Negron: Yankees Fantasy Camp Brings Camper Closer To Don Larson

Manhattan attorney and a member of the bleacher creatures Mark Chalpin has been going to Yankees fantasy camp for many years. He recently told me of his adulation for Don Larsen and was very saddened by larsens sudden passing. I asked Mark to write this column and express his feelings about Mr. Larsen and his continued love in attending the Yanks fantasy camp.

I’m writing this today, less than 24 hours after hearing about the loss of Yankee legend Don Larsen. I had the fortune of meeting Mr. Larsen at the 2012 and 2013 Yankee fantasy camps, which puts me in great company of people who got to know this nice man. Mr. Larsen was friendly to all campers and freely signed baseballs and pictures to all who asked. He will be missed by all who had the pleasure of meeting him.

Throughout my life, the Yankees have always played a significant role. As a child, I grew up watching Don Mattingly and was never happier than when Billy Martin was managing the Yankees because I knew that when Billy was in charge, the Yankees did better.

When I grew up and moved into Manhattan, I found myself able to attend games live regularly. I started sitting in Section 39 in the right field bleachers in 1999, became a season ticketholder in 2001, have been a regular with the Bleacher Creatures ever since, and you can currently find me in Section 203 about 50 times a year, where I have had the honor to lead the roll call since the 2016 season began.

In 2011, I booked my first Yankees fantasy camp.

The way fantasy camp works is that you go down the George M. Steinbrenner Field, get a Yankee uniform, a locker in the Yankees locker room, and you are coached by 2 former Yankees. You can pick any number you want. I always wear #1 to honor Billy Martin.

When the list of Yankees that were attending came out, the name that stood out to me was the late Oscar Gamble. I remember the first game I attended at the Stadium when I was 8 years old. The Yankees were down a couple of runs in the bottom of the 9th, but rallied to tie. In the bottom of the 10th, Gamble hit a homerun to win the game and my 8-year-old self went home with an incredible memory. I requested that Oscar be one of my coaches. The camp granted that request. When I told Oscar the story, he claimed he remembered the game.

The camp always opens with a banquet where you meet your teams and your coaches. You also meet everyone else there, including those that run the camp and of course, all the ex-Yankees that are there. The ex-players are always nice, and they’ll sign anything you want, take any picture, and answer any question you have.

It was that first banquet that showed me that the camp’s slogan, at least for me, was false advertising. Why? Because they say that Yankees Fantasy Camp is “once in a lifetime.”

Yet when I got there, and hadn’t even put on the uniform yet, I knew that I was going to do this as long as I physically could.

Flash forward to 2019, and I have just completed my 9th camp.

Going to camp is different when you’ve been there a bunch of times. You no longer greet the ex-Yankees nervously. You’re greeting old friends. And it’s not just the Yankees themselves—it’s the other campers. I have played on the same team since my second year—The Blanchards, named in memory of the late Johnny Blanchard.

This year, The Blanchards were missing some campers, and we were half new people, half vets. Not unlike real baseball, the new players were integrated into the team, and fortunately, it worked out well.

Our coaches were Tanyon Sturtze and Jesse Barfield. Tanyon is the staple of our team. In the 8 years I have played for the Blanchards, Tanyon has coached us 6 times. Our second coach usually rotates depending on the year, and we were very lucky to get Jesse.

Tanyon and Jesse together are a great combination. Tanyon isn’t just there for a paycheck. He coaches. He’ll position the fielders, he will keep you in line, and he isn’t shy about his constructive criticism. I love it. I play the game as hard as I can, so having a coach who cares means a lot.

Jesse is a teacher who will talk hitting all day long. He will take you in the batting cage and work with you individually. He will show you videos and break down your swing. He’ll talk fielding, mechanics, and is just a genuinely nice guy and great ambassador for baseball.

Jesse also has a connection to the bleacher creatures, who were known as “bleacher regulars” back when he played.

At one point during some rare down time, I showed Jesse a picture of one of the regulars, who still sits out there today, and he remembered her. One of the highlights for me of the 2019 camp was when I had a moment with Jesse, called her, and let the two of them talk and reminisce. It was awesome to watch. Sharing the experience with others is just as much fun as having it yourself.

As one of the modern Bleacher Creatures, I bring with me to camp the need to represent the section. In fact, Ray Negron asked me to lead a roll call for the Greats in camp during the opening banquet this year.

I like to think of my section as the tenth player on the field, but in Tampa, I am one of the actual nine, so my hope is to do more than impress with my vocal cords. I only know of one other bleacher creature who has even done the camp, so I try to share the experience with them as best as I can.

Aside from Tanyon and Jesse, the other coaches included Mickey Rivers, Al Downing, Charlie Hayes, Jim Leyritz, Homer Bush, Luis Sojo, Shane Spencer, Brian Boehringer, Jeff Nelson, Scott Bradley, Gil Patterson, Jerry Hairston and Mike Gallego. Paul Olden, who is the PA announcer at Yankee Stadium is down there as well, so when you play on the main field, Paul calls out your name.

During the week, it’s all about the baseball. Normally we play a double header for four straight days. This year was a little irregular because we had an odd number of teams and the weather didn’t cooperate like it normally does. But the people that run the camp adapted and we still managed to play 56 innings out of the normal 72.

It’s a very physical vacation. Even major leaguers aren’t allowed to play more than 3 doubleheaders in a week, while we normally play 4 doubleheaders in 4 days. You have to prepare. I usually wake up at 5am and stretch for a good hour before coming down to go to the Stadium where we get worked out by the amazing Yankee trainers before each game.

Fantasy camp provides everyone with top notch trainers from all over the Yankee system. The same people who help Miguel Andujar and Luis Severino get back on the field after their injuries work on campers. I’ve been fairly lucky to avoid serious need over the years, but whenever I have needed them, they are top notch.

The Blanchards went 5-2 this year, and only lost the 2 games by a combined 4 runs. The highlight of the camp for me was a 10 inning back and forth battle with Brian Boehringer’s team that ended in a walk off win for us. Due to the weather, that game was supposed to be a 5-inning shortened game, but we stayed tied. They let us finish it.

While baseball is of course the bulk of the camp, there’s more to it. Beginning with the second day, we normally have three days of Kangaroo Court in the mornings. Mickey Rivers is the judge, in full judge robes, and the coaches call up their teams for whatever stupid plays they make during the day before. It’s always comical, and Judge Rivers will impose fines based on the offenses. The fines are real, and always go to charity.

Every year, the camp books a special guest. This year, our guest was Johnny Damon. We got to meet him, talk briefly, and get a ball signed. I even got to wear his 2009 World Series ring. Unfortunately, he didn’t let me keep it.

Another highlight this year was when I was able to hold one of Lou Gehrig’s bats. To be able to swing the Iron Horse’s lumber was a connection to Yankee history that is hard to describe. I stood in the same batter’s box as Derek Jeter and Aaron Judge, with the bat used by arguably the team’s greatest captain. Even better, this bat was also held by Gary Cooper in the movie Pride of the Yankees.

On the last day, everyone plays in The Dream Game, where the teams each play 2 innings against all the ex-Yankees in camp. For some reason, my team always draws Jeff Nelson on the mound. He does NOT take it easy on you. The man still throws in the mid-80s and when you get 2 strikes on you, he throws that famous slider and that’s that. I think I have faced him over the years about 12 times, and struck out 10. I do have 2 cheap infield hits off him, but because he still brings it, they mean everything.

The camp closes with an awards ceremony. Various awards are given out like the All Star Team, Rookie of the Camp, Gold Gloves, etc. The biggest honor is Hall of Fame. After you attend a certain number of camps, you are eligible for the Hall of Fame. The voters are the staff and ex-Yankees and if you get 75% of the vote, you get in. I was given this honor in 2017 and the Hall of Fame ring is something I treasure. This year we added three new members.

Fantasy camp is more than just a week playing baseball. I have a text chain with The Blanchards all year long. I have had the pleasure of bringing several ex-coaches to Section 203 with me on multiple occasions. Jim Leyritz visits us at least once a year. I speak to Mickey Rivers almost every time I go to the Stadium. Charlie Hayes, Tanyon Sturtze, Jeff Nelson and Fritz Peterson have also been to games with us. I’m hoping to add more. The true test of how good these coaches are is how they react after camp is over, and I keep in touch with so many of them, other campers, as well as the people that run the camp, the photographer and the videographer.

It’s an amazing experience. For one week, you really are a Yankee.

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