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Fantasy Campers Swing with SF Giant Legends
By Dave Reardon
FOR ANYONE WHO CONSIDERED THEMSELVES A BASEBALL FAN IN THE EARLY 1980s, the name Bill Laskey hits home faster than a Tim Lincecum heater. The league’s best right-handed rookie-with the single most wins in both his first and second seasons-Laskey also earned another title: He wore one of the best mustaches in the 1980s-era Majors.
And while he may have thrown his final major league pitch 25 years ago, Laskey continues to don a San Francisco Giants baseball uniform every year. As the president of the Giants Fantasy Camp, he has the rare distinction of a man who has lived out his childhood dream, while reliving the second dream of a young adult.
Each January at the Giants spring training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz., Laskey and other Giants-ranging from 80-year-old Hobie Landrith to the recently-retired Rich Aurilia-serve as coaches for campers who pay to be big leaguers for a week. Skill level doesn’t matter; all you need is a passion for the game.
Participation is limited to eight “teams” of 12, each of which is staffed with two coaches who are former San Francisco Giants players. Surprise guest instructors have included former and current coaches and players who have donned the orange-and-black uniform over the decades.
For eight days every winter, campers-clad head-to-toe in supplied uniforms-play games and practice under the watchful eyes of the pros. When not on the field, you dine, mingle with and harangue the players most fans only get to heckle from the comfort of their living room recliner.
While the camps are nothing new, Laskey says the demographic has shifted somewhat. (We didn’t need to speak about the renewed interest in the team that took home the World Series title, but the notion was palpable.) Although men and women over age 25 are eligible, it is “still usually successful guys in their 40s and 50s,” according to Laskey.
“Guys who played college or high school ball but never had the opportunity to do what we did, to take it to the next level,” he adds, describing the typical fantasy camper.
Yet an expanded segment includes families. Fathers and sons or siblings who are looking for some bonding time are finding the camps an excellent way to do so, while upping their skills, and rubbing elbows with the names on the backs of their childhood jerseys.
“There was one father who hadn’t talked to his sons for 10 years. He’d gotten remarried and it caused a rift. He signed them up and they became best friends. It’s all more meaningful when it comes from the heart,” Laskey says. “I don’t hold anyone back. We’ve had guys in wheelchairs, a blind guy, a guy with cerebral palsy.”
While games are competitive, the coaches find ways to get everyone involved.
“I just did everything I could,” says Mike Lee, the blind camp participant to whom Laskey refers, who lost his sight in a childhood accident. The number of fantasies for Lee that came true his week at camp are hard to number; starting with the No. 24 on the back of his jersey, which he was granted blessings to wear from none other than Willie Mays. Lee was able to play outfield at the 2009 camp with the aid of his dog, Bubba.
“Bill made it possible for me to have the full experience. I got to see what it was like to be a big leaguer,” Lee says.
Fear not: The pranks and ribbing for which baseball clubhouses are so commonly known also are worked in to the fantasy experience.
“You mess with everyone, make everyone feel comfortable,” says Laskey, citing the impromptu (and humorous) kangaroo court that is captained by Dave Heaverlo, the storied, fierce-looking Giants reliever famous for sporting a shaved head before Michael Jordan and Mr. T coined the look in the early 1980s.
Vida Blue, another storybook name in the Giants roster, also regularly serves as a camp coach.
“He’s always been quite a competitor, but he also has a big heart,” Blue says of Laskey. “He’s taken this to a high level and got it down to a science.”
Recalling his days on the mound, Laskey says it was always about more than fame and money. For him, it’s easy to draw the parallels with why he played the game, to why he spends so much time and energy on the annual Fantasy Camp.
“I love the passion. It’s what we share. I love to see the smiles. Their dream is the same as ours, we were just lucky enough to live it. So why not share some of it?”
Vida Blue nods in agreement. Even for the coaches, it’s about reliving youth and the days when anything was possible.
“Putting on the uniform never gets old,” he says.