Peter Brand: The Visalia Oaks and our 240 lb catcher Jeremy Brown, who as you know, scared to run to second base. This was in a game six weeks ago. This guy is going to start him off with a fastball. Jeremy’s going to take him to deep center. Here’s what’s really interesting, because Jeremy’s gonna do what he never does. He’s gonna go for it. He’s gonna around first and he’s gonna go for it. Okay?
[On the video, Jeremy trips and falls over first base]
Peter Brand: This is all Jeremy’s nightmares coming to life.
Billy Beane: Awwww, they’re laughing at him.
Peter Brand: And Jeremy’s about to find out why. Jeremy’s about to realize that the ball went 60 feet over the fence. He hit a home run and didn’t even realize it.
Billy Beane: How can you not be romantic about baseball?
That scene above, and those lines, from the Oscar nominated Moneyball, have been on my mind. I’m now a few weeks removed from my time at Mets Fantasy Camp, and I’d initially wanted to write about it as it was happening. Then, I quickly learned that I’d be way too tired by the end of each day (besides also finding time to record the podcast, get daily articles prepped/scheduled, etc, and basically run Awards Radar), so the plan was as soon as I was home. That too got scrapped, and I’m glad it did, since I’ve had some time to reflect. Somehow, that metaphor from the film has only rang truer in my head.
Initially, this idea was a lark, something I’d shared with my now ex as a dream for the future. Then, it became something I thought might be interesting to do now, not just while I have all my original parts, but as something I could write about. The initial thought process was to train for a bit, just to get myself back somewhere to where I was when I was a reasonably good player as a kid (and then a serviceable one on the Varsity back in High School). Life sure got in the way, so by the time the fall rolled around, not only had the Mets depressed me with an October playoff run that fell woefully short, it became apparent that I was going to be headed to camp without having down much with a baseball or bat in my hand for over a decade and a half. Not a recipe for success, as it were. Hell, maybe this movie in my head about what camp would be like would be a comedy, not a drama?
I’m going to just detail what the week was like, running it down as close to as if it’s a movie as possible. Moneyball, it’s not, but it was truly something to live inside of a baseball film for a few days, in a manner of speaking. My journey began with an early morning flight to West Palm Beach, followed by a bus ride to Port St. Lucie. Other campers were on the shuttle, driven by someone who does this for the Mets and their minor league affiliates year in and year out, so as I tried to get a nap in, stories about who he’d driven were wafting through my head. Soon, we were at the hotel, dropping off our stuff, before being shuttled back to the Mets’ spring training complex, where I’d be spending most of the next six days.
Can I just say that it’s a real mindfuck to enter a major league clubhouse and see your nameplate waiting for you, as well as your uniform? I took a few moments to just sit there, almost as if you were sitting on a film stage.I walked in and it was just there, like a dream come true. I was about to dress for evaluations, but I was a part of the team. No one was getting cut like in Major League, but we were perhaps all a motley crew like in that movie. A little fielding, hitting, and pitching later, we broke for lunch and the camp coaches, made up almost exclusively of former Met players (some of whom had become coaches as well), selected teams. At a welcome dinner that night, we were told who had drafted us and what our teams were. I was to be managed by Ed Lynch and coached by Howard Johnson (affectionately known to fans as HoJo). Our name? The Inglourious Batters, so the movie references weren’t just to be coming from my ass.
The team was an interesting assortment of characters, guys I’m thrilled to now call friends. At that moment, however, I was one of only a few rookies on the team, so I was quiet and observing. Some guys already had nicknames, like Dan, a good pitcher and shortstop/center fielder affectionately called Squirrel. After a day, we all had nicknames, mostly takeoffs on our names, especially when we had less common ones like yours truly. In short order, I was to be known as Magic. Go figure.
On day one of games, I was afraid to swing the bat. I’d figured that my skills had atrophied to the point where bunting was the only chance I had not to go 0 for camp. So, I surprised both teams that day (each day was a double-header) with bunts. I wound up on base a few times, too, beating out the ball with what was deemed surprising speed. To be fair, I’m slow in real life, but as one of the younger campers, I qualified as speedy. We dropped both games, close contests, mainly due to nerves and defense. I played some first base and some right field, thankfully not making any errors. That night, each team went out with their coach and manager for dinner, unsupervised by the camp, to bond. And bond we did. Our restaurant was delicious and lovely, but the entrees took an exorbitantly long time, so we all really got to know each other. Unsurprisingly, being a film critic leads to a lot of questions, more so than the lawyers, etc. That night, however, was the first moment where I felt like I was a part of the team, and it really set the tone for what was to come.
Day two had me actually swing the bat, making contact and getting on base, much to the encouragement of the team, who just wanted me to enjoy myself, results be damned. My first legitimate hit, minus any fielding goofs by the other team, resulted in the team pulling the baseball from the field of play. I thought that was a little silly, but then later in the week they handed it to me at a dinner, signed by everyone, which was very touching. We won both games, having a blast in the process. That was also the day where I started making regular trips to the trainers’ room, where they did yeoman’s work on every camper. My arm was dead from throwing too much during evaluations, but that was less of a concern than my legs. My hamstrings were barking, and if I was going to be a valuable teammate, I needed to run (some of my older teammates had me pinch running for them). Kudos to them for keeping me from crumbling, even if both of my legs were taped up by the end of the week as I dealt with lightly pulled hammies. That night, there was a charity casino night, which had more team bonding and exploration of the Mets’ ample facilities.
By day three, I was actually driving the ball a bit, even though my legs were falling me from all the running (have I mentioned that I’m out of shape? I’m out of shape). Another sweep had us in the playoffs, as well as in good moods for Kangaroo Court, where the camp’s Commissioner Doug Flynn would fine campers for various infractions. It was all in the spirit of fun and a takeoff of what major league clubhouses do to keep morale high, so everyone had a blast. It was a great way to stay loose before the final games. Win twice and, against all odds from back on Monday, we’d be champions.
The playoffs took place on day four, with our semifinal matchup being a squeaker. Somehow, I managed to beat a throw home and score the go-ahead run. Not only was I not holding us back, I’d actually done something to get us into the championship. Unfortunately, we fell short in that game, but it was truly like something out of a movie. We left it all out on the field, that’s for sure.
The final day was mostly a chance to say goodbye to everyone. The night before was an awards banquet, which felt like the final true event, so this day was mellow by comparison. Before I knew it, my locker was packed up and I was on the bus back to the airport. There was no championship ring, but there were a hell of a lot of memories, in addition to just as much lower body soreness…
As much fun as playing baseball again was, the nights were as enjoyable, if not more. In particular, Monday night’s dinner was a true bonding experience, as were the nights we’d sit outside, talking about life. Some nights, a coach would join us. Other nights, additional players would be around. Without fail, a good time was had, and just like in the movies, I truly believe that bonding made us play better.
The members of the Inglourious Batters were, without exception, delights. I’m going to list them now:
Jessie James Burke
The guys were great and all came from diverse backgrounds. The time spent with them was incredible. Some had just gone through tragedies. Some were at camp for the final time. Everyone was there to have fun and enjoy each other’s company. Additionally, they were incredibly generous to a poor rookie, making sure I didn’t miss out on anything. As mentioned above, not only did they pull the ball and sign it when I got my first hit, but also a week after camp, the bat I’d been borrowing arrived at my door, another priceless memento.
Not only was it a hoot to bond with teammates, but it was tremendous getting to spend time with some Met legends. From the stories to just being treated as equals (athlete-wise, even though that’s a lie and part of the illusion of camp), it was surreal. From Endy Chavez (of “the catch” that Met fans will never forget) praising my speed down the line to Mookie Wilson legitimately talking bunting strategy with me, it was wild. That doesn’t even take into account the multiple instances of Dwight Gooden sitting down at lunch to chat or just wandering over to watch us play. Yes, Doc Gooden. He even threw out the first pitch of our championship game. Plus, seeing another side to former Met skipper Terry Collins was quite the memory, as was making him laugh, something I’m fairly proud of (a lot of the players and coaches seemed to find me funny, which I’m choosing to take at face value).
As cool as it was to have some time with the aforementioned Met greats, having Johnson and Lynch coaching/managing my team took the cake. One of the more surreal moments, as you can see below in the accompanying picture, is Johnson coaching third base and calling me over to go over signs/an approach to situational hitting. As I told him while taking a lead off of third (before scoring, I might add), I now have exactly one thing in common with David Wright.
Mets Fantasy Camp was truly a once in a lifetime experience. Without question, this was like walking into my own sports flick. We didn’t win the title, but we had as much or more fun than any team, going on a run that made us underdogs worth rooting for. From my initial plans to try and actually be reasonably good to my trepidation that I was going to loudly suck, to the ultimate discovery that it didn’t really matter, that Moneyball quote proved very true. Regardless of talent, in terms of memories, I hit a home run and I didn’t even realize it…