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.”
Photo: Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals