Fantasy Sports Camps
We’re sports fans. We follow the teams we love and proclaim allegiance with branded clothing, caps, posters, and even license plates. Maybe we participated in baseball, football, basketball, hockey, or a number of other sports in high school or college. Now, as spectators, we watch the professionals play and wonder what it would be like to be among them.
Enter fantasy sports camps. Just about any pro sport you can name has a related camp where you can jump on the field, court, rink, or track along with your sports heroes. Pass the puck to Wayne Gretzky. Fire your curve ball to Robin Yount. Defend the lane against Michael Jordan. Protect your line against Richard Petty. Fantasies like these can all come true!
We asked David Wilhelm, St. Louis Cardinals beat writer for the Belleville News-Democrat, to tell us about chasing such fantasies at the annual Cardinals camp.
For Brian Black of Dyersburg, Tennessee, any preconceived notions about what a baseball fantasy camp would be like were immediately pitched out the window.
Black, 38, a third-generation St. Louis Cardinals fan, attended the team’s camp at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, for the first time in January 2013. Everywhere Black looked were reminders of the glorious 1980s. Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Bruce Sutter. Danny Cox. Ken Dayley. Rick Horton. John Costello.
Sprinkled into the mix were other former Cardinals, all of them familiar to Black. Lou Brock, another Hall of Famer. Al Hrabosky. Andy Benes. Alan Benes. Gary Bennett. Brad Thompson. John Mabry. Jason Simontacchi.
Black took a deep breath. Then another.
“You’ve got to get your emotions under tap when you first get there. You’re excited. You’re nervous. You don’t know what to expect,” said Black, who was joined by about 100 other campers. “Some of them are starstruck. I was, too, at first. I idolized (the players) growing up. When you’re little, you see them as superheroes.”
But, suddenly, these superheroes weren’t baseball players. They were people who played baseball. They were Black’s friends.
“I first walked in and there was Hrabosky,” Black said of the wild-eyed pitcher-turned-broadcaster nicknamed “The Mad Hungarian” for his angry disposition on the field. “I saw Hrabosky pitch, and I got this feeling, ‘This guy’s going to be a jerk. He’s mean. He’s ugly,’” Black said, chuckling. “But Al Hrabosky is one of the most kind-hearted people I’ve ever met in my life. He’s awesome. And the Benes brothers, too. These guys are just common, everyday people. They’re nice guys. I’m on Facebook with Danny Cox, and we talk back and forth all the time.”
BETWEEN THE LINES
The Cardinals Fantasy Camp began in 2002. For the first 12 editions, it was known as “Legends Camp.”
Of course, the objective of a fantasy camp is to enable regular guys, all over 30, to feel like major leaguers. The Cardinals make that happen with a big-league practice, which is followed by a draft. Cardinals pitchers, who serve as managers, choose players for their respective teams based on their performance in practice.
This year, each of the nine teams played six games – five against other campers on the back fields of the Cardinals’ spring-training complex and one against the former players at Roger Dean Stadium. In that game, the campers’ manager throws against his own team.
Campers dress every day in the Cardinals’ minor-league clubhouses, and they wear authentic Cardinals uniforms. Cardinals trainer Chris Conroy is on hand to deal with inevitable injuries that occur, from hamstring pulls to ankle sprains to sore elbows and shoulders. Perhaps even bruised egos.
The former Cardinals hold a meeting with the campers each morning, where plenty of lighthearted moments unfold. No camper is shielded from a dose of good-natured ribbing. On one occasion, a camper was chided for not wearing a protective cup.
Photo: Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
Photo: Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
“The clubhouse meetings are so funny, and admittedly full of male humor,” said St. Louis native Abe Cherrick, 59, a Virginia pain-management physician who lives in Rockville, Maryland. “They’re so authentic and so real; it’s no holds barred. The players are into the camaraderie, the friendship, and the opportunity to laugh together. Everybody enjoys
“You feel like you have a sense of, ‘Wow, so this is what a major-league clubhouse is like when they’re trying to get loose (before a game).’ You get a real exposure to that.”
Campers and Cardinals eat breakfast and lunch together, and special events are held each evening, including an awards banquet. Horton, the camp commissioner, has participated in all but one of the camps and is the official emcee of all evening events.
“You get to mingle with them, talk with them, and sit and eat with them,” Black said of the players. “This year, I sat and talked hitting with John Mabry at our team dinner. It was awesome. We were just carrying on in a normal conversation.”
While much of the fun occurs off the field, Cherrick takes pride in his lone hit against a former Cardinal – a single against Dayley.
“I got the ball and had it signed,” Cherrick said.
FOR A GOOD CAUSE
Proceeds from the January camp went to Cardinals Kids Cancer Center at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis. “The money raised has always gone to great charities,” Andy Benes said.
Find more information on the Cardinals Fantasy Camp or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Developing new relationships is great. But is that, and the opportunity to feel like a major-leaguer for five days, worth shelling out about $5,000, plus airfare? Don’t bother to ask.
“It’s a big expense, but if it wasn’t worth it, I wouldn’t do it. That’s how much I enjoy it,” said Abe Cherrick. “I don’t think anybody has ever said, ‘Oh, man, why did I do that?’ It’s a first-class event from beginning to end.”
Cherrick attended his first fantasy camp in 2005, a 50th birthday present he wrapped and presented to himself. This past January, he participated in his tenth consecutive camp. Cherrick enjoys the competition against teams comprised of other campers, but the event is much more than that to him. It’s become personal.
Cherrick typically takes his entire family to Jupiter: wife, Debra; daughters, Danielle and Lauren; and son, Efram. Lauren’s husband, Mike Kashtan, has participated in camp the last four years.
Efram Cherrick, 27, is developmentally disabled, and utters just two or three words at one time, Abe Cherrick said. But the former Cardinals annually make him feel like a king. Brock, especially, has created a bond with Efram.
“Efram was watching the baseball game, and Lou Brock got out of his cart and said, ‘Efram, I want to play catch with you,’” Cherrick said, recalling his first camp. “Lou didn’t know that Efram couldn’t play catch. But it didn’t matter. My daughter (Danielle) was there, and they had a game of catch, with Lou Brock tossing the ball to my son as my daughter held the glove for him.
“After that, Lou would always say, ‘Efram, love you,’ and Efram would say, ‘Love you.’ Well, I was connected forever, so I have brought my son to every one of those fantasy camps for the last 10 years. I love the Cardinals and love the way they treat my son.”
Black, an enhanced 911 local director, talks about being rocked to sleep on his parents’ front porch as the family listened to iconic broadcaster Jack Buck call Cardinals games on radio.
Black’s grandfather was a Cardinals fan who named his son Harold Stanford, the middle name honoring the late Stan Musial. Harold Stanford, who still is living, goes by the name of Stan Black. He gave Brian Black the middle name of Stan. Following tradition, Brian and his wife, Andrea, named their 4-year-old son Bennett Stanford.
“Bennett is my wife’s maiden name,” Brian Black said. “Before Bennett was born, I bought a game-used jersey of Gary Bennett’s. In Bennett’s baby pictures, you’ll see him lying on a blanket in a Gary Bennett game-used jersey. So we’ve made a pretty good bond with Gary Bennett. He signed the jersey and hung out with Bennett.”
Like Abe Cherrick, Brian Black has warm appreciation for Brock, the Cardinals’ career leader in stolen bases with 888.
“I was on the (mound) at Roger Dean in my first year,” Black said. “I had made my warm-up pitches, and the catcher was throwing it through (to second). Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my son on top of the dugout. I looked on the other end, five or six feet away, and there’s Lou Brock standing on the field and playing pitch with my son.
“That memory right there, I will never forget as long as I live, standing there watching Bennett play pitch with Lou Brock.”
MORE THAN EXPECTED
Ron Lassman, a 51-year-old from Swansea, Illinois, attended his first fantasy camp in January. In September, Lassman was notified by Anheuser-Busch that he was the sweepstakes winner of a trip for two to the fantasy camp. He took his brother, Doug, 47.
As part of his sweepstakes win, Ron Lassman also received four tickets to a game this season at Busch Stadium and a visit from the famous St. Louis Clydesdales. "They brought the Clydesdales right to my house,” Lassman marveled. “That was an incredible day right there.”
The camp, four months later, was “more than I expected,” Lassman said. His single to right field in the fifth and final inning broke up Andy Benes’ no-hitter when his team played the former Cardinals.
“I know he’s retired, but he was bringing it, and he wanted to strike us all out,” said Lassman, who works in sales for UPS®. “I swung late and the bat hit the ball. I don’t remember the (pitch) location. I just swung and hit it. Nobody beats those (Cardinals) guys. We knew we were going to lose, but we were just happy to get a hit. It was very exciting.”
The 46-year-old Benes, who won 155 games (52 with the Cardinals) and recorded 2,000 strikeouts in 14 big-league seasons, said Lassman’s hit, and the ensuing thrill, is the foundation of every fantasy camp.
“That type of thing, those types of memories, are what really make it fun,” Benes said. “I think it’s fun for (campers) to get in there and bat, hear their name over the P.A. system. It’s a real cool thing.
“You can tell, most of the time, that their mind knows what they want to do, but their body is not allowing them to do it. Most of us felt like that at the end of our careers.”
Lassman said his primary ambition was to “stay off the DL (disabled list)” because he knew he had “limited capacity.”
“It was kind of hard not to swing at the high balls at your eyeballs,” Lassman said. “You want to hit the ball so bad; every ball that comes at you looks pretty good to hit, and it goes right past you.”
Benes, who acknowledged a significant drop in velocity from his playing days, said he and the other former Cardinals must always keep one thing in mind: The campers are the number-one priority.
“The week is certainly about the campers,” he said. “As former players, we do everything we can to try to help the campers have a great time. I personally have a lot of fun. I have a team and I get to know my guys, interact with them, and watch them compete. Sometimes it’s really good, and sometimes it’s kind of ugly, but we have a lot of fun.”
Cherrick will return again in 2015. Black and Lassman will join him if they’re financially able.
“As long as my checkbook will allow me, I’ll be there,” Black said. “It’s pretty expensive, but it’s worth it. I’ve got a small business on the side – a race shop. I’ll need to make sure I make enough extra money in that, and (fantasy camp) is what I’ll spend it on.”
Lassman said: “I had NEVER had an interest, because of the money factor, to go. But since I’ve gone and had success, I would love to go again. It was the best week of our entire year.”
Photo: Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals