Baseball Put In Perspective

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By: Roy Berger, MedjetAssist President/CEO

Ten months ago, as I packed up my baseball gear and left the Yankee clubhouse at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, I was on a high. Yankee Fantasy Camp was actually better than I imagined and I longed for the day I could  have the same experience with my two sons.

I wanted to have my Ray Kinsella ‘Field of Dreams’ cameo while physically I was still able to play ball.  Spend a week in pinstripes with my lads under the Florida sun at the Yankees spring complex.

This week was going to be the week as the Yankees fall Fantasy Camp starts tomorrow.

Now it’s not. At least for the time being. Still have hopes of maybe one day.

Both boys are in California and can’t get away. Jason, 31, is on the writing staff of the ABC hit comedy ‘Happy Endings’ and this is prime writing season. Scott, 29, is an executive at a Beverly Hills luxury hotel and has used up his vacation days for the next 25 years chasing alternative band Phish around the country the past three summers.

So any hope of playing catch in a major league uniform has to wait a while and at 60 I’m just not sure how many more ‘whiles’ I have left in me. As someone wiser than I’ll ever be once said, “If you want to make the Lord laugh, tell him about your future plans.”

Next on the fantasy camp companion draft board would have been Andi and as a wife she’s terrific but she can’t catch the high hard one like she used to nor can I dish it. Plus in later years she now also struggles with the off-speed pitch so she’s benched this week.

With past camp goers Fred being a one and done and Barry O on his way to India (of course with his Medjet air medical transfer membership card in tow) the logical selection would be my oldest baseball playing mate, my brother Mike. After a consult on the home front Mike agreed but only under the stipulation that if we were going to fantasy baseball camp together it had to be the Yankees.

Mike, 57, is three years younger than me. If you look at both of us, I know it’s pretty hard to believe he’s younger than me but he is. He’s been a diehard Yankee fan ever since I can remember so he has license to pick the camp he wants to attend.

The Yankees, because they are the Yankees and can get away with it, run two fantasy camps a year- January and November and always booked to the max of about 100.  I went last January and it was a wonderful experience but have a corporate annual meeting conflict this January. Because of that my upcoming January baseball camp will be with the Pirates where this whole odyssey started three years ago and there is no conflict that week. Mike had no interest in being a Pirate. What did Seinfeld once say clad in a spiffy puffy shirt?  “But I don’t want to be a Pirate.”  Mike unfortunately felt the same way.

Thus the first week of November seemed to be a schedule fit and tonight we planned to tuck into the posh Tampa Sheraton Suites, the Yankees fantasy camp home for the next seven days.

Awaiting us hacks as coaches for the week are ex-Yankee big leaguers such as Mickey Rivers, Bucky Dent, Homer Bush, Al Downing, Oscar Gamble, Tommy John, Roy White, Tanyon Sturtze, Fritz Peterson, Jeff Nelson, Jesse Barfield, Gil Patterson, Jake Gibbs, Ron Guidry, Tony Kubek and World Series perfect game legend Don Larsen. Truly from top to bottom as good a fantasy camp coaching line-up as you’ll ever see!

Seemed appropriate in advance of arriving in Tampa tonight we spend a day with Mom and Dad over on the east coast of Florida in a retirement burg called Coconut Creek or more aptly Del Boca Vista- Phase IV. Yes it is operating under a puppet regime.

We are lucky and we know it to still have Mom and Dad in our lives. Mom is 83; Dad is 84 and still very active in their community. For the past 63 years they have been known as Arlene & Herb. While showing signs of being in their early 80’s, with accompanying ailments, truth is Dad spent less time on the disabled list last year than Amar’e Stoudemire and that’s very good.

So a stay before heading west to Tampa was in order especially because Dad had such a strong baseball influence on Mike and me– being a part of coaching us from the time we were the smallest of tykes.

Truly what comes around goes around or is it what goes around comes back? In either event one of my earliest baseball memories (circa 1962ish) are with Mike throwing the baseball on the side of our house in East Meadow, New York.  Fifty years ago we played a very scientific and advanced game called ‘pitcher-catcher.’ The rules were complex. One of us would pitch and the other would catch. Replay was not needed.

We also had to be pretty accurate as the side of our house was interrupted by a wooden retaining fence of our neighbors who behind that wood and overlapping trees raised doberman pinchers. And these weren’t just ordinary doberman’s. Bally and Thane were baseball eating doberman’s. Swallowed them whole, just for a snack. So if the ball went over the fence it was wise to just grab a new one from the garage. We had no interest in finding out if they also had an appetite for baseball players.

Mike was a much better ballplayer than me back in the day. In fact he went on to a stellar Little League career that ended with one decision. Somewhere back around 1965 when Mike was 10, he threw fireballs and was selected as the starting pitcher for the Central Nassau Little League all-star game. The only caveat was he had to cut his hair to participate. His look was 40 years in advance of Tim Lincicum. Nothing too offensive but clearly longer than the norm. In 1965 they could dictate to you how you were supposed to look. That didn’t last much longer.

As the lore goes Mike declined a haircut and the all-star game was played with someone else on the mound. That’s about all I can remember of his baseball career as he swapped the glove for music, girls, long hair and whoknowswhatelse. Today either of us would kill to have that hair back again!

I continued playing baseball into high school and Mike didn’t. We reunited on the softball fields of south Florida for a while in the late 70’s and early 80’s but it’s been well over 35 years since we tossed a ball at each other and not have to worry about the dobermans. We planned to pick it back up tomorrow morning.

And yes there is a third Berger brother, Ken 52, still living in East Meadow. Kenny is a devout Mets fan who would spit on a Yankee uniform before wearing one, much like Mike and me feel about the Red Sox. He’s also probably a bit jealous that his team, unlike ours, couldn’t make it to the post-season, hit .188 and implode.  Asking him to join us was never a consideration.~

Mike calls Randolph, New Jersey home and is very successful as a Territory Manager for food service giant US Foods. He is the consummate sales pro and calls some of New York City’s finest restaurants, hotels and clubs his account. He has been recognized over and over again at the top of the US Food sales chain.

Great family too. Wife Sue fought a long but fortunately victorious battle with ovarian cancer  as recently as two years ago and she has reached hero status in our family. Mike and Sue have twins- Kim, a recent graduate of The U where both Mike and I got our degrees. In fairness to Kim the University of Miami she attended is much different than the U Mike and I went to back in the 70’s. We couldn’t get admitted today. What a wonderful job they have done in academics; makes all the alums proud. Kim is ticketed for med school in the fall.

Kim’s twin brother Brian gave up his first two years at Rutgers 18 months ago when he received acceptance at the US Military Academy at West Point, NY. Brian is now completing his second year at West Point and will defend our country so guys like Mike and me can play baseball for a week. Makes an uncle beam with pride.

Mike’s baseball career reached ‘Dad’ status with his youngest son Robby who was the closer for the Randolph High School baseball team when they won the New Jersey State High School Championship in 2010 with Robby on the mound for the final out. Big thrill for all, especially Mike who worked as hard as Robby did during his games. Robby played collegiate baseball last year for Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, NJ and Mike was along for every step of the journey.

Now however the reality of having to play baseball is hitting him and at 57, with your best days in the rear view mirror, the task seems a bit daunting to my brother. After being a three camp veteran I tried to prompt him on what he needs to do to properly prepare but much like colleague Fred a couple of years ago I’m not sure it registered. Mike also has a built-in advantage as Robby is at home to mentor him.

This note from Mike about a week ago: “Not doing what I should to get ready. Went to batting cage last week and started in the 65 mph cage. Big mistake. Couldn’t see the ball (I looked like A-Rod). After 10 pitches I switched to the 50 mph cage. That was better. Threw with Robby for a couple of days and my arm still feels it. Didn’t try to bend for a grounder. Need to take some ground balls, run the bases on a nearby field and head back to the cage. I hope I can go the distance though I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t worried.”

I tried to comfort him. Reminded him that two years ago at Detroit Tigers camp my colleague Fred thought he was in great baseball shape and other than chew some bubble gum and watch a baseball game on ESPN Classic did nothing else to prepare. His first at-bat, first step out of the batter’s box he pulled a hamstring and wasn’t the same the rest of the week.

Last January before Yankees camp my chum for the journey, old friend Barry O, had a sciatic nerve compression a week before camp and couldn’t get out of bed for three days. He was determined, struggled to get on the airplane from LAX to Tampa, made it and limped through the week like a pro. We had a blast. It also didn’t get any easier for Barry O on the third day of camp when wife Joan came to visit. The next morning Barry complained of a groin pull. He said it was totally unrelated to Joan’s visit. There are good groin pulls and not so good groin pulls and in this case despite what he says, I still believe Barry had the good kind!

Mike in comparison to Fred and Barry O has the potential to be all-world this week so with a little good health, another workout or two and some good baseball luck he shouldn’t worry. He took the advice to heart.

Last Sunday I was talking to my sister-in-law Sue in advance of Hurricane Sandy to see if everyone was ok and how were they were preparing for the storm. She told me she and son Robby were in the process of moving all the patio furniture inside and cleaning out the gutters.

I asked, “Where is Mike?” ‘

“Oh,” Sue said, “he went to the batting cage.”

Proud of that boy.~

The next day Sandy blew through and of course socked New Jersey. Sue and Mike got lucky. Relatively lucky anyway. A tree in their front yard was dislodged and hit a power line which blew a transformer to their house. They got scared. Smell of smoke. Six fire trucks and three police cars at the house within 30 minutes but fortunately no fire. Power outage, transformer damage to in-house utilities but it could have been a lot worse.

On Tuesday Mike says, “Don’t give this up yet I still want to figure out a way to go to camp.” On Wednesday it got doubtful. On Thursday with litter and debris scattered everywhere, no traffic signals, some roads impassable, limited power back to their house, cold temps, no heat and 2.5 hour wait for gas (if you could even find a station open), Mike pulled the plug on our week.

“I just can’t do it and I’m really upset” came the early morning phone call. “Will you still go?” he asked me. I told my brother if he didn’t make the decision to cancel that I would have made it for him. You can’t walk away from this and justify it. Though Sue is encouraging him there’s just no way. What about business damage? And no I won’t go without Mike. This was going to be our week together.

Julie Kremer, who very capably runs the Yankees Fantasy Camp, couldn’t have handled this any better. Understanding and sympathetic, she suggested accommodating us by rolling forward the non-refundable portion of the hefty tuition to a future camp date. Couldn’t ask for more only five days before the first pitch.

I asked Mike this afternoon if he made the right decision. “Oh yea,”  he said, “there’s no way I could have left all this mess behind.”

The good Lord willing Mike and I will have our day again hopefully same week next year. And maybe my sons can join us for what would be a fantastic week for the four of us.

In the meantime we think about all those in the path of Hurricane Sandy that may not have their day in the sun for a long while. You then realize how insignificant throwing a baseball really seems.

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