Take Me Out To the Ballgame

Story by Kelsey Boyd

Baseball has long been called America’s pastime. From the sport’s beginnings in Cooperstown, New York, in the mid-19th century, baseball fans have shown devotion to their favorite teams, following the players through their ups and downs and looking forward to the energy and excitement of baseball season every year.Most baseball fans sport their team’s colors and watch games on television from the comfort of their own homes. Some are lucky enough to see their favorite team in person. Avid baseball fans, like Dr. Michael Cooper, D.D.S. of Russellville, step up their game and take their dedication to the next level. 

For the past five years, Dr. Cooper has attended the Cardinals Legends Camp, a five-day baseball event for ardent St. Louis Cardinals fans. Each year, around 100 men gather at the Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida, to live and breathe Cardinals baseball for five days.

From Wednesday to Sunday, campers interact directly with living Cardinals baseball legends and even get to play against each other and the legends during the week. The camp allows Cardinals fans a glimpse into life as a professional baseball player. Campers use the same facilities the professional players use during spring training, including the locker room, clubhouse, practice fields, batting cages and trainers. The participants even receive two genuine Cardinals uniforms, customized with their own names and stored in their personal lockers in the Cardinals locker room.

“They try to make this as close to a major league spring training as they can for old guys like me,” Dr. Cooper said.

The men are divided into eight teams and each team is coached by two former Cardinals players. The teams play in a round robin tournament throughout the week and determine a winner at the end of the camp. One of the highlights of the week comes on Sunday when each of the eight teams plays a three-inning game against the legends, who have only lost one game in the history of legends camp. Each camper gets one chance to bat against a legend during the final game.

Over his five years at camp and five times at bat against a legend, Dr. Cooper thinks he has finally figured the pitchers out. According to him, the easiest pitches come first, in the form of fastballs. If a batter misses the first two or three pitches, the pitcher will often throw more difficult pitches to hurriedly get the batter out.

“They can throw hard when they want to,” he recalled, impressed by the legends’ athletic abilities. “If you want a hit, swing at the first two pitches because they’ll be the best ones you can get. Anything else, and you’re history.”

Half the men who attend the camp each year are returning campers. Known as the ‘veterans,’ they have built friendships with each other during their many years at camp and keep in touch after heading home. These relationships, bound by baseball, are Dr. Cooper’s favorite part of the experience.

“The neat part of it is the camaraderie that the campers develop over the years, not only with the campers but with the former Cardinal players,” Dr. Cooper said.

One of the many players Dr. Cooper has befriended is Al Hrabosky, former pitcher and current broadcaster for the Cardinals. When talking with Hrabosky one day, Dr. Cooper mentioned he was on the lookout for a keynote speaker for Russellville High School’s pre-season baseball tournament, in which his son, Chris, played. Dr. Cooper asked the legend for speaker suggestions for the banquet. Hrabosky himself volunteered to make the trip to Russellville, and “The Mad Hungarian” spoke to over 300 people at the February 2006 banquet, which brought in $6,000 dollars for RHS baseball.

Another friend of Dr. Cooper’s is Rick Horton, a former pitcher and current radio broadcaster for Bud Sports.

“I’ve gotten to know Rick well enough now that I can pick up the telephone and call him.”

Dr. Cooper’s favorite player is Lou Brock and favorite person at the camp overall is Whitey Herzog, both of whom Dr. Cooper has followed since childhood, and now, knows personally.

The openness and accessibility of the Cardinals players and staff came as a surprise to Dr. Cooper during his early camp experience. As a child, Dr. Cooper remembers thinking, “If only I could meet (Lou) Brock or (Bob) Gibson… I had all these things I wanted to talk to them about.” He got his chance two years ago, when Gibson sat directly in front of him during breakfast one morning. He recalled his astonishment when meeting Gibson for the first time.

“I can’t say a word!” Dr. Cooper remembers thinking in the presence of the Hall-of-Famer. “You’re speechless almost. Unless you’re a baseball fan, you won’t understand it,” he explained.

Dr. Cooper has been interested in baseball for as long as he can remember and gets his Cardinals affinity from his family.

“My grandfather was a big Cardinals fan. That’s what he did.”

Dr. Cooper looked forward to spending the night with his grandparents as an eight-year-old because they would allow him to stay up late and listen to Cardinals games on the radio. As a child and well into his adult life, he never dreamed he would meet and even become friends with some of the players. It was not until recently that he even learned about the camp opportunity. Interestingly, he heard about the camp at church.

Terry Rush, a minister from Tulsa, spoke at Dr. Cooper’s church one Wednesday evening. Dr. Cooper remembers Terry relaying his sadness over the one-year anniversary of the death of Cardinals sportscaster Jack Buck.

“I think Terry and I were the only people there that night that knew that,” Dr. Cooper recalled. “I thought, ‘This guy knows his Cardinal baseball.’”

During his sermon, Terry briefly mentioned the legends camp. Dr. Cooper introduced himself to Terry afterward and spoke with him about the camp. He told his wife, Paulette, about the opportunity but soon put it out of his mind. Paulette, knowing firsthand what a devout Cardinals fan Dr. Cooper is, pursued the idea and surprised him at Christmas with a trip to legends camp.

Terry and Dr. Cooper have since formed a close relationship and now meet to travel to camp together.

Not only do the campers look forward to the experience but the legends do, as well. Dr. Cooper asked Bob Forsch how they recruit enough legends to participate. Bob looked at Dr. Cooper and replied, “You’ve got to be kidding. We’ve got a waiting list. We love coming down here. We get to see our old teammates, put our uniforms back on, hang out in the clubhouse, and do things with baseball we haven’t done since we retired.”

This same spirit and sense of community is thriving in Dr. Cooper, who plans to attend legends camp as long as he is able.

By far, Dr. Cooper’s most cherished part of legends camp is the friendships. He, along with dozens of other men, share the same love of the Cardinals and the game of baseball.

“Every year I get to see those guys again and we get to play ball.”

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