Giants Fantasy Camp - Day 2

Last night there was hazing. I'm just not going to say much about this. Yup, all the rookies....let's just move on!

It was a beautiful clear day today, but no games. The infield dirt was still too wet. So instead of having only one game tomorrow, looks like we will be playing two to make up for some lost time. We spent today getting to know our new team and doing more throwing and hitting than I think I've done in my entire life.

I was drafted to a team managed by Greg Minton (aka Mooney - don't ask) and Ed Halicki (aka Ho Ho - don't ask). Both former pitchers and great guys. Ed Halicki has the distinction of having pitched a no-hitter for the Giants on August 24th, 1975 against the New York Mets. The cool part about this (besides the no hitter), is that there were no no-hitters pitched by the Giants until Jonathan Sanchez on July 10th, 2009 and Pamela and I were there to see it! I kept saying to her, "Do you know what is going on?" and people around us would give me angry looks and just mouth "don't you dare".

Then there is Greg Minton who went three full seasons (269 innings) without throwing a pitch that was hit out of the park. That record still stands today. Being a pitcher wasn't his idea. He was a shortstop and a darn good one. But with incredible shortstops like Ozzie Smith in the league, the coaching staff decided to try him out as a pitcher. It stuck.

We did a lot of batting practice today with Ed pitching and Greg watching. Two swings into it, he stopped me and repeated everything that Dave Miller had told me during our practice a week ago. Then he gave me one small thing to do differently and everything changed. All of a sudden I started hitting pitch after pitch nice and solid. Greg in the background was doing this running commentary: "yup boys, we have ourselves a new player. Gonna have to review that batting order. See what my coaching does?". It was pretty funny. Seriously, thanks to Dave for all the tips and Kevin for reminding me to stay loose.

This afternoon he called my room to tell us when to be down for our team dinner and the conversation went something like this:

Moonie : "This is Greg Minton from the Giants Organization. Is this the prospect who was hitting in the cage today against Ho Ho?"

Me : "Yup"

Moonie: "Well, I'm just letting you know that we'll be at your hotel at 5:45 this evening to take you to dinner and talk about your future Giants career"

Me : "I hope you are willing to talk numbers"

Moonie: "Oh, we'll do a number on you alright!"

Anyway, that's just an example of how these guys can break the ice and make you feel like part of the team.

I decided that since I have no idea what position I play, I would try something unexpected. They asked for catcher volunteers and nobody spoke up, so I did. (Yup, Kevin, me!) So tomorrow, I'm the starting catcher. I figure that I've spent plenty of time watching from that vantage point as an umpire, it is time I moved 24" forward and tried catching. The good news is that there is no stealing on past balls. I also have good knees, so that puts me in the minority here. We'll see!

We have a strong team. Like all baseball teams, the key is pitching and we have a couple of college league pitchers (5-10 years removed), so we look pretty good. A nice group of guys who all went to dinner together tonight. The evening was full of story after story and plenty of laughter.

Other than a slightly sore arm, I'm doing just fine physically. Tired, but good. Tomorrow the games.

P.S. I have been without a phone until today. But thanks to Scott who shipped me down a laptop so that I could replace the expired Beta OS with the released version, I am now connected to the world again. I didn't miss the phone part, but I did miss the camera. So, starting tomorrow, there will be more pictures.

Giants Fantasy Camp - Day 1

It rained on our Day 1. The rain put a damper on our first full day of camp. We weren't able to spend as much time on the field as we would have liked, but we did get a chance to throw, bat and field fly balls in the afternoon.

But, I gotta start with last night. Our first group meeting was in one of the hotel conference rooms. Turns out that this Rookie/Veteran thing is a big deal. There are 50 rookies and 62 veterans who have attended at least 1 camp prior to this year. Veterans sat on one side of the room, rookies on the other. The basic message of the evening was that the Veterans knew everything and the rookies were clueless, but would figure things out as the week progressed.

The makeup of the group is amazingly diverse. My locker (more on that later) is next to a 26 year old who is attending camp with his Dad. He is young, strong and a good player. Then there are people in their 60's. I don't know how old the oldest camper is, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was high 60's. There are also 4 women: 3 veterans and 1 rookie.

As rookies, we each had to stand up and tell the group a little about ourselves and take some good-natured ribbing from the staff. I was told that a few of the coaches would be up to my room later to play checkers on my plaid shirt. I got off lightly! We were also told hundreds of time to go slowly and build up speed during the week. One of the veterans present broke his wrist diving for a fly ball on his first day and first station last year. "None of you will be drafted to the majors, so don't try too hard to impress us" as the message.

This morning we headed over to the training facility. When we walked into the clubhouse, we found lockers with name plaques. In each locker was a beautiful creme color home jersey and a black away jersey (with the player's name on it). Everything that you needed to suit-up and play was in the locker including shoes (yes, and socks!).

The clubhouse is a wonderful room, complete with a dozen TV's, soft-drinks, water and, yes, even beer. We had the run of the facility including the training staff who was there to help anybody who needed body work. When I walked by, the training room line was out the door even with 3 trainers working as fast as they could. There were a lot of taped ankles walking around.

After dressing, we had a meeting in the main gym. Since the fields were too wet, and it was still raining, we were treated to stories from the coaching staff. Marty Lurie of KNBR was the facilitator, encouraging the some of the old timers as well as the younger ex-players to tell their stories. We heard from Russ Ortiz, Shawn Estes who talked a lot about players still in the game. Jim Davenport and Vida Blue had many stories to tell about some of the legends of the game (yeah, legends telling stories about legends).

Hobie Landrith, a catcher with the Giants starting in 1958, is 84 years old and still dressing down in his uniform for these Giants camps. He told a story about what it was like to play with Jackie Robinson. He said that as a catcher he prided himself on his throws to second, both to catch runners stealing from first or those trying to steal third. He said that in a game, there was a runner who was on second who was dancing around taking a bit too long of a lead, so he called a pitch out and threw a beautiful strike to the second baseman who tagged the runner out. Later in the game, it happened again with a different runner and Landrith, being pretty sure of himself, threw another perfect strike to the second baseman. Just as the second baseman caught the ball, Jackie Robinson slid into third. What you could do against most players, you could not do against Jackie Robinson. (Reality check: I had lunch with a dude who played baseball WITH Jackie Robinson!!)

Later, after pictures, we met back in the gym for some instruction from the pros on all-things-baseball. Jim Davenport (Gold Glove 3rd Baseman), said that hitting instruction was simpler in those days. He said it was just "see ball, hit ball". When he hears people talking about technique today he is baffled by the language. When he was playing if you couldn't "see ball, hit ball", they just brought in someone else who could.

I was particularly impressed with Joel Youngblood. Not only his knowledge of baseball fundamentals, but also his teaching style. I'm secretly hoping that I end up on his team.

After lunch the skies were clear and the field was draining, so we headed out. A trainer ran 112 people through stretching and running to loosen up then we broke up into groups. We each got a round in the batting cage, and a chance to catch (or drop) some fly balls (I did both). We didn't get to do any infield today since the dirt was wet.

The field is incredible. Every much as green and perfect as AT&T park. In addition to the stadium field, there is another field, four batting cages and a host of other practice areas.

Oh, by the way, we have ball boys too! Four high school seniors who have straight A's and were given permission by their principal to skip school for a week. We don't have to shag our own foul balls. These kids spent the whole day out there with us getting equipment ready, cleaning up areas and generally being helpful.

I did ok today. I didn't catch every fly ball that came my way, but I did have pretty good range in the outfield. The balls that I did miss were difficult. One over my head that I tried to catch on the run, but didn't. Another that was really short and went in and out of the glove as I was running toward the infield. The good news for me is that I read the ball fairly well, so I either caught or touched every ball. When I needed to turn and run, I did. A small victory that I'll take.

At all the stations the coaches were hanging out with clipboards making indecipherable marks next to names. I imagine that what they wrote down was pretty simple. There were good strong players that are obviously going to be in high demand. Then there are many, many players who are in the middle. There were also a few whose outfield range was 10 ft to either side or missed every pitch in the batting cages. By the way, none of this affected how much fun everyone was having. From the best players to the ones who struggled, there were smiles and good times had by all.

Teams have already been drafted and are posted in the clubhouse. So, I'll know tomorrow whose team I'm on. And, then the games begin. Weather permitting we play 2 games every day from here on out. Should be fun!

Giants Fantasy Camp - The Pre-Story

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?"

Me: "Yup"

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?"

Me: "Yup"

Bill: "Including your socks. Any questions?"

Me: "Nope"

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.

Stay tuned.