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Niekro camp lets fans live like pros for good cause
The inaugural Joe Niekro Foundation Fantasy Camp went well enough last year that almost all of its participants are coming back next week.

It's been nearly six years since Niekro passed away from a brain aneurysm, in October 2006. His daughter Natalie Niekro started the eponymous charity the following year, and its signature annual event, The Knuckle Ball, is a black-tie gala, complete with silent auction.

The fantasy camp's a little more dressed down.

Two full teams of ballplayers will take to Cashman Field, home of the Blue Jays' Triple-A club, the 51's. The groups will live the life of the pros from Sept. 23-28. They'll have the pros by their sides, too.

"Everybody has a great time and enjoys it," said Bert Campaneris, who participated last year. "We treat 'em real good, they have a great time. We teach them how to play baseball, how to catch the ball, how to field. Teach everything from when to be ready to come up to the plate."

Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Gaylord Perry will be there, as will former All-Stars Vince Coleman, Bert Campaneris, Dave Bergman and Jon Warden. Last year, Ozzie Smith and George Brett were on hand.

Joe Niekro would have turned 68 in November. He spent 22 seasons in the Majors, going 221-204 with a 3.59 ERA in more than 3,500 innings between seven clubs.

Folks like Perry and Campaneris were contemporaries, and Perry played with Niekro's brother Phil in Atlanta.

"A lot of these organizations are getting less money now from everywhere cause there's a lot of companies out of business," said Perry, who spent a month helping Ferguson Jenkins raise funds for various charities in Spring Training. "We have to get out there and really have to work hard to keep going what they have going."

There are more players at the camp this year, but still just two teams like last year -- for the reason, that plenty of folks last year started to feel the physical strain of playing after just a couple days. Better to have a full bench.

The camp will also make considerably more money this year. With expenses, the haul wasn't too great last year, but it should gross about $150,000 this go around. Players are paying $5,000 each for the all-inclusive stay, and it goes a long way.

"Bottom line is we're there to raise money for a great cause," Natalie Niekro said. "It's about bringing these guys together, it's a chance for these guys to literally live the life of a professional baseball player for five days with some of the greatest legends of the game. They are treated completely like royalty from the time they arrive in Vegas to the time they leave. They have clubbies and assistants and trainers, home and away uniforms, draft and tryouts and team selection. It really is an opportunity for these guys to feel like they're a complete VIP for a week."

It's estimated that 6 million people in the United States have a brain aneurysm, and that one in 15 people will develop one. The danger is in their rupturing: 50 percent of ruptured aneurysm patients die within minutes.

Beyond Joe Niekro, many years ago Perry lost a close friend to an aneurysm.

"I had one of my best friends [who] was my banker back in Greenville, N.C., a guy had the same thing," Perry said. "So I was happy to help out on this. I was going to go last year. ... This year, we got more players and more publicity and I'm happy that I can be there."

Evan Drellich is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @EvanDrellich.