The last time I was at Randy Hundley's Cubs Fantasy Camp, I led the camp in nicknames: "Eppy," "Pepi," "Juan," "Dynamite," "Samardizja" and "Haircut" were among the things I was called, but the one that stuck was "Wheels," which — in the time-honored tradition of calling a big player "Tiny" — derived from the fact that I was painfully, comically slow on the basepaths. Bobby Dernier, my coach in 2010, even claimed that he timed me going from second to home on a play, and that it took me over a minute; if he was exaggerating, it admittedly wasn't by much.
This time, however, the nickname is "Theo" — which, given the fact that the Cubs' new president of baseball operations is by far the most high-profile (and possibly the only) Epstein in franchise history, makes perfect sense. Theo Epstein and new manager Dale Sveum visited the camp earlier in the week, but are gone by the time I arrive.
"So, are you any relation...?" Rick "Big Daddy" Reuschel asks me, early in my first game with his team.
"Yeah, he's my Dad," I wisecrack.
"Oh, so you're funnin' me," says Big Daddy, shooting me an annoyed look. Even though Theo Epstein is seven years younger than me, and we look nothing alike, I feel like kind of a jerk for funnin' Big Daddy. Mr. Reuschel is a man of few words, but let's just say that he has no problem communicating...
In any case, I am now "Theo" to one and all. "Wheels" wouldn't be appropriate anymore, anyway; having dropped around 15 pounds since my last time in camp, I can actually get around the bases at a pretty fair clip these days. And since I'm the only one in camp with fresh legs at this point, I can probably out-run about half the folks here.
After making a quick drive-thru run to Aliberto's for some killer burritos, Miss Howerton and I return to Fitch Field, and make a bee-line to the diamond where my team will be playing the Ron Coomer-Keith Moreland squad for the camp championship.
"As your punishment for showing up to camp late, you're going to catch for BOTH teams," jokes Coomer, giving me a hug as I step onto the field. All of the former players at camp are pretty approachable, but Coom is far and away one of the coolest, friendliest and most down-to-earth people I've ever met — so much so, in fact, that when we ran into him at the camp BBQ on Thursday night, Miss Howerton figured he was just one of the campers.
In further testament to his utter righteousness, Coom volunteers to give me additional instruction regarding my newfound backstop duties. "You're crouching too far back from the plate," he says. (This surprises me, though later examination of Miss Howerton's photos will prove him correct.) "Move up about another foot, foot and a half; that way, the pitches from the machine will come in to you at chest-high, rather than drop in on your legs."
"C'mon, Coom — whose team are you on?" cracks someone from his squad.
Coom laughs, then continues with our impromptu catching workshop. "Don't worry — you won't be close enough for the bat to hit you. Trust me, I wouldn't steer you wrong."
True to his word, Coom's instruction leads to a far easier catching experience, though early on in our game I get lazy or space out and forget to pull my right hand behind my back, and immediately receive a foul tip off my thumb for my insolence. "Gotta get that hand back," shouts Keith Moreland, who caught more than a few games during his time in the majors. Luckily, my thumb is just bruised, not broken or split; in any case, that's the kind of mistake you only need to make once.
"You never caught before? You look like Yogi Berra back there," Big Daddy tells me.
"I kinda feel like him, too," I reply.
"What, 90 years old?" he laughs.
My counterpart on the Coomer-Morelands, Len DiGati, is catching his first game of the week, filling in for their regular catcher who's out with a bad leg. He's also gracious enough to catch a few plays for our team while I'm busy struggling with my shinguards. When I thank him later, he says he's been wanting to meet me.
"I read all your blogs about the last time you were here," he tells me. "I was trying to decide whether or not to come here, but your blogs totally pushed me over the edge."
"So, did it live up to your expectations?" I ask.
"It's been even better than I imagined," he says.
I know the feeling.
It'll take a few more games behind the plate to get the hang of catching pop fouls, however. "Theo!" Big Daddy shouts from first, after a batter pops one up behind the plate, but I have absolutely no idea where the hell the damn thing is; I frantically whip my head around in both directions, trying to spot the ball, but only succeed in making myself dizzy. Not that I could have gotten to it in time, mind you...
Still, pop fouls are the least of our team's worries. Both squads are running on fumes at this point, but we're even more out of gas than they are. There's one inning early on where everyone on the field (even Big Daddy, who's once again playing first base) seems to make an error, mental or otherwise, and the Coomer-Morelands pull away to a quick lead. And then our bats start to go cold, mine included; I get on base via an error at one point, and smack a sweetly sizzling grounder up the middle in the fifth as we attempt to mount a rally, but I never make it past second base.
All of a sudden, it's 14-6 with two out in the last inning, nobody on, and I'm up. I take a deep breath and try to savor the moment; I don't know yet if I'll be allowed to play in the campers-vs.-coaches "Big Game" tomorrow, so this might be my last chance to swing a bat at camp. Unfortunately, for the first time all day, I find myself thinking about the mechanics of my swing; instead of just "see ball, hit ball," I try to put more weight on my back foot while simultaneously swinging harder...and as a result, I pop an easy fly to the first baseman. The game's over, and we've lost the championship. I feel bad for my teammates; an eight-run deficit would've been hard to make up, but I wish I could have gotten on base and given at least one or two of our guys a chance to take a few more cuts. There's also the brief bitter flashback to making the last out in Little League games, something I did more times than I care to count "back in the day"...
But once I hurl my batting helmet away in frustration, that's all behind me. I just got to "play two," as Ernie Banks would say, and had a total blast doing it. My new teammates, especially Don Carlson, Jim Angell, Ron Hoyle, Joe Fath and brothers Adam and Paul Ferguson, have made me feel really welcome, and the guys who beat us all seem like good guys, as well. And hey, we did beat the hell out of the "Celebrity Team" this morning. Just another life-affirming day at the ol' ballpark, then.
On the way back to the clubhouse, I run into Skates, my older brother from another mother. He's got a whole cheering section with him this year — his wife and two sisters, all of whom are attired in custom-made shirts reading "Skates" and emblazoned with a charicature of him trying to catch a ball while wearing rollerskates on his cleats. We didn't get to play together or against each other this year, which bums us both out a bit; but hopefully, we'll get the chance next year.
Back in the clubhouse, I sign and pass out a few copies of Big Hair & Plastic Grass — including one to Ed Lynch, who'd been so supportive of the project when I was here in 2010, and one to Eddie Vedder. In return, Eddie gives me a commemorative Pearl Jam notebook, filled with pictures and lyrics. "It's just a little something," he shrugs. He signs it, "All Hail The 'Fro — Eddie Vedder." Right on, Eddie.
Jose Cardenal — whose own 'fro has long departed — is sitting next to Eddie's locker. Lynch takes my book and shows it to him. "Hey, Jose," he says, pointing to the 'fro-tastic photo of Oscar Gamble on the cover, "I don't have my glasses — is that you?" "Aww, fushyoumang," grunts Jose, while Lynchie dissolves in a fit of laughter.
A few minutes later, I spy Billy Williams leafing through my book. I'm too awestruck to even introduce myself, but he looks up and gives me a nod and a Buddha-like smile. Pete LaCock comes over to look at the book, as well. "Big Hair?" he crows, "I had the BEST hair in the 70s!"
"Yeah, man, you were looking good!" I reply.
"Am I in your book?"
Oh, shit. I start to tell him that he's mentioned with the Royals in a chapter or two, but he goes straight for the index and starts looking for his name.
"Lerrin LaGrow... I'm not in there. Wait, Bill Lee's in there like ten times? You put that asshole in, and not me?"
Er, sorry, Pete. It feels like a good time to leave the clubhouse. But as I slink out the door, Jose Cardenal taps me on the elbow. "Joo did good today," he says, nodding solemnly.
Out in the parking lot, Miss Howerton greets me with a kiss. "Hey, get a room!" hollers a voice from the other side of the lot. I already know that, when I turn to look, I'll see Ron Coomer laughing his ass off. And I do.