me a book to read. I also jokingly tell him that I wish he would have just plunked me with the ball to get me over my fear. I get why a parent would never do that, but I was kind of a baby when it came to pain. When it was time to enroll in 11 year old ball, I told my mom I didn't like it anymore, and thus ended my career.

Travel

I had set my alarm to be the opening bars of "We Ready". In hindsight, while I certainly was ready, it is a very jarring song to hear at 4am. Use with caution. Spouses are not likely to let you continue to use this alarm.

My wife drove me up to KCI in the early morning hours. When I checked my bags, the counter attendant saw my Royals-provided luggage tag and asked "are you with the real Royals?" I explained that it was fantasy camp. Once in the gate area I found a group of people standing around John Mayberry. John recognized me from our practice sessions at 68 Inside Sports. I chatted with some of the other guys I recognized from practice. Monty was on the flight too.

Our first stop was to the hotel to drop off our luggage. We stayed in Glendale, not far from the Superbowl site. It's about a 25 minute drive from Glendale to the stadium in Surprise, but Dina (John Wathan's daughter, Fantasy Camp coordinator and Royals media coordinator) set it up this way because there's more to do in Glendale. I call Surprise the Leavenworth of Phoenix, due to its distance and lack of options for...anything other than the stadium.

Arrival at the stadium

Walking in to the clubhouse for the first time is an incredible experience. It seems childish to be in awe of a place "where the big leaguers hang out" but it's the truth. Walking up to my locker (with a big leaguer name plate!), with my uniforms (just like the big leaguers!) hanging was something I won't forget. We even got a laundry loop, and yes, the clubbies would be laundering our uniforms every day, just like the big leaguers.

All of us first-timers had this stupid grin on our faces for a good 20 minutes. If you go, embrace the grin.

Lunch was Quizno's that day. We unpacked our baseball stuff and ate. Each day we were given gifts; this day's gifts were the uniform itself (2 jerseys, one royal blue and one powder blue, but only one pair of pants), plus a pair of Dry-fit shorts and a blue long-sleeved Royals Dry-fit undershirt like the players sometimes wear. The alumni trickled in and out from the coaches' locker room. Gubie! Sabes! Leo! We were told to suit up in the royal blue jerseys and head out to the field for drills and scouting. There were about 70 of us, and we would be divided into 6 teams, each coached by 3 or 4 alumni.

My locker

Now with 2014 World Series patch!

The weather was awesome: mid-high 60's and sunny. The trainers led us on a jog along the warning track and then into stretches. We would stretch every morning; the stretches where we would lie on our backs looking up into the clear Arizona sky were probably the most Zen-like parts of our day. They repeatedly emphasized the importance of injury prevention. Most of the people at camp were at least 50, and every year a few guys blow up their hamstrings on the first day or two and have to sit out the rest of camp. Once we were loose, the players broke us up into 4 practice drill/demonstration groups: outfield, infield, pitching/catching, and hitting, with about a 20 minute rotation time. Many of the frequent fliers had already been promised spots on teams, but those of us there for the first time needed to be scouted and drafted.

Drills

My group started in the outfield. Willie Wilson and Darryl Motley were our guides, hitting fungoes and playing the cutoff man. They both talked about the importance of not wasting steps shuffling around as the ball comes off the bat; rather, simply drop-step behind you to go backwards. I don't think I caught any on the fly, but one of mine was hit to the wall, far outside of my range.

Next up was infield. Buddy Biancalana was in charge here. We worked on grounders, obviously, and footwork for double plays. Buddy reminded us that nobody in camp would likely be demonstrating what speed do, so there would be plenty of time to field the ball properly, get a good grip, and make a good throw to get the out. One thing about the fields, even though we were on the complex's practice fields, they were groomed just like a major league field. We wouldn't see many, or any, bad hops from crappy infield dirt.

The end of my day's baseball activities

On to pitching and catching. I remember seeing John (Duke) Wathan, Bret Saberhagen, Jim Sundberg, and Jamie Quirk at this station, and it would end up being my last of the day. I'll be blunt. This was the most terrifying experience of camp. In one of the warm-up areas off of the field was a line of about 15 pitching plates on top of a continuous mound. 60 feet, 6 inches from them were a corresponding line of 15 home plates. It was the bullpen to end all bullpens. They told us to pair off, one person would throw about 15 pitches, the other would catch, then we'd switch. One other thing - no catching gear. There's nothing like squatting down and putting your face (and other parts) at the mercy of your catching wits and the control of some guy you've never met. Actually, what catching wits? I'd never caught anybody pitching before in my life. So, I squat down, and I realized it's worse than that. Not only do I have to watch my pitcher, I was exposed to the two guys on either side of me as well. So now I had to watch 3 different pitchers. At least I had my mouthguard and my cup.

I got down, and the guy throws. He was sympathetic to my plight, or maybe he was just trying not to pull something, so he wasn't going full strength. It still stung (again, we were using our own gloves, not catchers' mitts). Sometimes I would miss and the ball went beside me; I had to mind the other batteries to get the ball back. Every pitch was terrifying. I think I took one off my foot, but it didn't bother me. Finally, he was ready to trade places.

I'd never pitched before either, though it was always what I wanted to do in those two years I played, and to this day, when I fantasize about being a major leaguer, the fantasy is usually pitching. I really just wanted to uncork it and let it fly, but I was unwilling to put my catcher and the catchers beside him at risk, so I made controlled throws. Some went over his head, but better that than off to the side where they'd hit his knee or the other catchers. I tried some four seam grips, but it wasn't natural for me; as a kid my coaches and my dad taught me to make throws with a two-seam grip. So I switched to that and I had an easier time. I started to throw with more confidence. I got in the rhythm, and I was getting it into the zone (or at least, where I imagined the zone would be with a batter). My catcher was nodding his head. I wasn't blowing anyone away with speed, but at least I was accurate. The alumni mentioned that it's a long camp, and by the end of the week teams will just be looking for people that can get it into the strike zone, nothing fancy, just strikes. My shoulder started to complain a bit, so I offered to switch again.

On about his third or fourth pitch of his second set, my day came to an end. The pitch had some tail to it, and I ended up blocking it with the inside of my right knee. I hopped up and danced around, trying to shake it off. My camp can't be over yet, I thought. I'm fine, I'm fine. I squat down and catch a couple more, but the alumni were on to me. They told me to stop and stand at the end of the bullpen while they flagged the trainers.

It took the trainers about 10 minutes to get out there with a bag of ice and some tape. Nick (not Nick Kenney) was the guy that worked on me. He took me over to an empty dugout and had me put my leg up while he taped the ice bag to it. He also gave me some ibuprofen. I likely have a bone contusion on my knee, he said. My day is done, but he said that what he's doing will keep me playing the rest of the week. He said there isn't much left to the day, just one more station and then a simulated game for the alumni to get one last look before our draft.

The dugout was lonely until it was simulated game time. George Brett's "team" took over my "sickbay". He looked at me and at first thought I had pulled something and had ended my camp. "You see this guy? Don't do this." he said to his team. "For these things, I always tell people to start slow and then taper off." "Start slow and taper off" has since become one of my favorite sayings.

Honestly, I don't remember too much about the simulated game. I remember there being several nets on the field, and limited running. It was mostly take your pitches at the plate, and maybe the fielders would get them, but no running the bases. I do remember getting up and heading to what should have been my team's dugout. But it wasn't long after that that it was time to head back to the clubhouse.

Clubhouse time

My locker was just beyond #14

We changed out of our uniforms and tossed them in the clubbie carts for laundry. The next hour or so was "BS" time, sit around, drink beer, and chat with the alumni (or each other). I had brought a baseball that my dad had autographed by a player in the late 80's. My memory was that he said it was Buddy Black, but in 2010 I had taken it to Spring Training hoping to get Brett's autograph. Sure enough, he did sign it, and as he looked at it then, he said "this is an old ball!". He then "recognized" Black's signature as Biancalana's, which I corrected him on. But that put a bit of doubt in my mind. So now, here I was with Buddy Black nearly 30 years after the story allegedly took place. I told him the story and pulled the ball out of my pocket, and he said "yep, that's mine." I told him that my dad would be flying down the next day; Buddy was looking forward to it.

The alumni drove vans to transport us back to the hotel. I ended up in a van with Dennis Leonard and Mayberry. Leo was driving and following Nick the trainer, as neither Leo nor Big John knew how to get back to the hotel. A couple of times Nick flew through a stoplight on the yellow; Mayberry would yell out "Get on him, Leo!". We ran several red lights this way.

Dinner

Dinner was burgers and other picnic food catered at the hotel. I sat at a table with Hal McRae and his wife, Jo. He mentioned that he always looked forward to '85 reunions, not that they happened all that often. I wanted to ask him why he didn't pinch hit Brett for Miller, but didn't want to incur any phones. I also lacked a pipe.

Duke

Duke at Monday night's dinner

After dinner, we found out which team we were on. I was on Team Green, coached by catcher Jamie Quirk, infielder Greg Pryor, and outfielder Pat Sheridan. We would have a round-robin format, two games each on Tuesday and Wednesday, the final round-robin on Friday morning, and a "playoff" game Friday afternoon (top two seeds for the championship, middle two seeds for third place, and bottom two seeds in a "pride" game). Thursday would feature each team playing a 3 inning game in the actual stadium against the alumni.

The trainers had told me to ice my knee for another 10-15 minutes before I went to bed, so I called it a day. I was pretty worried that it would swell up overnight and leave me immobile; I have a bad tendency to bruise and swell. I set my phone alarm and called it a day.

When I started this Fanshot, I thought I could get all five days in one post. I was wrong. My dad was a sports reporter (and later sports editor, I think) of a small town Missouri newspaper, so I'll blame my genes for this. Anyway, stay tuned for future posts covering the rest of the week. Next up: Day 2, where Sabes gives a middle finger to the rules, and George Brett offers an unusual service in the clubhouse...

This FanPost was written by a member of the Royals Review community. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors and writers of this site.