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Yankees Magazine: More than a Moment

Baseball dreams become reality at Yankees Fantasy Camp
Yankees Magazine

The first New York Yankees Fantasy Camp benefited from some fortuitous timing. Debuting in January 1997, the camp launched just a few months after the Yankees' World Series triumph over the Atlanta Braves, the franchise's 23rd world championship and first since 1978. Following the Fall Classic, a signing bonus of sorts was dangled to prospective campers: an autographed team ball from the world champs.

The first Yankees Fantasy Camp had similarities to the weeklong event that is now in its third decade. Beloved Yankees such as Mickey Rivers and Catfish Hunter coached and cajoled the weekend warriors living out their baseball dreams, and the games were fun, competitive affairs. But the camp has evolved through the years. Most notably, attendance has nearly tripled since the first class, and a women's camp was added in 2011.

The first New York Yankees Fantasy Camp benefited from some fortuitous timing. Debuting in January 1997, the camp launched just a few months after the Yankees' World Series triumph over the Atlanta Braves, the franchise's 23rd world championship and first since 1978. Following the Fall Classic, a signing bonus of sorts was dangled to prospective campers: an autographed team ball from the world champs.

The first Yankees Fantasy Camp had similarities to the weeklong event that is now in its third decade. Beloved Yankees such as Mickey Rivers and Catfish Hunter coached and cajoled the weekend warriors living out their baseball dreams, and the games were fun, competitive affairs. But the camp has evolved through the years. Most notably, attendance has nearly tripled since the first class, and a women's camp was added in 2011.

Warren Sherman, a 71-year-old retired magazine publisher, has seen all the changes. His first brush with a fantasy camp was in 1987 at a Fort Lauderdale camp run by Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford (it wasn't officially affiliated with the Yankees). Rubbing shoulders with The Mick, Sherman's childhood idol, was a thrill, so much so that Sherman even looks back fondly at the grounder he took off his face. Laid out on a training table, he winced as trainers put three butterfly stitches near his eye. Mantle soon entered the room, put his hand on Sherman's ankle, looked down at the injured camper and said, "Well, at least you were keeping your eye on the ball."

When Sherman first heard about Yankees Fantasy Camp in Tampa, he knew he had to give it a shot, and he fell in love with the experience from the moment he first put on those pinstripes in January 1997. "Once I started coming here," he says, "I knew it would be continuous."

In 2006 he was the first camper elected into the Yankees Fantasy Camp Hall of Fame, an honor bestowed upon campers with at least five camps under their belt. Sherman was more than qualified for the distinction. In fact, with the exception of the January 2017 camp, which he missed due to the birth of his granddaughter, Sherman has attended every Yankees Fantasy Camp since 1997; his son Craig is a regular, as well. "I have many rings, but this is the one -- this is the treasure," the septuagenarian says, brandishing the Fantasy Camp Hall of Fame ring. "For someone like me, who has been a Yankees fan since the early 1950s, this place is like heaven."

***

Now in its 22nd year, Yankees Fantasy Camp has expanded to men's camps held in November and January, a women's camp, and a father and son clinic, all of which are held at the Yankees' state-of-the-art baseball facility in Tampa, Florida. But one need not remember the Yogi Berra era to consider Yankees Fantasy Camp the good place. All that's required is a love of baseball, a deep appreciation of Yankees tradition, and an open mind for new friends and new experiences.

The week opens with a reception and welcoming dinner. Then the games begin. Players participate in doubleheaders every morning and afternoon, with instruction (cage work, base running and pitching) from the coaches -- all Yankees alumni -- available throughout the day. "I have a great time," says Luis Sojo, who coached his second camp this January. "It's our job to make [the campers] feel comfortable and make them feel like they are part of the Yankees. I love interacting with them and talking about the game."

Homer Bush, a coach since 2007, adds: "What's cool to see is how the excitement from the Yankees' season carries over to fantasy camp."

Campers are issued their own Yankees uniforms and assigned their own lockers, and each team, typically 11 to 13 players, gets the chance to perform on the George M. Steinbrenner Field diamond, where the Yankees- including icons such as Derek Jeter -- have held Spring Training games since 1996. "The first time I was on [GMS Field], I was playing shortstop," remembers Laurie Jaeger, a two-time camper. "I turned around, took a moment, and thought, 'Derek played here.'"

The week culminates with what's been dubbed the "Dream Game," an opportunity for the campers to play against the Yankees alumni. Though the games are spirited, the final scores are secondary. "I'm an extremely competitive person," says Kevin Reinert, 63. "But it's not about winning and losing at this camp. It's about sharing the experience with people who love the Yankees."

More so than the game of baseball, the camaraderie and sense of family are the main attractions. When asked why she returns each year, Dr. Joan Fallon, a leader in the autism research field, offers a two-word response. "The people," she says. "Playing baseball is fun, even so at my age, but I really think the people are terrific. We keep in touch year-round." A reunion is held each summer at Yankee Stadium as the campers reminisce about their fantastic voyage to Tampa while watching their real-life counterparts compete in the Bronx.

Lifelong bonds can be formed at Yankees Fantasy Camp, but it's also where friends and family celebrate each other. This past January, the five Gallegos sisters, originally from Secaucus, New Jersey, descended upon Tampa for their annual "Sisters Weekend." And sometimes, Yankees Fantasy Camp can reconnect old friends. Jaeger and Anne DiPrima first met in the late 1980s at Bethpage High School in Long Island, New York, where DiPrima taught physical education and coached softball and volleyball. A four-year varsity outfielder and catcher, Jaeger was a star player on DiPrima's county championship team. "She was the best coach I had at any level in any sport," Jaeger says. "I still do things today that I learned then." The two hadn't seen each other since 1991.

But once she arrived at Yankees Fantasy Camp last January and saw a list of her teammates, Jaeger thought one of the names looked familiar. It was her old coach. A friendship was renewed. "It was wonderful," DiPrima says. "We reminisced about every game from when she was a freshman to a senior. We went game-for-game and out-for-out until the last out of the county championship."

Jaeger went on to play college softball at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and she now competes in a slow-pitch softball league near her home in Connecticut. After reuniting at Yankees Fantasy Camp, DiPrima attended a few of her old catcher's games last summer.

Like most Yankees fans of a certain age, the late 1970s teams of Thurman Munson and Reggie Jackson hold a special place in DiPrima's heart. She met one of her heroes at Yankees Fantasy Camp. "My first coach here was Bucky Dent," DiPrima says. "I was melting. All I could see was him hitting that home run in Boston, and here is Bucky Dent, and I'm talking to him, sharing stories with him, and he's telling me about his life. Does it get any better than that? The coaches treat you like family and friends, and that's what I think the whole Yankees organization is about. It's all about family and friends."

***

Debbie Dantes has loved the game of baseball since childhood. A Long Island native, some of her earliest memories involve playing catch with her two older brothers in the backyard after dinner. She quickly took to the game. After her Little League coach watched her cleanly field a grounder, he pointed at her and barked, "Shortstop." She would play that position throughout high school and college.

In 1991, at the age of 27, Dantes suffered a spinal injury following a collision at home plate. But she was strong, in the best shape of her life. An average day consisted of running a mile to the gym, lifting weights, then running the mile back. And so she recovered. Then the symptoms began to pop up. Her legs felt unusually heavy after catching a few softball games. Her fingers tingled during a game of pickup basketball. Eventually, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

But Dantes continued playing softball. She also hiked and took up golf, even carding a hole-in-one in 1998. She believed that maintaining an active lifestyle was paramount, so when a friend who had attended the Red Sox's fantasy camp told her about the experience, it felt like a door to her past was creaking open. "She was like, 'Debbie, you have to go,'" Dantes remembers. "I'm like, 'I am not going to Red Sox camp.' She was like, 'No, no, the Yankees have one, as well.'" After researching online, Dantes signed up for the January 2017 camp.

"I felt welcome from the start," Dantes says. "Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal was amazing. She just tapped my shoulder and introduced herself to me." Though Dantes uses a motorized scooter to get around, the camp figured out creative ways for her participate. She doesn't have the balance to stand up at the plate, so she leans on a bucket and swings from a sitting position. Dantes can't drive a ball the way she normally would because the lower body is so involved with hitting, but she makes do. "Injuries and multiple sclerosis have taken a toll," she says. "I'm just doing my best to fight and continue to play and do what I can."

On a gusty Friday morning in the shadows of George M. Steinbrenner Field, Dantes is living out her dreams on one of the side fields. When her team is in the field, she is stationed at first base, on the bag strictly for putouts. She wears No. 14 in honor of Lou Piniella, her favorite player growing up. The games are more supportive than competitive, but Dantes, like a lot of her fellow campers, competes against her own lofty standards.

"I think I did terrible today," she says after the first of Friday's two games. "I missed more balls that I should have caught. But at the plate I got two hits and a ribbie."

She beams afterward. "The very idea of being in pinstripes and being able to do it and experience it -- I just can't even describe what that feeling is like. You feel like you are a Yankee. It's not even like you feel like you are a Yankee, you are a Yankee."
***
After his first stint at Yankees Fantasy Camp, retired Air Force colonel Kevin Reinert joked that he needed a new bucket list. A fellow camper then offered some sage advice: Bring your family. Reinert's son Philip, an aerospace engineer in the Air Force, accompanied him the following year, marking the start of a new father-son tradition. But tragedy struck on Oct. 6, 2015.

Kevin, a 28-year military veteran, was on the tee box at a golf course in Greensboro, North Carolina, when he decided to check his email. He then heard a strange noise and looked up to see a stolen 2011 Kia Rio just before it rammed into him, throwing him 30 feet through the air. Reinert suffered a broken left femur, two broken kneecaps, torn ligaments, and an injury to his right shoulder. Doctors told him there was a chance he could be left with a permanent limp.

Reinert was still confined to a bed following his nearly monthlong hospital stay. For the next six weeks, he used a wheelchair. Progress was slow, but steady. Soon, he could stand without assistance. He used a walker, which he then swapped for a cane. By February 2016, he could walk again. All the while he received encouragement from his Yankees family. Fellow campers sent texts and email. The Steinbrenner family sent a card. Jim Leyritz, Reinert's coach, contacted him, as well, urging him to get better.

"It made me want to fight my way back to this camp," Reinert says. "Well, I'm back." He sits in his locker following an afternoon game at George M. Steinbrenner Field with Philip in the next locker over. "When I got my first hit yesterday and I got to first base, I turned to my family in the stands and said, 'I'm back.'"

Warren Sherman also made a comeback at January's fantasy camp. October surgery to repair a compressed ulnar nerve put the 71 year old on the disabled list for approximately eight weeks, jeopardizing his camp. Nine weeks after surgery, he picked up a baseball. Once he was able to play catch and take batting practice, he decided to attend. "Proving to myself that I could get strong enough to do it -- that's the reward," Sherman says. "Performing pretty well this week has been a bonus."

But Sherman's error in the bottom of the eighth has his RiverDogs trailing, 6-5. The team manages a rally, though, loading the bases with no outs in the ninth. Sherman then walks to the batter's box. He laces a 1-0 pitch into left field for a game-tying single. The RiverDogs add four more runs and win the game, 10-6. "Great win!" hollers RiverDogs coach Tanyon Sturtze as he strides onto the field. "That was a great win!"

Afterwards, a subdued Sherman gathers his equipment in the dugout. "That was cool. That was really cool," he says. "With the tying run on third with nobody out, my job is to get that runner in either by hitting the ball to the right side or getting a base hit. The pitch came in on the inner half, and I turned on it and got a base hit." He then goes off to celebrate with his teammates.

A moment like this shared between teammates reflects why Sherman and the other campers return each year. "I have friends who ask me, 'Why do you keep going to camp? Do you want to get better?' I say, 'Yeah, I do.' But they don't get it," he says. "Not being here, you don't pick up on it. The games are great, but the camaraderie between the teams is even greater."

Thomas Golianopoulos is the associate editor of Yankees Magazine. This article appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Yankees Magazine. Get more articles like this delivered to your doorstep by purchasing a subscription to Yankees Magazine at yankees.com/publications.

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