Well, there is no turning back now! I'm winging my way to Phoenix for a week long baseball experience. I have no idea what to expect or how I'm going to do, but I do plan to relax and enjoy myself. But, how about a little background first.
For Father's Day 2012, my family decided that I would enjoy spending a week in Scottsdale Arizona at the San Francisco Giants Fantasy camp. I had never heard of the camp, but everybody else who is a fan of the game appears to know about it. For one week (the week right before spring training starts), over 100 adults from 25-65 show up at the Giants training facility to experience the life of a professional baseball player. Except that I think we're short a bit of talent and a lot of youth.
Knowing nothing about the camp, I found myself sitting reading over the brochure while I heard Kyle say "I think he likes it!". All I could say was "Wow!". All I was thinking was "But I have never played baseball!". But, the more I read, the more interesting it seemed. There was a lot of focus on making sure the experience was fun for all skill levels and how everyone shared a passion for the baseball. I think this was Kyle's idea - maybe it was a good one.
My problem was that I am passionate about the game, but my passion started 8 years ago when my friend, Dave Miller, asked if I would like to umpire "a game or two". One season and 25 games later, I was hooked. I did games with 7 year olds and I did games with 16 year olds. Small field, big field, good games and bad games, it didn't matter, I just loved umpiring. I studied, I watched videos and I even spent a week at Umpire boot camp in San Bernadino.
What I found was a game so much more complex than most of the world truly understands. I enjoyed the challenge. On any given pitch anything can happen. And, as an umpire, if you don't know the rules better than the coaches, you are in trouble. You have to make quick decisions, be decisive, keep track of your partner and, most of all, get the calls right. It's a kick!
I started off thinking that I had to get to the point that I didn't make any mistakes. Boy, the first year some of the mistakes were amazing. I called a kid out twice. He was on first, headed to second and was the first out of an attempted double-play. The ball didn't make it to first in time for the out there, but the kid who was out on second was jogging off the field toward third base when the first baseman threw the ball to third. They tagged the "runner" and I called him out again. Loud and clear. Not my finest hour!
After a while I realized that umpires are just human and make mistakes just like the players. Watch any professional game and you'll see players who strike out and umpires who miss calls. Our job is to just do our best to get the call right and over the year, I think that I've gotten more and more of them right.
But, I hadn't played the game. I was fast in High School so I ran track. 100 and 220 yard sprints that I almost always won. Meanwhile over on the diamond next to the track, the baseball players were practicing. I hated track. I should have played baseball, but I didn't.
Thanks to umpiring, I know the rules. I know the situations and what to expect when the ball is hit. I've seen a lot of curve balls. If you think you know what a curve ball is, and you haven't seen one up close, you are mistaken! Imagine a pitch that you think is going to be behind you breaking feet to end up over the outside corner of the plate for a strike.
One of the benefits of being on the field with kids is that you get to hear them talk. What they say to each other and to themselves is, sometimes, unbelievable. Anyway, I remember this one kid who was being served up curve ball after curveball. He bailed out of the batter's box twice in a row only to have the pitch end up right over the plate for a strike. I hear his coach encouraging him, "It's OK, Johnny, you can do it!". The kid standing in the box gently letting his bat swing back and forth by his feet is staring at the ground and mutters under his breath "No I can't!". He wasn't dejected, he was more amazed at how thoroughly he was outmatched. After another wicked curve ball, he headed back to the dugout with a smile and shaking his head. It's how I think I would feel if I stepped up to the plate against a college player!
Wait, I think that's what I am about to do!
Anyway, over the next few months I tried not to think about this too much. Then, the emails from the camp director started showing up in my inbox with plenty of suggestions for stretching, playing catch and otherwise, getting ready. So, in December, I decided that it was time to get started. First, my kids were great. Colin and Kevin both continually encouraged me to play catch. The first day, I threw until my arm was sore (not that long), each time, I felt better and less sore. But throwing and catching isn't learning the game. I had to do more.
The true measure of a friend is someone who will drop everything to help you and I realized that I needed help. So, I called Dave Miller and asked if he had some time to do a few workouts with me on the high school diamond. It was during winter break so Kevin, Colin and a few of their friends all joined me on the field. We started with fly balls to the outfield from a pitching machine. Ok, I can catch fly balls, but Dave points out that I'm just camping under the ball and when I catch it, I am in no position to do anything with it. So the drill moves on to timing it so that you are moving forward toward the cutoff man. Then we add two outfielders who have to call the ball, and back each other up. After 45 minutes, sweat is running down my face and I'm huffing and puffing when Dave asks if I want a break.
Next we do batting. I've never been taught how to bat. You just take a bat and hit the ball, right? Nope. I know that we are just glossing over things, but it is all I can do to keep up. Hands by your ears, weight on your back foot, load, shift your weight, take a step forward, throw your hands at the ball, oh and relax.
Finally, we move on to fielding where I can't seem to spin the right direction. I'm just taking ground balls at 2nd and turning all the way around toward first (with my back to 2nd) and still spinning until I can make the throw. If nothing else this week in Arizona, I want to take a ground ball and make a nice throw to second.
In the midst of this getting ready there are many things that I stressed about. Did I have the right glove? (Thank you Kevin!) Did I need batting gloves? Do you wear a cup? (still no idea, but I am prepared) Do I need socks? The last question I blurted out during a phone call with the coordinator who assured me that no question was too dumb. His response was something like this:
Bill : "Ok, here is how it works. You show up at the clubhouse in the morning in your street clothes. Go to the locker with your name on it. Inside will be a uniform with your name and everything you need including turf shoes. Got it?"
Bill: "You put everything on, and play baseball for the day. In the evening, put your uniform back in your locker and the next morning it will be hanging up clean and ready for your day. Got it?"
Bill: "Including your socks. Any questions?"
Dave did another batting session at the field and I visited the batting cages a few times. Before I knew it, the day had come. Kevin came to the batting cage with me the last time. He told my parents later that I wasn't going to embarrass the family name, so I take that as a good sign!
So, here I am on my flight and to an experience that is far outside of my comfort zone. There are a few other campers on this plane. I was hoping to see a lot of 55 year old obese dudes, but that doesn't seem to be the case. They look - well a lot like me. The first two were in the bar at the airport talking to a security guy about their upcoming week. One was a pitcher, one a catcher. I still don't know what I am.