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."

1 comment:

Johngy said...

Interesting piece and blog. I am now following.