Put Me In, Coach

Put Me In, Coach

2007-05-14 02:51

Put Me In, Coach

Even Aging Dreamers Can Make It to 'The Show' at Replica Ballparks
Sunday, May 13, 2007

 

By John Rosenthal Special to The Washington Post

As a kid growing up in the Bronx, I harbored visions that one day I might play third base in Yankee Stadium, that cathedral of baseball just eight miles from my house. But as the years passed and my inability to hit a curveball became ever more apparent, that dream faded. I attended hundreds of games at the House That Ruth Built, and even took the Stadium Tour, in which I got to walk on the field. But the closest I came to being a part of the action was when a foul ball landed in the row behind me.

After moving to Los Angeles and turning 40 in quick succession, I put away the childish notion -- and even stopped bringing my glove to Dodger games. Then a softball buddy told me about a place in the desert where I could not only step to the plate at Yankee Stadium, but play extra innings at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field on the same day.

Okay, so I'm not talking about the real Yankee, Fenway and Wrigley, but clever facsimiles, with outfield walls painted to match the originals. These diamonds are the sparklers at Big League Dreams, a 32-acre sports complex near Palm Springs, Calif., created by brothers Rick and Jeff Odekirk. The siblings are former baseball players (Rick spent 13 years in the minor leagues) who believe everybody deserves a chance to play in "The Show."

"Yankee Stadium" has real white arches balustrades over the bleachers, "Wrigley" has actual ivy growing against the wall, and "Fenway" boasts an honest-to-goodness 30-foot Green Monster (just seven feet shorter than the original in Kenmore Square). A capacity crowd is painted on the stadiums' outfield walls. Only the San Jacinto Mountains and the 95-degree desert heat remind visitors that they're not in New York, Chicago or Boston.

During the week, Big League Dreams is home to local adult and youth leagues. But on weekends the facility hosts softball and baseball tournaments where just about anybody can pretend to be Derek Jeter for a day.

The minute I heard that, I was off like a 90-mph fastball, rounding up my softball buddies to play in the next available tourney. At 41, I was in the middle of a group of guys who ranged in age from 30 to 56. On the advice of teammates who had played tournaments before, and knew what kind of competition we might face, I entered our squad in the lowest ability level.

We road-tripped out to the desert early one Saturday and made a beeline for "Yankee Stadium." We wanted to drink it all in, to buy peanuts and Cracker Jack and root, root, root for the home team. But this was no time for being a fan; on this day, we were ballplayers, and I was the manager, to boot. Before I could lace up my cleats, an umpire was shouting "Play ball!" and our leadoff hitter was standing at home plate.

As we sized up our competition, we liked our chances. Instead of the usual 10 players, our opponents fielded just eight guys and a girl.

Then they came to the plate.

One after the other, their hitters poked balls through the infield. By the second inning, we trailed 8-2 on our way to a humbling 16-8 loss. So much for storybook beginnings.

We hoped to be less awed by our surroundings in our second game, at Fenway Park, against a 50-and-over team called the Stingers. No such luck. Their matching uniforms were a tip-off that these were no ordinary AARP members. They placed the ball with even greater efficiency -- presumably so they wouldn't have to run too fast. They stung us for 12 runs in the first inning, four on a Ruthian blast that sailed over the Green Monster.

No organist, announcer or electronic scoreboard trumpeted the dinger. In fact, to keep the games under an hour long, hitters don't even get to break into a home run trot. When a ball leaves the yard, the batter merely touches first and retires to the dugout.

We fell behind in our third game as well, also at Fenway. Just nine more outs and we'd be driving home as the tournament's biggest losers. My dream was turning into a nightmare. But suddenly our bats came alive. We stopped taking photos of the stadium and started bouncing shots into the "stands" of painted spectators. We exploded for 16 runs, and suddenly we were on a one-game winning streak.

The victory entitled us to keep playing, and we made it two in a row with another come-from-behind win. This one was highlighted by a game-ending double play turned by our elder statesman, Rodney, who's still crowing about it.

Our reward this time was a 5 p.m. game at Wrigley, where we put up five runs in the first inning. But like the real-life tenants of the Friendly Confines, we fizzled down the stretch, destroying our chance at the championship. Finally bounced from the tournament, we limped into the bar and grill in the center of the complex, where we rehashed the day over a few cold ones. A couple of players dutifully lamented the loss, but after five games in the desert sun, most of us were happy to be off our feet. My childhood fantasies had never included so many aching bones and sore muscles. Everyone on our team started trading painkillers like they were baseball cards.

An hour later, sinking into the comfort of the hotel hot tub, we rationalized that winning it all would have required playing at least two more games. Even Ernie Banks ("Let's play two!") would have been daunted.

When I returned home the next morning, I hobbled out of the car and collapsed on the couch.

"You look awful," my wife said. "Are you okay?"

"Like a dream come true," I groaned.