Many of you might remember a time when you had a hero. You wrote letters, you sent cards, you followed a person’s every move. You might also remember when your illusions of greatness about this person were shattered, when you realized all too painfully that he or she was human, and possessed all of man’s inherent faults. My day of reckoning came in the third grade. I had written a letter to President Ronald Reagan and surprisingly got a response. As I excitedly tore open the letter, I was taken in by the official seal, the bonded paper, the signature. My excitement was then shattered when someone (a family member) mockingly told me that the letter was a “form letter,” one of probably hundreds or even thousands sent out to school children just like me, all over the country each day, likely prepared and even signed by a staff member. My image of the President was instantly tainted, and I was suddenly very aware of the fallibility of mere mortals.
My days of hero worship were pretty much over then, aside from a brief relapse this past year, when I so wrongly believed that a photographer, somewhat of a celebrity in the industry, would take the time to respond to my comments, as one “photog” to the next. I was quickly returned to reality when I got a short and cryptic email from a staffer and remembered again that our heroes are at the core, human.
I try not to get too upset as my daughter chooses a hero (most recently, Manny Ramirez) who might let her down, and watch with the rest of the world as many of the younger generations “heroes” and those held in high esteem (Tiger Woods, Roethlisburger) are shown to be quite human, with all the same faults and fallacies. Certainly, one might think that the days of true hero worship are long past. In today’s world of internet and the information highway, heroes are felled with a mighty click of the mouse, instantly sending pictures or stories of misdeeds out on the “wire” to the masses.
Despite the recent onslaught of fallen heroes, there is still a place where true heroes can be found. While I am sure they are human, with their own faults and lives to live, for one whole week they return to hero status and are exalted by the “common” man. I am referring to that little patch of dirt in Vero Beach, Florida, lovingly known as “Dodgertown.” The week is known as “Fantasy Camp.”
For the entire week, men return to the days of their childhood, running and jumping and playing. Knees creak in protest, backs and arms ache like never before, but they play through the pain, usually with ear-splitting grins plastered across their faces. To do otherwise would squander the opportunity. Men who remember the days of O’Malley and the move to L.A. are transported back to the simpler times when the smell of popcorn and a hot dog at the park could wash all of your cares away. Boys who pumped their fists with Gibby in ’88 run the bases imagining that they too can achieve greatness. Perhaps even more poignant now, as today’s team struggles in the aftermath of the tumultuous McCourt era and hopes for a little bit of “Magic”, a trip to the past reminds us why we love our Boys in Blue, and why Dodgertown is, and likely always will be, an institution.
They come from all walks of life – policemen, doctors, lawyers, accountants, salesmen, business owners, teachers and so much more, a range of ages among them; the youngest perhaps 32 or 33, the oldest…. well, he just wasn’t going to admit that. Rookies and veterans alike, they converge, to glory in the presence of their heroes, to walk and play where the great ones have walked and played.
Lockers for players and coaches alike, in the same locker rooms used during Spring Training.
Some might consider it crazy for these men (and a few women) to pay for the opportunity to spend time with these baseball greats (and spend a week playing baseball.) But for those as steeped in the history of this team as they are, it is an honor, a privilege, a right and even for some, a duty. As the years tumble forward, the true greats, the names which built a franchise like Pee Wee Reese, Don Drysdale and Duke Snider leave us and it becomes all the more important to squeeze in these moments with those who are left. These fans, these hero worshipers revel in the greatness, proud and humbled to take the field with those men who dominated the field and their childhoods with baseball.
For the entire week, they eat, sleep and play with the Boys of Summer, some raised on the heroes of ’55 and others of ’63, ’81 and ‘88. Split up into teams with at least two former Big League players as managers, sharing lockers and showers as if they themselves were in the “show,” they play several games a day, take batting practice, and even share meals. Meals are filled with laughter and jokes, player-of-the-day awards handed out by managers and an all-around good time. Memories are made in mere hours or days but will last the rest of their lifetimes.
Rob catching and hitting in the All-Star game on the last day of camp.
Top - Phil pitching in the All-Star game. Bottom - Dad catching for Phil.
One day a whisper roared through camp. “He’s here. He’s here!” Unable to believe their own luck, they sought out more information. “Where?” “Will he sign anything?” Suddenly, a camper ran past some of the others, carrying a baseball, frantic to get through. “He’s in the trainers’ room and he’s signing autographs!” The great Sandy Koufax had appeared at camp. For many raised on Dodger baseball, his is the name and face that defined the team for several generations. Men became boys again and stood in awe of the greatness. Koufax, who seemingly shuns the spotlight most days, was magnanimous, signing whatever bat or ball or piece of paper that was reverently handed to him and just as gently taken back, a memento to be treasured and a story to be told to a child or grandchild. He swapped stories and chatted with the campers, and posed for many pictures. As his time at camp drew to a close (he was not a coach or manager but had been invited to stop in by an old friend, Tommy Davis) campers were reluctant to turn away, hesitant to allow the moment to end, as they knew it must.
Phil with Sandy Koufax.
But the camaraderie doesn’t end on the field. For many it extends back to their hometowns, where they might see one of these players at the market or the mall. The heroes continue in their gallantry, posing for photos and signing autographs for the children they heard so much about at camp. One named “Brooklyn” drew particular attention from these Boys in Blue. They remember the campers and while the names might be momentarily elusive, with some help and in a minute or two, it comes back, and they remember a game or a play or a practical joke.
Throughout it all, these players remain humble, almost in awe of those who come to see them, just as the campers are a little bit in awe of being in the presence of these men who played and who filled their childhoods with heroes.
Tommy Davis signing a ball for a fan during the All-Star game.
And as the week of camp comes to a close, the players are saddened, a little melancholy that playtime is over and they must return to the “real world,” and maybe more than a little hopeful that the stars will align again in a year, that they will be able to return and that the players that they love will return as well. For in that place at that moment, the heroes have risen once more and all is right with the world.