Memoirs of a Reluctant Catcher, Part Four

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(Author’s note: I meant to finish up this series of Cubs Fantasy Camp diaries, uh, three weeks ago — didn’t mean to let it sit so long, but deadlines and other life stuff got in the way. So apologies if you’ve been waiting for the final cleat to fall; and if you’re just tuning in now, you might wanna go back and start here to get the complete context.)

As we were packing up after losing the one-game camp playoff championship on Friday afternoon, I realized that I still had no idea if I was going to be playing in “The Big Game” the next day against the coaches. I approached our coach, Rick Reuschel, in the clubhouse afterwards. “So, Big Daddy,” I asked, “what’s up for tomorrow?” “Oh, you’re definitely playing, Theo,” he replied. “Be here and ready to go at 9 a.m.!” Which is great news — except for the fact that I haven’t caught live pitching since, oh, 1976 or so.

A little background on “The Big Game”: Each year, at the end of the camp session, the fantasy campers face off against their ex-major leaguer coaches at Hohokam Stadium (pictured above) where the Chicago Cubs play their Spring Training home games. Some of the coaches are too old or too racked by the aches and pains accumulated during their own careers to actually play, so their ranks are usually bolstered by a few minor leaguers from the Cubs’ system; campers who have been coming to the camp for 10 years are more are also offered the option of playing an inning or two in the field with the coaches.

Each of the eight camp teams gets an inning in the field and at the plate — rather than being limited to three outs, your team goes through its entire batting order, trying to score as many runs as you can before your turn is up. The coaches, on the other hand, play the whole game and follow the standard three-outs-per-inning format. In the thirty years since Randy Hundley founded the camp, campers have beaten the coaches exactly once…

Saturday morning arrives (maybe a bit too early, when one factors in the martinis and wine consumed during our celebratory team dinner at Morton’s Steakhouse on Friday night), and I don my “home” pinstripes for the first time since my arrival. After one more round of game wrap-ups and stories at the Fitch clubhouse, we head over to Hohokam. It’s a gorgeous, glorious, picture-perfect Arizona day, and we mill about the field waiting for the lineup announcements and the national anthem, shooting the shit with each other and taking photos. (That’s Big Daddy Reuschel and yours truly, above.) Even if you’ve been here before, you can’t help feeling a little awestruck when you look out over the perfectly-manicured field, and then turn around to see players like Jose Cardenal warming up…

Since our team finished second in the camp standings, we’ll bat and field in the second inning. Coaches sometimes pitch to their own teams, and I was hoping that Big Daddy would pitch to us during our at-bats, but no dice; his knees and shoulder are giving him too much trouble. Instead, we get to hit against… Lee Smith. Yep, the seven-time All-Star who led the league in saves in four different seasons,  eventually amassing 478 of them over an 18-year career, and who at 54 years of age still looks like he could fill the bill for any major league team looking to shore up their bullpen. So basically, I’m the last batter up for our team — and the first live arm I’ve face in two years belongs to Lee Arthur Smith. Damn.

“Now batting, Dan Epstein!” announces Jim Volkman on the PA, and it’s time for my date with destiny. “When the hell did YOU get here?” laughs the umpire, and I realize that it’s my pal Jon DeBellis behind the mask, who I met at camp in 2010 but who wasn’t working either of my games yesterday. “Thursday night,” I tell him. “Late-season call-up, baby!” “Nice to have you here,” he says, as I dig in against Lee Smith. There were whispers in the dugout that Lee would serve you some chin music if you smiled at him, so I’m keeping my expression suitably grim. In truth, he’s pretty much just lobbing them in there, though the ball is still “moving” — and just his mere presence on the mound is intimidating as all hell. I don’t come within a foot of the first two strikes he throws me, but I somehow connect with the third one, hitting a sharp grounder up the middle.

What happens next is a bit of a blur; I think somebody must’ve bobbled the ball, because I reach first without a throw, at which point someone yells to me, “You’re the last batter — you can keep running!” So I do. My pal Jerry Gaul, a longtime camper, is playing short for this inning, and he mimes a beautiful Keystone Kops “missed tag” on me as I round second. What the hell, I think — I may as well try for home! The former major leaguers, who up ’til now have been taking the game very casually, shout for Jerry to tag me… and by the time he finally stops me, about halfway between third and home, we’re both giggling like little kids.

Jim Angell, our team’s shortstop during the week, will be pitching during our inning in the field, so we commiserate beforehand about what kind of pitches he’ll be throwing. “I’ve got three pitches,” he tells me, “A four-seamer, a two-seamer, and a circle change.” Jim, a lovely guy, does indeed have those three pitches — what he doesn’t have, unfortunately, is any degree of accuracy. After a couple of walks, I take it upon myself to make a catcherly trudge out to the mound and make sure we’re on the same page. “Let’s just try for fastballs down the middle, until I can get this straightened out,” he laughs. Good plan…

What follows is a series of walks, hits, wild pitches, passed balls and other mishaps, punctuated occasionally by a sweet strike from Jim or an excellent defensive play from our guys in the field. The coaches score five or six runs off us, but rather than brood about it, I’m just enjoying the chance to bullshit with the former players as they come up to the plate.

“How do you like catching?” Todd Hundley asks, tapping my shinguards with his bat. “Think you’ll do it again?” I laugh and tell him I have no idea how he did it for so many years. “I’m gonna take pity on you and try to hit into a double-play,” announces Keith Moreland, though that plan goes out the window once Jim buzzes him inside and rekindles Zonk’s competitive fire. “Where do you want it, Willie?” I ask when Willie Wilson steps to the plate. “Oh man, if only it were that easy,” he sighs, before stroking a vicious double to right-center. “You gonna steal against me?” I ask Ron Coomer, who thinks about it for a comically long minute. “No,” he laughs.

Okay, so the campers never really recover from the deficit our team spots the coaches — the “celebrity team” led by Eddie Vedder do actually hold the coaches to a 1-2-3 inning with no runs or hits — but it’s a total blast, and it’s over way too soon. I hang around the dugout and take some more pics, including this one below with the aforementioned Mr. Vedder. (Eddie, I’m sorry that I can’t stand your band, but you are unquestionably a sweet and righteous dude.)

My favorite moment of the day comes about half-way through the game, when I spy Billy Williams relaxing in front of the coaches’ dugout. About 15 years ago, when I first started buying throwback jerseys, the very first one I ever purchased was a Mitchell & Ness repro of a 1969 Billy Williams jersey. I brought it to camp with me, just to give Miss Howerton the option of wearing it during the games, having no idea that Billy would actually show up. But now that he’s here, I know I can’t leave Arizona without getting the sweet-swinging Hall of Famer to sign it.

Billy has, by all accounts, been an absolute joy to be around since he arrived mid-week to sub for fellow Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins; yet I don’t think I’ve been this nervous about asking for a player’s autograph since I saw Gates Brown in the stands at a University of Michigan game in the mid-70s. There’s nothing to be nervous about, though; I tell him about how it’s the first throwback jersey I ever bought, and he lets out a big “Heh heh heh!”, like I just told him a dirty joke or something. While he’s signing it, his old Cubs teammate (circa ’72-’74) Jose Cardenal asks me how I did in the game; I shrug and say something self-deprecating about letting a few passed balls go by, but Billy’s having none of it. “Aw, you good, you good,” he says, patting me on the back. My inner fourth-grader is now officially floating about five feet off the ground…

Towards the end of the game, Billy makes a surprise pinch-hit appearance in the coaches’ lineup, and hits a textbook-perfect double down the right field line to clinch the coaches’ victory. That night, at the annual end-of-camp banquet, he delivers — in a voice so honeyed and heartfelt it would shame Pops Staples — an incredibly moving speech about the late Ron Santo, who will finally join Billy and Fergie and Ernie Banks in the Hall of Fame this summer. It’s the highlight of the evening, though getting called up to the podium, along with the rest of my teammates, by our coaches Glenn Beckert and Rick Reuschel — the latter of whom announces to the room that I’ve been nicknamed “Theo” because Theo Epstein and I look so much alike — is pretty great, too. We all get baseballs autographed by the coaches to take home; mine was signed twice by Jose Cardenal, which I figure must be some kind of good luck charm.

The evening ends with a good old-fashioned karaoke knees-up at the hotel bar, where — remembering my missed opportunity in 2010 — I attempt to convince Keith Moreland to sing a duet with me. “Hey Zonk, will you do a song with me?” I ask. “Aw, I don’t know,” he says, “I’m not really a singer.” “How ’bout ‘We’re an American Band’ by Grand Funk Railroad?” Moreland’s eyes light up. “You know,” he says, “that’s a really good song!” Twenty minutes later, the Cubs’ color commentator and I are bringing the house down with our rendition of the finest road debauchery rock song ever written. It’s a beautiful, surreal, magical moment…

It’s been a month now since Cubs camp, and not a day goes by where I don’t think about my experience. I haven’t made it back to the batting cages yet — my cat Oscar, pictured above, has adopted my rubber thumb guard as his new favorite plaything — but I’m already thinking about getting my swing together for next January. I’m also thinking about two of my friends from Cubs camp, Bobby “Skates” Farinelli and Kevin Mallehan, who are dealing with some unexpected and most unwelcome health issues at the moment. When we hung out at camp, Skates was lamenting his dead legs and general lack of energy — turns out he was dealing with thyroid-triggered heart failure. “My doctor told me, ‘You probably should have died on the ballfield in Arizona,'” reports Skates, who happily seems to now be on the mend. “He said, ‘You’re either very tough, or very stubborn.’ Of course my wife piped in ‘or very stupid!'” Kevin, on the other hand, seemed fine and happy at camp, but he’s recently been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and has to go in for surgery tomorrow. Kevin’s doctors thankfully seem very encouraging about his prospects; but if you’re the praying type, a prayer for my boys Skates and Kevin would definitely be appreciated.

It’s easy enough to joke about fantasy baseball camp as some mid-life crisis manifestation, or a place where baseball fans pay a lot of money to relive the glories of their youth, or belatedly make up for the fact that they never made it to “The Show”. There’s some truth to all of this, of course, but such a flat assessment fails to factor in all the joy that also comes with the territory, that mainlined hit of pure Ernie Banks-style positivity that Skates, Kevin, all my other Cubs camp pals and I feel when we put on that uniform and head out onto the field. The good times and sweet memories you bring back stay with you, and remind you to savor those moments of childlike delight that can enrich your everyday life, if you’ll only just get out and play — whether it’s baseball or anything else that makes you giggle like a little kid again. Because, as Skates’ and Kevin’s situations remind me, the period between your first pack of baseball cards and your final innings are way too short, and you’ve gotta enjoy it while you still can. So let’s play ball, y’all…

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