D-backs fantasy camper still going strong at 80

Avid ballplayer Kucharek back for 10th annual event

D-backs fantasy camper still going strong at 80

The Arizona Diamondbacks are holding their 10th annual Fantasy Camp this week at their Spring Training complex at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, Ariz.

After participating in the D-backs' first Fantasy Camp 10 years ago, Don Kucharek vowed he would not return. Not because he didn't enjoy it, but rather because he felt it was such an amazing experience he would never be able to match.

"I had the best time of my life in the inaugural," Kucharek said. "It was a constant adrenaline pump every day."

Back then at age 70, Kucharek amazed campers and staff members alike with his energy, and he was the one of the few, if not only, campers never to set foot in the trainer's room during the week.

Recently his wife, Bev, surprised him with a gift for his 80th birthday -- another trip to Fantasy Camp.

Despite his advancing age, Kucharek showed no signs of slowing down during Monday's first day of drills at Salt River Fields.

"He's a guy that stood out back then because he was the oldest one," said Mark Grace, the D-backs' assistant hitting coach and member of the Fantasy Camp staff. "He never went in the trainer's room, played every inning of every game. Doing all the drills with me [Monday], he didn't miss a ball, didn't make a bad throw and was on his toes and moving around at 80 years old. It's inspiration, it's incredible, and on top of that, he's one of the nicest men you'll ever meet."

Kucharek is a whirling dervish on the field, jogging with enthusiasm from drill to drill.

"I just love it," Kucharek said. "I never really had the opportunity as a kid to play that much hardball. I don't know what it is, because I can be a little sore of something, but once I get on the field, something just changes for me and I just get out there and enjoy it."

Kucharek is not immune to the toll that aging takes. He's had a pair of knee replacement surgeries and last year had spine surgery.

The first question Kucharek asked the doctor after each surgery was how long it would be until he could get back on the baseball field. Sitting in his chair watching television, he will take a weight ball and toss it from hand to hand to keep his wrists strong. He also squeezes a ball to keep his hands and forearms in shape.

"It's amazing how much you can accomplish when you have something that you love and a desire to do it," he said.

Kucharek plays softball three times a week and is part of a traveling team that keeps him active.

Whether it's Palm Springs, Calif., in February, Las Vegas in April, Sacramento in October and another pair of tournaments in November, Kucharek continues to play ball.

"When they ask when I'm going to retire, I say I don't know," Kucharek said. "I'm just going to keep on playing. I don't think about not playing, so when it happens, it happens. It will be something that forces me to stop."

For now, though, Kucharek remains an unstoppable force on the field.

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Inside the D-backs, and follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.