For Big-League Dreamers, Big-League Camps

At Cal Ripken's, my 83-year-old Dad becomes the batter to beat

Some people never let go of their sports dreams. Approaching middle age or even retirement, they still harbor hopes of stepping up to the plate and whacking one out of the park. It may be too late to make it to the big leagues. But why not try the next best thing: a vacation at a sports fantasy camp.

Depending on the sports passion--and tolerance for sore muscles--there's an up-close-and-personal adventure for most wannabe athletes. Basketball enthusiasts can shoot hoops with 7-foot stars of yesteryear, tennis fanatics can trade tales of tennis elbow with Chris Evert, and racing fans can climb behind the wheel of a souped-up Pontiac or Chevy and zoom around a famous speedway.

The most extravagant camps run $8,000 for a four-day session, so price can be a deterrent. Age doesn't have to be, though. My dad Tony Hyman recently returned from a stint at Cal Ripken Jr.'s Grapefruit League Baseball Camp in Palm Beach, Fla., where he played an errorless second base and was spotted in the hospitality suite at 3:30 one morning chatting ball with Cal himself. Did I mention that my Dad is an 83-year-old retired dentist from Freehold, N.J.?

Dad couldn't have had more fun if he were 23. A surprise gift from his three sons to celebrate his recovery from open-heart surgery, his adventure became a family reunion as well. My two brothers, along with my two young sons and I, gathered--with our cameras and camcorders--to share the experience.

What we witnessed were 75 lawyers, financial advisers, and tech-company executives living out their big-league dreams. Which is exactly what Ripken had in mind when he started the camp three years ago. "Being a major leaguer is a very special job that few people get to experience," says the 40-year-old star infielder for the Baltimore Orioles. "The idea was to bring tribute to the lifestyle. To give the people who come here a feeling for what being a major-league baseball player is really like."

At Ripken's camp, that means going first-class on the field and off. Hotel accommodations are tops: Players stay at a beachfront Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach. Each morning at 7:45, shuttle vans whisk the campers--during our week, that included two women--to nearby Roger Dean Stadium, spring training grounds for the Montreal Expos and the St. Louis Cardinals.

The daily regimen isn't that far removed from a major leaguer's. Players file into a spacious clubhouse where they slip into their big-league-style uniforms with their names emblazoned on the backs. After an elaborate breakfast, they troop out to the diamonds for instructional sessions led by Ripken and compete in games.

Dad quickly earned a reputation as the most difficult batter to pitch to. He walked twice in the first game, once with the bases full, to score the winning run. In the third game, he fouled off several pitches and drew another free pass to keep a rally going. We figured it was Dad's slight stature--5-feet-5-inches with his cap on--and crouching batting style. But when I asked his manager, former big-league skipper Jim Leyland, for his assessment, he deadpanned: "They saw him take batting practice, and they're pitching around the guy a bit."

Unlike some sports camps, where the sports hero's role is perfunctory, the Ripken camp is all Cal, all the time. The almost-certain Hall of Famer spends each day mingling with campers and--although he doesn't play--watching their games. So does his brother Bill, a onetime Oriole infielder himself. The Ripkens also bring in current and former major-league managers to oversee the six teams. In addition to Leyland, who managed three big-league teams, they include Mike Hargrove (Orioles) and Tom Kelly (Minnesota Twins).

Being in close quarters with the Ripken duo is well worth the steep fee for Mike Krueger, who has attended Ripken camps for the past three years and for the third brought along his seven-year-old son named--what else?--Cal. "You're in awe at the start. But after a while, being with Cal and Billy is just like running into your neighbor Joe," says Krueger, 41, an exec at a computer-leasing company in Arizona. "They're down-to-earth, regular guys. And they spend tons of time with us."

Baseball isn't the only option for adult sports campers. Race-car enthusiasts will want to check out Richard Petty's Driving Experience, a range of one-day camps. Students may rev up to 150 miles per hour. "Most people have never done more than 75 to 80. Then they come here, and we put them in a true race car," says Petty. School officials say no camper has suffered broken bones or serious injuries.

Amateurs use the same safety gear as the pros. They're also required to wear five-point seat harnesses and, as a precaution, an ambulance and rescue teams are on hand at racing sessions. Also, a pace driver rides ahead of the camper's car, signaling when to speed up or hit the brake. "It's scary at first, especially on a banked track," confesses Liz Lewens of Shawano, Wis., who attended a Petty school last October. "In the back of your head, you're thinking: `Whatever you do, don't hit the wall."'

For thrill-seeking on the back of a bucking bronco, there's the Sankey Rodeo School. It's the only camp I came across with this disquieting line on the application: "Proof of medical insurance required for all students!" Explains Lyle Sankey, director of the rodeo school and a longtime professional cowboy: "Things can happen when you're dealing with a live animal." Injuries occur, but they're seldom more serious than a broken wrist or collarbone.

Tennis and basketball fans also have adventures available. The Chris Evert Fantasy camp offers one day with the former tennis queen: instruction clinics, a chance to play with Evert in a doubles tourney, and a private dinner at the pro's Florida home. The $5,000 camp fee funds scholarships to the Evert Tennis Academy. No, you don't get a tax deduction.

For hoops fans, Sports Legends Fantasy Camp is a chance to play against former National Basketball Assn. stars, including Jo Jo White, Artis Gilmore, and Otis Birdsong. Chuck Bixler, who has attended two of the camps, says he enjoyed getting to know the stars off the court. "They're regular guys who, in the days when they played, didn't make a lot of money," says Bixler. "In that sense, they're so different from athletes today."

After a few days at fantasy camp, you might even be mistaken for one of the old pros. By the end of my Dad's stay at Ripken's camp, he had become a media darling. Two local TV stations came out for interviews. A photo of him getting a bear hug from a teammate ran in the Palm Beach Post. The publicity turned him into something of a celebrity, as we discovered on leaving the stadium after the final game. A few dozen autograph seekers were poised outside the big iron gates waiting for Ripken to depart. But when they spotted Dad, one blurted out: "Look, it's the old guy!" A cheer erupted, and as he shuffled to our car, a few fans reached through the bars to touch his hand. Now that's a sports fantasy.

By Mark Hyman

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