Saturday, January 22, 2011

Clearwater’s Boys Of Winter

When I was young, I wanted to grow up and become a major league baseball player, and every other boy I knew felt the same way. Some boys were extremely talented athletes, and some of us weren’t, but, at least at some point, we all had the dream. Dreams have a way of slowly disappearing into the reality of life as one grows older, because, as far as I know, none of even the most talented baseball players from my youth ever played professional baseball in the major leagues. But, while dreams may fade, with some boys they never die, they just turn into fantasies. Some people say that the difference between a dream and a fantasy is that only a dream is capable of becoming a reality. While that may be true, it is also true that it’s entirely possible to act out a fantasy, and with that, I’ll introduce you to Clearwater’s Boys of Winter.

Based on my observations above, I would guess that “boys” of my age are no longer physically capable of successfully accomplishing the dream of becoming real professional baseball players, but that doesn’t mean they can’t fantasize and pretend. And, with the Phillies Phantasy Camp, they can act out their fantasies in the most realistic way. But acting out a fantasy, like successfully fulfilling a dream, takes a lot of preparation, hard work, and, at least with respect to the Phillies Phantasy Camp, more than just a little money.

The camp, sponsored by the Philadelphia Phillies, is a five day event, held just once a year in January, at the Phillies Carpenter Complex, in Clearwater, Florida. Given that it’s only held once a year, and with plenty of “boys” just itching to fulfill their fantasies, applications must be submitted nearly a year in advance to ensure a spot on the limited roster. Furthermore, not just any boy can apply, as no application will be approved for any boy less than 30 years of age. Also, all boys must answer two essay questions, pass a physical examination, and come up with $4,795.00, not including the airfare to Florida. Acting out a fantasy can be a little expensive, but I’m sure it’s worth every penny.

Once a boy’s application has been submitted, and the confirmation has been received, there is still work to be done. An orientation meeting must be attended a few months before the camp begins, and, at some point, the boy must look in the mirror and face the painful truth that he is no longer a 20-year-old, or a 30-year-old, or a 40-year-old. Let’s stop at 40, as I believe you can see where I’m headed, and my point has already been made. But the mirror also shows that it’s not just wrinkles and gray hair the boy has to be concerned with, but all those pounds which have been added on to his waistline over the years. And, despite the fact that the boy might once have been a pretty good ballplayer, doesn’t mean that he still can play the game. Watching the Phillies on TV, while sitting on a recliner with a can of cold beer, does not constitute “playing” in anybody’s rule book. It’s clearly time for the boy to head to the gym, as well as the batting cages at the local go-kart/miniature golf location, to hit, or attempt to hit, a few balls. And, in an ironic twist, the grown “boy” must now ask his son if he wants to go outside and “toss the ball around.” There is no doubt about it, preparing to act out a fantasy is definitely a lot of hard work.

This past week, the Boys of Winter arrived in Clearwater, like they do every year, to act out their major league baseball fantasy. And, like every year, the camp was ready for them. It’s all first-class, of course, with the boys being treated as star athletes throughout the course of the week. Nothing is left to chance, with everything meticulously arranged down to the smallest detail. Each boy has his own personalized Phillies locker, and uniform, and just like it is with real professional players, the uniforms are laundered each night and hanging in the lockers the next morning. Along with accommodations at a fancy hotel on Clearwater Beach, the boys are given pre-game rub downs by trainers, spend time in whirlpools, and eat catered lunches in the clubhouse. And, between workouts, batting practice and games, there are cocktail parties, receptions, barbecues, and award ceremonies. One big highlight of the week is the chance for the boys to speak with, and play against, real Phillies who played in earlier eras.

I headed down to the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater today to watch the Boys of Winter on one of their last full days at camp. I was curious about these boys. I really didn’t know what to expect. Part of me expected to see serious, focused, competitive, over-the-hill and aging athletes, who not wanting to ever admit that their better days on a baseball diamond were long over, secretly hoped that professional scouts were lurking about ready give them a chance in the big leagues. What I saw instead, was just the opposite. Boys of varying ages, and physical appearance, appeared to be taking the camp in a good natured way. There was a lot of camaraderie, and laughing, and the boys appeared to be having fun. Not that the games weren’t being taken seriously, because they were. But I didn’t hear arguments or criticisms or snide remarks. Quite frankly I was surprised at the level of play I saw. These boys played well for their ages. It was evident that each of them had worked hard to get into shape for this once-in-a lifetime, special week. And, while their skills may have diminished over time, their love of baseball certainly has not. It is as strong as when they first dreamed of playing in Connie Mack Stadium, when they were but mere boys, so many long years ago.

God Bless you Boys of Winter.

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