“What you guys need to understand is that this is not a tryout.”
With these words, Jon Warden made it clear we were in Lakeland for fantasy camp, not a middle-aged shortcut to the big leagues. But the 80 or so of us who paid to wear a Tiger uniform for a week, we could still dream.
There are two kinds of baseball fans: those who know what fantasy camp is and those who don’t. If you have to be told what it is you probably aren’t the type who would go to a fantasy camp. But if your eyes bulge and you start daydreaming of making an unassisted triple play when you think about it, you’re a fantasy camp candidate.
The Tigers hold two camps in Florida at their Lakeland complex, in late January, early February. Each camp is a week-long smorgasbord of baseball, memories, and boyhood dreams come true.
Campers slap down $3,000 to spend a week pretending. Hotel accommodation, most meals, and a plane ticket from Detroit are included. But most important are the uniforms-two (home and road) authentic Detroit Tigers uniforms, right down to the sanitary socks. And though most of the campers look more like Don Zimmer in uniform than Don Wert, it doesn’t matter. Once they’re wearing the old English ”D”, they feel like a ballplayer.
But just in case the campers get too carried away, the real ballplayers are there to remind them what they are not. Former Tigers prowl the diamonds of Tiger Town, donning their familiar numbers. Dave Rozema, Tom Brookens, Willie Horton, Dan Petry, Larry Herndon, Mickey Lolich. Even cult heroes like Rusty Kuntz and Barbaro Garbey have been around.
There’s something about seeing your Tigers heroes in uniform that thrills a baseball fan — even if they’ve added some padding to their middles, too.
You play a lot of baseball at fantasy camp, but the best moments usually happen off the field. Like talking about the 1968 World Series with Lolich, or discussing the atmosphere of big league locker rooms with Brookens. Stories are told and re-told over beers and steak, or standing around the batting cage.
You bond with the 10-12 guys who are on your team, razzing them, encouraging them, giving them nicknames. If someone makes a particular decent play, it becomes legend. If a boneheaded play is made, you never hear the end of it. Once I was pitching and I plunked the batter square between his shoulder blades. Not noteworthy, except the fact that he was 88-years-old. I heard about that one for a while. By the end of camp, a bunch of guys I’d never known a week before were calling me “Ace.” My right arm was sore, and I had a permanent smile on my face.
I can’t remember if we won more than we lost, but I still stay in touch with several of my teammates. I still have my uniforms (and they fit!) and I have a duffle bag full of memories. For a brief period I was part of a team of Tigers, part of something historic and special. But mostly it was a hell of a lot of fun!