A very real baseball fantasy in Fort Myers

  • Article by: ANNIE BREITENBUCHER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2013 - 8:25 AM

Baseball wasn't an option. Now it is. One woman's tale of a visit to the Twins' fantasy camp reveals that pining away for the game can lead to playing the game, gender and age notwithstanding.

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On a December day, I stand a bat's length away from the winter jacket I've hung from a bar stool in my Minneapolis kitchen. I load my weight on my back foot and swing my new wooden XBat, trying to keep my hands in. If I do it right, there is no sound. If I do it wrong, the jacket takes a beating. As the month progresses, the kitchen gets quieter.

Meanwhile, Abby Geisler is taking batting lessons from Twins World Series hero Gene Larkin at Players Only Inc., a baseball training facility in Eden Prairie. She has been working on trying to load earlier and stay back. She starts with once-a-week lessons, then increases to twice a week as January approaches.

We are aiming at Jan. 5. It's the start of the annual Twins fantasy camp, which means a week of playing baseball, supervised by the likes of Larkin and former Twins Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, Tim Laudner, Kent Hrbek, Tom Brunansky, Rick Aguilera and Juan Berenguer -- to name a few.

At age 53, this will be my second camp. Abby, 55, of St. Paul, has been to 17 camps. It's a week of chasing dreams and embracing humility in Fort Myers, Fla.

The fee is about $4,000, and the 2013 camp roster is the largest in nearly 25 years of camp: 100 men -- and two women. We'll be "drafted" by the pro staff onto eight teams and, during the course of seven days, play at least eight games in our custom Twins uniforms with names on the back. Our games and lockers are at the Twins' spring training facility. We also eat breakfast and lunch there with our baseball heroes.

And if we're lucky, we play in a camp championship game at Hammond Stadium, with former Twins radio broadcaster John Gordon announcing us before our at-bats.

If you ever wanted to be a big league player and were born without those skills, well, this is the next best thing

Abby wanted to be a big league ballplayer. So did I. She grew up belting out the "We're Going to Win, Twins" theme song from her swing set. I grew up with a scorebook in my hands, following Harmon Killebrew's every plate appearance. We also grew up playing softball and knowing that, skills or not, girls don't become baseball players.

At least not until they get to fantasy camp.

Silence: The coolest thing

I'm not going to kid you. Chatting with Rick Aguilera while your bagel is toasting or having Bert Blyleven walk you to your car, arm around your shoulder, joking, "No autographs; she's signing no autographs today," is pretty cool. But for Abby and me, that is not the biggest draw. The draw is access to the game itself.

Abby loves to be outdoors. She loves the sound of the ball off a wooden bat, the way it feels on impact, the fact that baseball is a thinking, respectful game. I'm driven by those things and one other: silence. I have learned that there are magical moments playing ball when the world stops -- when it is distilled to you (a graceful, athletic you), a ball and utter, dream-like silence. I crave that silence.

Like Abby, to get to those moments, I've been training at Players Only. We've both come to Fort Myers hoping to play better and to get out of our own way. Make no mistake about it, no matter how supportive the majority of campers are, playing baseball in front of 100 men (many of whom have played high school or college baseball) is intimidating. You don't want to embarrass yourself -- or your gender.

I marvel that for the majority of her years in camp, Abby has been the lone female. She has made two trips to the hospital: once after being knocked out in an outfield collision and once after breaking her collarbone in a play at second. But it's not danger that has her thinking, while she trains, about hanging up her spikes. It's the fact that the camp roster has become deeper and more competitive over the years. Like me, she worries about holding her own. But her friends in camp, men who have become like brothers, do not want to hear about retirement.

Embracing successes

This year Abby (above) plays for the "Dream Weavers," coached by Bill Campbell and Tony Oliva. I play for the "Battery Mates," coached by Laudner and Viola. At the end of each day we compare game notes in the quiet of the women's locker room and console each other after disappointments.

During the course of the week I discover that we have prepared similarly for what turns out to be very similar experiences. Last year was the first time I had ever tried to hit a baseball; there was a whole lot of whiffing going on. This year, though I have my share of K's, I put more balls in play and pick up two hits.

Abby also put more balls in play and had the only hit off former Twins great Camilo Pascual who, at age 79, still throws quite a curve. She also reported a batting practice session with former Twins catcher Phil Roof that ended with a grinning Roof saying, "I'm really impressed. That's as hard as I ever throw batting practice and you handled every pitch."

As Abby puts it, in fantasy camp everyone has at least one moment to shine. These are her moments of 2013. Mine are a solid hit down the first base line and corralling an errant throw at second base. Golden silence.

Still, at the end of the week, headed to clear out my locker, I struggle with how hard I've worked to play better and with what seems like a limited return on that investment. Just then a fellow camper stops me and points to one of the poster boards filled with game photos. "There's a great picture of you here, Annie," he says. "Look at it. You're right on the ball."

I'll be damned, he's right.

After camp I meet with Abby, and we reflect on our experiences. We also start to hatch plans to train together next September. I report to her my conversation with a teammate about the disadvantage she and I share because we grew up before sports were so accessible to girls. "There's nothing you can do about it," he says. "You can't go back and learn all those things you were never taught."

Au contraire, I think. Au contraire.

Annie Breitenbucher (above) works part-time as an imaging technician at the Star Tribune and also writes for an engineering firm. She was a high school softball player and still plays softball.

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