LAKELAND, Fla. - Chuck Helppie is the Ironman of Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camps. While most come to the team's spring training home and live the dream of playing with their heroes for one week, Helppie is a 25-year veteran.
He keeps coming back for more memories, laughs and cutoff throws from outfielders.
More than 4,000 lovers of the Olde English D have attended the camps since the first one in 1984. Seven have been to 20 camps, but only Helppie has celebrated a silver anniversary.
The financial services company president from Pinckney is the Cal Ripken Jr. of baseball wannabes. It's getting harder to snag grounders in the hole and take an extra base, but the camaraderie gets better and better.
Associated PressChuck Helppie of Pinckney is celebrating his 25th year of Detroit Tigers Fantasy Camp.
"The hook for me is the guys," said Helppie, who recently turned 57. "I keep coming back here for a week every winter to play ball with my buddies, to put on the uniform and swap stories.
"It's like a baseball frat party with some of my best friends in life. It's bonding, baseball and a chance to get out of Michigan in the winter."
He said 50 of his fellow campers have become friends he stays in touch with, and he has come to know many of those Tigers who won it all in 1968, when he was attending Ypsilanti High, as well as the 1984 Tigers who took the World Series.
But nothing tops that sunny day at Joker Marchant Stadium in 1987, long before he sported a neatly trimmed white beard and when he still had some giddy-up in his tank.
"The real Tiger team was short one guy," Helppie said. "Al Kaline came up to me and said, 'Helppie, go out and play center field for us in the fourth inning.'"
That coming from his lifelong hero ... even priceless seems too trivial a descriptor.
"Al Kaline is next to me in right field and I look the other way and Willie Horton is in left," Helppie recalled. "It's just like you dream."I was so unbelievably excited. That's the root of your fantasy right there. Marchant Stadium had 5,000 fans in it. My only fear was to not muff anything. I got a couple easy flies and caught up to a liner Jim Price hit that just took off. I did just fine."
Helppie wears No. 24 for Mickey Stanley because Kaline's No. 6 is retired, and for part of one game got to play the part of Stanley in the outfield.
Helppie, president of Echelon Wealth Management in Ann Arbor, had an arm injury and never got past junior varsity baseball in high school. But he shells out $2,000 to $3,000 every year and gets to play the game he loves with guys he cherishes and major leaguers who call him by name.
Norm Kubitskey, Glenn Smith, John Adams and Tim Allard keep coming back most years with him. The four suburban Detroit campers and Helppie pull on the genuine home and road Tigers uniforms and caps along with Dick Tracewski, Mickey Lolich, Jon Warden, Horton and Price.
Five of the 1968 Tigers from that first camp attended this latest camp, which is more populated by 1984 Tigers Doug Bair, Juan Berenguer, Tom Brookens, Barbaro Garbey, John Grubb, Guillermo Hernandez, Larry Herndon, Dan Petry and Bill Scherrer. Sprinkled in from other Tigers teams are Rick Leach and Mike Heath.
Heath chuckles at a pitcher struggling to throw strikes and uses a line aimed at Nuke LaLoosh in the movie "Bull Durham," "Breathe through your eyelids, kid!"
Everybody laughs, and the tendonitis and bad knees don't seem so bad for the moment.
"Go right after him!" Helppie shouts to his pitcher before getting into the fielding crouch and glancing at the batter. "C'mon, Gus, hit it to me, buddy."
The only year he missed was 1985, and Jerry Kruso of Southgate is the only camper with more appearances (27). But nobody has been here more years. Kruso passed him by going to two camps a year once they began doubling up.
Helppie played every position in one game in 2002, but usually plays first or third base, sometimes second.
They sing "Happy Birthday" to Helppie here each year, and his wife of 37 years, Vali, a Pinckney Community High School language arts teacher, told him it's OK for him to be alone on that day.
She understands, noting he isn't as cranky when he returns. He came home this year with a Detroit Tigers leather jacket with his name and 25-year achievement embroidered on it.
Helppie has played with the two Detroit World Series championship teams of his lifetime and will team with Todd Jones and perhaps Kenny Rogers and Sean Casey next January when 2006 World Series members are integrated into the fantasy camps.
"I hope to play with more of the '06 players," Helppie said. "I've been here from age 32 to 57. And if I stay healthy, I hope to be here when I'm in my 70s and 80s."
He taps his bat on the ground and smiles.
Who knew that the fountain of youth was right here in Polk County?