Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Warning Track Power, Part III

Each day in baseball is a clean slate. The closer will inevitably have another opportunity after a blown save. The hitter will have another at bat. And even the umpires will have another bang-bang call to make. The clubhouse itself had a clean slate. When campers arrived on day one, white tops were hanging inside each locker along with solid gray game pants, a navy blue adjustable game hat with the Captains powder blue “C” surrounding a lighthouse on the front, completed with navy blue socks, and a navy belt. The alternate blue tops were on hangers resting on a hook on the outside of each locker with each camper’s name and number facing the clubhouse.

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.