By Ronni Finkel Robinson
I played for the Philadelphia Phillies for four days.
I had a home uniform, away uniform, took batting practice in the tunnels under Citizens Bank Park and changed clothes before and after games in the locker rooms. I hung out with the Phillies on the field and in restaurants and bars.
This all really happened, it wasn’t a dream. Did I mention that I’m a 49-year old woman? And, oh yeah, it was at Phillies Phantasy Camp in January.
Phillies Phantasy Camp gives the opportunity to anyone 30 or over to live out their childhood dreams of playing with, and being coached by, legendary Phillies players for five days every January. It takes place in Clearwater, Fla., the same sports complex the current Phillies use for spring training. There are 20 former Phillies, aka Legends, who attend the camp. Campers can participate as a player, phan or general manager, and each has different price points and perks.
A surprise early 50th birthday gift from my husband, I was super excited to go to camp, but I was pretty anxious, too. Although I grew up on the Phillies (I wanted to be Larry Bowa when I was 9), played boys Little League for three years and then softball for seven years, it had been three decades since I played ball for a team. Triathlons were my thing for the past eight years.
Could a Jewish tomboy from Philadelphia still hit the ball and play infield?
In the month or two before camp started, I dragged my 15-year-old son out in 20-degree weather to play catch with me. I went to an indoor batting cage to practice hitting. About two weeks before camp, I found out about a group of campers who practiced together not far from my house. It turned out the guys were awesome, welcoming and encouraging, despite being the only female. These practices were incredible confidence boosters.
As rookies, my husband (who came along as a phan) and I arrived in Clearwater one day before camp started so we could settle in and not feel rushed. That night was a welcome dinner at the hotel where we were introduced to the Phillies Legends and got to hang out with them afterward. I did my fangirling from afar, pointing out the players to my husband as I recognized them. I was starstruck!
I was one of five women and 108 men at camp.
The next morning, camp began when we got bussed from the hotel to the Rudy Carpenter Complex for our evaluations. The Legends would be watching and evaluating us, then holding a draft to pick their teams. Scott Palmer gave us an opening-day speech before we went into the locker rooms to see our personalized uniforms.
Big fanfare for the men — their names were announced in alphabetical order as they walked into the locker room the real Phillies used. The Legends were in there applauding for them. (Yes, I peeked inside.)
The women, not so much fanfare. We were held aside until all the men were in and waited until someone found the key to our locker room around the corner. There was no flourish of having our names announced, and our locker room was where the umpires got changed. A little unfair, but we all had lockers with our names on them with our uniforms hanging. It was still pretty freaking cool.
Being a rookie, I didn’t know how tough the evaluations would be and was anxious. (60 percent of the campers were veterans and 40 percent were rookies; only the latter being put through the evaluation process.)
They divided us up alphabetically. It’s important to note here that there were campers of all skill levels, and the average age was 52. Everyone was encouraged equally, not just by the Legends, but by the other campers. Also, I was surprised to see so many Jewish last names on the players’ backs.
We then moved to a handful of pitching mounds, where those who wanted to try pitching could show their stuff. I spent the time chatting with Legend Scott Eyre, who I, interestingly enough, shared a mutual friend with from home.
Next were the indoor batting cages. I warmed up, heart pounding with nerves. I knew I was being watched and judged. My turn came, and I went to bat against Danny Jackson. Seriously? I was making good contact and Jackson was even nodding his head at the solid ones. Stoked!
In the midst of all this coolness, my left knee was getting sore. Two previous meniscus surgeries and a recent triathlon crash had wreaked havoc, and my knee brace could not offer enough support.
By the third inning on the first day, my knee pain was out of control, so I pulled myself out of the game and headed to the trainer’s room. Icing and a stronger compression sleeved helped, but the trainer was adamant I curtail my running. The only thing I could do for the remainder of the camp was bat, with a runner standing near home plate to run for me.
I met a lot of other guys in the trainer’s room, some of them over and over again. Pulled groins and hamstrings, sore shoulders and elbows. The smell of Icy Hot filled the air as well as the grunts and groans of the trainers stretching super-tight, or massaging, pulled muscles. There was a gallon-size container filled with Advil that was taken like candy.
Just as we were told on day one, the lines at the trainer’s room got longer each passing day. Our group was no exception. Funny, despite our pains, we couldn’t wait to get back out there. By the last day, most of us moved like zombies from The Walking Dead.
Interaction with the Legends was open and abundant. We listened to their stories about happenings both on and off the field. Apparently, a lot happens in locker rooms, and on buses and planes. We chatted with the Legends during and after meals. Autographs and photo ops were encouraged.
Armed with sharpies and Bic pens, my husband and I brought old Phillies game programs, yearbooks and other items for signatures.
As I got to know my teammates, it made playing together that much more fun. They were cool on and off the field, and I enjoyed being part of the team. It had been three decades since I was a senior on my high school softball team, and I forgot how awesome it was to have teammates.
One of the best parts of the day was Kangaroo Court every morning at 9 a.m. While what happens in Kangaroo Court stays in Kangaroo Court, I can tell you that if a player did a bonehead thing the day before, they would get roasted for it in front of all of us by three Legend judges who were hysterically funny. If the offender was found guilty, they were issued to pay a fine that went to Phillies Charities.
The camp culminated in the coolest game of all — your team playing against the team of Legends, three innings per camper team. When I got my one turn to bat, I went up against Chris Coste. I am beyond proud to say that I hit a line drive into shallow center field for a hit. The icing on the cake of a fantastic week.
Overall, Phantasy Camp was an unbelievable experience. I’d heard from past participants that it was really great, but it exceeded all my expectations. Getting to play baseball again, being part of a team and playing on beautiful fields was only half of it. Meeting 20 former Phillies players, hanging out with them and getting to know them, was incredible. So many great memories.
Will I go back for some redemption next year? Hmmm …
Ronni Finkel Robinson is a freelance writer.