For 5 Days, Kids Bunt, Battle and Bond in a Major Way at Fullerton Baseball Camp

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Men already know this story, and women may not understand it.

It's about going for days without a bath because your mother's not there to make you. It's about having Pepsi for breakfast.

It's stealing someone's shoes. It's lofting cookies into a ceiling fan to see how far they'll fly.

It's summer camp--when you're away from home and parents, perhaps for the first time, and submerged in a sea of gruff, affectionate masculinity.

And even if camp is like this one--a baseball academy in an urban college dormitory far from forest or lake--the cast and scenario are the same: hundreds of boys in prime-time childhood and a few men who coach and counsel them. Male bonding on a cosmic scale.

"It's hard to explain," said one counselor. "These 8-year-olds, they just come together. It's like a tribe. Each team sticks together."

And while some may cry when they arrive, more shed tears four days later when it's time to leave. On the last day, "one mother called me over, and her boy gave me a hug and cried. That's a total pay-back. That gives you chills when that happens."

On the other hand, let's not get too dewy-eyed. Listen to Mel Franks, whose 13 years of running the camp dorm has given him a dry, pragmatic point of view.

They never listen: "On pizza night we try to tell them, don't have a chocolate malt as soon as you get to the stadium. Pizza and chocolate malt don't seem to mix, as the floor of the bus can attest to."

They're clever as hell: "You seldom catch anyone doing anything. That's kind of your goal walking around here at 1 a.m. If you catch one, it makes it all worthwhile."

But they're just regular boys, most of them: "Some of these boys, you want to take them home. I mean it, they're great kids. And some you want to take to Dahmer's house."

He's kidding, of course. Backed into a corner, Franks admits "it's fun." But he says that until you've done his job, "you don't know what noise is."

Monday, 7:15 a.m., at the Pacific Christian College dormitory, bunkhouse for the California Baseball Academy. Parents of 214 boys, mostly 8 to 12 years old, are arriving and lining up outside. That's too many kids for the dorm, so 62--mainly the older ones--and their counselors are sent to a nearby hotel, which has laid in additional security for the occasion.

The dormitory check-in has been under way only a few minutes, but already a crowd of boys is in the lobby pumping quarters into the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" game.

Others are banking their cash with Mike Murphy, one of the counselors. The average kid's bankroll is around $50, he says. By noon, Murphy will have about $8,000 in his tub of brown envelopes. He sleeps with it.

At 8:30, school buses begin hauling the boys to the workout fields at nearby Brea-Olinda and El Dorado high schools, where the 60 day campers--the ones who go home each night--are gathering.

Soon the boys, sorted by age into teams, are rotating from one "coaching station" to another, being shown baseball fundamentals by the 26 high-school and college coaches.

Their coach-like cadence is unmistakable: "We're looking for HUS-tle. We're looking for AT-titude, en-THU-siasm, positive COM-ments. We're looking to overcome the FEAR of FAIL-ure."

Be bulldogs, he says. It's the camp's emblem, motto, constantly repeated catchword.

Another explains why you don't mess around hitting two bats together. They glance off each other really fast and can hit you in the face.

Right, sure, say the boys' expressions.

"It happened! Yes," the coach insists. "It cut his eye. . . . It required stitches. "

The boys recoil in horror.

At one of the smaller diamonds, 8-year-olds are playing an intrasquad game. The third baseman picks up a ground ball, then throws it wildly.

Coach Steve Bernard: "Don't throw the ball unless you've got an out."

Third baseman: "There's one out."

Bernard: "No, no, don't throw the ball unless you can get an out."

Third baseman: "Oh."

Bernard is grinning. "This age group is the most fun to coach," he says. "They still have the enthusiasm but they also have some attention. You can really teach them."

Far away at the running station, Mike Kirby, a Cal State Fullerton coach, is urging his boys to run their best times.

"These kids, it's hard to keep their concentration, but a lot of them are real eager to learn. Right away you can tell the ones who are here because their parents don't want them at home. They're real withdrawn and down.

"But wait till you see these kids Friday. Night and day, night and day."

The toll by the end of the day: one finger in a splint, one wrist wrapped, one eye poked, one lip bruised.

Back at the dorm, 4:30 p.m.

The younger boys are in the pool, and many are captivated by one boy's withered leg. On the baseball field he limps severely, unable to put weight on it. But in the pool, he swims like a shark.

(All week, his teammates will make sure he gets to the next coaching station without having to walk. The coaches will adore his smiling, willing attitude. At week's end, he'll be publicly proclaimed one of the players of the week.)

After a dinner of tasteless burritos and a hefty withdrawal from the bank, the boys are on the bus headed for Anaheim Stadium. They climb the ramps to right-field seats so high and distant that the field looks like a video game. The only farther seats are in the helicopter overhead.

But the counselors love it. "If you're in general admission, you can't go anywhere else, so the ushers keep them here. They do our baby-sitting for us," Franks says.

And the boys love it, because they have virtually sole access to the general admission snack and souvenir stands. By the end of the game, the concession stand workers are amazed to learn there's a sparse crowd in their section. "We were very busy," says one woman. "Drive me nuts!"

The Angels are behind 5-0 in the first inning, but who cares? The souvenir seller arrives, and the boys rush him like piranhas. He stays put in this section for almost three innings of land-office business.

"I did maybe a couple of hundred bucks here," he says. The only better business is "on Little League days when the park is full of 'em. But they don't have this kinda money."

By the fifth inning, Murphy is being hounded for further bank withdrawals, but the bank is back at the dorm.

"There'll be kids call home tonight for more money," Franks says. "Their parents will bring it, too. Or they'll tell us to give it to them and put it on their MasterCard."

The game ends on time and the nose-count in the buses comes out right first try--"a good omen," says Franks.

Some kids are whining ("Can I get a room at the hotel?"), some are shouting at passersby, some are sitting, seemingly in a daze. Franks is philosophizing.

"I was amazed at how two 10-year-olds can be so different. One's 10 going on 15 and one's 10 going on 7."

Some are naive. They bring valuables and are thunderstruck when they turn up missing. Others are worldly. "Once we were driving to Dodger Stadium through Chinatown and there was a hooker on this corner. One kid leaned out of the bus and shouted, "How much is it, baby?' "

At the dorm, Franks shouts that they have five minutes to get into their rooms for the night. Down one hall, a naked 8-year-old trying to cover himself with a sleeping bag is shoved into the hall by a roommate, who calls out "Everybody, look!" and slams the door. Along the second-floor walkways, boys are running nowhere in particular--just running.

Some counselors are slouched on sofas in the lobby, occasionally shouting "Go to bed" but mainly swapping stories about times of yore. Like the kid banned for life from camp. Or the night a bush down the street caught on fire and the sound of firetrucks sent the sleeping boys swarming. Or the brothers whose chauffeur remained on call at a nearby hotel. Or the boy who went home with a coach because his father's girlfriend forgot to pick him up.

Within the hour, the dorm descends into relative quiet, but outside you can see that half the rooms are still lit. Through one transom comes a boyish giggle and the hushed words, "OK, flush it down the toilet."

Tuesday morning and the line for breakfast backs out to the sidewalk.

Inside the cafeteria, potatoes, bacon, pancakes, scrambled eggs, pastry, bananas, oranges, milk, orange juice, punch, tea and various dry cereals are laid out. But the most popular selection seems to be dry Froot Loops and a side of Pepsi.

It's Picture Day; Angels pitcher Jim Abbott, the one born with only one hand, is coming to pose with the kids. Soon the boys are at El Dorado High, listening to Steve Gullotti, El Dorado's baseball coach and owner of the camp, who's priming them for Abbott's visit.

At the previous camp, some had asked Abbott how he tied his shoes. Gullotti wasn't going to let that happen again.

"If you want to ask a question or two about his hand, that's OK. A good question would be to show how he switches his glove. A guy who can do that can tie his own shoes, OK?"

The Abbott visit goes well, except that the boys ask several hundred million questions about his missing hand. Did they tease you about it when you were a kid? Were you born like that? Did it ever get in the way? Does it hurt? How do you lift weights? They're meant as serious questions, and Abbott answers them seriously.

From a distance, Dorothy Olds is watching her 8-year-old son, Scott, who's waiting to pose with Abbott. She hadn't planned to come today, but Scott called early in the morning, aching with homesickness. "He begged us to go to this camp. It was his idea. The counselor said maybe I should come today and just hang around," she says.

"I waved at him in line, to let him know I was here. He kind of just nodded, like he didn't want to be seen waving at me. I thought he didn't see me, so I was really waving. He finally mouthed 'Hi,' but he meant 'Enough, Mother!' "

Encouragement from one coach, then from Gullotti, could not sway Scott's resolve. He went home and didn't come back.

"The counselors were saying, 'He's just a year away,' " his mother said. "They didn't put him down. It's a very nice way to put it."

Wednesday morning.

A father enters the lobby, buys a Pepsi with a $50 bill and gives the change to his son.

A mother brings her son a brand-new pair of baseball shoes. Within 10 minutes, they're at the bottom of the pool.

That night, the 8-year-olds in one room are caught jumping naked on their beds. They get a good yelling-at. "We scared 'em," says one counselor. "We told them we'd take away their baseball cards."

"The hard part is making them think you're really mad at them," says another. "But catching them is almost hide-and-go-seek. Really, it's fun."

For the rest of the week, the room is known among counselors and boys as "the nudist colony."

Oh God, it's Thursday.

It's the last full day of workouts. Tomorrow the boys go home. A week of eating only what they want, working out 6 1/2 hours a day and hardly sleeping has the boys wired on their own exhaustion.

And, oh boy, it's hot and humid.

Coaches and counselors bear down on Thursdays. The alternative is bedlam.

Gullotti lectures the boys: "It's hotter, you're dragging a little. So we need the ultimate bulldog today. We need the ultimate bulldog. We need to over-COME ad-VER-sity."

Filled with the bulldog spirit, the boys head off to their coaching stations. But the spirit sometimes does not last long.

A counselor leads 8-year-old Mike over to Gullotti. "He's been giving us trouble, and he's been trouble at the dorm, too," the counselor says and departs.

It's just Mike and The Coach now. "What's the problem?" Gullotti asks.

Mike is young but experienced. Assuming a posture of utter submission, he explains:

"I had my glove, you know? And I was playing catch with that kid, you know? And he had the ball and he threw it to me and I caught it and then I threw it back and he threw it to me again but I missed it and I went after it but then the coach says 'Come here' and so I did . . ." and blah blah blah.

It's the drown-'em-in-detail ploy, and there's no defense. Gullotti cuts it short:

"You want to go to camp the rest of the week? Having fun? Want to stay? OK, now like I said the first day, you get one warning." He pats Mike on the shoulder. "Now go on back. Be a good citizen. Tell Coach you're sorry."

Mike walks off. "Yeah, when they have trouble they send 'em to me. I'm the hammer," Gullotti grins.

It's 6 p.m. and the dorm is in tumult. Boys, freshly fed, are running everywhere. The noise is overwhelming. But no one is trying to stop it.

The Thursday-night strategy requires delicate judgment. Let them wear themselves out, but rein them in just short of chaos. So the pillow fight careening up and down one hall is allowed to continue awhile.

The nearness to riot is demonstrated when one boy smacks a counselor with a pillow and the counselor reacts playfully. The din of boys' shouts instantly doubles, as if a volume control had been suddenly turned, and the other counselors stand up to quell the uprising.

"This is the worst hour of camp," Franks shouts. "They've had dinner, they're charged up, they're bored and nothing's happening for an hour."

Finally, however, it's time for the night's activities: Camp Olympics and baseball card trading.

"If you don't know much about baseball cards, you're going to be shocked," Franks says. "All the kids are into the investment aspect. They don't have favorite players anymore. It's the monetary value of the cards."

A baseball card company helps sponsor the camp, and packs of its cards are handed out every day of camp. Franks uses cards to bribe boys into cleaning the cafeteria.

Tonight, Will Davis, a local baseball card dealer, returns to buy but mostly sell whatever the boys want.

"Very good, exceptional business," he says. "It's crazy, absolutely crazy. I was raised in Beverly Hills, and I never saw this kind of money handed over to children. Last night I did over $1,000 in about two hours." He will do as well tonight.

Meanwhile, outside on a floodlighted patio, another batch of boys is playing camp games.

In the relay race, for example, you run to the table, wolf down two small powdered doughnuts, shout out your team's name, then run back, and the next guy does the same. And, oh yes, you have to carry this dead fish while you're doing it.

The first one who tried last night upchucked mightily. Supremely gross; the other boys were delighted.

Friday afternoon at 3.

Parents who have come for the closing ceremonies overflow the baseball bleachers at El Dorado High. Gullotti introduces his coaches, and the counselors march their teams to the front and say a few words to the crowd.

The parents form an instant bond with the counselors.

"This is my first year," says a counselor. "I didn't know what to expect. The counselors asked me what age group I had, and I said 9. And they all said, 'You're done.' " The parents react with knowing laughter and applause.

By late afternoon, the local kids are home and the out-of-towners are at airports and train stations. The coaches are at a nearby bar debriefing. Franks is in his car, heading for Lake Havasu, "where it's really quiet."

The following week, Scott's mother says he's planning to try camp again next year, when homesickness will be a year less likely.

Another mother says her 11-year-old Wesley "seems a lot more disciplined. He just gets up and takes care of things right away. He's still in that camp mode, when there is a plan to follow."

And Mike, who took a baseball in the lip, who took innumerable reamings from counselors and coaches and who refused to wear his camp T-shirt the last day, says he wants to come back next year. "I like it," he says.

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