Thursday, December 22, 2011
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Sunday, October 23, 2011
Monday, October 10, 2011
Wednesday, October 5, 2011
Saturday, October 1, 2011
Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Monday, September 26, 2011
Monday, September 19, 2011
Monday, September 12, 2011
Saturday, September 10, 2011
Tuesday, August 30, 2011
After each game, when the players are long gone, clubhouses bear a resemblance to shelves in the department store aisles on Black Friday. But clubbies meticulously repair and prepare the room for the next day’s action. Tables which previously supported trays of pasta, grilled chicken and salad were being scrubbed of the marinara and barbeque sauce stains so they could be washed and put back in time for the donuts, bagels and coffee in the morning. Laundry bins were empty, ready for the next wave of sweaty polyester, shampoo bottles and soap dispensers were now at their tipping points. The clubhouse appearance at sunrise would be a mirror image of the previous day.
The White Team became the Blue Team when we put on our alternate blue tops, which were hanging on the outside of our designated lockers and hadn’t been worn since Friday morning’s workout. Our white tops were washed, dried and also hanging in our lockers awaiting game two. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the morning game for the coach-pitch game. This was essentially batting practice played live. There was a lot more offense but our team dropped its second straight.
After my morning painting our outfield fence, I arrive on LaTourette Avenue and found a spot in the Classic Park parking lot near the clubhouse entrance. Most of the players were in the tented area in the right field stands finishing their lunches, but there were a few players still in the clubhouse either changing their jersey tops, applying one more layer of Ben-Gay to already oversaturated appendages, or laying on the floor trying to catch their breath.
There were a lot of different paths on each camper’s trip to Classic Park. For many of the campers, it was their first time participating in camp, but for some, they were experienced veterans. Two such men were Kenny Seelie (Valparaiso, IN) and Steve Sutker (Cleveland Heights). The two campers crossed paths in Winter Haven, FL over a decade ago where they attended their first Cleveland Indians Fantasy Camp.
Kenny originally made his way to the weeklong event after visiting a friend’s house in the Akron area. The house wasn’t much on the outside, but the contents on the inside were the driving force behind the 1,200-mile trip. The basement housed memorabilia from his friend’s own trip to the Tribe camp which were arranged in such a way to make visitors feel the need to pay admission to the personal museum. Still playing in an adult baseball league in Chicago, Kenny’s competitive fire still burned and after seeing his longtime friend’s shrine, he knew he had to do it.
Steve’s road was somewhat different but within the differences, laid many similarities. The brother of his ex-wife had worked up the nerve to join a cattle drive, which was enough to wrangle his emulous spirit and embark on his own version of the Chisholm. The two met on the diamonds of Chain O’ Lakes Stadium and became fast friends. The friendship grew on the and off the diamond and the two have reunited for the previous fifteen years to spend another week in the sun together.
The afternoon game was a must win for the White Team. After dropping the first two games, another loss meant not only losing the weekend series, but also kept alive the possibility of being swept. So like the 2011 version of Justin Verlander, we needed a stopper. We needed 30 years of combined experience. Seelie took to the hill in as stressful as a situation that a weekend of fun would allow. To combat game-induced stress, a pitcher needs to find a comfort zone, and who better to provide comfort than the one player who had been behind the plate for the entire weekend. Sutker crouched in his familiar stance and went to work calling each pitch of the 5’9” left-handers complete game effort.
The White Team bats came alive and thanks to a 6-run fourth inning, had a comfortable lead, which was never threatened in a 10-1 win. The battery of Seelie and Sutker had given us exactly what we needed, a chance to get even in the morning.
That nightcap win got us on track and a big win in the morning tied the series at two. But unfortunately, the series would end just so. The fifth game was a game between the campers and the pros. Lenny Barker took the mound, Kevin Rhomberg was at the hot corner, Mike Hargrove anchored the defense at first base, and Joe Charboneau patrolled the outfield. The rest of the pros team was made up of family members, friends of the camp, and interns. Each camp team had two innings of six outs apiece to defeat the pros. But even at this stage in the game, we stood no chance. This was one final chance for campers to enjoy each other’s company on the field, and to bask in the glory of the professionals they revere. There are many reasons for campers to attend a fantasy camp, and there are even more reasons to come back. But the relationships formed and the friendships renewed turn fantasy into reality.
I would like to personally thank Tricia Ambrose and the News-Herald who helped make this experience possible. A very special thank you goes out to Kevin Rhomberg for his hard work and tireless efforts in preparing the event, providing each camper with an experience they'll remember the rest of their lives.
Monday, August 29, 2011
Day 1: The Games
The afternoon continued with the first of five intersquad games. The pros (or coaches) excused themselves from lunch to pick teams. I was on Team Hargrove and Team Rhomberg. The Rhomberg in this case was Kevin Rhomberg who played for the Indians from 1982-84. Kevin also organized the entire camp and made sure everything ran smoothly. He of course, did far more behind the scenes than the campers would probably ever know, but it was a lot of work that shouldn’t go unrecognized.
I was penciled in the lineup in the 3-hole and playing shortstop. I was the White Team’s Ryan Rua. Aside from a few swings in the cage during the spring and the morning BP session, I hadn’t played a game of baseball since my last collegiate game in 2003. There were a few Alumni Games at Mount Union but those were less competitive than the games at Classic Park. Trailing the Blue Team 1-0 after a half-inning of play, I was getting ready for my first at bat. All I was looking to do was hit the ball hard and did not care about the result. This is actually the approach we take with our hitters but it is easier said than done. With this in mind, I was looking for the first fastball near the zone. I wasn’t sure how many good pitches I would get so the first one to fit the description I was hacking. Ordinarily with a runner on first and one out, I would look to find a way to get him into scoring position and staying out of a double play. Had I not beaten out the relay throw I would have failed at both goals. But despite the rollover ground ball to short, I felt pretty good about the at bat because I accomplished my original goal of hitting a good pitch, and hitting it hard. I knew if the same pitch was thrown in my next at bat, I would crush it.
I lead off the 4th with the Blue Team still leading 1-0. I had made a few plays at short, one ground ball and one pop up, and I was starting to get a feel back for the game I had played competitively since I was seven years old. I was again looking for the first ball I could hit hard and as the leadoff hitter of the inning; my job was to get on base. There was no bunting allowed so that wasn’t an option. Not that I would in a game like this but it didn’t matter because it was against the rules. So was stealing, pick-off attempts (by pitcher or catcher), and advancing on passed balls or wild pitches. It was pretty much like playing backyard ball as a kid, but without pitcher’s poison or opposite field out.
Walks were enforced but hit-by-pitches were left to the hitter’s discretion. If the bean ball didn’t cause enough pain and the hitter wanted to stay in the box, they were allowed. This sparked a story from skipper Mike Hargrove about the time Albert Belle was hit by a pitch and refused to take his base. He told the umpire we would not take his base and he was taking his at bat. Hargrove was summoned from the dugout and had to basically tell Albert that he had to because “those were the rules.” Each camper had the option to think like Belle if inclined, but most just took their base and kept the game moving.
I took a few pitches and was in a 1-1 count when I got a fastball over the middle of the plate in which I was able to drive to the right-center gap. The players manning the outfield were not as fleet of foot as they once were so what should have been an opposite field single turned into a three-bagger. I was hoping it was only a single so I wouldn’t have to leg out a triple but the ball scooted nicely on the fresh-cut grass and I was on third. A groundout to first later and the game was tied at one.
There wasn’t much offense in the opener. The Blue Team took a 2-1 lead and we brought the infield into the cut of the grass. With an insurance run standing 90 feet away, we did our best to keep it a one-run game. The batter did his best Luis Gonzalez and I turned into Derek Jeter. The ball hung in the air for what felt like an eternity but I needed one more second because the ball fell softly into the outfield grass for a base hit. The 3-1 lead stood tall and we dropped the opener. We would have three more chances to get our revenge but game one belonged to the Blue Team.
In the locker room, we got more of the big league experience. Clubhouse attendants, or clubbies, were on hand to take dirt stained uniforms and throw them in the wash. This was a welcome change for me, as Coach Sankovich and myself split the laundry duties last season. Laundry left in the bins, campers said their goodbyes and went their separate ways, if only for a night.
Up next: Day 2
Sunday, August 28, 2011
Day 1: The Morning Workout
Most kids dream of playing Major League Baseball the moment they pick up a bat and ball. But as they get older, what they are really dreaming of is the big league lifestyle. For three days, nearly two dozen men get to experience aspects of that lifestyle. And for the past two days, I have also gotten a taste by participating in the Lake County Captains annual Fantasy Camp.
The weekend started on Friday with a morning workout. The campers were split into three groups who were then sent to different position areas. Naturally, I started in the bullpen with Lenny Barker. At that point, each camper in the group threw a short bullpen, or a “short pen” for short. The short actually referred to the number of pitches thrown and not to the distance from which they threw. Pitchers are known to throw short pens between appearances, which are normally between 20-25 pitches. These are not to be confused with flat ground sessions which are normally thrown from the distance of 55 feet. The main goal in the flat ground sessions is to work on the command of each pitch in the repertoire. My session was much shorter than the 25 pitch norm of a short pen. I threw about ten pitches when I noticed my catcher showing signs of discomfort behind the plate in the catcher’s crouch. After each guy in the group finished his set, we convened in the outfield grass near the warning track where Lenny Barker was demonstrating the grips he used for his pitches.
We were in the bullpen for about 20 minutes before heading to the hitting shell with the 1980 American League Rookie of the Year. Joe Charboneau was sporting a navy blue Indians mock turtleneck with his game pants from that amazing 1980 campaign. It is often said that hitting a baseball is the toughest thing to do in sports. Teaching the art of hitting can be very difficult as well. But it can also be the easiest thing to do as it can always be broken down into the simple concept of “see ball, hit ball.” It is very difficult to discuss the intricacies of hitting in a 20-minute time span so “Super Joe” took the latter approach. Instead of getting too technical with the swing, the session turned into an open forum for campers to ask question regarding their swing or hitting in general. This was a common theme throughout the camp; the pros were eager and willing to interact with each camper.
The best was saved for last when I arrived at the third and final station was infield defense with Mike Hargrove. “Grover” is probably best known for the time he spent as the manager of the Indians during the 1990’s, but he put together a respectable 12-year career finishing with a .290 career average and also was named Rookie of the Year, six years prior to Charboneau winning the award. I was looking forward this session the most and was hoping to pick up a tidbit to take back to Lake Erie. Unlike the previous two stations, there wasn’t much time for shooting the bull because we got right to work and used every second of the allotted time.
The next part of the morning is usually what all players look forward to…batting practice. We remained in our three groups for BP; I would hit in the second group. This gave me time to talk to different campers who were scattered around the outfield. When it was my turn to hit, I was just looking to knock the rust off so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. There were a few occasions during the 2011 season where I took some hacks in the cage before a practice but those were few and far between and it had been at least four months since that happened so my worries were warranted. It took me a few swings to get my timing back and by the fifth cut I was making solid contact. It doesn’t matter how many days or months or even years are between swings, a hitter always expects a base hit, even in BP. So I was disturbed at the fact I kept rolling over on each pitch, resulting in a cluster of ground balls to the shortstop. Near the end of my round, I started to really connect and I think I short-hopped the wall. It definitely got a rise out of the guys in my group but I wasn’t sure the exact landing point because Barker was pitching and despite the fact he hadn’t played a Major League game since 1987, I had no doubt he would buzz me if I stopped to admire any of my hits.
The camp got a little more authentic during the second round of BP when Hargrove thought the group wasn’t hustling enough and gave us a piece of his mind about one of his biggest pet peeves. I’m not sure the group knew how to take the tongue-lashing but in a weird way, I think we all secretly enjoyed it. Nevertheless, BP resumed with a little more pep.
Lunch was provided in the picnic plaza in the right field stands. This may have been the best time for campers to mingle with the pros. Yes, they were on the field with us, and would be during the game as well, but here their guards were down as campers gathered around each pro like boy scouts around a campfire while the pros told different stories of their playing or coaching careers.
Up next: The Games