Several months ago, Bryan Sargent reached out to tell us about his journey to playing in Phillies Phantasy Camp. Given the hysteria surrounding the Phillies these days and the fact that it will be a long, cold winter for baseball fans, we decided it would be a good idea for Bryan to take us on journey with him. For most Phillies fans, participating in Phantasy Camp in Clearwater is a dream- one which Bryan is making come true for himself. He'll check in with us several times, detailing his preparation, and, eventually, participation in camp. Consider this our "30 for 30," if you will.
I don't know exactly what age I was when I first learned that the Phillies, held an annual "fantasy camp" at their Spring Training facility in Clearwater, FL. According to the "second most important male voice in life at the time", Harry Kalas, attendees would spend several days playing baseball with other camp-goers and ex-Phillies players. I looked to my dad to make sure I heard that correctly. Harry might as well have said the entire Phillies team will come to my house and play nine innings in our backyard. It was that preposterous. Harry wouldn't lie to me, right? Dad gave me a reassuring smile and told me it was indeed true.
My hopes were immediately dashed though when I found out that you had to be at least 30 years of age to attend. Once again, the powers that be were denying this kid the basic human right to have fun. Thirty?! That's an eternity! (So goes the thought process for every boy and girl that age).
Years went by and my desire to fib about my age and attend Phantasy Camp had waned. My love of baseball turned to other interests like music and playing drums. My posters of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose were being replaced with rock stars. It also didn't help that Schmidty retired and the fact that the Phils went through a pretty long period of less-than-stellar play on the field, save for the statistical outlier that was 1993 (easily one the most fun-filled seasons following the team… although did you have to lose 15-14 at my first ever World Series game? Come on. That was painful).
I moved to New York City in early 2001 and followed the Phillies with even more fervor. Baseball was slowly making a comeback in Philadelphia. There were a lot of reasons to get excited about this organization. A new ballpark was on the way. Amazing homegrown talent was coming up, and as any baseball fan knows, what eventually became of Philadelphia Phillies baseball in the last half of this decade has been nothing short of pure bliss for us diehards.
In the last several years, my dad and I became even more fanatical about our team. Whenever it was on the phone or face-to-face, our conversations centered round the Phillies. He and I had always been extremely close. The Phillies made us even closer.
Then, on November 4, 2009, my father passed away. Apart from the obvious shock, pain and heartache that surrounded me that day, what made it even worse was the fact that it was the same day as Game 6 of the World Series against the Yankees… a game (and Series) the Phillies would lose.
Once I was able to start focusing again on the things I loved to do, the idea of attending the Phillies Phantasy Camp went off like a light bulb. Why not? I had the time and resources now (I also finally met the age requirement. I would turn 35 during the camp in January 2011… same day as Carlos Ruiz… let's add in "birthday present to myself" shall we?) I ran the thought by my wife. She didn't even let me finish my sentence before she gave me a hundred emphatic "yeses". Not only would this be a wonderful, exciting, and therapeutic experience for me, but it would be the ultimate tribute to my father: A man, no matter how tired he was after a long day at work, would rush home to have a catch with his son in the backyard before the sun went down and to talk about baseball. A man who used sports as a way to comfort ourselves after my mother passed away when I was 14. A man who made his only child his number one priority.
I called the very next morning. After a 20-minute phone conversation with the enrollment coordinator, I knew I made the right decision.
And I knew I had to document this entire process…
When I first inquired about Phantasy Camp way back in March, I was told an orientation meeting would be held sometime in November. That seemed like an eternity, especially since the baseball season hadn't even begun. Well, the World Series has ended, the weather is colder, and wouldn't you know it, it's November already. Only two months to go until camp, and after last night's orientation, it has finally sunk in. Months and months of emails, letters, research, speculation and anticipation came to a head yesterday, one floor below Citizens Bank Park. I haven't even stepped foot onto the field in Florida and I know this will be one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The weather was lousy. Rainy, windy, and chilly. Citizens Bank Park looked like an ominous monster when I exited the subway station. None of the lights were on, save for a few small points of illumination. No cars in the parking lots. As I got closer, I saw a huge banner in the final stages of being hung above the third base entrance, celebrating Roy Halladay's Cy Young Award that he won only a couple hours before my arrival.
When I arrived at the south entrance on Pattison Avenue, I met a gentleman and his wife who were making their way in as well. We entered the lobby, going past some impressive memorabilia (game-used bats, balls, the lineup card from Halladay's NLDS no-hitter against the Reds, etc.). We took the elevator down. The gentleman, Gene, asked me if I was playing or just going as a "Phan" (the camp offers packages for players to bring down family members and friends to accompany them, and will provide them with fun excursions and of course, seats at all the games). I told him I was playing and he gave me a funny, "uh oh". It became immediately obvious that I am definitely one of the youngest players. Little do they know, they can probably run laps around me. This was also Gene's first time at camp and he and his wife were very excited about this whole experience, as to be expected.
We came off the elevator and walked right in to the Phillies media room. Other than the army of camp employees manned at numerous locations, a table of food, and balloons, the first thing that caught my eye was the oh-too-familar backdrop and podium everyone sees when the Phillies hold a press conference to introduce new players, coaches, etc. This is when it truly hit me.
I checked in and finally got to meet Joanne LeVeque, the wonderful enrollment coordinator I have been speaking to on and off for the past eight months. She and the other women checking campers in were like rays of sunshine. A perfect way to start the night. From there I went on a Phantasy Camp conveyor belt, going from table to table to meet other employees who were in charge of different aspects of the experience. At each table, every single person gave the widest of smiles, welcoming me to camp, asking me if I was excited, and telling me how much fun I will have. If you have ever been on a cruise, then you know how enthusiastic the crew is toward you and your fellow passengers. Now, turn it up to 11 and you have these folks. Yet, since this is a relatively small group of people, and not a boat full of 1,000 people, you are truly made to feel like a king.
In addition to to all the various paperwork, receiving very cool, customized luggage tags, and a huge gym bag with an embroidered Phantasy Camp logo AND my requested uniform number, 31 (my favorite Phillie, Garry Maddox… yes!), I was given a form to fill out asking me if I have another fantasy I would like the players to fulfill for me. The women said they have done things in the past where players can recreate certain game scenarios (bottom of the 9th, game seven of the World Series, bases loaded…). I found a chair and sat down to gather my thoughts and calm down. At this point, I felt like a seven-year old in Disney World for the first time. My brain was going in a million different happy directions. I grabbed some food to help me stop my head from spinning, although those cookies probably didn't help.
I sat with a clipboard, checking over my player bio that they will be putting in to a media guide. After that, I started looking at my fantasy request form. I was drawing a complete blank. How much more could they possibly do for me other than bringing down the entire 2010 team for me to have beers with? As I was pondering this, another couple came and sat next to me. I hear the gentleman say to me, "can't figure out what to write, huh?" I laughed and said, "this whole thing IS fulfilling my fantasy." The man introduced himself, and as it normally goes, I immediately forgot his name. He asked me if this was my first trip down and I said yes. He told me this will be his fifth year in a row and that it never ever gets old. I told him how thrilled I was to be doing this and had a feeling I would be signing up for it again as soon as I arrive back home. He closed his eyes and gave me a slow nod. He then paused, gave me a serious, yet comforting look, dropped his voice a few decibels, inched a little closer to me and said, "you will have the time of your life." Unlike everyone else who had been repeating that phrase over and over to me, this time, I actually felt that statement reverberate in my bones. He was like some wise sage who knew the secrets of the universe. He also had a particular look in his eye that I have definitely seen before…
An old co-worker of mine named Mike attended the New York Mets fantasy camp a couple years ago. I remember him coming over to my desk to talk about his experience after he returned. His face told it all. He couldn't stop smiling. It was one of those grins that is purely honest and true. He was like a little boy, not being able to talk fast enough to get all his thoughts and stories out. I also play softball with him on one of my teams. Whenever we had a chance, it's all we ever talked about while sitting on the bench. I've always wanted to attend a fantasy camp, but he definitely was a catalyst in getting me to seriously start entertaining the idea.
I eventually filled out and turned in my fantasy request form (I'll let you all know later if this actually happens). Now it was off for my uniform fitting. A few other campers and I were led through the maze-like hallways of Citizens Bank Park on our way to the clubhouse. On the way, our guide gave us a little tour of the area, pointing out certain rooms and lounges, including the lockers of the Phillie Phanatic and the umpires. The funniest moment of the night came at the expense of the said umpires. Our guide pointed out that the signs for every door also has a braille translation. The signs not to have braille imprinted on them? The ones to the umpire lockers and lounges.
We came to an intersection. Left took us to the Phillies dugout and the field. Right took us to the clubhouse. I'll be making that left come next August at Phantasy Camp reunion….
We made our way to the clubhouse, passing by the mailboxes for all the players and coaching staff. Funny enough, the first box I noticed was for Davey Lopes. No forwarding address has been given yet I guess.
Just like when I walked in to the media room just a half hour or so before, the reality of this experience hit me for a second time. Another platoon of camp employees were set up at different stations around the side of the clubhouse. We were first brought to a display table showing us all the different awards we can win while at camp. These would be given out at the awards banquet on the last night of our trip. These include Most Valuable Player, Gold Glove, Batting Champion (the trophy is a bat signed by all the Phillies Legends), Cy Young, "Charlie Hustle" for the "spark plug" of the team, an impressive ring for the World Series-winning team, including being etched into the Phantasy Camp Championship Trophy, and a "Maje McDonnell" Award, named after the Philadelphia sports staple, given to the player with the best personality and class on and off the field. Also, daily "Gamer Award" pins will be given out for on-the-field excellence. Once again, this is just another aspect of this experience to make the camper feel incredibly special.
While our guide was telling us about these great awards, I couldn't help turning my head back and forth to look at all the different lockers. I was standing in the clubhouse of my favorite baseball team. This is where the Phillies have had numerous champagne and Bud Light showers for the past four seasons. Now I know that being able to visit everything I just mentioned is not that unique. Anyone can sign up for tours of the park and see what I just saw. My nine-year old nephew this past summer got to take a very similar tour when he attended his own youth Phillies camp. But you know what? I've never seen it, so damnit, I'm going to act like a little kid!
Next up was my hat fitting (oh man, Chase Utley's locker). Luckily, I just got a haircut, so they didn't have to send in the oversized Phillies cap they use to put on William Penn's head on top of City Hall. With my hat and a jersey, I was now getting my picture taken for the media guide. You didn't have to tell me to smile.
Before going over for my uniform sizing, the organizers softened the blow of how awkward I will look in stretch pants. The camp brought in three folks who will be sharing the five days with us. Down the line, I got the opportunity to shake hands and converse with Marty Bystrom, our own '10 San Francisco Giants-style save-the-day rookie sensation, Scott Palmer, Philly sports anchor staple, now the director of public affairs for the Phillies, and Dickie Noles, easily the one Phil I had the most baseball cards of. I swear I think all the card companies had a mandate that a Dickie Noles should be placed in every other pack. I'm glad that I finally got to meet the real thing and not have to keep looking at 36 duplicate '82 Topps cards. All three of them were absolutely charming, telling me how much fun I will have. Again, I could see it in their faces. They LOVE doing this.
Behind the red curtain I went to get fitted. I was brought over to a chair, situated right in front of Roy Halladay's locker. The next thing I know, I was standing in my underwear… in Roy Halladay's locker… the guy who just won the Cy Young Award earlier in the day….
Well, I just got my money's worth. I can go home now. Thank you very much.
When I emerged, I was given a complimentary Dick Perez print commemorating Halladay's perfect game earlier in the season. The women said that would be it and I can go back to the media room with a guide… or I can stick around and take pictures. I of course, chose the latter. The first thing I had to do was text message my wife from Carlos Ruiz's locker. That got exactly the reaction I was hoping for from her. I went around the horn, snapping photos of everyone's lockers… Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth…
I begrudgingly decided to leave, going with the same guide I came in with. On the way back we passed an impressive mural of photographs from the 2008 season, including a massive panoramic shot right after Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske. Directly across from this was a series of window box frames with the jerseys of all the Phillies players who have had their number retired by the club, including the great Jackie Robinson.
Everything was in order and was cleared to go. I stopped by the front desk to say goodbye to Joanne and thank her again for all her help. "See you in Florida" she said. And that was that. I waited eight months for orientation. I only have two months more to go.
I left the park and headed back up Pattison Avenue to the subway for the first step of my multi-stage trip back to New York. The weather was still lousy, but nothing could have brought me down at that moment.
Bryan Sargent's entire diary can be read on his website, http://bryansargent.mlblogs.com