Sunday, February 10, 2008

Boys of Summer Polish Dodgertown Memories

Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp Thursday,...
( Jon SooHoo/ Los Angeles Dodgers 2008)

Baseball greats say so long to camp, to an era
By Dennis McCarthy, Columnist

The Boys of Summer sat in front of their lockers Friday morning, slowly buttoning up their white Dodgers home uniforms for the last time.

They're all in their early 80s now. But Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca will never grow old for generations of baseball fans who followed their exploits as the scrappy Brooklyn Dodgers of the early to mid-1950s.

The Boys of Summer.

Their arms may be shot, and their legs and power long gone, but there's nothing wrong with their minds. They're sharp as tacks.

As they dressed for the last day of Dodgertown fantasy baseball camp in Vero Beach, Fla., they talked about what this place - an old Navy base that Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley converted to a sprawling spring-training ground in 1948 - has meant to them.

How it's going to be sad to leave these old baseball fields, bunkhouses and locker rooms where they began their careers 60 years ago as young men and rose to the top of the baseball world.
Next season, the Dodgers will move their spring-training facility closer to Los Angeles in Glendale, Ariz.

But that's next year. Friday, they took one last walk around Dodgertown with me to relive old memories that will never die.

Erskine stood on the same mound where Branch Rickey, the legendary Dodgers general manager who brought Jackie Robinson up from the minors and integrated major league baseball, watched him pitch with an eagle eye.

"I was a rookie and scared to death of not making the club," Erskine said. "I pitched my heart out that day and won the game. I made the 1948 Dodgers on that win and spent the next 14 years with the club before retiring."

When the Dodgers began these fantasy camps for the public to attend 25 years ago, Erskine and many of the Boys of Summer returned to mingle and play ball with campers at Dodgertown for the week.

"I told Peter O'Malley one camp that he was paying me better to do these fantasy camps than his dad did when I was pitching," Erskine said with a laugh.

But it wasn't all laughs, Branca said. Getting money out of Branch Rickey was like getting blood out of a turnip, he said.

"I won 21 games one year and made $6,500," said the man who gave up the shot heard 'round the world to the New York Giants' Bobby Thompson in 1951 that cost Brooklyn the pennant.
After his playing career ended, Branca would return to Vero Beach with his family on vacations, stopping by Dodgertown during spring training to catch a game or two.

"I'd pay to get in," he said. "A few people from Brooklyn recognized me, but to most I was just a guy watching the game.

"I got invited back for the first fantasy camp in 1983 and have only missed one since.

"Campers like me. I've got a good sense of humor and talk funny," Branca said in the locker room as he put on his uniform.

A few campers walked up and asked for his autograph. Branca growled.

"I'm not signing any autographs today. Get the hell out of here," he said, before breaking out into a laugh. "Nah, I'll sign them, just let me get my pants on first."

A few lockers away, Duke Snider smiled and shook his head. Duke is as quiet as Branca is brash. The men couldn't be more different, but they share one common trait: class.

Neither man plans to travel to Arizona for future fantasy camps when they are available there because it's Vero Beach that means everything to them.

"This is where our fans came to see us play," Snider said. "Glendale (Ariz.) doesn't mean anything to us. It'll never be as good as Dodgertown. This place is special."

He spoke about a gully behind center field at the old main stadium and how he would have to run down into it to grab a long fly ball.

"I went back to get the ball one day, and there was a snake down there right next to it," he said, laughing. "I came out of the gully without the ball. I hate snakes."
Leaving Dodgertown will be hardest of all on Erskine. It was here he used to bring his young son, Jimmy, born with Down syndrome.

Jimmy is 47 now and a mainstay at all fantasy camps, given the honor every year of getting the last hit of camp and rounding the bases for a home run, and then doing a belly flop at home plate as everyone applauds. "He saw Tommy (Lasorda) do it at one camp and loved it," Carl said.
"I don't know how I'm going to tell Jimmy we're not coming back here anymore. It's going to break his heart."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

No Pain, No Gain at Dodgers Camp

By Dennis Dennis McCarthy, Columnist
Los Angeles Daily News


These are the dog days at Dodgertown Baseball Fantasy Camp - when the fantasy turns to pain and more time is spent with ice in the trainer's room than with cold drinks at the bar.

When the young at heart find the spirit willing, but the body weak, and all those pulled hamstrings and groins, sore shoulders and elbows from two days of playing doubleheaders are beginning to take a toll.

The old guys like me have begun starting our fantasy days at 7 a.m. with a 20-minute whirlpool and rubdown just to get going.

The young guys - anyone under AARP age - start their hearty days with bacon and eggs in the dining room.

After just three days at camp, there are a lot of walking wounded around here - and I'm now one of them. I pulled both hamstrings in a game Tuesday after trying to sprint to first base on a weak ground ball hit up the middle.

Actually, sprint might be too strong a word. A pathetic trot is more like it. But the Dodgers staff here is very understanding.

"Suck it up, rookie," said Peter Hite, one of three trainers working overtime to care for the battered bodies of 120 grown men pretending to be kids again.

Ice has become our best friend. You can smell us coming a mile away from all the liniment on our bodies.

"By now, we get 85 (percent) to 90 percent of the campers in here for some kind of injury treatment," Hite said, smiling sadistically as he covered both of my legs with large plastic bags of ice.

"At the end of the day the line is huge."

It's huge at the beginning of the day, too. So don't let your husbands who are at this camp with me fool you, ladies, when they call home at the end of the day and tell you they're holding up great.

They're lying.

They're limping around and lying on the training table next to me. Most of them anyway.

A few of my teammates from the San Fernando Valley - 59-year-old Dan Roman from Encino and 58-year-old Neil Adams from Reseda - are holding up great for elderly gentlemen.

That's another thing you learn at fantasy camp: Don't take anything or anyone seriously. Everyone's slamming everyone else - then patting them on the back after making another error.

Don't try to understand it. It's a guy thing. Nobody and nothing is sacred in a baseball clubhouse.

By the way, your son, Gary, sends his love, Wilma Stern of Sherman Oaks. He's lying on the trainer's table next to me getting his arm iced.

Another thing I'm a little disappointed about. I mentioned in Tuesday's column how this camp is a great father-son bonding experience for many campers, so you'd think the sons would show a little more respect for their fathers who are footing the $4,500 for the week.

But I can't find it by looking at the batting statistics.

Seth Blonder is outhitting his dad, Len, by about 300 points.

Jordan Grossbart is outhitting his dad, Ken, from Agoura Hills by a couple of hundred points.
And Steven Jennings Jr. from Glendale is outhitting his poor 66-year-old dad, Steven Sr., by about 500 points. The ingrate.

The only dad getting even is 71-year-old Bernie Silverman of Sherman Oaks, who is outhitting his 45-year-old son, David, of Agoura Hills by 250 points.

Now that's a nice, respectful kid.

I'd like to tell you all our local men living out their baseball fantasies this week with Dodger greats are killing the ball, but I'd be lying to you, and they wouldn't want that. OK, maybe they would.

The last time I looked, Jess Whitehall from Encino, David Solomon from Simi Valley, Ted Greenberg of West Hills and Ray Michaud from Oak Park - all great guys - were hitting under .300, but showing signs of life.

On the flip side, Mark Stone of Encino, Scott Clarke of Thousand Oaks, Chris Vatcher of Westlake, and Dan Roman of Encino are killing the ball.

Me, I'm hitting around .400, which shows you just how bad the pitching is.

On Sunday, I'll be writing about the last Boys of Summer from those great Brooklyn Dodgers teams - Duke Snider, Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca - talking about their memories from spring training at Dodgertown.

That was nearly 60 years ago, and this weekend they'll walk away from the Vero Beach facility for the last time.

Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

It's Bottom of the Ninth for Dodgers Camp

By Dennis McCarthy, Columnist
Los Angeles Daily News
Dennis McCarthy at the Los Angeles Dodgers
Fantasy Camp in Florida. (Peter Noble/Dodgers)

David Silverman, left, and his dad, Bernie Silverman at
the Los Angeles Dodgers Fantasy Camp in Florida. (Peter Noble/Dodgers)

VERO BEACH, Fla. - The guy we call "kid" on my Dodgertown fantasy baseball
camp team is 52. Muscles us old-timers forgot we had are so sore, you can smell the Bengay
from home plate to the outfield. But nobody's complaining. We're all having too much fun.

Welcome to Day Two of the last fantasy camp at the Los Angeles Dodgers' historic spring training site in Florida. It's where Hall of Famers try to coach campers who are lucky to make contact - campers like me - then share a beer with us while watching the Super Bowl.

On Sunday night, we took in the Patriots-Giants matchup with Duke Snider, Ralph Branca and Carl Erskine from the 1955 Boys of Summer world-championship team. On Monday morning, we had former Dodgers stars Maury Wills, Jeff Torborg, Reggie Smith, Steve Yeager and a handful of others working us out and picking us for their teams.

It was a busy contrast to the first day, which started off a little slow. No, check that. It started off miserably. I whiffed on 15 pitches in the batting cage, managing to foul off only three. They timed me running to first base with an hourglass. "Give it some time. It'll come, rookie," said 71-year-old Bernie Silverman of Sherman Oaks, a retired optometrist. Bernie's a camp veteran and, in many ways, epitomizes what this fantasy camp is all about.

It is a week for many fathers to play baseball with their sons, and in a few cases their daughters. Not coach them in Little League, but actually play with them on a team in a real baseball game.
"The first time I came to camp with my dad was for my 35th birthday," said Bernie's son, David, who is now 45 and lives in Agoura Hills. "I looked at our lockers side by side with our names on them and I just lost it."

There are dozens of father-son teams attending the last scheduled fantasy camp here before the Dodgers move their spring training site to Glendale, Ariz., next year. "I feel kind of like a fish out of water," said Mary Eve, 27, who is attending her first camp with her dad. She shouldn't. Mary was in the batting cage next to me. While I was whiffing, she was making solid contact with the pitches. "Look at her," shouted camp director Guy Wellman. "Why can't you guys do
that?" Beats me. Because she's better?

I got picked for Torborg's team along with a handful of other San Fernando Valley residents. There's Ted Greenberg, 59, of West Hills; Mark Stone, 58, of Encino; Neil Adams, 58, of Tarzana; and Dan Roman, 59, of Encino. We lost, 4-3, but, hey, it was close. I went 1-for-2. Not too bad for an old guy.

Also at the camp is Ray Machaud, former headmaster at Harvard-Westlake School when David Silverman was a student. "I don't know what to call him when I see him. Mr. Machaud?" David wondered nervously Monday morning, waiting to see his old headmaster. He didn't have to worry. This wasn't school - it was baseball, Machaud said, laughing. Call me teammate.
"This is the first time in 29 years I've taken a week off during the school year," he said. "I was being honored at a dinner, and a week at Dodgertown fantasy camp was being auctioned off.
"I bid on it and my wife kicked me under the table, asking me what I was doing. She thought I was nuts."

Machaud, like the 116 other campers here this week, wasn't nuts. He just wanted to be a kid again and play some baseball with the other kids. In my column Thursday, I'll be talking about the Boys of Summer and the feelings around Dodgertown at this last fantasy baseball camp after 35 years.

Last Chance to Play With the Big Boys, Dennis McCarthy is Off to Dodgertown

By Dennis McCarthy, Columnist
Los Angeles Daily News

Can a .240 career Little League hitter who averaged three errors a game, choked in the clutch and drove every manager he ever had nuts go home again?

I'm about to find out.

I'll be at Dodgertown this week attending the 50th and final Dodger fantasy baseball camp in Vero Beach, Fla., for old guys like me who think they can still get around on the fastball.
We can't, but who cares? That's why they call it a "fantasy" camp. The Dodgers are moving the team's spring training facilities to Glendale, Ariz., next year, so this is the last chance for local veteran fantasy baseball campers such as Ted Greenberg, Dan Roman and Ken Grossbart to go
home again.

"They're like kids in a candy shop," Joyce Greenberg said Friday as she watched her husband, Ted - a West Hills health-care executive - pack his baseball glove and cleats for another road trip to Vero.

Back when he was turning 50, Joyce surprised her now-59-year-old little boy with a week at Dodgertown for his birthday. He hasn't missed a year since. "I had no idea he'd get addicted," she said. "He can't wait to go back to camp every year to see his friends. It's like they never grew up." Ted tells his two grown daughters and Joyce not to get him anything for his birthday, Father's Day or Hanukkah every year. "Put the money away, and send me to Dodgertown," he says. And they do. The camp is all-inclusive and runs about $4,500 for the week, not including airfare.

"Where else can you get to be a kid again and spend a week schmoozing with Dodger greats like Duke Snider and Maury Wills?" Ted asked. Play ball with them all day and then meet in the Dodgertown lounge for a few beers after dinner and hear the inside stories from some of the Boys of Summer. No, it doesn't get much better than that. And they all have their wives or
girlfriends to thank.

Joan Roman surprised her husband, Dan, with a trip to fantasy camp back in 1986, when he turned 38. "I was going to wait and send him back for his 40th birthday, but I thought he'd be too old by then," the Encino woman said, laughing. "If I only knew. "Every night he'd call me from camp like a little kid calling his mother and tell me which Dodger stars he met that day."
When he got home, Dan and a few other campers from Southern California started their own baseball league, calling it Dodgertown West.

"We play hardball on Sundays and have more than 130 active members, with 16 players on each team," he said. "Only guys who have gone to fantasy camp are allowed to play." Dan is 59 now and going back to last call at Vero Beach with a few friends from that first camp whom he's still playing baseball with every weekend. "Sending him to that fantasy camp was the best thing I ever did for him," Joan said. "It's kept him young."

It's kept a lot of middle-aged and retired guys young, said 54-year-old Ken Grossbart, an attorney who went to his first fantasy camp in 1993. "This one's special for two reasons," the Agoura Hills resident said Friday. "It's the last camp at Vero Beach, and I'm taking my two sons (ages 36 and 29) this time. "I wanted them to have this experience to remember and play ball with them while I still can."

What better place to do it than a fantasy camp where 60-year-old little boys refuse to grow up?