Two men in shorts with the pale legs of newly arrived Midwesterners stand behind the backstop of a Texas Rangers practice field in the town of Port Charlotte, Fla. On the diamond, fly balls drop untouched, grounders go unfielded, hitters flail at soft-touch pitches. After a minute of this, one turns to the other and shakes his head.
"Man, " he says, "the Rangers are in trouble this year."
Maybe, but the woes of the real Rangers are far from the thoughts of these players. They’ve come to escape the world, not dwell on its problems-like piratic agents and bone chips in half-million-dollar elbows. The 67 men and five women (including Nolan Ryan’s wife, Ruth) are taking part in the Texas Rangers Fantasy Camp, a week-long simulation of major-league spring training, complete with instruction and a concentrated schedule of games under the tutelage of the entire Rangers coaching staff; Texas ace Nolan Ryan; former major-league stars Brooks Robinson, Maury Wills, Vida Blue, Jon Matlack, Lew Burdette, Ferguson Jenkins and Jim Kern; and current Fingers TV announcer Jim Sundberg.
Despite the lineup of heavy hitters, Fantasyland is about as far from a serious baseball boot camp as a squeeze bunt is from a moonshot. Not when Hall of Fame third baseman Robinson spends more time throwing batting practice than fielding grounders. ("I always wanted to be a pitcher," he admits. "That’s my fantasy. ") Or when Nolan Ryan jokes about breaking a man’s arm with a fastball just before pitching to star-struck campers. Or when a camper comes to the plate dressed in a uniform top, but with a towel around his waist. He scores twice, getting a single and a woman’s phone number from the stands.
If most of the ex-pros seem almost as trim and powerful as in their playing days, with uniforms hugging bodies not yet gone to seed, the fantasy campers are more of a mixed bag. There are bulges in places that usually don’t show in a major-league uniform (as one of the perks of the $3, 500-a-week camp, each camper receives his or her own regulation Rangers uniform). And on the field, campers range from slick fielders and deadeye hitters with skills kept fresh by American Legion ball and over-40 leagues to those who can only hope for the spontaneous generation of some talent in the warm Florida sun. Most of the late-30s to early-50s players come, though, to excavate their high-school or college form of 10, 20 or even 30 years ago. For some, the baseball gods smile, and base hits bloom like a thousand flowers. For others-well, there’s always next season.
Some campers need suntan lotion, others just a thick skin. As foul balls clang off the metal stands in nearly empty Charlotte County Stadium (or off players’ gloves on the field) half the ground balls become adventures, and pitchers occasionally send batters diving to the dirt. While a few bats get around fast and rap the ball smartly, more swing like a gate on a rusty hinge. And in the languid atmosphere of easy talk and cigarettes in the dugout, few moments worthy of amusement pass unremarked upon by campers or coaches. When a fly ball is hit to third and drooped despite the fielder’s determined efforts, a player on the man’s own bench says, "You could hear the bets being laid as soon as he called, ’Mine.’"
And the ex-pros chatter from the dugout just like campers, comparing a bad catch or a good throw to that of someone they once played with. They also take seriously their sworn duty to goad campers into better play. When one hitter watches four close pitches go by without taking a cut, former Oakland great Vida Blue bellows from the bench. "Man, I can’t believe you came I,100 miles to walk. Come on and swing!"
The ex-stars’ friendly, interested attitude is no accident, says Bobby Bragan, who founded the camp four years ago. "If they’re not good guys, " he says, "they don’t come back."
And at Rangers camp, the stars are on call 24 hours a day. Unlike the system at some major-league fantasy camps, where former pros and campers are strictly segregated and go their separate ways after (he last out of the day, all are equal at Port Charlotte. They play together, they eat together and they all stay in condos on Palm Island, an isolated resort that’s a 15-minute ferry ride from the mainland. If a former star wishes to remain inaccessible, he has to swim for it.
Former Rangers pitcher Jim "Emu" Kern is on his fourth c amp. He knows why he is here.
"My job is to raise hell and tell jokes and keep people from overdoing it the first few days, " he says. His praise seems genuine ("This is the most talented bunch, overall, since I’ve beer here"), but his flow of wisecracks is unending, and not always directed at the campers. After talking with a 60ish fan near a practice-field dugout one afternoon, he yells at Lew Burdette, the Milwaukee Braves star of the ’50s and ’60s, "Hey Lew, good news. Somebody’s here who’s old enough to remember you."
The accessibility of the former stars is applauded by virtually every camper. There are times, though, when it takes a little getting used to, as it does for Chip Shepherd of Clear Lake. Texas-such a Texas fan that he named his dog Ranger.
"I’m on [Ranger coach] Toby Harrah’s team, " he explains. "The first day. he sat down at my locker, and I heard this spitting sound. I looked down and saw he’d spat on my shoes. He smiled and said, ’Now those shoes are ready. ’ He said that’s what [former Chicago White Sox second baseman] Nellie Fox used to do to him. Spat in his hat once."
Some of the pros even have a way of making the two most unlikely campers feel welcome. "Maury Wills is kind of a special buddy. He took us under his wing, " says Sister Frances of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word of Fort Worth. She and her colleague, Sister Maggie, are minor celebrities. The two gray-haired nuns have held season tickets, courtesy of Rangers backers, since 1973. This is their second camp.
"Last year there were two cancellations at the last minute" Sister Frances says, "and Bobby Bragan said, ’I know two who’ll take them. " I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was just for the guys. But we had a great time. " Generous praise from someone who had her thumb broken by the first pitch she took.
There’s no shortage of people who love the game. But even many passionate baseball fans-who would love to be around when Burdette unwinds in the dugout and talks about the seventh game of the ’57 Series, to compare injury stories with Robinson over a beer or to sit in an after-dinner circle while Sundberg holds court-might be forgiven for asking if all this isn’t a little, well, excessive. After all, the careful traveler could get to Europe and back- twice-on what it costs to suit up in Port Charlotte and come home with bruises, a sunburn and a 90-minute video of the camp.
R. J. DiLena, an Arlington obstetrician and gynecologist, grew up poor and thinks about those things. "It’s expensive, and in a way it doesn’t sit right. On the other hand, I grew up three blocks from Yankee Stadium. Baseball was everything. Now. here I am, playing on a major-league field, seeing these guys up close. So rationally, it’s probably not worth $3,500. But what’s a triple off Nolan Ryan worth?"
A triple?
"Well," he says, "actually a single with two errors."
Ryan stories were the common currency of camp, and his appearance early in the week is its highlight. Ryan throws batting practice to campers and gives a seminar Tuesday morning on the fine art of pitching, aided by Texas pitching coach Tom House.
Ryan’s pitches are rationed as tightly as his time, which is divided among interviewers and autograph seekers. Each camper is supposed to be limited to three pitches or a hit, though more than once Ryan, if he thinks his third pitch is a bad one, tells the hitter to stand in for another try, all the while dishing out one-liners ("You always stand that far from the plate? I only hit one batter a day") and 80-85 mph fastballs. For hitters used to batting cage heat it is an education, and more than one deflated slugger trudges back to the bench, if not bewildered, then at least bewitched.
"My three swings of infamy."
"His wife hit him better than I did."
For John Mayeron, co-owner of a Dallas real estate company, hitting Ryan is so mind-boggling, he doesn’t remember running to first. "When I got back to the dugout. " he says, "I told them I was so excited I didn’t even run to first. They said, ’Yes you did. ’ I didn’t believe it until I saw the tape. It’s not a blur-it’s a blank."
Other hitters have sharper memories. Allen Been, the camp MVP and an accomplished all-around player, rips a double off the Ranger right-hander. He also has the chance to catch for him. Relaxing in the dugout after his turn behind the plate, Been nurses a hand that is red and puffy from the major-league beating. But when asked if he intends to soak the hand in ice water to bring down the swelling, he holds it up like a trophy, smiles and says simply. "Not yet."
As the week goes on, and many campers’ skills revive, the quality of play improves and the players become more competitive. In some cases, that just means catching up with the pros. "Sundberg didn’t win a game last year. " a camper says, watching the former Rangers catcher juggle his lineup during a game. "You can tell he’s not going to let that happen again. " Former Mets and Rangers pitcher Jon Matlack picks a runner off first with such subtlety that the runner later laments, "I took a step to second, then looked back and the ball was at first. I was dead meat. Matlack said he’d give me my jock back later."
And a few days later, with Lew Burdette pitching, a passed ball tempts a runner to make for the plate. The 65-year-old lumbers in from the mound and sends the man 30 years his junior sprawling to the ground with an NFL-style block. In the dugout. Burdette is unrepentant. Answering a question about his tactics guarding the plate, he deadpans, "I hate baserunners."
The Burdette Bounce may be the most spectacular collision of camp, but there is no apparent physical damage. It is a different story for campers whose exercise is usually limited to walking from the tee to their golf carts. On the second morning, campers are 20 deep in trainer Tom Tisdale’s room. Tisdale mostly sees a new malady he terms "total body stiffness."
But what’s a little agony when there’s so much ecstasy?
Maybe the isolation has something to do with it, maybe the illusion that once you put the uniform on you really are a real ballplayer. Todd Cowle. a Dallas stockbroker, calls camp "a place for all the baseball wannabes. "But Tom House may have hit the bull’s-eye.
"It’s a bunch of 45- to 50-year-old 12-year-olds, " he says. "What’s consistent is the twinkle in the eye."
Not everybody goes home in a state of total bliss, however. "There are always three or four guys who think they should have played more," says Bobby Bragan. "Just like the pros."
Others, though, have already signed up for next year. And whether or not she and Sister Maggie will be back with them again, Sister Frances can understand why they’ve done it-whatever the rest of the world thinks.
"My mom lives in Fort Worth, and she thinks I’m crazy with all this baseball stuff, " she says with a laugh, "But we just like the game. Baseball brings out the child in you. If you lose that. I feel sorry for you."