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Inside the pinstripes: Part two

Inside the pinstripes: Part two

TAMPA, Fla. -- A cool cup of water had just been poured over my head and Ron Blomberg was calling my name from down the dugout bench. The skipper wanted to see me.

"How many hits did you get in that first game?" Blomberg asked. The answer was four -- well, three, if the first baseman had been given an error on that shot to his left. But they counted it, and I'm not above taking a cheap hit, especially playing on the pristine grass of George M. Steinbrenner Field.

What he wanted was for me to step up and lead the team, our Clippers, here at Day 2 of Yankees Fantasy Camp. Exactly what that entailed, as best I could tell, was to try and keep hitting line drives and give a short speech before the first pitch of Game 2.

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I came up with something like, "OK, guys, I'm tired of losing and I know you are, too. Let's win a game!" Some motivational speaker I am. Despite all that and dedicating the game to Jack Hubbard, our salty coach who missed camp Wednesday with severe dehydration, we still lost by four runs.

We may be winless in four games and now a long shot for first place, but that hasn't taken away from the experience. One of the benefits of the camp is having the chance to pal around with some of the former big leaguers.

I headed down to the hotel lobby Tuesday night and found Blomberg and Jesse Barfield holding court with Tommy John and several of the campers, talking about everything from long bus rides to expansion pitching to cell phone reception in Toronto. Somehow Nolan Ryan's name came up, and both players lit up with knowing recognition.

"Nolan Ryan," Barfield said, "owned me. Flat-out owned me. I was his."

A quick check of baseballreference.com proves Barfield remembers well. The Express was not kind to Barfield, leaving him 0-for-12 with 10 strikeouts lifetime. But Barfield said he figured Ryan out in a 1991 game, when he realized he had been incorrectly reading the delivery.

With the new tweak, Barfield said he hit a long foul ball that was nearly a home run off the future Hall of Famer and then rocketed a hot shot off the mound that kicked right to the shortstop for a double play. With that bad break, their paths would never cross after that day.

"I figured him out too late," sighed Barfield, who retired after the 1992 season.

Later, I asked Barfield if there were any pitchers he thought he owned. He named Britt Burns, and sure enough, poor Burns let Barfield hit him at a .389 clip, with four homers and 12 RBIs in their 40 plate appearances together. Not that memories are infallible -- Blomberg recalled taking Ryan deep seven times, which only overstates the case by six homers.

In a lot of ways, this feels like the summer camps many of us attended as kids. Your teammates and coaches become your inner circle who you spend the most time with, and you develop friendships -- some of which will be life-long.

We're all in this together, these new experiences, and for some (like me) that means trying to play second base wearing a left-handed glove. Charging in to field a slow roller, I realized there's a reason they decided against this 140 years ago.

After having the special treat of Yankees interim public address announcer Paul Olden on hand to call our names for each at-bat of Game 1, just like he does for every Yankee but Derek Jeter, we returned to our lockers to find lithographs done by two former campers honoring Johnny Blanchard.

Blanchard was a former Yankee and Fantasy Camp mainstay who passed away in March at 76, and as more than one person has told me, "Johnny was the Fantasy Camp." His spirit is being honored by an entire roster of Blanchards, who are all wearing his No. 38 in tribute.

Speaking of tributes, all around Steinbrenner Field are inspirational sayings and quotes that the Boss has ordered erected -- not so much for the Fantasy Campers, but for his Yankees to absorb during Spring Training. Some are as short as "Persevere," but one that caught my eye was this:

"In the history of this country, there are arguably a number of American myths that define who we are as a people. One is the Frontier. One is the New England town meeting. One is New Orleans jazz. Another is the New York Yankees." -- Tony Kornheiser, April 9, 1978

Heady stuff. That one happens to be tacked to the wall over the six-man hydrotherapy whirlpool in the Yankees' training area, which coincidentally happens to be the area of Steinbrenner Field that I have become most eager to explore each day.

Even the bus steps are becoming difficult to navigate, and I pause to wonder what that would have looked like had I not iced my shoulder and legs immediately after the final pitch. Tomorrow's a new day, and we'll be good as new for it. Sort of.

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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