CLEVELAND -- Being the only woman at a fantasy baseball camp is kind of like walking into Cheers -- everybody knows your name. Almost everybody. I pulled into the players' lot at Progressive Field last fall and told the security guard I was there for the Indians One-Day Baseball Experience. He asked if I was working that day. When I told him, no, I was playing, he was delighted. He found my name on the list, gave me a high-five, and told me to have a great day.
I parked and walked down the long, concrete stairway into the bowels of the stadium with some amount of trepidation. I play in a wood bat pick-up league on Sunday evenings where the players range in age from high school to early 70s and the skill level ranges from Can-Barely-Run-To-First-Base to Wow-That-Guy-Can-Hit. My skill level is decidedly in-between. I still have a good arm and decent wheels, and I can field and hit respectably. The thing is, a female on a baseball diamond has a target on her back that seems to magnify any deficiencies. That feeling of sticking out probably keeps many women from even trying.
Despite my misgivings, I signed up because I'm a 44-year-old who still hasn't shaken a childhood dream of growing up to be a professional baseball player. (Yes, little girls dream about that, too.) I never played fast-pitch because softball isn't baseball. For me it's always been baseball, and my team has always been the Cleveland Indians.
Hapless though they may be, the Tribe stole my heart when I was 9 and haven't given it back yet. As kids, my older brother and I played baseball all day with the neighbor kids and watched the Indians on TV every night. We watched Len Barker pitch his perfect game together. We watched Joe Charboneau's incredible rookie season together. Barker and Charboneau were listed as the alumni managers for the one-day camp. When I called my brother the day before the camp, I told him I felt 11 years old again.
As I registered and signed the ubiquitous waiver, I met up with another player, a guy I'll call Deviant Steve. Deviant Steve has done the One-Day Baseball Experience each of the four years the Indians have offered it. He's also gone to the Indians week-long Fantasy Baseball Camp 16 years in a row (and was signed up for No. 17, which was held in late January in Arizona). Bob DiBiasio, senior vice president of public affairs for the Indians, told me that approximately half of the participants in the fantasy camp are repeats and that the January camp sold out.
The Indians developed the One-Day Baseball Experience as a lower-cost, closer-to-home alternative to the one-week camp in Arizona. Participants receive a full uniform (pants, two jerseys, belt and socks) and the chance to play a doubleheader at Progressive Field. You park in the players' lot, change in the visitors' clubhouse, have lunch on the patio, and are, for all intents and purposes, treated like a major leaguer for a day. One correction to the previous sentence: Male participants change in the visitors' clubhouse. Today, I was the lone female. My locker room was the visiting manager's office.
After taking stock of the room and doing a little oohing and ahhing over my uniform, it was time to get ready. I was going to change my clothes where the likes of Joe Torre, Sparky Anderson, Buddy Bell and Lou Piniella have changed theirs.
It was an anti-climactic moment when I looked at my uniformed self in the mirror. I looked like a ballplayer, but I didn't feel like one. It felt like a costume, not a uniform. I could hear the talking and laughing of the other players across the hall. It was kind of lonely in a locker room for one, so I headed for the field.
I stepped into the hallway where Albert Belle reportedly swore at people (when here as a visitor), went down the steps that I'm told Cal Ripken could bound up in two strides, and walked into the dugout where Ozzie Guillen gave the choke sign. The wide, gorgeous green expanse of Progressive Field stretched out before me like an endless summer day. I walked up the dugout steps and onto the field. The moment my cleats hit the dirt, I felt like a ballplayer.
And like a kid.
A really happy kid.
Up on the scoreboard, the rosters of both teams were listed. I heard several voices shout "Yay, Susan!" I walked over to a group of five or six people sitting in the front row on the first-base side. They were wives, brothers and friends of some other players; I didn't know them. They said they saw that I was the only woman participating and were cheering me just for being there.
It felt one part weird and three parts great.
Both teams were summoned to the outfield for warm-ups, which former Indians player Kevin Rhomberg led like a drill instructor with a sense of humor. He called me out for putting the men to shame when we did the butterfly stretch, then Deviant Steve teased me for being able to do stretches that his girlfriend couldn't do. Since I figured the warm-ups would be the only activity in which I knew I could excel, I didn't mind too much.
We had been sorted into two teams: The Wahoo Warriors (otherwise known as "Them") and Our Tribe (otherwise known as "Us"). In addition to me and Deviant Steve, there was Vince, a bearded Omar Vizquel-sized guy who played shortstop and pitched; Ken, who was somewhere past standard retirement age but still had a nice stroke at the plate; brothers Chuck and Bob, who seemed to play just about every position with ease; Doug, a big, friendly guy who started in center field to my left field; Dick, who, like Deviant Steve, had done a number of Indians fantasy camps in the past (and had the jersey to prove it); Kris, one of those people of indeterminate age who still has plenty of baseball skills; Matt, a quiet, kind guy who could hit the snot out of the ball; and a guy named Conley Schnaterbeck, who had striking pale blue eyes and the best baseball name of anyone on the field.
The other team also had 11 players on the roster but only six last names among them. I hadn't realized how much fantasy baseball camp can be a family affair. The PA announcer called each of our names as we trotted out of the dugout and took our spot along the first-base line for the national anthem. When the players from the other team came out, they all looked bigger than we were. And younger.
We were visitors for the first game, and I was so occupied trying to find a batting helmet that fit and a 32-ounce bat that I didn't have time to be nervous until I was in the on-deck circle. I swung the bat a few times, watched the pitcher, and felt my stomach drop to somewhere near my ankles when the announcer said, "Now batting for Our Tribe, the left fielder ..." Who, me? I heard my daughter yell "Yay, Mommy!"
I walked up to the plate and stood in the batter's box and, for a moment, wished the world would stop so I could take in the sky, the grass, the positions of each player in the field and on base, the shouts from family and friends in the stands. I just wanted to be at home plate for a moment, but instead there was the first pitch and it was a called strike.
A foul and a few balls later and I had run it to a full count. After the fourth ball, I learned that there aren't walks in fantasy baseball camp (at least not that day). I felt a bit like Mike Hargrove, the Human Rain Delay, as I made the pitcher work while I waited for a pitch even remotely near the strike zone. I finally hit one fair, a piddly little hit, but I was on base. First mission accomplished. A few batters later, I ended up being thrown out at home after trying to score from second. It ended the inning, and I was angry with myself. As I entered the dugout, Charboneau exclaimed, "Nice hustle. That's the way we used to play the game" and gave me a fist-bump. Suddenly, I was Charlene Hustle and didn't feel as bad anymore.
I took off the batting gloves and helmet, grabbed my mitt, and trotted out to left field. The grass beneath my cleats felt almost unnaturally soft and that 19-foot-high wall looked awfully big up close. I've always played baseball in a park, not in a bowl-shaped stadium. I'm used to seeing the ball against the sky or maybe a tree. The background of row after row of empty seats was a little disorienting, and I wondered how much more difficult it is to track the ball against a background of moving people and colors.
Nothing came my way the first inning, which gave the butterflies in my stomach a chance to subside. Most of the guys wanted to play infield because they didn't want to run, so I happily stayed in the outfield all day, mainly in left, a few innings in center, and one in right. As the day wore on, we became more comfortable with the field and with each other. Coming out of the dugout at the top of an inning, my teammate Doug asked if I had a ball (for us to warm up with). I answered, "No balls, I only have ovaries." We giggled about big, massive ovaries all the way to the outfield.
I wasn't the only one feeling like a kid. Guys were sliding just to slide -- even going back after having been called safe and sliding into the bag just for the sake of dirtying their uniform. More than one ball found its way into a bag as a souvenir. We switched positions just for the experience of seeing the field from a different perspective, just so we could say, "I played center field at Progressive Field. I pitched at Progressive Field."
It was our fantasy, and by golly, we lived it out.
It was a long day, and although I was feeling worn out by the end, I would have volunteered to play a third game in a heartbeat. My final box score: 2-for-3 the first game (which we lost) and 1-for-3 the second game (which we won). For the rest of the day -- for the rest of the weekend -- I couldn’t stop smiling.
My husband and daughter were there for the first game; my sister and brother-in-law for the second. Other friends cycled in during the day. Everybody took pictures to help supplement my memory (and the random notes I took in the tiny notebook I had in the back pocket of my baseball pants all day). Of the couple hundred pictures of me taken that day, my favorite is one of my daughter standing behind the dugout, seemingly alone in an empty stadium, watching her mother bat.
She is 6 -- still at the age when everything seems possible, when she can say that she is going to be a teacher and an Olympic gymnast and an artist and see no reason why the world shouldn't unfold exactly as she wishes. Her dreams may change. No doubt she'll encounter some roadblocks. I can't remove every obstacle for her. What I can do is teach her that you're never too old to be a kid.