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Camp Cal; In the offseason in Arizona, Ripken helps weekend warrios realize a diamond dream, playing baseball.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As if it were not strange enough when Cal Ripken finally sat out a game at the end of last season, now the Baltimore Orioles star is beginning the new year as a pitcher instead of an infielder.

From the height of the mound, Ripken peers into the opposing dugout, where Buck Showalter, manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, is pacing, spitting out shells from his sunflower seeds, barking out orders to his players. Nothing unusual about any of that.

But Showalter is not exactly working with his usual roster of talent. This team includes a corporate executive from Maryland, an architect from Colorado, a stockbroker from New York, a furniture salesman from New Jersey -- clearly a mix of has-beens and never-weres.

What in the name of Babe Ruth is going on here? We are watching a group of well-to-do wannabes proving that dreams can indeed come true.

Darren Ault, 32, the furniture salesman, steps into the batter's box and takes a few practice swings before bracing himself for Ripken's pitch. Ripken winds up, throws and ... crack ... the unmistakable sound of bat solidly hitting ball.

Ault crushes a towering shot over the centerfielder's head -- a triple off a future Hall of Famer.

When play stops, Ault unabashedly bounds over to the mound and has Ripken autograph the ball, transforming it into a precious pearl. Minutes later, back in the dugout, Ault is showing off the pearl to his teammates, saying: "I'm still shaking with excitement."

Mark it down in the scorebook: yet another indelible memory being played out in the inaugural season of Cal's Cactus League, a baseball fantasy camp like no other.

Traditional fantasy camps employ long-since retired players as instructors and managers. This one, conducted at the spring training facility of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, was all Ripken, all the time.

Fifty-six "players" participated for five days earlier this month. The average age was 43; the oldest player was 68. Of course, dreams don't come cheap: The entry fee was $8,000. It included round-trip transportation, four nights at a luxury resort, full baseball uniforms and equipment, meals and evening entertainment.

The Iron Man himself was involved in everything from batting practice to post-game bull sessions.

As Ripken said: "We want to offer a great baseball experience on the field and also a great baseball experience off the field." With that in mind, he enlisted current Major Leaguers -- players, managers, umpires, trainers and even clubhouse personnel -- to instill the constant feeling of authenticity.

And it worked.

"I've done an awful lot of exhibitions and camps," said veteran American League umpire Ken Kaiser. "And this camp easily surpasses anything I've ever seen. Not even close. Everything is first class. Every possible detail is covered. You come here for a few days, and you can really rejuvenate your whole life."

Ripken seemed to be having almost as much fun as the paying customers.

"I get the enjoyment of sharing a little bit of my lifestyle," he said. "I've always thought it's the best job in the world to be a baseball player."

Walking off the mound at the end of his short pitching stint, Ripken smiles widely in the bright afternoon sun. And he announces to nobody in particular: "Being a pitcher -- it's my fantasy."

Draft picks

The "press release" was ready to go early the first morning: "As a result of negotiations deep into the Arizona night, the Leylands have drafted prospect Mike Krueger for the upcoming Cactus League Season. Krueger hails from Glendale, Arizona, and will make his rookie debut on the field today at the Peoria Sports Complex."

Each camper had his own press release. Each manager -- Showalter of the Diamondbacks, Jim Leyland of the Colorado Rockies, Mike Hargrove of the Cleveland Indians and Tom Kelly of the Minnesota Twins -- had his own team.

For Krueger, 38, director of marketing for a computer leasing and sales company, this was already a pretty intoxicating experience, even before touching bat or ball.

"Just being around Cal, having the chance to spend some time with him, talking baseball, talking about anything," Krueger said. "I mean, Cal is very much an idol for me. Always has been."

In fact, Krueger was living out an incredibly personalized version of the "build it and they will come" scenario made famous in the baseball movie "Field of Dreams."

As an almost-fanatical collector of Ripken-related memorabilia, Krueger long ago built a shrine to his favorite athlete. A spacious party room in his home is filled with more than a thousand items: baseball cards, posters, pennants, hats, jerseys, gloves, bats, balls, ticket stubs, videos, magazines, books, Wheaties boxes, a Cal MasterCard, Cal necktie, Cal plate, Cal figurines, Cal milk ads, Cal Bars, Cal everything. There are even bleachers in which to sit and take it all in.

And there is more. Krueger and his wife named their 5-year-old son after Ripken. Shortly after they welcomed little Cal Krueger into the world, they photographed him in full Orioles uniform, miniature bat in hand, for the official birth announcement: baseball cards declaring him 1993 Rookie of the Year.

So imagine the excitement when Mike Krueger first heard that Ripken would be conducting a camp just minutes from his home, and then when Ripken wandered by and started chatting with him in the clubhouse. As if they were real-life teammates.

"Unbelievable," Krueger thought to himself.

Actually, that first morning in the clubhouse was quite exciting for all the Cactus Leaguers. Each player had his own stool and a nameplate above his locker, same as the Major Leaguers get. Each player had official home and away uniforms waiting on hangers.

There was only one problem. Some of these guys had no idea how to put on the uniforms properly. Brian Ripka, who had not so much as picked up a baseball since Little League, was clearly among the clueless.

An unknowing teammate made the mistake of asking the 29-year-old stockbroker what position he played. Pitcher, maybe?

"Are you kidding me?" came the reply. "Behind a desk, that's what I play. Been sitting behind a desk for seven years now. ... Only thing I've been pitching is stock."

Start by stretching

Once on the field, the Cactus Leaguers started with stretching, light running and a few practice drills.

"Same way we do it with the Orioles," Ripken said. "What you're doing here is exactly what we'll be doing when we go to spring training."

Well, not exactly, corrected Showalter, who was manager of the New York Yankees before joining the Diamondbacks. If they really want to be Major Leaguers, they'll need to learn how to complain more.

Ripken, while serving as both president and commissioner of the Cactus League, also played right along with the fantasy campers. He practiced turning double plays with them. He played catch and shagged fly balls with them.

Mostly, though, Ripken made himself available for one-on-one conversations to answer questions and offer tips. One camper wanted to talk about bat models. Another engaged Ripken in a detailed discussion about the strike zone. And, of course, there was the standard array of questions about The Streak, Ripken's record string of playing in 2,632 consecutive games before finally sitting one out on Sept. 20.

After just one morning of practice, it was time to begin the official Cactus League schedule. Over two days, each team would play each of the other three teams in a seven-inning game, then there would be "post-season" play: a consolation game and the championship contest.

Maybe there should have been more practice first.

As manager Leyland told his hitters: "Just put it in play and you have a chance. With some of these guys fielding, you might be running the bases for half an hour."

Or as former Major League umpire Steve Palermo, a Cactus League spectator, put it: "Stick around for seven innings of this stuff and you'll see just about everything. The whole gamut."

One guy tried to steal third base when it was already occupied by a teammate.

In another game, when the fielding got exceptionally sloppy, umpire Kaiser slyly introduced a second ball into play so the catcher could finally throw someone out.

And then there was the sorry sight of fantasy camper Roy Firestone, the ESPN interviewer, at the plate. Poor guy, he was having so much trouble handling a regular bat, he finally opted for a lighter "fungo" bat, designed only for hitting pop-ups during practice, and quickly snapped it in two.

Of course, this was all great material for Billy Ripken, younger brother of Cal and a former Orioles infielder, who served up a steady stream of abuse in his unofficial roles as camp comedian and chief heckler. He even performed clubhouse stand-up sessions, alternately dubbed Rip City and the Billy Pulpit.

Just when you thought he was done with the guy who mistakenly joined his teammate on third base, the laughter finally subsiding, the relentless Ripken had more: "Because then he stole second base back. Two bases stolen on the same play, no progress whatsoever. No harm, no foul, I guess."

Like father, like son

If the baseball romantics have it just right, if this sport that stirs their souls is indeed, above all else, a poetic tapestry of fathers and sons, of timelessness in grass fields, of renewal, then Pete and Joe Lapan should be permanently memorialized as Cactus League poster boys.

Pete, 49, is a dentist with a Washington practice. He never played much baseball as a youngster but was always a fan and, in 1987, he started his own 12-year streak of attending Orioles fantasy camps in Florida.

His son, Joe, 21, a junior at Wake Forest University, has been to a couple of the Orioles camps, too, but only to take in the atmosphere and be with his father. He was always too young to play.

Now father and son were sharing a celebratory chapter in what Pete Lapan calls his own "Eric Davis story," a reference to the former Orioles outfielder who went right on playing during his battle with cancer. Eleven months ago -- just after returning from his last Orioles fantasy camp, in fact -- Pete learned he had a malignant tumor in his bladder.

Over several months, he underwent two extensive rounds of chemotherapy, at Johns Hopkins Hospital. In September he was declared free of cancer.

Then he heard that Cal Ripken -- "the one person in the world" he'd want to meet -- was planning a camp of his own. Still healing, still feeling sharp pains related to nerve damage and scar tissue, Lapan didn't know whether he'd be able to play.

Just a few weeks before the start of camp he decided to try. And, for good measure, he decided to take his son as a birthday gift.

The Lapans played together on Showalter's team, the Bucks. In one game Pete was the pitcher and Joe the catcher. Then they traded places.

Father and son. Timelessness. Renewal.

"No question, I was much more competitive at the other camps," Pete Lapan said. "Now I just smile to myself no matter what happens."

Good plays

Early in the championship game -- Leylands against the Bucks -- Krueger, the Ripken shrine man, made a spectacular head-first slide around the catcher to give the Leylands their first run.

"Sweet!" Ripken said. "Tell you the truth, I've seen a lot more good plays out here than I expected. Pretty good stuff."

Of course, there was also bribery as motivation. Leyland had exhorted his players by telling them: "You win this thing, I'm sending you all home on private planes."

It must have worked. Final score: Leylands 6, Bucks 3.

Out came the victory champagne. OK, it was beer, and after his players poured several cans over his head, Leyland wore it well.

"Private planes for everyone!" he announced with great joy.

"We don't want to go home!" came the reply.

But this was it. End of fantasy. Back to reality. Or as Ripken put it in his final remarks to everyone gathered around home plate: "This officially ends your playing careers. Until next year, anyway."

Pub Date: 1/27/99

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