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Aches and games

Star-struck Sox fantasy campers are hurting in all the right places

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The buzz is all Red Sox, all the time. Eat, drink, and play baseball with your idols. Never grow up. It's part Peter Pan, part Captain Carl. It's Red Sox Fantasy Baseball Camp 2005.

These 130 middle-aged men, average age 46, are having the time of their lives. "I couldn't sleep all week," said Bob Margolis, 48, an insurance manager from Boynton Beach, Fla. "I was so excited."

The campers come from places such as Paris, San Diego, Caribou (Maine), Osceola (Wis.), and Bonita Springs (Fla.). They rub shoulders with Carl Yastrzemski, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice, Luis Tiant, Frank Malzone, Rich Gedman, Rick Wise, Bill Lee, George Thomas, Reid Nichols, John Curtis, Dick Drago, Tony Fossas, and others.

The men paid $3,600 for the weeklong camp, and that includes airfare, hotel, two meals a day, and all the baseball they can play. They wear Red Sox uniforms (with names on the back of the road jerseys). They dress in the same cubicles as their idols. They have a full staff of trainers to tend to their aging bodies. They have clubhouse attendants who do laundry and, more important, make sure there are huge tubs of beer in the locker room after the game.

At the end of the week, they play against the pros at the Red Sox spring training home, City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. Joe Castiglione, the radio voice of the Red Sox, announces their names as they stride to the plate. They will also play a reunion game at Fenway Park in August.

Fantasy camp director Ken Nigro, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, tells the campers what to expect.

"There is no golf or tennis or anything like that," Nigro said. "Wooden bats, doubleheaders every day. Don't bring your girlfriends, wife, or cousins to the field. This is baseball."

On the first full day of camp, the big leaguers evaluate the talent, and a draft divides the campers into teams. The pros serve as player/coaches.

"Everybody has an ego," said Gedman, manager of Gedman's Gophers. "They're wondering if they can still do it, and we're wondering the same thing. I really enjoy it. It reminds me of the pickup games we used to have growing up in Worcester."

All walks of life
The roster is littered with interesting stories. Ned Connelly, 50, an Internal Revenue Service agent from Connecticut, was taken hostage and shot by a relative in a bizarre family dispute more than a decade ago. He needed to prove to himself that he could still play ball. He's still haunted by the incident.

"I'll never forget the dull look in his eyes," Connelly said. "He was playing Russian roulette. I put my hands up over my head and the bullet hit my wrist and went into my thumb."

Connelly said he played college ball 27 years ago but wasn't quite ready to dive into the sport again.

"I was out of shape," he said. "My son made me run the stadium steps. He had no mercy. I lost 40 pounds. You couldn't possibly understand how important it is for me to play well." Jack Chomsky is a 49-year-old cantor at Congregation Tifereth Israel in Columbus, Ohio, and a lifelong Red Sox fan. Although he wouldn't put it in the same category as Moses parting the Red Sea, he believes Dave Roberts's ninth-inning steal in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Yankees was amazing.

"There's great joy in the struggle, but the way the Red Sox did it was miraculous," he said. "But not in a historical sense. The struggle for Israel took 2,000 years, so 86 years didn't seem that difficult."

Some players are on the field or in the cages by 7:30 a.m. each day.

"These guys watching games on TV think they can hit, but if you throw in the 80s and the ball moves a wrinkle, they're done," said Rice, who declined an invitation into the batting cage. "It gives them an appreciation." Peter McIntee, a 43-year-old office technician from Taunton, Mass., agrees.

"It's not as easy as it looks," he said. "But just the Red Sox atmosphere makes it a pretty amazing place. It's a once-in-a-lifetime meeting with players. It's the best time I ever had."

Lee's locker is jammed with baseball bats and books to sell. Rice said if he had Lee's energy he'd still be playing.

Lee skims a flip book and tells his new friends it shows Pedro Martinez flipping Don Zimmer in the 2003 ALCS. But it's really just a flip book of Martinez pitching. Lee has mellowed about his former manager, whom he called The Gerbil. "I give him credit for being out there, but I did laugh when Pedro flipped him," Lee said.

The name of Lee's team is Lee's Lunatics. He keeps them loose. "Jimmy Piersall called me over," Lee said. "He said, `I got papers saying I'm cured. You're still crazy.' "

Gedman stands in the hallway and softly talks about catching pitching legends Roger Clemens and Tom Seaver. He says he's still asked about Bob Stanley's wild pitch from the 1986 World Series. Many (including Stanley's wife) say it should have been ruled a passed ball.

"They called it what they called it," said Gedman. "If I take the heat so he doesn't have to, that's good. It means he doesn't have to take it all. I'd like to think I'd be remembered for more than one play."

Weekend athletes
According to Nigro, demand for the camp after the Red Sox won the championship was unprecedented.

"People were driving me crazy," he said. "I had to turn them away."

There's another fantasy camp being held in town. But Nigro worries that teenagers are losing interest in baseball.

"You can see what's happening," said Nigro, who also runs a Red Sox baseball camp for kids. "They're not playing ball after Little League, so when they're 30 there's no interest. Between 13-15 we had trouble filling two teams."

Nigro also worries that today's stars will not want to attend fantasy camps 20 years from now. "They make too much money," he said. "But I don't worry about it. I'll be dead."

On the field Monday morning, it takes less than an hour before the first player is hurt. By the end of the first day, Fort Myers resembles a M*A*S*H unit. The line at the trainer's room is 26 deep.

"Everybody thinks it won't be me," said Eric MacAusland, a 45-year-old firefighter/paramedic from San Anselmo, Calif. "Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional."

Campers use enough ice on their bodies to sink the Titanic. The smell of after shave is replaced by Icy Hot. One camper has to be rushed by ambulance to the hospital after a collision.

A physician from Newton-Wellesley Hospital hits a ground ball to a 57-year-old retired Navy Seal playing first base. The first baseman fields it and hustles to the bag. The doctor also races toward first.

"He was running as hard as he could," said Dr. Adam Raisner, 38. "He had his competitive juice going. We both veered to the same side and we just collided. He got knocked out. I just made sure he was still with us. He didn't recall the incident at all."

Raisner treats the Navy Seal until the ambulance arrives, then appeals to the umpire and gets the out call reversed.

The doctor visits him in the hospital, where he is kept overnight for observation. But he makes sure his shirt gets autographed by Yastrzemski.

"I'm embarrassed," said the Seal. "Three tours of Vietnam. One-hundred jumps and not a scratch. I didn't think I could be knocked down."

But it's not just the campers who are aggressive. You would think the pros would mail it in. But the competition is fierce.

"I hate to lose," said Jay Johnstone, a 20-year major league veteran. "My wife won't even play checkers with me. There's a sign above the Yankees clubhouse that says, `Show me a good loser and I'll show you a loser.'

"I didn't come down here to lose. There's a difference between getting beat and beating yourself. We can't catch the ball. And we got the bases loaded and a guy takes a third strike. You've got to take the bat off your shoulder."

A hero comes along
On Thursday, the appearance by Hall of Famer Yastrzemski in camp is treated like a visit by Tom Brady to a women's singles club dance. Each team gets a picture taken with Yaz. Graying, middle-aged men with No. 8 on their backs angle to be next to the captain.

Yaz signs two items for each camper, who wait in lines out the clubhouse door. Then he gives them a hitting lesson, critiques some swings and answers questions.

"What did Ted Williams teach you?" one of the campers asks. The campers lean forward as if the answer -- relayed from the game's greatest hitter ever to the last man to win the Triple Crown -- will improve their batting averages 100 points.

Yaz thinks for a second, then smiles.

"Nothing," he says, as the campers roar with laughter. "He was too complicated. He was talking about jet planes and air currents under the ball. He was always saying he could see the seams of the ball. I told him he was full of it.

"What did Yogi say: `You can't hit and think at the same time'? It's true. Relax at the plate. Relax, relax."

Former Red Sox coach Dick Berardino also tells the campers a story: "There was this pretty good prospect with a drinking problem. The manager called him into his office. He had two glasses on his desk. One had water, one had Jack Daniels.

"He opened his drawer and pulled out a worm he kept in some dirt. He put the worm in the water and it swam all around the glass. Then he put the worm in the Jack Daniels. It swam for 4-5 seconds and then floated to the top, dead.

" `What does this tell you?' he asked the rookie.

"The rookie replied, `If you drink a lot, you won't get worms.' "

At the bar, Frank Malzone and Dick Drago discuss heart surgeries. Red Sox pitcher Rick Wise recounts the days when men were men. He holds a distinction that may never be matched. In a 1971 game, while playing for the Phillies, Wise hurled a no-hitter and hit two home runs. "The last out was Pete Rose," he said.

The spirit of Charlie Hustle inhabits all of these old-school players. Everyone hustles. If they don't, they will be fined a dollar in a Kangaroo Court set up to benefit the Jimmy Fund.

"That's $1 for stretching a triple into a double," declared Ken Sanders, who pitched briefly for Boston. So even guys in their late 60s play hard.

George Mitrovich, who was Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary during the senator's 1968 presidential campaign, takes a called third strike that appears a tad low. He fires his bat into the ground.

"When you're young and you get called out on a bad pitch, it annoys you," he said, "but when you're 69 and you get called out on a bad pitch, it really ticks you off."

Competing to the end
On the last day of camp, the pros play the campers in a series of three-inning games. "We play to win," said Wise, who won 19 games for the Sox in 1975. "Nobody likes to lose. When somebody gets on, then I give them nothing to hit."

Michael Matthay, a 57-year-old physician from San Francisco, is at his third fantasy camp.

"I played in 1987, I got a single off Tiant," he said. "It was the greatest thrill of my life with the exception of the birth of my children. Bill Lee was coaching first base. He said, `Don't take a lead because Louie will want to pick you off.' And he did throw over."

As predicted, the pros win all the games against the campers, but each player gets to have his picture taken with the much-traveled World Series trophy.

John McCann, a 44-year-old attorney from Cresskill, N.J., has played despite two pulled hamstrings. He has ice wrapped on his biceps and on his shoulder. And he couldn't be happier.

"I feel great, being with the guys, wearing the colors of the team I was raised on," McCann said. "Outside of being with two brunettes that are twins, it's a great fantasy."

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