The conclusion of an incredible week at the George M. Steinbrenner Field complex came on Saturday with the long-awaited Legends game, where the greats donned their pinstripes and took on the fantasy campers in a series of two-inning contests.
With six teams to play against, that made for a long afternoon for the former Yankees, but they kept the big league action coming. It sure felt real. The gates opened to fans, scoreboard graphics were live flashing each batter's picture, and public address announcer Paul Olden personally introduced each player.
Because our Clippers finished in the cellar of the tournament -- "We held the rest of the league up," as our coach Ron Blomberg said -- we took the field last. We went down scoreless in the top of the first and Jim McKinnon started the bottom half of the inning before I got the call I'd been waiting all my life for.
Jogging in from left field, I warmed up quickly and saw Jesse Barfield outside the batters box from behind dark sunglasses, his pinstriped No. 29 visible with each practice cut he took. My second fastball to Barfield darted low and away, and he swung hard and missed. He laughed and so did I. Had that really just happened?
Barfield continued his at-bat by hitting a hot shot to third base, which McKinnon smothered for a fielder's choice. Great, I'd take that. Now here came Ken Griffey, Sr., and when Olden announced him as Ken Griffey, Jr., we all had to take a second to recompose ourselves.
Catcher Santo Attinello -- mere hours from returning to life as a chiropractor in Portugal -- flashed two fingers and I loved the call. Here came a sweeping breaking ball that started in on Griffey and made a hard turn. Griffey shot a look at the catcher and said, "He's throwing curveballs?"
He'd win this battle when I went to the fastball, popping it into shallow right-center field for a two-run single. Roy White dug in and took a pitch before chopping a hot shot to second base, and as I watched with anticipation, our Clippers turned a beautiful 4-6-3 double play.
While it was a rush, I couldn't help but immediately feel bad. I'd agreed with our shortstop, David Schachman, that he could relieve me for the third out of the inning. Somehow we didn't plan on the inning ending so abruptly, and with the Legends up 4-0, there was now a chance that he wouldn't get to pitch.
"It's OK," he told me in the dugout. "I'd rather turn the double play than pitch."
That made me feel a little bit better, and when I doubled to right field off Al Downing and came home on Schachman's hit, maybe there was a chance we'd tie it up after all. But the Legends put away that third out, and our amazing week playing ball in the Florida sun was over.
The Fantasy Camp concluded Saturday with an awards banquet dinner at the Sheraton Suites. After a brief auction (including a team-signed '09 Yankees ball), each team was invited to stand at the front of the room, with coaches speaking on their behalf.
Al Downing and Fritz Peterson were at the helm of the undefeated Thunder, and Mickey Rivers and Homer Bush chaired the second-place Blanchards. White and Barfield brought the Bombers to a third-place finish, and Phil Linz played his harmonica in acknowledging the Sultans' fourth place wrap.
Chris Chambliss and Oscar Gamble oversaw the Bambinos' two victories, coming in fifth. As for our roster, unfortunately Blomberg was forced to watch the Clippers give up more than 100 runs in eight games, the biggest reason we came in dead last.
"We were terrible," Blomberg said. "But this was a great group of guys. I'm proud to have been with them and to call them my friends."
Nine players -- myself included -- were selected for an All-Star Rookie team, and among several camper awards issued, Bob McCauley's Mickey Mantle MVP award stands out most prominently.
Playing for the Thunder, McCauley left for California after the camp's final game, awaiting surgery to remove a tumor from his pancreas. Cleared by doctors to play in the camp before the procedure, McCauley called it "the greatest week of my life."
It is a sentiment that a lot of campers would probably share. On Monday, the 11 of us were essentially strangers, awkwardly going through the paces of a cocktail reception in a hotel lobby.
By the final out on Saturday, our entire club had already exchanged e-mails and phone numbers, planning to continue the new friendships that playing baseball has afforded us.
After that final game, coach Jack Hubbard gathered us in a circle near the dugout and very accurately summed up the experience. The wins and losses are all going to fade soon, but it's the memories and camaraderie that will last forever.