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My pitching comeback stinks to high heaven. My fastball is in the toilet, my mechanics are in left field, my control is out to pasture. Every pitch is a reminder that two weeks of training can't make up for 25 years away from a game I played for 12.
Suddenly, the memory muscles remember that I once threw a two-hit shutout with no walks, that I struck out the side on nine pitches. An overhand curveball does my bidding, sweeping from noon to six o'clock. The batter freezes at the perfect strike; maybe he's surprised. The umpire calls a ball; maybe his judgment is warped by the humidity.
My teammates holler in protest and hoot in support. Above the hoopla comes a merry, unmistakably Cuban voice. "Hey, man," shouts the third-base coach, "just like Camilo Pascual!"
Being compared to one of the best curveballers of the 1960s is high praise. But when the compliment is delivered by Tony Oliva, one of the best left-handed batters in major-league history, that's manna from heaven.
This unlikely episode took place last August at the Doubleday Country Inn and Farm, an unlikely combination of bed-and-breakfast and baseball fantasy camp in Landisburg, Pa. Former major-league players and managers play and/or coach in an old-fashioned park surrounded by state forest and soybeans. Some celebrity guests stay on the premises in a 19th-century house; others help with breakfast. All offer tips about backhanding ground balls or breaking in gloves; all recall the tough old days, when pitchers gritted out 15-inning complete games and low-paid players took off-season jobs. The stories are told at a place that restores baseball's country origins and the meaning of "farm team."
Doubleday's Abner Doubleday is Brad Shover, former college baseball player, insurance agent and owner of a Philadelphia Phillies farm team in Spartansburg, S.C. In the late 1990s he began transforming 90 acres by Tuscarora Mountain into a sports business and experience. He laid out a diamond with the help of an assistant coach and two players from Dickinson College, where he coached baseball. He added a backstop, dugouts, light towers and a store for drinks and memorabilia. He built an 8-foot-high wall with a scoreboard listing 16 teams, including the St. Louis Browns and other extinct species.
Shover crowned his $150,000 investment with a deck off a second-story bedroom overlooking the field. It's called a "skybox."
Shover's model for Doubleday is the film "Field of Dreams," based on W.P. Kinsella's novel "Shoeless Joe." At Doubleday amateur players put on old-time uniforms in a barn locker room. They walk, in loose gray flannels with a cap marked with a Gothic "D," across the parking lot to the park. There they join former major leaguers looking for something friendlier than a Florida fantasy camp, something purer than an autograph convention.
Shover has a particular affinity for alumni of Pennsylvania champions. Over six years, he's booked Manny Sanguillen, the big-smiling,
bad-ball-hitting catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates, world champions in 1971 and 1979, and Greg "Bull" Luzinski, the brawny slugger who helped the Philadelphia Phillies win the 1980 World Series. He also likes players who are famous and famously social. Four times he's invited Brooks Robinson, the Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame third baseman.
Robinson impressed Dennis Bishop of Center Valley, Pa., who teaches math and coaches tennis at Salisbury Middle School. Bishop, a catcher in a senior baseball league, remembers Robinson yakking on and off the field, pitching for both teams, barehanding a grounder "as smooth as anything."
"Brooks was just a fun-loving country boy from the South," says Bishop, who caught Robinson for eight innings. "You could tell he really wanted to play baseball, even though he's past his career. It's like he didn't grow up."
Bishop has played against another Doubleday Peter Pan, although not on Shover's field. In a senior baseball tournament in Arizona, he hit a two-run single off Bill Lee, ruining a save for the winner of 119 games for the Boston Red Sox and Montreal Expos.
Last year Lee pitched an epic 61 innings during his four-day stay at Doubleday. He offered no gifts to opponents, either. "He still throws good stuff," says Shover.
One of Shover's Doubleday favorites is pitcher Dock Ellis, who won 138 games for five teams. In 1970 he threw a no-hitter and in 1974 he hit three batters in a row, just so the Cincinnati Reds wouldn't laugh at his Pirates anymore.
Ellis revealed a softer side at Doubleday. According to Erin Lain, Doubleday's director of sales and marketing, chief cook and social chef, Ellis baked sweet-potato pie from his grandmother's recipe. Lee, she adds, brought syrup for French toast tapped from maple trees on his Vermont property.
The idea of matching wits, and recipes, with ex-pros entices me to return to the mound for the first time since my freshman year in college. I sign up to pitch against Oliva, a folk hero with superb skills. Born Pedro Oliva Lopez in Cuba, he used his brother's name on a passport to play ball in the United States. Oliva won American League batting championships in 1964 and 1965; he's still the only major leaguer to earn hitting crowns in his first two years. As a batter he had it all: control, power, one of the sweetest swings around.
In 1971 Oliva tore up a knee after sliding on wet grass chasing a line drive. He retired in 1976 after seven knee operations. He led the league in hits five times and in hitting three times. Over 15 seasons he batted a robust .304.
Oliva's body still troubles him. In December 2001 he had a second back operation; the six stabilizing screws, he points out, bewilder airport metal detectors. He's under doctor's orders not to pitch or play first base.
Oliva is as apple-dumpling-cheeked and chatty as ever. He's especially gabby while holding court in the Doubleday driveway with four visitors from the Lehigh Valley. Denny Bishop, Dave Frey, George Gibbs and Greg Saba all play in a senior baseball league. Each has visited Doubleday, joining the likes of Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins and Hall of Fame first baseman Harmon Killebrew, Oliva's teammate and friend.
That night Oliva continues the chatter, in the dugout and the third-base coach's box. The game starts two hours late, as Shover scrambles to round up players. As he recruits ringers over the phone, I think he's the hardest-working bed-and-breakfast owner I've ever met. Who else hires talent, pitches, plays the field, umpires, manages equipment and grooms the field?
In the first inning I trot out to right field and scan the scene. Butterflies flit in front of me; behind me, deer graze between forest and soybeans. The smell of grilling sausage mixes with the smell of manure. It all feels natural; it feels like Little League all over again.
Unfortunately, I play like a Little Leaguer. I misjudge a fly ball and misplace a grounder. I fly out to left, strike out and walk twice. It doesn't get any better after I replace George Gibbs on the mound. After a while, catcher Denny Bishop stops calling for breakers.
My line is pretty ghastly. Two innings that felt like six. Three runs. Three walks. Two hits, including an off-the-wall double I swore was a homer. One meek strikeout, on a pitch in the dirt.
Embarrassment is eased by the camaraderie of playing and recollecting. Second baseman Greg Saba, an engineering sales rep from Allentown, Pa., remembers that Ferguson Jenkins didn't play at Doubleday, due to recent knee surgery.
George Gibbs, a retired health and fitness teacher from Emmaus, recalls being disappointed that Killebrew didn't hit at Doubleday. "What would be better than me, a left-handed pitcher without a lot of speed, facing him, a right-handed batter with a lot of muscle," notes Gibbs, a Bronx native who watched Joe DiMaggio from 50-cent bleacher seats at Yankee Stadium. "Hey, I could have said: You know who hit a home run off me? Harmon Killebrew. That makes it 574 homers or something."
Saba, Gibbs and their buddies return to the Lehigh Valley that night. Over breakfast, in a dining room with baseball paintings by Bob Tewksbury, who won 110 games in 1986-1998, Oliva describes his job as a good-will ambassador for the Twins. He represents the team on the golf course, in nursing homes, at City Hall.
Oliva doesn't seem to lose sleep over not being in the Hall of Fame. "To tell you the truth, it does not bother me," he explains. "But a lot of big people in the media, they think I belong there. If I played 20 years I could put up double the numbers. It's nice to be in the Hall of Fame - for you, for your friends, for your family, the people who supported you. All people go into the Hall of Fame with you because they were a part of your success. If I go into the Hall of Fame, I have so many people to thank, I would take weeks."
Oliva prefers Doubleday to big fantasy camps, where amateurs play with and against whole teams of ex-major leaguers. Shover's spread reminds him of his childhood farm in Pinar del Rio, Cuba, which had 150 acres for pigs and cows, corn and tobacco. The schedule is much saner, too.
"At fantasy camp in Vero Beach you get up at 7:30 a.m. for batting practice. Then you have a game at 1 or 2 o'clock. You don't have a chance to sit down by the pool if you want to. It's more like spring training. That's no fantasy to me."
That night the Doubleday game starts more or less on time. This time there are more spectators and more colorful players. My teammates include Mike Taylor, a state trooper with a wicked swing, and Denny Rahn, a sales rep who once tried out for the New York Mets.
For the second night in a row someone makes a comeback after 25 years. Catcher John Langel will be punished harder than I was; at least I didn't have to crouch with chest protector and shinguards. "I'm going to go home," says Langel, who teaches at Perry Christian Academy in Newport, Pa., "and have a heart attack."
The game is better, too. Good plays actually outnumber bad. Shover keeps life smooth by doing the lion's share of pitching for both sides, polishing his reputation as an iron man. I play second base, one of my sandlot roles. I catch a popup and hit the ball solidly all four times up. My first single since 1975 keys a last-inning rally that ends with the tying run on third.
The next morning Oliva is still reminiscing. When he finishes his long story, we swap addresses and shake hands. I say goodbye to Shover, who's preparing the field yet again, and to a pack of dogs, including a collie that thinks it's a third-base coach.
Driving home, I think about wins and losses. I came to Doubleday hoping to recover some of that old mound magic. With the exception of one pitch, I pretty much struck out. What I recovered was something more magical: a love of playing, and replaying, the game.
Geoff Gehman is a writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa., a Tribune Publishing newspaper.