IT WAS SEVERAL months ago that Bill Ripken called and challenged me to put my baseball ability on display at the Ripken Minor League Experience, but I didn't think he was serious.
I played along, because I never thought anything would come of it, but it turns out that they really are going to charter a couple of buses and take several dozen baseball nuts on a game-a-day tour of the New York-Penn League, beginning tonight. My hammies are already starting to hurt, but there's no backing out now.
Mind you, I'm not worried about embarrassing myself. I've been doing that in print for years - and they pay me - but I am slightly concerned about how well my 49-year-old frame (body by Haagen-Dazs) is going to respond to four grueling days of real baseball.
The people over at Ripken Baseball are, too, because they sent me a 48-page medical release form that absolves them of all liability even if I'm accidentally run over by the team bus. I also have to bring my own defibrillator.
The original plan was to lose some weight just in case the Ripken brothers actually called my bluff. I initially enlisted Sidney Ponson to help me get on a program during spring training, but Sidney resigned as my nutrition and conditioning coach a couple of weeks later to protest his treatment by the media. I tried to go it alone, but the results have been - to say the least - disappointing.
"Four pounds in a month and a half," Sidney sneered yesterday. "Pretty impressive."
Trust me, when you're getting diet sarcasm from Sidney Ponson, it's time for some serious self-evaluation, but it's a little easier to take now that he's 4-1.
(Sidney was eating sushi at the time, so he was basically taunting me on two levels. I've got nothing against sushi, except that every time I've ordered it in a restaurant, it's been seriously undercooked.)
I've actually lost a little more than four pounds, but nowhere near the 25 I had planned to shed so that I could hold my own under the scrutiny of the former Orioles - Ben McDonald, Joe Orsulak, Mike Bordick, Jeff Reboulet and Ken Gerhart - who will serve as the coaching staff on the trip.
Hey, at least I'm showing up, which is more than I can say for a certain New York Yankees owner, who has decided to stiff the Preakness. I guess George Steinbrenner already is taking enough of a beating in Baltimore this year.
Because I may not be the perfect physical specimen, I went around the ballpark yesterday soliciting advice on how to get through the trip without making a total fool of myself or suffering serious injury.
If you want any more proof that trainer Richie Bancells and assistant trainer Brian Ebel are totally in sync, they both answered at exactly the same time:
That's not an option, so I went to outfielder Larry Bigbie and told him I needed some advice on hitting.
"You want advice from me?" he said. "Come back in a month and I'll let you know."
Terry Crowley proved why he is one of the best hitting coaches in baseball, because he took into account both my athletic ability and physical condition before coming up with the perfect approach.
"Pick your spots to swing hard," he said. "You don't want to blow out your back."
I'm really not worried, because - as I've said before - I can rake. I don't want to brag, but I'm one of the truly great sportswriter/hitters, so I'm just hoping I don't hit anyone with a line drive. But I understand that some people are going to be skeptical at first.
"The only way you're going to rake," said Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie, "is if they have a fantasy grounds crew."
Strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop was more worried than anyone else, and not about me.
"Just make sure they know that I had nothing to do with the shape you're in when you report to camp," he said.
Orioles great Boog Powell is a veteran of many fantasy camps, so you know that he's going to have some sage advice.
"The best part is what happens at the end of the day, when you're rehashing everything in the hotel lounge," he said. "So, my advice to you is, drink heavily and try not to throw up on yourself."