[written by Newswire contributor and Red Sox 'National' TIM ELKINS, Herts #45]
Well, the day had finally arrived.
The 6.30am bus from the hotel pulled up outside the Boston Red Sox Player Development Centre in Fort Myers for the start of another Fantasy Camp. 120 like-minded, rabid Red Sox fans turned up to live out their dream and don the fabled Red Sox uniform. We would get to play, drink and chew the fat with legends of the hallowed game from the past and the present.
It was like my first day at school all over again: I didn't know where I was going, what the clubhouse etiquette would be, whether Youk would bite off my head if I asked him for an autograph as he went (again) past the workout area (he didn't – he was very nice), nor what the fabled “Kangaroo Court” would hold for me each morning.
The first thing that hit me was the sheer size of the Spring Training clubhouse – home to the Red Sox players (both minor and major league) during the months of February and March. Row after row of open locker with uniforms hanging neatly in them in this huge, hangar of a building. Yours truly spent 15 minutes looking for locker #128 – my locker for the next week. After that, who knows whose uniform will hang there? Tek? Papelbon? Big Papi?
Finally I found it, and the sight of the uniform and locker with my name on them, well, it took my breath away. I realised this was not a dream. I pinched myself, and I was actually here. I would play 8 games against fellow campers and 1 game against the pros and legends in the next 5 days. (Gulp.)
Luckily, the fitness room was stocked with ice, wraps and spare limbs, and they somehow managed to get most people through the week, much to the surprise and delight of their regular visitors. My locker was directly outside the fitness room, and yes, the line got longer and longer as the week went on. On one side, my locker buddy was a catcher from Portugal, and on the other side, fabled Red Sox 3rd baseman from the 1960's, Frank Malzone. Despite being in his 80's, he still managed to give me a good ribbing as a clubhouse rookie. Behind me was Butch Hobson, 3rd baseman and my team coach. His classic quote as he walked in after a particular hard night at the hotel was “my hair hurts”. I think we all sympathised with him.
Most games were played at the Players Development Complex, the Spring Training practice ground, but everyone got the chance to play several matches at the fabled City of Palms Park, where the Red Sox play their home Spring Training games. Walking out on to that field, with the 7,500-seater stadium stands behind me… and my name being announced by fabled Red Sox announcer, Joe Castiglione, as I came up to bat… and sitting in the same dug out as some of the greatest players in the game… that was an experience that will stay with me forever.
The whole week was beyond description, and I cannot hope to do it justice with the written word. The fact that our team of 14 guys who had never met before, including the two coaches, Butch Hobson and Dick Drago, came together in an unfamiliar environment, pulled together as a team (even when not winning) and arrived at the other end of the tunnel was to the very great credit of all those involved. I've made firm friends with whom I hope to stay in contact for a long, long time.
The overall organisation was exceptional, and my heartfelt thanks go out to the guys at Fenway Sports Group, the staff at the Players Development Clubhouse, and all the pros and legends who made this such an unforgettable experience. For this British baseball player, it was a dream come true.