I got back last Monday 2/2/09 from the latest camp, which this year ran from 1/25/09 to 2/1/09. It was my second one, last year having been the first.
We were lodged again this year at the Dobson Ranch Inn in Mesa. Nothing fancy, but certainly comfortable for what we needed for the week. This year's Cub coaches mirrored much of last year's. They were Jody Davis-Lee Smith (my team, and we won the camp championship), Todd Hundley-Willie Wilson, Don Kessinger-Glenn Beckert (really cool to see them together, and Beckert is much better than last year after his brain injury), Leon Durham-Larry Biittner, Ed Lynch-Bobby Dernier, Keith Moreland-Ron Coomer, Jose Cardenal-Rick Reuschel, and Ferguson Jenkins-Joe Pepitone. Randy Hundley of course was there running the show all week and Ron Santo made an appearance on two days later in the week. Bert Campaneris, Ken Rudolph, Byron Browne, Garry Jestadt and Ron Davis also played in the camper-pros game on Saturday.
Sunday the 25th we all filtered into town and had a get together cocktail reception in the evening, where they announce the teams and give us a general heads up on the week. I thought our team was immediately in trouble when one of our players drunkenly fell off a bar stool towards the end of the evening. He was no worse for wear as he turned out to be one of our more reliable players all week. We also had two sets of brothers who were not shy about booze consumption either, and when you keep in mind that the minimum age for camp is 30, and the youngest guy on our team was 40, and he wasn't one of the heavy drinkers, we achieved the impossible winnng the championship, because it's safe to say our team also came in first at the bar each night. One of the features of camp is that they record each game played, and instead of a separate room as in years past, this year they replayed the games on the hotel bar TVs, which kept quite a lot of business in the hotel and bar, a smart thing on someone's part. There was a lot of good natured ribbing each night, and it contributed to the camaraderie.
Monday through Friday we played two games each day against each other on the Fitch Park fields (which were very nicely manicured) , with the exception of Wednesday, when we traveled to Scottsdale to play the Giants' campers. One game in the morning (using the pitching machines, not nearly as easy as one might think) a very nice catered lunch, and then another game in the afternoon. Afterwards, there were coolers full of free beer and soda in the Fitch Park Clubhouse and a shuttle back to the hotel if we didn't drive ourselves. Dinner was left to us most nights, with the exception of Thursday, when the coaches barbecued for us and Friday, when we took the coaches out. We took Davis and Smith to Don and Charlie's in Scottsdale again, which is full of sports memorabilia and one of their favorite places.
Wednesday against the Giants we played against live pitching, and even though they barely threw above "hitting speed", as Lynch put it, they beat us 7 of the 8 games we played them that day overall. Making the adjustment from the roughly 70 MPH machines to the soft tossing crap (even though they weren't trying to throw soft, it was just what they could do) we found hard to do. Moreland-Coomer's team was the only one to beat them. Their coaches included Gary Matthews (why Sarge does their camp instead of the Cubs is a mystery), Vida Blue and Jeff Leonard. Blue warned us all off Leonard, telling us he was genuinely crazy, and the way Leonard kept heckling one of our campers apparently that proved true, as it went beyond funny after a while. The Giant camp could only field four teams to our eight this year. Last year they had eight but the economy put a damper on them. Even the Hundley camp suffered, as I heard there were about 30 cancellations this year. Although we had eight teams, we had about 11 per squad versus the 12-4 of last year.
No-shows this year included Ernie Banks, who Hundley said he talks with regularly but had no idea if he was coming or not. Billy Williams was scheduled but had to back out this year because he had some issues with his house in Chicago. This necessitated drafting Pepitone into a full time role as a team coach all week, a task he found hard to do. At the week ending banquet on Saturday evening, Moreland was at the dias and introduced Fergie to Pepitone, because even though they coached the same team, Fergie and Pepitone hadn't seen much of each other. Last year, I was completely unimpressed with Pepitone, but this year's model was much better. HIs son Billy was there on a team, which might have had something to do with it. However, Billy had to leave mid-week as he developed some sort of problems with his feet and it became painful for him to even stand. One of the highlights of the morning meetings we had each day before the games was Pepitone, along with two other campers, dressing up as the Three Stooges to conduct the daily Kangaroo Court. Pepitone took one of his wigs, turned it sidewys, and he was MOe. The two campers, who are brothers, were more than reasonable facsimiles of Larry and Curly. At one point, Pepitone's son was fined something like $5.00 for not wearing a batting helmet or something like that, and when asked if he had a defense, he pointed to his Dad and said "all I can say is there's my DNA".
On the subject of Santo- he wanted to be there Monday, but Hundley said he had taken ill at the Cub Convention and was sick again. He said he didn't know if he was at liberty to say what was wrong, but was about to tell us anyway when his son Todd spoke up and said "then don't say anything if you're not sure you can." Randy stopped, looked at Todd, and went on to something else. However, when Santo did show up later in the week, he freely told us what happened. Apparently he had experienced chest pains again, went home to Arizona to see his cardiologist, and was told one of his arteries was 99% blocked. He was fresh off an angioplasty when he saw us last week. He had to spend something like 10-12 hours flat on his back without moving his head while they did the procedure. He was cleared to see us the day before he arrived. He looked tired, but just sitting there joking with his friends and us he eventually got a big grin on his face and without getting too maudlin, it was likely the best medicine/therapy Santo could have had.
One more thing on Santo- last year, I played on the same team as a doctor who said he had treated Santo in an emergency room. He was brought in and he was flat-lined. They re-started his heart, and only later did they realize it was Santo. Apparently Santo has had this happen twice. At this juncture, many of us at camp firmly believe the only thing keeping Santo alive is his love for the Cubs and baseball. Yeah, he's not much of a color guy, not one at all, but frankly, the people who rip him for it are just a bit too elitist and smug for my taste, and moreover, they can kiss my ass. Having spent some time with him in bars in San Francisco and San Diego, and two years of fantasy camps, he epitomizes much of why we come to blogs like this and endure year after year of Cub failures. There's a closeness between the '69 guys that is palpable when you're around them. Seeing Beckert get tears in his eyes when talking about seeing Kessinger for the first time in years, listening to Dernier talk about how guys from his era look upon Hundley and the '69 guys are "big brothers", there's a bond there that not too many other teams, if at any all, can approach. It is what makes these camps so special.
And on that note, some miscellaneous things-
-on the first day, I rolled my ankle coming off the mound to field the ball and had to have it wrapped and braced the rest of the week in order to participate. Davis AND Smith both helped me get a brace from the local Sport Authority so I could stay upright. Each day they came by to make sure I was okay. I also can't say enough about the help we all got from the Cubs trainers.
- Eddie Vedder was there Friday and Saturday. He played for the Cardenal-Reuschel team on Friday and did well. At his own expense, he had CD copies made, complete with the original artwork, of a Cub Power record that was made in '69 along with a recording of a roast of Ron Santo from 1972. Each returning camper got the CD. First timers got a copy of the Vedder Cub sonf "All The Way", also provided by him. He gave a short speech at the banquet Saturday night that was very funny and also a bit emotional for him. Plus, he showed up at the hotel bar later and drank some. Quite the unassuming, regular guy.
- I want to make a special mention of Jody Davis, Randy Hundley and Lee Smith. My wife flew in Friday with my blind brother, who lost his sight five years ago and is now 41. At Don and Charlie's on Friday evening, Jody made a point of going over to my brother and talking him up for at least 20 minutes. He came over, put his hand in my brother's, introduced himself, and then sat next to him rubbing shoulders, just talking baseball. I don't think I've seen my brother smile so much in the last several years. It was really nice and great of Jody. Lee also talked to my brother for a while too, and cracked several jokes. On Saturday after the banquet, Hundley came over to find my wife to make sure the pictures we took of him and my brother came out and to see if there was anything else they could do for him. He invited my brother to come to a future camp and said he was sure they could occupy his time.
-One last thing- I made a post recently about Sluggo's, the old Harry and Steve's in Mesa. Sluggo's is now Diamond's Sports Grille. We went there and saw the Super Bowl. The new owners have already made some great changes. Gone are all the old TVs and the walls are covered with new HDTVs. The place is re-painted, the menu ugraded, an old chef brought back, and this week the place is closed so they can re-model the bathrooms. The two Cub murals are still there, and while the walls were essentially empty save for the TVs when we were there, it was because of the new paint. They plan on putting all the old stuff back up, and a lot of the old beer company promo banners the previous owner thought lent the place ambiance are gone. Bottom line, it is definitely worth checking out again if you're going to Spring Training or at any time. We were pleasantly surprised.
Sorry for the length and inevitable typos. I left some stuff out because this was getting really long. Suffice to say camp was a blast, and as I said last year, if you have the wherewithal to do it once, don't put it off. The '69 guys are all 66, 67, 68, 69 years old, and can't last forever, although Santo just might.