Seventy-eight degrees and sunny.
That’s what it was that Thursday afternoon in November when I arrived in Tampa, site of the Yankees Fantasy Camp.
After checking into the Sheraton Suites where the campers were staying for the Monday through Saturday camp, I shuttled to George M. Steinbrenner Field (where the Yanks play during spring training and also the home of the Tampa Yankees, three levels below the major leagues), to join the camp in progress.
I met with Julie Kremer, who juggles many balls in her roles as assistant general manager of the Tampa Yankees and director of the fantasy camp. I also met with Ira Jaskoll. He was a first-time camper last year and brought his own food.
Based on his experience, Jaskoll approached Julie K. with the idea of providing kosher food, designating a room in the hotel for Shabbat services and dining, and moving the big dream game from Saturday to Friday to accommodate future Orthodox campers.
Julie agreed and under her direction “the Rabbi,” as former Yankees players who coached and instructed Jaskoll last year affectionately call him, made all the necessary arrangements for the 2009 camp.
After catching up with Julie and Ira, it was time to partake in the on-field banquet and join the kosher campers. We took the table near second base and Jesse Barfield asked if he could join us. Barfield, an outfielder who played 12 big league seasons and spent 1989 through 1992 with the Yankees, led the American League in home runs with 40 in 1986 while playing for Toronto.
“Do you still do a lot of woodworking?” I asked Barfield. “How did you know that?” he responded. “Because,” I said, “while I was interviewing you about 25 years ago in the visiting clubhouse at Tiger Stadium, I asked you what you like to do when you have free time.”
“Wow,” Barfield exclaimed, “you’ve got a good memory.”
Former Yankees PR man Marty Appel was the guest speaker and spoke about Thurman Munson, the subject of his latest book. The next day was a bit more humid but still beautiful.
I watched the campers play Friday morning and lunched with the kosher guys and others in a picturesque outdoor pavilion between the stadium and practice fields.
A couple of the spouses of the six kosher campers flew in to be on hand for the big Friday game. Also on hand were Sharon and Jerry Volk, friends of the Jaskolls, there to root the rabbi on and enjoy the sun. Wives and children of other campers also came to enjoy the weekend.
It was a regular stadium atmosphere complete with the national anthem and the great voice of Yankee Stadium, Paul Olden. The campers, who got to dress in the same clubhouse the Yankees use during spring training and play on the same field, now heard themselves being introduced by the same voice on the public address system.
Some of the former Yankees who participated in the game were Barfield, Ron Blomberg, Homer Bush, Chris Chambliss, Al Downing, Tommy John, Phil Linz, Fritz Peterson, Mickey Rivers and Roy White.
Shabbat exceeded my expectations as the food was plentiful, the portions large, the company excellent and the speakers (Marty Appel, Ron Blomberg and yours truly) interesting. The camp ended on a real high with the closing Saturday night banquet. Awards named after former Yankee greats were given out to campers who excelled in several categories.
All the campers I talked with – kosher and otherwise – said they wanted to come back again. Several already were repeaters and one nice fellow from New York actually has been there for 22 consecutive camps. And listen to this – he’s been to both the November and January camps. That’s actually 44 in a row! And after experiencing a bit of it I can understand why.
Kosher camper Menachem (Jason) Lieber, 35, who came with the blessings and approval of his wife, pretty much summed it up.
“I would do this every year if I could. The former Yankees and my teammates were great. And I really appreciate that the Yankees arranged for the kosher campers to play against the fantasy Yankees on Friday.”
I hope to see many readers of this column there in January (11-17). For further information call the rabbi at 201-836-3195 or the Yankees at 800-360-CAMP.
Irwin Cohen, the author of seven books, headed a national baseball publication for five years before earning a World Series ring working as a department head in a major league front office. Cohen, whose column appears the second week of each month, is president of the Detroit area’s Agudah shul, and may be reached in his dugout at email@example.com.
Fantasy camper Menachem (Jason) Lieber, of Cedarhurst, New York, in front of his locker and the Yankees uniforms he gets to keep.