Camp Cal

In the offseason in Arizona, Ripken helps weekend warrios realize a diamond dream, playing baseball.

January 27, 1999|By JEFFREY MARX | JEFFREY MARX,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As if it were not strange enough when Cal Ripken finally sat out a game at the end of last season, now the Baltimore Orioles star is beginning the new year as a pitcher instead of an infielder.

From the height of the mound, Ripken peers into the opposing dugout, where Buck Showalter, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is pacing, spitting out shells from his sunflower seeds, barking out orders to his players. Nothing unusual about any of that.

But Showalter is not exactly working with his usual roster of talent. This team includes a corporate executive from Maryland, an architect from Colorado, a stockbroker from New York, a furniture salesman from New Jersey -- clearly a mix of has-beens and never-weres.

What in the name of Babe Ruth is going on here? We are watching a group of well-to-do wannabes proving that dreams can indeed come true.

Darren Ault, 32, the furniture salesman, steps into the batter's box and takes a few practice swings before bracing himself for Ripken's pitch. Ripken winds up, throws and ... crack ... the unmistakable sound of bat solidly hitting ball.

Ault crushes a towering shot over the centerfielder's head -- a triple off a future Hall of Famer.

When play stops, Ault unabashedly bounds over to the mound and has Ripken autograph the ball, transforming it into a precious pearl. Minutes later, back in the dugout, Ault is showing off the pearl to his teammates, saying: "I'm still shaking with excitement."

Mark it down in the scorebook: yet another indelible memory being played out in the inaugural season of Cal's Cactus League, a baseball fantasy camp like no other.

Traditional fantasy camps employ long-since retired players as instructors and managers. This one, conducted at the spring training facility of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, was all Ripken, all the time.

Fifty-six "players" participated for five days earlier this month. The average age was 43; the oldest player was 68. Of course, dreams don't come cheap: The entry fee was $8,000. It included round-trip transportation, four nights at a luxury resort, full baseball uniforms and equipment, meals and evening entertainment.

The Iron Man himself was involved in everything from batting practice to post-game bull sessions.

As Ripken said: "We want to offer a great baseball experience on the field and also a great baseball experience off the field." With that in mind, he enlisted current Major Leaguers -- players, managers, umpires, trainers and even clubhouse personnel -- to instill the constant feeling of authenticity.

And it worked.

"I've done an awful lot of exhibitions and camps," said veteran American League umpire Ken Kaiser. "And this camp easily surpasses anything I've ever seen. Not even close. Everything is first class. Every possible detail is covered. You come here for a few days, and you can really rejuvenate your whole life."

Ripken seemed to be having almost as much fun as the paying customers.

"I get the enjoyment of sharing a little bit of my lifestyle," he said. "I've always thought it's the best job in the world to be a baseball player."

Walking off the mound at the end of his short pitching stint, Ripken smiles widely in the bright afternoon sun. And he announces to nobody in particular: "Being a pitcher -- it's my fantasy."

Draft picks

The "press release" was ready to go early the first morning: "As a result of negotiations deep into the Arizona night, the Leylands have drafted prospect Mike Krueger for the upcoming Cactus League Season. Krueger hails from Glendale, Arizona, and will make his rookie debut on the field today at the Peoria Sports Complex."

Each camper had his own press release. Each manager -- Showalter of the Diamondbacks, Jim Leyland of the Colorado Rockies, Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians and Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins -- had his own team.

For Krueger, 38, director of marketing for a computer leasing and sales company, this was already a pretty intoxicating experience, even before touching bat or ball.

"Just being around Cal, having the chance to spend some time with him, talking baseball, talking about anything," Krueger said. "I mean, Cal is very much an idol for me. Always has been."

In fact, Krueger was living out an incredibly personalized version of the "build it and they will come" scenario made famous in the baseball movie "Field of Dreams."

As an almost-fanatical collector of Ripken-related memorabilia, Krueger long ago built a shrine to his favorite athlete. A spacious party room in his home is filled with more than a thousand items: baseball cards, posters, pennants, hats, jerseys, gloves, bats, balls, ticket stubs, videos, magazines, books, Wheaties boxes, a Cal MasterCard, Cal necktie, Cal plate, Cal figurines, Cal milk ads, Cal Bars, Cal everything. There are even bleachers in which to sit and take it all in.

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