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Peter Mandel

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The Boys of Summer: Turning Fifty at Red Sox Fantasy Camp.

Posted: 06/21/11 05:57 PM ET

Baseball in the imagination, and in its real-life seasonal swings, is connected to being young. Boys of summer, we say. Rookies of spring.

But I am here to tell you that when it comes to uppercuts that get only air and eating dust on a headfirst slide, the kids have nothing on us. We are 40ish, 50ish, even 60ish. And we're taking our cuts in Florida alongside famous former pros: Jim Rice, Dwight Evans, Luis Tiant.

Most of us haven't picked up a hardball in years, and here we are at the Red Sox' training complex in Ft. Myers. Sox Fantasy Camp has 120 sign-ups: we are boasting about bloop base hits, chugging around bases, and smacking our gloves. And we are sore.

When we got here the grass was the first thing we saw -- it's an impossible green. Even better are our clubhouse lockers. I walk down a row to read the labels on each. Here's Tiant, Sam Horn, and only a few cleat-steps away, the not-yet-famous Pete Mandel.

Each of us has a real Red Sox home uniform, a road-gray jersey with our name professionally sewn in on the back, cap, socks, belt, red undershirt -- everything but the jockstrap.

We spend the first day of camp finding out if our baseball muscles still work. I am 50. My old pair of cleats cuts off my circulation. Swinging a bat makes snaps and cracks inside my wrist. And, although I can jam on a batting helmet, the earflaps flip off my glasses. It's going to be a very long week.

I complain to another camper, Kevin Finnie, from Wisconsin, about how out-of-shape I feel. Finnie, a cheese company executive, agrees. Between huffs and puffs, he is telling me something about the vegetable oil added to Kraft Cheez Whiz.

Hmmm, I say. Do you think you could use that stuff to condition the pocket of your glove? "I don't know," says Finnie. "I wouldn't try that."

Soon we campers are split up into teams. During the very first inning, there is a broken hand and a guy with salt-and-pepper hair flops face down on the basepath. When he doesn't get up everyone is worried. But it turns out he is only resting. Back to the game.

Someone points out there is a flock of buzzards circling the field, and they stay up there, hovering. The birds don't see me make any errors at second base, and though I whiff and ground out, I manage to drive in a run with a single to center off Rick Wise.

At the end of the week we get to play against a team made up entirely of pros. Wise and Rice and the rest. Walking into City of Palms Park, the Sox' spring training stadium, we know this is the real thing. The scoreboard lights up: "At Bat, Ball, Strike, Budweiser." The field looks like a fertilizer ad. The outfield walls appear miles away.

We file into dugouts that say "Delta Airlines" and into the clubhouse where there are rows of complimentary toiletries just for us. Listerine mouthwash, Mennen Skin Bracer, Colgate shave cream, even razors. Jim Rice lathers up and shaves. I see him slap on cologne. It's game time.

Before we know what is happening the pros score three in the top of the first. When it is time for our ups we see that Wise is on the mound. He isn't throwing hard. But he is throwing curves. We scratch out a couple runs. We swing and miss. We miss again.

Out in the field, my knee is buckling. I pray to God that none of the big leaguers at bat will hit me a fly. The pros are not particularly quick. But their hits have topspin like a tennis shot and when they snap a throw it whistles through the air.

It is when we bat again that someone sees them, soaring high above the lighted scoreboard. The buzzards are back: circling, circling the sky. We tug on the bills of our caps and check the lineup. We chew our gum. We do not look at the birds.

Let them wait, we think.

We have more to play.



Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and the author of nine books for kids including one about baseball, Say Hey! A Song of Willie Mays (Hyperion), and the new Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).