Yankees campers get to face ex-big leaguers
Week in Tampa concludes with action vs. Rivers, Gamble and Co.
The Yankees are holding the first of their two offseason Fantasy Camps this week at their Spring Training complex in Tampa, Fla. Bryan Hoch, who covers the Yankees for MLB.com, is taking part and will be writing a daily diary of his experiences.
The November edition of the Yankees Fantasy Camp concluded with a highlight event on Saturday, as the campers who have been grinding through four consecutive doubleheaders finally got their chance to take on the assembled former Yankees.
With a few late reinforcements added to the roster, the Legends started their morning against the first-place Thunder, whose record earned them the first crack at the only team wearing bright white pinstripes for the day at George M. Steinbrenner Field.
Since each team needed to be guaranteed some time against the greats, there were some modifications to the way the game was played. Each team was to play a two-inning contest, with the former Yankees as the home team, but received six outs in the top of their innings to ensure each player could bat.
As usual, from the moment Mickey Rivers, Homer Bush and Oscar Gamble led off for the Legends, the ex-big leaguers proved to be a tough challenge. My Pinstripes team, by virtue of a fourth-place finish, would play fourth out of the six clubs. I'll try to describe how our day progressed.
With friends and family in the stands, that gave us ample time to wander the facilities one last time for the day. Some of us took advantage of the indoor batting cages, and I threw some early batting practice, hoping to find my release point. That would prove helpful later.
After stretching in the left-field bullpen, our team was called in by the umpires. Jeff Nelson had the first inning against our club, and he was throwing hard; "Nellie" is only a few years removed from retirement, and estimates he can still zip it up there in the mid-80s.
If he trained the way he did during his career, Nelson said this week, he could probably get it back up past 90. But he has moved on to new opportunities in the broadcast world, including at MLB.com.
That makes Nelson something of a teammate, so I made sure to mention to him on Friday that if we faced each other, I wanted him to try and strike me out on three pitches.
I came up fifth, and Nelson sure looked like he was going to oblige. Strike one, a fastball, whizzed by on the outside corner and I barely got a check-swing on it. The second pitch was another fastball, which I fouled straight back atop the screen.
Making contact was almost a moral victory. While I sat on a third fastball, Nelson instead snapped off an 0-2 slider, which I met cleanly and stroked into shallow right-center field for a single.
Yeah, I know. No one's going to hear the end of that one for a while.
My control was spotty all camp, but I definitely wanted to face at least one batter. I somehow got the green light to pitch the bottom half of the inning -- facing a whole bunch of pitchers.
Nelson wasted no time getting me back, popping a ground-rule double to left field. Tanyon Sturtze reached on a fielding miscue, but Gil Patterson lined out hard to third baseman Tim King of Long Island City, N.Y. One out.
Trying to get cute with a curveball, I walked Dave LaPoint, who then stayed in the box and stroked a run-scoring single (though it certainly looked like King's relay throw nailed Sturtze at the plate).
Rivers was to follow, and after he took a called strike, Mick the Quick rapped a curveball to Peter Tarpinian of Tewksbury, N.J., at first base for a clean second out.
That was enough for me, and I offered the ball to Elliot Tannenbaum of Great Neck, N.Y., who relieved and needed just two pitches to retire Bush on a groundout.
Every camper who signs up for Fantasy Camp has, for lack of a better way to put it, fantasies that sound a lot like this. Many of us grew up pitching Wiffle balls in the backyard or playing Little League games on sandlot fields, imagining we'd someday get that chance to play in the big leagues.
Most of us never do, and as my teammate John Jones of Bronxville, N.Y., said, "it's like an out-of-body experience" to actually step between those lines and get to see what it's like in big league shoes.
It may not be the real thing, but for 67 campers this week in Tampa, it sure seemed close enough.
A special mention should be given to the terrific photographers and videographers who trailed all six teams this week, making sure those memories will be preserved for years to come. The final photos will be on display later Saturday, and I know I'll be curious to take a look.
Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.