Major League Baseball Fantasy Camp – Spring Training for the Middle Aged

June 7, 2009


Matthew Mulligan asked:

ajor League Baseball Spring Training is set to begin shortly! The grass is clipped in Florida and the fields are getting some much needed water in Arizona as the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues prepare for the annual welcoming of the highly paid swingers of sticks. This heralds the onset of the hope and possibility season. Solidly connecting bat with ball just one time in three tries can get a 19 year old kid from the back waters of Alabama a multi-million dollar contract. Of course the pitchers who are paid to prevent those kids from connecting bat with ball are also present trying to make everyone hit nothing but air. But at this time of year, anything seems possible.




This tangle of strange activity made baseball America’s national sport. People who can play this game are rewarded with a great deal of money. People who watch are charged a great deal of money. Fans love to interact with players and frequently fantasize about being on the other side of the fence. Instead of paying $7.50 for a cup of flat, warm Budweiser, they dream of having an icy cold one brought to them in the locker room after a win.


Baseball has developed a remarkable scheme to make these fantasies at least a partial reality. Being a pudgy forty six year old no longer presents a barrier to living out one’s dream of being on a major league team – if even for a week or ten days. This only costs a couple thousand dollars. The middle aged pay to play scheme brings in countless poor souls trying to rekindle their youth. Remembering the play that won the big game in high school has these guys trying to find that same kind of ‘high’ thirty years later.


Team camaraderie from those years is a fond memory. Being young is a better memory. So after many years of slaving away in the business world and earning decent income has many looking to mid-January for the chance to escape the cold weather as well as escape middle age. Baseball fantasy camp offers a chance to don a real uniform –name and all – of one’s favorite team, be guided by the real team coaches and players and to once again, take a place on the field. Several major league teams offer these camps prior to the real spring training. It is a tremendous opportunity to part the zealous fan from several thousand of his dollars.


The Seattle Mariners offer a fantasy camp at their spring facility in Arizona. Interestingly, the team invites all over 30 years old – even if the participant has no experience. It then offers that same participant the chance to take on real pros in a game situation. This includes an opportunity to face Bill Caudill on the mound. This sounds like a classic sucker-punch. Allowing an inexperienced player to stand in the batter’s box with no idea what to do while a seasoned pro rockets a ball by his snooter is a recipe for disaster – or at least significant embarrassment. If the pitching pro starts daydreaming about the tank topped blonde in the third row, the middle aged hitter gets plinked off the knee cap. And after a long Midwestern winter it is difficult not to pay attention to the tank top instead of the catcher’s mitt. In either case there is not a snowball’s chance in Tucson of this poor, not quite senior citizen, to meet ball with bat.


Bats and mitts are only a couple of the accoutrement required by camp participants. Included in the fee for most of these things, one receives an official team uniform including name stitched on the back. The participant picks up his uniform at a pre-assigned, reserved cubicle in the real team locker room. This isn’t like having a reserved seat on the flight to Phoenix. This is a reserved cube that in a week or two will be used by guys who get paid to play the game. This is all very cool for the forty six year old trying to remember what it felt like to run the bases without coughing and hacking. But where else would a fan wear his new uniform ? He can show it off, but he probably won’t be wearing it to the family reunion in July.


Uniforms of course allow fans to easily distinguish one team from another. This brings up one of the more interesting things about fantasy camp in that participants actually attempt to play the game. Granted, some of these guys, even after several years selling paint in Minneapolis, are decent athletes. Some have kept their skills intact with frequent trips to the batting cages and playing in city leagues. The problems arise when the ones that have been short selling stocks from an office building in downtown Chicago think they can still compete.


Competing at this level is a challenge. Competing at this age might be just as entertaining as a real game but for entirely different reasons. Tripping over second base doesn’t count as sliding in. Most guys haven’t worn baseball cleats in 20 years or more – much less tried to go anywhere quickly in them. A face plant between bases is not unheard of. And stealing a base? Oh, wince!.


Going somewhere quickly – the younger generations refer to this as ’running’ – is a significant challenge in itself. Years take a great toll on the knees. The kids take a great toll on the back. The wife takes a great toll on… well… nevermind. No amount of hot-tubbing will cure these ills. Although hot tubbing with the tank topped blonde from row 3 might cause one to forget the pain.


Pain is a part of the fantasy experience. Running and swinging a bat alone involve the use of muscle groups not used with any vigor in decades. Many fantasy players say that age catches up with them during the week. It isn’t the age that catches up, it is the years of poor decisions that catch up. Years of second helpings of lasagna instead of salad adds quite a bit of dunnage to the midsection as well as stress to the quads.


Adding stress to the experience are the occasional if not infrequent bits of serious contact on and off the field. Contrary to general thought, baseball is in fact a collision sport. Collisions with other players and pieces of equipment are common. This doesn’t even take into consideration contact that occurs during actual play. Being hit by a pitch carries real risk of extended pain – even if thrown by a fifty year old. And if you get plinked by Bob Caudill, you might just get a cool, fast ride to Tucson General Hospital.


Part of baseball is having the sense to get out of the way of oncoming danger. Part of survival is having enough speed to get out of the way once a collision appears possible. Pile ups are indeed part of the game but surviving the game requires bodily functions that only twenty-somethings enjoy. They actually heal. They also have the speed and strength to avoid most smash ups. Ancient laws of physics hold that two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Fantasy baseball players routinely attempt to violate this one.


Violating one’s bank account is another element of the fantasy baseball experience. Several camps are offered at costs exceeding $4,000 per participant for seven to ten days. The participant receives a uniform that he can really only wear at the camp, and the experience of playing the game. Although participant wives sometimes attend the camp, they frequently opt to attend the women’s retreat in Cancun instead. While the participant is running the bases and eyeing the blondie in the third row, the wife may be reading a book on a Mexican beach… or pool side in Vegas, or….well. If you can live your fantasy, the wife might just be living hers. And probably at far lower cost.


At least baseball is honest about what they are selling. It is a fantasy experience. If guys really want this for a fantasy and are willing to empty their wallets to get it, several major league teams are there to help. The chance to play the game again, wear a real uniform and get out of the Kansas City winter are genuine reasons to point the old SUV towards Scottsdale. (Actually, you don’t really have to make up a reason to get out of KC.) Hopefully the wife goes with. If she doesn’t, you can pick her up at the MGM on the way home.



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