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A league of our own

At a Yankees fantasy camp, the grass is green, the stars are out, and the food is kosher

NJJN sports and features editor Ron Kaplan gets a different perspective behind the plate and at bat.
NJJN sports and features editor Ron Kaplan gets a different perspective behind the plate and at bat.

It was with some surprise that I read the press release announcing “exciting Kosher and Shabbat options” at the November session of Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa, Fla.

For all their storied history, the franchise has had just eight Jews on its rosters since the team entered the American League as the Highlanders in 1903. By contrast, the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers have had 23 and 21 Jewish players, respectively, over the same period.

But give the front office credit: The Yankees wouldn’t be the Yankees without canny marketing, and it is easier to find enough Jews to fill out an amateur roster than it is a professional lineup. Also credit Ira Jaskoll, associate dean of the Sy Syms School of Business of Yeshiva University. Jaskoll had to arrange for his own kosher meals when, in January 2009, he attended Fantasy Camp, a week-long opportunity for fans to play on the same fields as, and alongside, their sporting heroes. He also sat out the Saturday Legends Game, the two-inning contest against former Yankees who serve as team coaches, considered by many the highlight of the week.

Jaskoll suggested to camp administrators that they could attract a new clientele if they were to offer a “kosher component.” So for the first time, the camp would offer glatt kosher food, Shabbat services with guest speakers, and a Legends game rescheduled to Friday afternoon.

Big league treatment

There were 65 campers (minimum age: 30) divided among six teams for the November session, including five Orthodox Jews: Jaskoll; Steve Kellner, a pediatrician from Cedarhurst, NY, and his brother Richard, an attorney from Los Angeles; Jason Lieber, a stock trader, also from Cedarhurst; and Elanit Snow, an attorney from Manhattan and the lone woman in camp. I am not Orthodox, but arranged to be counted as part of the group for the sake of solidarity.

Except for Jaskoll, my team — the Bombers — was made up of first-timers, including his friend and colleague Richard Williams, 75; John Denning, a soft-spoken, 60-ish gentleman farmer from Orlinda, Tenn.; John Moroni, Eugene Roberts, and Anthony Falco, three buddies from Staten Island; Craig Miller and Robert Taranto, two friends from upstate New York; Nick Bitsmis, from Farmingdale, NY; and another Jerseyan, Mike Surrella from Marlboro.

No one could mistake us for the real Yankees. At the opening dinner, our coaches — Roy White, Jesse Barfield, and Ron Shelton (a retired minor league instructor, not the Bull Durham director) — wondered if we’d win even one game.

Entering the Yanks’ spring training clubhouse for the first time was an awesome experience. Finding those famous pinstripes hanging in your locker (I borrowed Derek Jeter’s space) strains the limits of description. We passed around cameras and cell phones, mindful not to include any nudity in the background. As Moroni would say several times throughout the week, “Can you believe this? It doesn’t get any better!”

Everything was in hyper-drive, given the abbreviated timeframe: We’d be playing doubleheaders for four straight days. The camp directors told us, “Start off slow, then taper off,” good advice that went out the window in the face of the adrenaline rush.

Like sleep-away camp, the social dynamic quickly established itself. There were your alpha-dogs, your quiet kids, your jokers, and the ones who could go to any other group depending on which way the wind was blowing.

We became comfortable in our roles. We knew we were not all gifted athletes, but everyone had paid the $5,500 and deserved equal consideration. [Disclosure: The Yankees picked up my tab, except for hotel and travel.]

The schedule didn’t allow for batting or fielding practice, which I found disappointing. For a longtime softball player like me, the bases seemed miles apart and the bats — wood bats! — weighed 20 pounds.

Our team fell into defensive positions almost by default, and Coach Shelton decided that the batting order would be alphabetical. Democratic perhaps, but that system certainly did not take into consideration our individual strengths and weaknesses.

Rules at the camp are modified to maximize enjoyment and minimize injury. Everyone bats, just like many youth teams. Coaches and support staff members pitch the first seven innings to keep things moving. And since the Tampa heat can take its toll, we played with four outfielders and free defensive substitutions.

Our first opponents were the Blanchards, named in honor of a late “super-sub” of the early 1960s teams and a favorite coach at the camp. With no one on our squad with any experience as a catcher, I volunteered to don the “tools of ignorance,” which, as my aching knees still testify, might not have been such a great idea. We won the first game, as well as the “nightcap” against the Clippers — coached by Ron “The Designated Hebrew” Blomberg, the potent Yankees hitter from the 1970s.

Other than wins, losses, and runs scored, there were no “official” stats, but many campers kept track of their own numbers. I was surprised to hit as well as I did in our first games, including a couple of strategically placed hits to right, a trend that thankfully continued during the week.

After a well deserved (and needed) shower, we gathered at the stadium’s Dugout Club to enjoy — with respects to Ms. Snow — some male bonding. The games are fun, but unless you get along with your teammates, it could be a lonely experience. In that regard, I felt bad for Snow, who by necessity was excluded from the sometimes raunchy camaraderie of the locker room.

This was also the time to shmooze with the former Yankees, listen to their stories, and get signatures on anything that could hold ink. In addition to Blomberg, White, and Barfield, the group included Mickey Rivers, Oscar Gamble, Phil Linz, Tommy John, Al Downing, Homer Bush, Fritz Peterson, and Chris Chambliss. All were unfailingly polite and generous with their time. Sentimental scene: Rivers, now a gray-haired 61, watching a video of himself as the fleet-footed “Mick the Quick” against the Kansas City Royals in the 1970s.

On Wednesday, we beat the Bambinos for our third win, but lost the second game to the Thunder, a veteran team that would wind up 8-0. There were no scheduled activities for the evening, but many of us were so tired, we retired early after a couple of drinks in the hotel bar. The next morning, we beat the Sultans — Snow and Lieber’s team — before dropping a rematch against the Blanchards.

Thursday was also family time. Wives and kids arrived for the weekend. Fathers introduced wide-eyed sons and daughters to the former Yankees, passing love of the game down from one generation to the next.

Alone together

In the evening, we gathered on the diamond at Steinbrenner Stadium for a buffet dinner. The kosher players, for sake of organization, sat together — or separate depending on your point of view. The lunches and dinners were ordered from Weberman Traditional Foodservice in Miami. They arrived triple-sealed — and three times as hard to open — and were reheated by the kitchen staff.

Frankly, no one was raving about the cuisine. A few said they would have taken care of their own meals if necessary; Snow said she could subsist on granola bars. It was the Legends Game that cinched it for most of us. Had it been scheduled on Saturday as in previous sessions, Lieber said, “that kind of would have defeated the whole purpose of coming.”

Friday’s games were crucial. We played the Clippers again, followed by the booming Thunder. A lot of pride was on the line: we wanted to finish at better than .500.

There was a good deal of finagling with the schedule in order for the kosher group to play the Legends game before sundown. The standard doubleheader was abbreviated to two seven-inning matches, which did not sit well with some campers. One fellow complained that the majority was somehow being shortchanged by accommodating the shomer Shabbat minority — although he didn’t say it quite in those terms. Another problem: the six of us were split among three teams, which meant those squads would be short-handed when they played their games against the Yankees.

It made for a slightly uncomfortable moment. As far as I could tell, our presence had not till then merited any special attention, although Jaskoll did earn the nickname “Rabbi” (John D., our resident deep Southerner, told Jaskoll he had never met a Jew before coming to the camp).

Wouldn’t you know, the morning game against the Clippers went into extra innings? Fortunately, a bleeder that just made it through the infield brought home the winning run, guaranteeing the Bombers our winning record. Later, we lost to the Thunder again to close out the schedule.

In the trainers’ room between games, Rich and Steve Kellner sat on adjoining tables, wrapped up with so much ice and ace bandages they looked like fraternal Michelin men.

They had not played together since they were kids at school. “It would have been difficult playing on different teams,” said Rich, 48. “We’re very competitive. So it was good to be together.”

He played third base, while Steve, 47, played “anywhere they put me.” In their first game, Rich lost a pop-up in the endless blue Tampa sky. The ball came down on his nose, requiring eight stitches at the local emergency room. He was back on the field the next day and this grace under pressure earned him the first Catfish Hunter Award at the closing banquet.

Although we were all tired and hurting, the kosher campers played their game against the Legends, losing 4-1. Because we were so short-handed, I played third base, praying no one would hit the ball to me. That game might have been the highlight, but at the time, I couldn’t wait until it was over.

A new tradition

Although all the campers shared a love for baseball and the Yankees, our group formed an even tighter bond. On Friday night, while most of the teams were following the tradition of taking their coaches to dinner, we gathered in a room at the hotel for evening services and a communal meal. The six of us — the room had a makeshift mehitza, separating Snow even more — were joined by some of Jaskoll’s friends as well as a couple of men from the local Chabad. They brought a Torah scroll for Shabbat services. Jaskoll also arranged for the hotel staff to assist with opening electronic doors and other logistics.

Blomberg stopped by to share some stories about his experiences as a Jewish Major Leaguer, as well as the only manager to win a championship in the short-lived Israel Baseball League in 2007. He declined to eat with us, however. “Not too fond of that Jewish food,” he said. Marty Appel, former public relations director for the Yankees who was with the team when the famously loquacious Blomberg made his debut, could only shake his head, frequently and good-naturedly contradicting many of his anecdotes.

Appel took his turn, talking about his work with the Yankees and as an author; his latest publication is a biography of Yankees catcher Thurman Munson. Irwin Cohen, a sportswriter from Detroit, also talked about his experiences as a Jew in the press box.

The next morning we reconvened for Shabbat services and more food. By the time we finished davening, it was too late to walk the three miles to the ballpark to watch our teammates play their Legends games. The Bombers lost 1-0 on an inside-the-park home run by Homer Bush.

The closing banquet was our final organized activity. The Bombers may not have won the pennant, but we cleaned up with individual awards: Miller, Falco, Surrell, and Moroni were named to the rookie team. In addition, Falco won the award for best infielder, Moroni for best outfielder, and Miller for best pitcher.

We exchanged contact info and reminisced over a few drinks at the bar before saying good-bye. It was a memorable week and I enjoyed the good fortune of being with a group of good guys as well as good players. The kosher component seemed to have been a good one for both the participants and the Yankees, who plan to offer it at future sessions; there are already nine registered for January.

Jaskoll will be back, acting as mother hen once again.

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