FORT MYERS, Fla. — Maybelle Blair, 89, still has her fastball, at least verbally. And she let some Red Sox legends feel the heat moments before the start of the inaugural Red Sox Women’s Fantasy Camp at JetBlue Park.
“This isn’t a sewing bee or a baking contest,” said Blair, a former pitcher in the All American Girls Professional Baseball League, the pioneering 1940s circuit that inspired the 1992 movie “A League of Their Own.”
Former Red Sox Trot Nixon, Alan Embree, Rico Petrocelli, Butch Hobson, Brian Daubach, and Rich Gedman were sitting at a table signing autographs in a windowless room. They all stopped. She had their undivided attention.
“They want to play baseball,” said Blair. “So treat ’em just like you treat the guys. Don’t be nice to them.”
Some of the players laughed, then expressed concerns about using salty language.
Embree, the reliever who recorded the final out in the Red Sox’ four-game comeback against the Yankees in the 2004 American League Championship Series, voiced a different concern.
“I’m worried about automatically patting someone on the butt,” he said.
“You behave yourself,” said Blair with a smile. “It’s all about baseball.”
And so it was, all baseball, all the time for three days and three nights in January at what Red Sox radio announcer Joe Castiglione calls “Adult Disneyland.”
The camp faculty included prominent women in baseball: Justine Siegal, the first female coach to work for a major league team; Marti Sementelli, a pitcher for the US women’s national baseball team; Perry Barber, the first female umpire hired to work spring training games for the Mets; and Shirley Burkovich, who played professionally 65 years ago in the AAGPBL.
The sold-out camp included 48 women, average age 44, who journeyed from as far away as Victoria, Australia.
Their arrival was joyous. Some women kissed the spongy outfield grass at JetBlue Park, others wept in the locker room when they saw Red Sox uniforms bearing their names.
Siegal, founder of the “Baseball For All” program, had her pulse on the women’s feelings as she addressed them.
“I know many of you have waited your whole life to be treated like a baseball player, and it really is exciting,” she said. “When I was with the A’s last year, they put up a sign and it said, ‘women’s locker room,’ except I was all alone. So it’s really phenomenal to be here with you.”
The eyes of fantasy camper Susan Presby of Littleton, N.H., bulged out when she saw her idol, Petrocelli, seated in the cafeteria in uniform.
“My grandmother only watched three things on TV,” said Presby. “Roller derby, wrestling, and the Red Sox.”
Petrocelli, the shortstop for the Impossible Dream Red Sox of 1967, stood up and posed for a picture with her.
“This is karma,” said Presby. “I was meant to be here. This is awesome.”
Big league treatment
The women were divided into four teams, each led by a former Red Sox player, and each bearing the name of a team in the original women’s league: the Comets, the Belles, the Blue Sox, and the Peaches.
The campers had full access to Red Sox trainers, weight rooms, and Jacuzzis. When they came off the fields, there was cold beer in big tubs of ice waiting for them.
The championship game was played in JetBlue Park, with the hitters announced over the public address system. As they walked up to home plate, their favorite song was played.
But first they got a taste of spring training. On the first day, there was stretching and drills. Nixon, another member of that 2004 Red Sox championship team, taught the campers how to run a “banana route” to catch a fly ball hit over their head. Gedman was in the batting cages before 7 a.m. helping hitters, Embree and Sementelli tutored pitchers, and Petrocelli and Hobson worked on grounders and footwork.
There was not a single pink hat in sight.
“I’m not sure we’re there yet with dispelling the myth of the pink hat, but this camp is a good step towards it,” said Siegal.
Petrocelli agreed, even saying that a woman playing in the major leagues was not impossible, perhaps as a knuckleball pitcher.
“The hitting, I’d say, is the big challenge for them,” he said. “To get the strength to get that bat around quickly on a 90-mile-per-hour fastball.”
Emree advised campers to remain even-keeled.
“Have fun,” he said. “This game is about failure and how you handle failure. I failed plenty in my career.”
Petrocelli told the campers that he started out in the big leagues going something like 0-for-32 and then headed for Route 128.
“Park on the side, get out of the car, lay down in the middle of the road, and hope somebody ran over me,” he joked. “No, you keep working.”
Fines and filmmaking
On the second day of camp, torrential rains, gusty winds, and tornado warnings forced the coaches to evacuate the hitting cages under the metal roof at Fenway South. The wind even tore down a JetBlue Park security station.
Ignoring the warnings were Red Sox $63 million prospect Yoan Moncada and catcher Christian Vazquez, who kept hitting.
Speaking of money, campers faced a daily Kangaroo Court, with fine money going to the Red Sox Foundation, for various violations, including swearing, wearing a baseball cap backward, and leaving tags on clothing.
Erin Pappas, a nurse from Massachusetts, had to don a Yankee jersey — the Dunce Cap Award — for leaving her cellphone at the bar. She tied the pinstriped jersey around her waist and made an off-color comment about alternate toilet paper.
As rains washed out game action, the Sox held an impromptu question-and-answer session.
Gedman drew cheers when he said that there could someday be a woman’s professional league again.
“My daughter played hockey in college well,” said Gedman. “This year is the first year they had a national women’s hockey league. So if hockey can do it, then why can’t baseball?”
Sementelli described the pure joy of winning a gold medal in front of a sellout crowd at the Pan American Games in 2015.
Siegal, pushing the baseball-over-softball agenda, said, “I think there are now 48 new baseball coaches here.”
Barber, who started her career as a musician and opened for a young Bruce Springsteen, lobbied for women to attend umpire schools. There has never been a female umpire in a major league game, she noted, but the NBA employs women as game officials.
Disappointed by the cancellation of games, the campers got a bonus tour of the Red Sox clubhouse, where they photographed David Ortiz’s dress white uniform pants and manager John Farrell’s duffel bag, and took funny selfies facing the urinals. No one back home will believe No. 8 on the Red Sox sports an auburn ponytail.
Amy Modglin of Melrose, Mass., curled up in a stall she believed belonged to former Sox captain Jason Varitek. Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I got a little more than emotional,” she said.
That evening, Blair and Burkovich had the crowd in stitches with the inside scoop on “A League of Their Own.”
Tom Hanks told Blair it was his favorite role because “he didn’t have to shave and he could drink.” The famous split catch by Geena Davis was really done by a stuntman. Director Penny Marshall used a tennis ball covered with horsehide so the movie stars wouldn’t get hurt. She also made Madonna slide headfirst into third base 12 times before she got it right. The Material Girl never complained, she just brushed the dirt off her mini-dress and did it again.
Blair, who pitched for the Peoria Redwings in 1948, said the uniforms in the movie were authentic.
“We didn’t have sliding pads whatsoever,” she said. “I am still digging out gravel right out of my rear end.”
Bringing it home
On Saturday, playoff games took place. The grass was dry but the basepaths were slow, like a mixture of clay and quicksand.
Petrocelli said he couldn’t believe how hard everyone tried.
“They showed me something with their enthusiasm,” he said.
Mary Boden of Atlanta was on crutches with a broken foot. She told coaches “my parachute only partially opened” but later admitted she fell over some boxes. But at game time, she tossed the crutches aside, grabbed a bat and a designated runner, and nearly got a base hit.
In the championship game, the Comets, managed by Nixon and coached by Daubach, were one strike away from winning it all in the bottom of the seventh when the Blue Sox, managed by Hobson and coached by Petrocelli, tied the score, 2-2.
In the bottom of the ninth, with runners on first and second, camp MVP Jacqui Reynolds, 21, of Southern New Hampshire University, hit a blooper to right that dropped in.
Laura Lara, a police officer from Indiana with a Mickey Mantle name but not the Mick’s speed, took off for third. A diehard Sox fan, she had been in these very stands last March, sitting behind third. Now she was picking up steam and heading for that base.
Petrocelli, with his hot corner knowledge and a burning desire to watch the Patriots playoff game, waved her around.
Catcher Corinne Bouchard braced for the throw and extended her left leg a la Varitek to block the plate. The ball arrived at the same instant as the runner.
Lara hadn’t yet slid on this sacred soil — in fact, she had never slid in her entire life — but slide she did, and hard.
“It was very close,” said Lara. “I knew to just hit the outside corner and I just snuck in there. Dragged that foot in.”
“Saaaafe!” bellowed Barber.
The dugout emptied, and out came the chilled champagne, the championship T-shirts, and a big silver trophy, just like in The Show.
Bouchard, the catcher, sat there in the dust. Never moved.
“I just missed her,” she said, “but that’s baseball. It’s all good. We had a blast.”
Losing manager Nixon offered no excuses.
“It was an absolute pleasure,” said the Dirt Dog. “When you’re talking about playing with pure joy in your heart, like when you’re a little kid, that’s what our ladies did the entire time they were here. I’m very, very proud of our ladies.”
Winning manager Hobson said the campers’ “intensity, passion, and willingness to learn” left him in awe. Petrocelli said the women were more team-oriented than the men.
Lara declared it the greatest day of her life.
“Are you kidding me?” she said. “We just scored the winning run in the first championship game at Fenway South. It was freakin’ amazing. I’m living my dream.’’
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.