TAMPA, Fla. -- Over the past five years, I might have spent more time than most in the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, but it is still a completely surreal experience to walk into the Yankees' spring home and see my name hanging over a locker.
For this week, I've traded my pen and notebook for a bat and glove, suiting up in pinstripes as one of the 67 participants in this year's Fantasy Camp.
And with a doubleheader now under our collective belts as Tuesday's Day 1 wraps up, the experience is a great reminder of how simultaneously challenging and wonderful playing this game can be.
Most of the campers got to town on Monday evening for a quick introductory banquet, seeing a good mix of first-timers and veterans among the rosters, and we didn't waste any time getting right into the action.
After creasing our caps and taking a few photos in our freshly-issued pinstripes -- some a little more snug than others! -- our six teams were dispatched to one of the three fields at the Steinbrenner complex, the morning dew still glistening in that warm Florida sunshine.
My team, the Pinstripes, is being managed by Cecil Fielder and Oscar Gamble. Make no mistake, they're not afraid to call it like they see it. As Gamble emerged from the dugout runway to see his team assembled for the first time in uniform, the "Big O" exclaimed, "You know, you guys clean up good. You didn't look anything like this last night."
Still, the pregame advice we heard was to "start slow and taper off." We're playing nine games in 4 1/2 days, and there's no disabled list here. Even the pros don't cram that many innings into such a short span, and the training room is going to become a very popular destination.
Fielder is a first-time Fantasy Camp great, and while there was no shortage of questions about his big-hitting days with the Tigers and that 1996 World Series with the Yankees, the future of his son, Prince Fielder, is also a curiosity.
For what it's worth, the elder Fielder won't hazard a guess toward where his son is heading as a free agent, though he said of the Brewers, "I don't think they can pay him."
Fielder said that Albert Pujols' contract situation will most likely have to be resolved before any team would ink his son. Fielder also said there's no chance the Yankees would get involved; not with Mark Teixeira at first base. At age 27, Prince Fielder has no interest in being a full-time designated hitter.
The Hot Stove was a topic all day; these are baseball fans, after all. But the games on the diamond were even more of a focus. Our Pinstripes dropped a tough 10-9 morning game to Homer Bush and Tanyon Sturtze's Clippers (thanks to a six-run eighth inning), then were blown out, 20-8, in Game 2 by Fritz Peterson and Al Downing's very strong Thunder club.
Our team had bright spots, including Marc Chalpin, a member of the Yankee Stadium Bleacher Creatures, who played a very sharp left field for the afternoon. But personally, there was a lot of rust -- I hadn't picked up a bat or thrown a ball since August. A four-batter relief appearance in Game 1 was ill-fated, as I didn't retire a hitter, but the Game 2 blowout presented a chance to try playing first base.
Downing, a former Yankees pitcher, tried to give me a few pointers on the footwork and positioning. It turns out he played some first base growing up before realizing his future was in throwing strikes, not hitting them.
"I just didn't have the power," Downing said. "But I had the arm."
Despite the two losses, there were plenty of smiles all around. Hall of Famer Goose Gossage was a special guest for the day and delighted in ribbing whatever teams came his way, wrapping up his afternoon by signing hundreds of autographs for the campers at home plate.
Friends were quickly made and memories were forged, as aspiring athletes spanning decades in age and coming from as far away as Australia (Richard Leonard) trot on the Yankees' diamonds and live out their dreams.
As Yankee Stadium public address announcer Paul Olden said, "Fantasy Camp is the only place where I'm guaranteed to be around happy people for an entire week."
Walking to the bus as dusk fell on Tampa, his words definitely sounded appropriate. Let's win two tomorrow.