Sunday, February 27, 2011

Dodgers Mourn the Passing of Hall of Famer Duke Snider


Dodger Hall of Fame outfielder Duke Snider passed away this morning at the age of 84 at the Valle Vista Convalescent Hospital in Escondido, Calif.

Born Edwin Donald Snider in Los Angeles, CA on Sept. 19, 1926, Snider was among the game's most feared hitters during his 16 seasons with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers (1947-1962), playing on a pair of World Championship teams (1955 and 1959) and in six World Series overall.

The seven-time All-Star center fielder ranks as the franchise's all-time leader in home runs (389) and runs batted in (1,271) and during the 1950s, he topped all Major Leaguers with 326 homers and 1,031 RBI. He slugged four home runs in both the 1952 and 1955 World Series.

Nicknamed "Duke" by his father at age five, he was a standout in football, baseball and basketball at Compton High School before signing with the Dodgers at age 17 in 1943. He briefly played in the low minors before entering the Navy.

He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980 and his Dodger uniform No. 4 was retired that year in Oldtimers Day ceremonies that featured Snider entering the ballpark from beyond the center field fence, accompanied by Joe DiMaggio and Willie Mays, two other great outfielders of Snider's time.

Following his playing career, Snider returned to the Dodger organization as a minor league manager. He later joined the Montreal Expos as a broadcaster and batting coach.

Funeral arrangements are still pending.

Statements from the Dodgers on the passing of Duke Snider:

Dodger Owner and Chairman Frank McCourt: "Duke was one of the truly legendary Dodgers who made his mark first in Brooklyn and then in his hometown, Los Angeles. I had the pleasure of spending time with him on several occasions and he was a truly wonderful man. I'm so glad that we were able to keep him as an active part of the Dodger family over the past several years. The entire Dodger organization is deeply saddened by his loss and our heartfelt thoughts are with Beverly and his family."

Dodger Hall of Fame Manager Tommy Lasorda: "I was a Duke's teammate and looked up to him with respect. Duke was not only a great player but he was a great person too. He loved his family and loved the Dodgers. He was the true Dodger and represented the Dodgers to the highest degree of class, dignity and character. He was my teammate and friend and I will really miss him."

Dodger Hall of Fame broadcast Vin Scully: "He was an extremely gifted talent and his defensive abilities were often overlooked because of playing in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field. When he had a chance to run and move defensively, he had the grace and the abilities of DiMaggio and Mays and of course, he was a World Series hero that will forever be remembered in the borough of Brooklyn. Although it's ironic to say it, we have lost a giant. He's joining a great Dodger team that has moved on and I extend my sympathies to his entire family, especially to Bev."

Baseball World Has Reached Out

Freshman outfielder from Mater Dei High School underwent surgery after a baserunning collision last week. His condition hasn't been made public, but teammates, former teammates, major leaguers and the school have rallied around him.

By Gary Klein, L.A. Times
February 26, 2011
Reporting from Tempe, Ariz.

Cory Hahn wasn't on the field with his Arizona State teammates, but he was there in spirit.

The Sun Devils' game against Delaware on Friday night was their first since Hahn suffered a serious neck injury in a baserunning collision last week, an incident that has left the former Santa Ana Mater Dei High star hospitalized.

Hahn, however, remained a presence at Packard Stadium.

He was announced as the starting designated hitter before the game.

Sun Devils players and coaches wore Hahn's No. 34 on their stirrups and caps.

And they ringed their wrists with inspirational maroon and gold bands that read: "Damn Right I'm Safe."

That's what Hahn, lying motionless on the field, said to Arizona State Coach Tim Esmay last Sunday after he was hurt stealing second base against New Mexico.

"You're on the base," Esmay informed the freshman as paramedics prepared to move him.

"I'm on the base?" Hahn replied.

"Yeah," Esmay said. "You were safe."

"Damn right, I'm safe," Hahn shot back.

Cory Hahn (ASU)
The feisty phrase has become a rallying cry for the Sun Devils, a few of whom were in tears after Hahn was rushed to a Phoenix hospital, where he underwent surgery that night.

Hahn's parents have not spoken publicly about their son's condition, and university and hospital officials say they have been asked not to release any information. But several people said Hahn has movement in his neck, arms and hands.

"Every day has been a positive," Esmay, speaking generally, said of Hahn's progress.

Those who know the 19-year-old from Corona are not surprised. If anyone possesses the fortitude necessary to persevere through this kind of ordeal, they say, it's Hahn.

Mater Dei junior Ty Moore was in the eighth grade when he met Hahn at a baseball camp at the University of Arizona. Moore quickly made him his mentor, watching and following Hahn's lead on how to prepare and conduct himself.

Two years later, they combined to pitch a perfect game in the Southern Section Division I final.

Moore said the 5-foot-10, 150-pound Hahn has always been the toughest player on the field.

"He's been a fighter in everything he does," Moore said. "I would expect him to be the same right now."

Hahn, the Times' 2010 high school player of the year, fought his way into Arizona State's starting lineup as the designated hitter for the Feb. 18 season opener against New Mexico. He was a defensive replacement in center field in the first game of last Sunday's doubleheader before starting the second game.

With a runner on second, Hahn drew a first-inning walk. On the next pitch, he broke for second on the back end of a double steal. Hahn dived toward the bag, his head hitting New Mexico second baseman Kyle Stiner's left leg.

Janet and Karen Caldwell have attended Arizona State games regularly since the early 1980s. The sisters, den mothers of the program, sit directly behind the Sun Devils' third base dugout.

If an injured player's feet are moving, they don't worry quite as much.

Hahn's feet were not.
Arizona State's Cory Hahn slides into second base
and collides with the knee of New Mexico
second baseman Kyle Stiner. (Ron Galosic)
"Everyone in the stands knew it was serious," Janet Caldwell said Friday, her eyes welling with tears. "It's never been so quiet in this stadium."

Players have since visited and joked with Hahn at the hospital. Esmay, however, has declined to make them available for interviews regarding their teammate, citing the sensitivity of the situation.

"It's going to be a day-to-day thing with him, but at least we all can feel and talk to him and know that things are on the right path," Esmay said.

Esmay has heard from Jim Henderson, a former Westlake High and Arizona State catcher who recovered from a broken neck suffered in a 1992 automobile accident that occurred a few days after he began his pro career.

The greater baseball community also has reached out to Hahn and his family. Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier, who played at Arizona State, and Angels Manager Mike Scioscia are among those who have visited Hahn.

"I wanted to wish him luck," Ethier said, "and let him know a lot of the ASU guys are thinking about him."

Said Scioscia: "To see a kid that has a passion for baseball…with that passion, hopefully you're going to see a full recovery. You just keep praying for it."

That's what the UCLA-bound Moore and Coach Burt Call said they and others are doing at Mater Dei, where Hahn blossomed into a possible major league prospect.

But it wasn't always smooth.

After a standout freshman season, he slumped terribly in 2008 with dozens of strikeouts at the plate and a batting average that fell below .200. Hahn told The Times' Eric Sondheimer that the experience humbled him and taught him even more about perseverance.

"We worked through it," Call said.

In 2009, Hahn provided one of the high school season's most dramatic moments by hitting a grand slam in the playoffs against Norco's Matt Hobgood, a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Orioles.

He built on the momentum as a senior, batting .411 and slugging 10 home runs. And with the team's ace injured, the left-hander pitched for the first time in high school, going 14-1 with an earned-run average of 0.89.

Hahn capped his high school career by pitching five innings of a perfect game against Dana Hills, slugging a home run and making a spectacular catch in center field.

Hahn told pro scouts that it would take $600,000 for him to pass on the opportunity to play at Arizona State, a figure that drastically lowered his draft position. The San Diego Padres, impressed by his skills and makeup, still selected him in the 26th round.

"He's just a baseball rat," Jaron Madison, the Padres' scouting director, said Friday in a phone interview. "He's a grinder-type kid who absolutely loves the game."

Hahn's injury was one of several situations that that have recently befallen Arizona State.

Earlier this month, Sun Devils running back Deantre Lewis went to visit his sister and newborn niece in Riverside County and was hit by a stray bullet from nearby gunfire, reportedly while sitting on a relative's porch. Lewis had surgery to remove the bullet from his buttocks and returned to school last week.

Three days after Hahn's injury and surgery, it was reported that Arizona State quarterback Steven Threet was giving up football after suffering four concussions in five years.

Athletic Director Lisa Love said the Sun Devils' community has rallied, quietly operating as "backstage workers" to assist and support the athletes and their families.

"The goal," Love said, "is to simply say, 'Yes, we have that taken care of,' so there is nothing to distract the family from where their hearts and minds are."

Sun Devils fans were thinking about Hahn on Friday, signing poster-sized get-well cards that the Caldwell sisters and the "Diamond Devils" student support group planned to send to the hospital.

Esmay had Hahn announced as a starter, he said, because it was "a good opportunity to kind of be back into what he's all about."

After a wrenching week and a defeat by Delaware, Esmay still managed a smile. He was speaking of Hahn and recounting his memorable rejoinder before he was taken to the hospital.

"That's who he is," Esmay said.

Damn right.
Times staff writer Kevin Baxter contributed to this report.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Advocate for Women in Baseball Finally Gets to Be One

                                                        Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Justine Siegal, 36, became what was thought to be the
first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team.

February 21, 2011

By GLENN SWAIN - New York Times

GOODYEAR, Ariz. — Justine Siegal felt a chill of excitement when she saw her dark blue Cleveland Indians jersey. She changed in the umpires’ locker room and emerged with a confident gait, her blond pigtails shining in the Arizona morning sun. Siegal, 36, smiled as she prepared for her debut Monday, her 13-year-old daughter, Jasmine, following close by her side.

A longtime advocate for girls playing baseball, Siegal explained her fantasy campaign. “I had a dream and felt like giving it a go,” she said. “I see this as more of a mental exercise than a physical one.”

A few minutes later, she walked on Practice Field No. 2 and became what was believed to be the first woman to throw batting practice to a major league team. First, she threw to a group of minor leaguers, whose wide eyes suggested that they had never quite seen a changeup like hers. In preparation for this week, Siegal, a former high school and amateur player, threw batting practice for a number of college teams and strengthened her arm with the help of a personal trainer.

“I’m a bit of an old lady now, but in my early 20s, I threw in the 70s,” Siegal said of her fastball.

“What’s the scouting report on her?” one minor league hitter joked before stepping into the batter’s box.

Indians Manager Manny Acta described her work as “pretty impressive.”

“It was wonderful to have her pitch for us because she’s from Cleveland,” Acta said. “I believe her dad and grandfather still have season tickets. It’s multigenerational. For her to do this with our ball club was very special.”

Raised in Cleveland, where she began playing baseball at 5, a young Siegal would lie in bed at night dreaming of a career in professional baseball, and of one day taking the field as a member of the Indians.

                 Mark Duncan/Associated Press
Siegal, 36, buttonholed G.M.’s at the
winter meetings, asking for a chance to pitch.
The Indians’ Chris Antonetti said yes.
“It wasn’t until I was 15 when I knew it wasn’t going to happen,” she said.

Her quest to throw batting practice began last November when she sent written requests to general managers of major league clubs. Only one bothered to answer. “It was a lovely letter supporting me, but also saying no,” Siegal said.

She didn’t stop there. In December, Siegal traveled to the winter meetings in Florida and tracked down general managers to make her pitch in person. Oakland’s Billy Beane was the first to say yes — Siegal will pitch to the Athletics on Wednesday in Phoenix — and Cleveland’s Chris Antonetti warmed to the idea.

Siegal is used to doing what most other women have not. A first-base coach for the Brockton Rox of the Can-Am League in 2009, she claims to have been the first woman to serve on the coaching staff of a men’s professional team. She was a coach on the men’s team at Springfield College in Massachusetts from 2007 to 2010 and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in sport and exercise psychology at the college.

Last summer, Eri Yoshida, a female knuckleball pitcher from Japan, pitched for the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League, becoming the first woman to pitch in a professional game in the United States in a decade. Yoshida finished the season 0-4 with a 12.28 earned run average.

On Monday, watching her mother throw four-seam fastballs to the hitters, Jasmine Siegal said: “This is so cool. She’s showing that no matter what, you can achieve your goals.”

On the sleeve of Justine Siegal’s Indians jersey was a memorial patch in tribute to 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the youngest person killed in the Jan. 8 mass shooting in Tucson. Green, a granddaughter of the longtime baseball executive Dallas Green, had been the only girl on her Little League team.

“This is a small way to honor her memory,” Siegal said. “She represents why I’m doing this. Christina is a symbol of all those girls who want to play baseball.”

About 13 years ago, Siegal started what is now called Baseball for All, an organization that promotes baseball globally, with the focus on female participation. The organization started as a four-team all-women’s baseball league in Cleveland.

“I grew up with a chip on my shoulder,” Siegal said. “I had to learn to look for support. I got tired of waiting for opportunities, so I made my own.”

                         Norm Hall/Getty Images
Siegal threw batting practice to her
hometown team, the Indians, on Monday.
On Wednesday, she’ll do the same for the A’s.
After throwing 30 minutes to the minor leaguers, Siegal moved to another field to throw to a group of starters and backups for another 20 minutes.

As Siegal warmed up with a game of catch with Acta, one of her throws sailed high over the manager’s glove, scattering reporters and onlookers behind the batting cage.

“I’m not trying to hit you,” Siegal yelled. “That’s no warning pitch to hitters. I’m really nervous and my heart’s beating fast.”

Wincing at two throws that bounced in the dirt around home plate, Siegal settled in and held her own with the power hitters.

“She did great,” the backup catcher Paul Phillips said. “She would have fit right in if you had not seen her ponytails.”

At the end of batting practice, Siegal helped other players retrieve balls and toss them into a bucket.

“I’ve thrown better,” she said, “but I think I threw like the other coaches.”

She stood by the dugout wearing a wide smile, hands on her hips, a dream realized.

“This is my biggest day in baseball so far,” she said. “This is the greatest game on earth.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ernie Tyler, the Ironman of Umpire Attendants, Dies at 86

                      Nick Wass/Associated Press
From opening day in 1960 until
July 27, 2007, Ernie Tyler was the
umpire attendant for every Orioles
home contest, a streak of 3,819 games
 February 19, 2011

By Bruce Weber; New York Times

In the sports world, showing up for work every day is so valued that consecutive-game streaks are hallowed in the record books. Lou Gehrig, the Yankees first baseman known as the Iron Horse, for example, played in 2,130 straight games, a record that seemed unassailable until Cal Ripken, the Baltimore Orioles infielder, broke it; his streak reached 2,632 games.

Less celebrated was the streak of another Oriole, Ernie Tyler, though for sheer length it dwarfed Gehrig’s and Ripken’s. From opening day in 1960 until July 27, 2007, Tyler was the umpire attendant for every Orioles home contest, a streak of 3,819 games. Then he skipped a game, but only because Ripken asked Tyler to accompany him to Cooperstown for his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tyler, who learned he had a brain tumor on the next-to-last day of last season, died Feb. 11, his son Fred said. He was 86 and lived in Forest Hill, Md. He had worked for the Orioles, first as an usher, since 1954, their inaugural season in Baltimore. He took the job as the umpire attendant six years later and became a giant in his field, however small the field.

“He was a fatherly figure, and just a fixture in baseball,” said Bill Miller, a major league umpire who first met Tyler in 1997. “Ernie Tyler was an institution.”

To Orioles fans, first at Memorial Stadium and since 1992 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, he was the elder statesman as ball boy; his duties included keeping the home plate umpire supplied with baseballs, and well into his 80s, he ran them out between innings from his on-field stool with a distinctive, hustling, leaning-forward gait.

To several generations of umpires, who counted on him to perform necessary and thankless tasks — making sure their laundry was done, their cleats unmuddied, their ticket requests filled, their pregame and postgame meals served, not to mention rubbing dozens of new baseballs with Delaware River mud each day so they would not be dangerously slick — he was a bit of warmth in what might otherwise be a chilly environment.

Jim Evans, an umpire in the American League from 1971 to 1999, said that during the O. J. Simpson Bronco chase in 1994, Tyler brought him updates between innings.

“You trusted Ernie,” Evans said, recalling that Earl Weaver, the Orioles’ manager (and legendary umpire baiter) from 1968 to 1986, could make Baltimore feel pretty hostile.

“With Weaver there, it was almost like enemy territory, but Ernie was a friend.”

And to the Orioles players, he was a local hero.

“Maybe we should rename Camden Yards as Ernie Tyler Stadium,” the former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor said during a funeral eulogy on Tuesday, “because Ernie Tyler represented everything that every family in the city of Baltimore should want to stand for.”

Ernest William Tyler was born in Baltimore on April 30, 1924, went to high school there and joined the Air Force, serving in North Africa during World War II, where he met his wife, an Algerian, Juliane Frances Roux. After the war, he worked for a time as a private detective. During most of his time with the Orioles, his full-time job was with the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a brother, Fred Besche, of Baltimore; 11 children, including his sons Jim, who is the home-team clubhouse attendant at Camden Yards, and Fred, who is the visiting-team clubhouse attendant; 27 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren.

“He had contacts for us in local restaurants and gold clubs, he fed us before the game, he fed us after the game; you could always count on Ernie being there,” Miller said. “And you could always count on him to call you at the hotel, just as you were taking a nap.”

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Baseball Players who Swapped Wives

Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson with
Susanne Kekich and Marilyn Peterson
January 24, 2007

“We didn’t swap wives — we swapped lives.” — Mike Kekich

“Don’t make anything sordid out of this.” — Fritz Peterson

Yeah, right.

It was only the strangest trade in baseball history.

On March 5, 1973, at the New York Yankees’ spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., pitchers Mike Kekich and Fritz Peterson announced they had swapped wives, two children apiece and even family dogs. (For the record, the Kekiches had a terrier, the Petersons a poodle.)

This would have been big news had the two hurlers — both left-handers, of course — played in, say, Milwaukee or Cincinnati. But because they pitched for baseball’s most famous club in the nation’s largest city, the unexpected news traveled faster than any pitch thrown by either.

It didn’t matter that a syndicate headed by an unknown Cleveland shipbuilder named George Steinbrenner just had bought the Yankees from CBS. It didn’t matter that Yankees journeyman Ron Blomberg would become baseball’s first designated hitter a few weeks later. The story throughout baseball that spring clearly was Kekich and Peterson.

Or Peterson and Kekich. To many, the two seemed interchangeable — in public and, more interestingly, in private.

The ballplayers and their spouses, Susanne Kekich and Marilyn Peterson, had been friends since 1969. Both families lived in New Jersey, and their children were about the same age. Often they all would visit the Bronx Zoo or the shore or enjoy a picnic together. Friends and neighbors marveled at how close they were.

Too close.

At some point during the 1972 season, Mike Kekich fell for Marilyn Peterson, and Fritz Peterson fell for Susanne Kekich. Who knows how or why? All we know is that something happened to all four.

Baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn was “appalled” but powerless to interfere. Kuhn later said he received more mail about the swap than about the American League’s introduction of the DH — another development that made baseball purists gnash their teeth and rend their garments that year.

The only light moment came when Yankees general manager Lee MacPhail cracked, “We may have to call off Family Day.”

The affair (perhaps an unfortunate word) began in 1972, when the two couples joked on a double-date about wife-swapping, a phenomenon that caught on in some uninhibited circles during the early ’70s.

According to one report, the first swap took place that summer after a boozy party at the home of New York sportswriter Maury Allen. The couples made the changes official in October, Mike moving in with Marilyn and Fritz with Susanne, but no word leaked out until spring.

“We didn’t do anything sneaky or lecherous,” Susanne insisted after the situation became public knowledge. “There isn’t anything smutty about this. … But you have to admit there are some funny aspects.”

Marilyn said nothing for public consumption. Neither did the two pitchers at the time, possibly under orders from Steinbrenner.

The story remained a hot topic for months, partly because most male athletes regard intimacy with a teammate’s woman as strictly verboten — violating the sanctity of the locker room and all that. Look what a mess materialized last year when Karl Malone asked the young wife of Los Angeles Lakers teammate Kobe Bryant, “Do you like me?” And nobody in authority laughed when Anna Benson, the hot wife of New York Mets pitcher Kris Benson, threatened to sleep with the whole team if he cheated on her.

You see, there’s nothing wrong with sex in baseball — as long as it’s beneath the surface. After all, little kids might be watching.

The Yankees’ two new bedroom batteries led to very different results. The liaison between Mike Kekich and Marilyn Peterson flamed out after a couple of months. But following their divorces, Fritz Peterson and Susanne Kekich married, had four children and are still together.

“Neither Fritz Peterson nor I will ever make it into the Hall of Fame,” Kekich said years later. “But I know our names keep popping up in the Hall of Shame. I don’t lose any sleep over it, but I really don’t think it’s fair.”

Kekich seemed the biggest loser, in more ways than one. Previously noted mainly as the pitcher who surrendered Frank Howard’s home run in the Washington Senators’ last game two years earlier, he was traded early in the 1973 season to Cleveland, where he went 2-5 with a 7.48 ERA. The following year, the Indians cut him.

“My whole career went into a black hole [after the swap],” Kekich said. “It was awful.”

Of his short-lived fling with Marilyn Peterson, Kekich recalled, “Marilyn and I thought we were perfectly suited, just like Fritz and Susanne. Marilyn was all for the swap in the beginning, but then she backed off. All four of us had agreed in the beginning that if anyone wasn’t happy, the thing would be called off. But when Marilyn and I decided to call it off, the other couple already had gone off with each other.”

When Kekich ended his nine-year major league career in 1977, he had a 39-51 record. Long afterward, he remarried and had a daughter.

Peterson, a much better pitcher, went 133-131 over 11 seasons before retiring in 1976. He was 17-13 in his last pre-swap season of 1972. The following year, hooted handsomely around the American League, he dropped to 8-15.

“Fritz was never the same after the swap,” said Fred Beene, another pitcher for the Yankees in ‘73. “He was practically destroyed by all the negative reaction.”

Nowadays, another friend said, “Fritz has a latent desire to be a hermit. But he and Susanne are very, very happy.”

Understandably, both men have avoided the spotlight for years. Each went into business and endured financial troubles. A few years ago, Peterson and Susanne were living outside Chicago, where he worked as a boat dealer. Kekich, after failing to establish a career in medicine, was with his second wife in Albuquerque, N.M. Marilyn, according to one report, was existing in “Midwestern obscurity.”

Fritz Peterson is 63 and Mike Kekich almost 60 now, the passions of youth long spent. As far as we know, there has been no contact between them for years and decades.

Need you ask why?

Source: Columnist Dick Heller in The Washington Post (Kekich and Peterson made strangest trade in ‘73)

January 24, 2007

Friday, February 04, 2011

Walking Away From a Fantasy

Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
Bill "Pappy" Holcomb leaves Henley Field in after winning
a game during the Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp Lakeland, Fla..

By Jeffrey Zaslow, Wall Street Journal

Bill "Pappy" Holcomb has taken the field in a Detroit Tigers uniform for 22 years. That's longer than Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg wore the uniform in their legendary days as Tigers.
But last week, with a measure of sadness and without fanfare, Mr. Holcomb took his last swings and savored his dwindling moments as an outfielder. "I'm too old," he said. "Your mind tells you that you can still play. Your body says you can't."
And so Mr. Holcomb, a 71-year-old retired autoworker, retired again—this time from Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, Fla. The camp is one of more than a dozen programs that allow fans to use the locker rooms and baseball diamonds of their beloved teams, playing in games with former big-leaguers.

Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
Bill Holcomb savors his 22nd and last
Detroit Tigers' Fantasy Camp in Lakeland, Fla.
For pro athletes, the decision to retire is one fraught with emotion. A 5% reduction in ability often signals that they can no longer compete at the pro level. By comparison, fantasy players can continue even when their abilities are gone—as long as they pay the $3,000 to $6,000 in camp fees.
Eventually, however, the campers also must consider letting go, and they find an experience of the pros they didn't really wish to purchase: the emotions of retiring. Contemplating how they say farewell to their fantasies can offer the rest of us insights into the psychology of closing the door on our own dreams.
Baseball fantasy camps became popular in the 1980s, mostly as getaways for affluent men in their 40s. Many of these men returned annually and are now over 70. These days, they find thrills in unexpected places. "They like that they can get pain relief in the same training rooms where their heroes got pain relief," says Derrick Hall, president of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team that hosted 58 fantasy players in Tucson last month.
It's not always easy to watch their twilight performances. At a recent Tigers camp, an 85-year-old podiatrist played second base. A ball was hit and he jumped to grab it. The ball, however, was 35 feet away, and an outfielder was already fielding it. "That scared us," says Jerry Lewis, the camp director. "We asked him to start wearing a helmet in the field. He wouldn't do it." To everyone's relief, that was the podiatrist's last season.
Last year, 75-year-old Donald Schulz, an accountant, died at Diamondbacks' camp. He had emceed the camp's welcome reception, after which he returned to his hotel and had a fatal heart attack. "He went out the way he wanted to go," said fellow campers, who wore hat patches in his memory. This season, his sons brought his cremated remains to camp in an urn, which his former comrades signed. 
The Tigers this year had 190 campers, with an average age of 54. In 1985, the average age was 44. Teams that started their camps more recently tend to have a lower average age, around 50, but they also find themselves catering to older, more-infirm players.  

Jason Henry for The Wall Street Journal
Mr. Holcomb adjusts his hat while playing first base.
"Even older players who arrive feeling fit head home feeling battered," says Ben Percia, director of the Boston Red Sox camp in Fort Myers, Fla. "After playing two games a day for a week, some are barely hobbling. They have their surgeries in the offseason."
Some campers, however, do decide to leave before they embarrass themselves with declining abilities. Frederic Siegel, an old college friend of mine, retired last week after attending New York Yankees camp in Tampa, Fla. At 52, he says, he's in his prime as a divorce lawyer. But a herniated disc in his back and other ailments convinced him that as a ballplayer, it's time to go.
His hero is Willie Mays, whose last season, in 1973, was hard to watch. That year, Mr. Mays wore steel braces on his knees and batted just .211. An arm injury had him tossing the ball underhanded from the outfield.
At 52, Mr. Siegel didn't want to become the fantasy-camp equivalent of the used-up Mr. Mays. Last week when he stepped up to the plate for his final at-bat, Mr. Siegel fantasized about having a moment like the aging ballplayer played by Robert Redford in "The Natural," connecting for a magical blast.
In reality, it was a strikeout at the hands of ex-Yankee reliever Jeff Nelson. Mr. Siegel had watched Mr. Nelson lob easy pitches at older campers so they'd be able to make contact. In Mr. Siegel's case, he actually threw fastballs. "I was happy that he showed me respect," says Mr. Siegel. "That wasn't such a bad way to say goodbye."

From left: Frederic Siegel, 52, says a bad back and other
ailments convinced him to let go of the game; Leon Vercruysse, 84,
says a compliment from a living legend let him end his
fantasy career on a high note; Len Milcowitz, 64, says it's time
to let the new kids—those in their 40s and 50s—step up to the plate.
Longtime fantasy campers may find retirement more challenging than pro athletes do, says Gregg Steinberg, a sports-psychology professor at Austin Peay State University in Nashville. Some people attend fantasy camps just once or twice. "But if people go year after year, even when they're old and fat, that's a red flag of an addiction," says Dr. Steinberg, "and by that I mean a healthy addiction. Fantasy camps give them an emotional high. They love the camaraderie."
Some pros are being advised to adapt the attitude of fantasy campers. John Murray, a sports psychologist in Palm Beach, Fla., counsels pro athletes. "I tell them, 'Go out there tonight with the mindset that you want to play so badly that you'd pay to do it.' "
Last week at Tigers camp, pitcher Mickey Lolich, the 1968 World Series hero, explained the view of most major leaguers: "You don't retire. You wait until they tear the uniform off your back." Mr. Lolich, now 70, took a different path. He retired voluntarily in 1979, knowing his arm strength was gone. "But I made a promise to myself. I refused to watch or attend a Tigers game for five years, just to get it out of my system."
The lesson for retiring fantasy campers, and for any of us leaving behind beloved activities, is to find a substitute to satisfy our emotional needs and buoy our self esteem.
Leon Vercruysse, 84, was a minor leaguer from 1948 to 1951. He never reached the majors, but for 20 years he attended Tigers fantasy camp, mingling with former Detroit greats.
Playing first base in a game last season, he made a terrific play, digging the ball out of the dirt for an out. Hall of Famer Al Kaline was playing on Mr. Vercruysse's squad, and as he ran in from the outfield, he said, "Hey Leon, you're our MVP!"
That compliment from a living legend "may have been the biggest thrill of my life," says Mr. Vercruysse. "That's when I thought, 'I've had great times. I'm ready to retire.' And I did."
Len Milcowitz, a 64-year-old attorney, decided last season, after 15 years at the Yankees camp, to quietly slip away. In the last inning of the last game, he caught a fly ball for the last out. He carried the ball into the locker room and tucked it in his bag. He now displays it at his home.
"I've lived the dream," he says. "It's time to step aside and let the kids step up to the plate. And by kids, I mean those in their 40s and 50s."