A baseball fantasy camp lets adults relive childhood dreams
Vero Beach, Fla. — ''Sit to hit! You gotta sit to hit!'' I can still hear Tommy Davis's firm, but caring, instructions to keep me from committing myself too soon as I stood there in a batting cage, matching wits with a pitching machine. That's right, I said Tommy Davis. The same Tommy Davis who won back-to-back batting titles for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the early '60s.
Not having played baseball since way back in the Little League days, and having no current aspirations to take up the game professionally, it might seem strange that I would be getting this type of instruction from one of the best in the business. But that's not the half of it. I also learned how to play center field from Duke Snider; how to run bases from Wes Parker; how to steal bases from Maury Wills; how to throw from Carl Furillo; how to pitch a curve ball from Clem Labine and a spit ball from Preacher Roe; and how to enjoy myself in the dugout from the easygoing Lou Johnson.
Why, you ask, would people like that give of their time and energy to teach baseball to a postal employee from the hills of Oregon? Well, those men were among the 16 former Dodger stars who served as instructors at a recent adult baseball camp here at the team's spring training headquarters. And they not only instructed postal employees, but also attorneys, physicians, corporation presidents, state legislators, a barber, a judge, a congressional press secretary, a bus driver, and even a circus aerialist - 62 of us in all, each finally getting the chance to live out this childhood fantasy of playing major league baseball.
We had full Dodger uniforms with our names and the numbers we chose on the back. After seeing nine other No. 4's running around the camp, it soon became obvious to me that I wasn't the only Duke Snider fan in the world, and that I wasn't going to have him to myself all week. No worry; he had plenty of time to share with all of the campers, as did each of the instructors.
We had a daily routine of exercises, drills, practice, and ''live'' games. But the real fun for me was the time spent in the dining room, the lounge, the locker room, and the villas. Not because of the first-class accommodations and service we got in that self-contained little village, but because of the unique opportunity we had to become friends with people who had been just names, faces, and batting averages to us before.
The instructors seemed to enjoy the week as much as we did. It was a reunion for them, as some had not seen each other since 1954, and some who played in different periods had never even met. It was interesting to see the L.A. Dodgers of the '60s idolizing the Brooklyn Dodgers of the '50s, as much as we were idolizing all of them. And we saw up close that players really do appreciate the fans as much as the fans admire them.
They shared their knowledge and memories with us. Memories that were humorous; memories that were touching; and memories that were difficult. Carl Erskine, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, and their contemporaries discussed the breaking of the color barrier in baseball, these being the very men, white and black, who were involved in that page of history.
Don Drysdale and Ron Perranoski used humor to explain the empty feeling they had after losing the '62 playoff to the Giants in the last inning of the last game. This was immediately after we heard a carbon copy version of the same situation in the '51 playoff from Don Newcombe and Ralph Branca. Branca has retained his public recognition over the years as the one who threw the pitch that Bobby Thomson hit for a home run to win that playoff; but this polite gentleman deserves better than that. He was a tremendous pitcher for the Dodgers and should be remembered for things like winning 21 games, including four shutouts, at the tender age of 21, to help the Dodgers win the 1947 pennant.
Roy Campanella kept us entertained all week with fond memories of the past. He used to throw dirt on Willie Mays's shoe while he was batting, in the feeble attempt to distract him. He said that he didn't know how Preacher ''loaded up'' his spitter, and they had no signal between pitcher and catcher for him to throw it, but Campy always knew when it was coming. In telling us how to do something, he would always say, ''That's the right way, the Dodger way!''
Campanella and Maury Wills both impressed me with their complete knowledge of the game. Wills loves to teach - so much so that he spent part of his honeymoon with us at Dodgertown. (Yes, he brought his bride along.) In discussing people getting breaks, Maury defined a break as, ''Opportunity meeting preparation.''
If you ever see Wes Parker in an airport, and you want to strike up a conversation with him, just ask him about some obscure event in baseball history , and he'll take over from there. He loves to talk baseball. One night three or four of us were up until 1:30 asking each other trivia questions. Funny thing how the answers to Wes's questions were always, ''Wes Parker.''
Each of the Dodgers at the camp is worthy of a whole article by himself, but when it comes to Preacher Roe, you could fill a book with what he comes out with in one evening once he gets rolling. Not to be outdone by Davis's ''Sit to hit'' motto, Preach came up with one of his own for pitchers: ''You got to relax to throw strikes.'' It sounds much catchier when Preacher says it, though, because with his unmistakable Arkansas drawl, somehow it rhymes. (''Ya got ta relacks ta throw stracks.'')
Preacher loves to tell stories, which Erskine and Snider will tell you are not always completely factual, but you wouldn't want to hear them any other way. He likes to tell one about a game in which several home runs were hit off him, and he yelled at Snider in center field to play a little higher.
Known as a very poor hitter, Preacher likes to brag about the ball he once hit 300 feet - 150 feet straight up and another 150 back down.
I took home with me one distinction that no one can take away. I was the only one in camp who had the honor of being rebuked as only Tom Lasorda can do it, after I failed to get my bat on a low outside fast ball on a suicide squeeze play. In Tommy's defense, it was all in fun, for his aim throughout the week was to keep everyone laughing, which he does quite well.
At week's end I left the camp with more than an autographed ball and uniform. I came home with fond memories of people who mean more to me now as friends than they ever did as heroes.