"To get everybody back here together, and for those people to see how we interact and how we get on each other but we love each other, we can relate that to these guys," said Rick Dempsey, the former O's catcher and 1983 World Series MVP. "We just have a good time for a week. It's not all about winning. It's about spending some time with them, letting them know what their dreams could've been like. They live vicariously through us. It's really good."
This year, a group of 116 Orioles fans traveled to Sarasota from 15 states, Canada and Great Britain to get a taste of what life is like for a Major League Baseball player. They donned their personalized Orioles jerseys as they played daily doubleheader intrasquad games at the Buck O'Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park, where the O's hold their Minor League camp each spring.
The camp split up into two groups Friday morning to face the Pirates fantasy camp, sending four teams to Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla., while the other four squads played on their home fields.
When one game finished, many of the players moved over to the bleachers to watch their fellow campers play. They cheered and chanted and, in several cases, asked the opposing coaches for autographs.
There's still a rivalry between the two clubs who met in the 1971 and '79 World Series, both won by Pittsburgh. As all the players and coaches gathered together for a group photo, Orioles alumni director Bill Stetka joked, "We're not going to bring up the two World Series."
At least one former Pirate proudly responded, "We will!"
"It's been great fun," said Scott Rairigh, a longtime O's fan attending his third camp. "There's a little hint of competitiveness, but just the right dose."
Rairigh was one of about 40 returning participants. The group included fathers and sons, husbands and wives, brothers and many others who have become friends throughout their years at Dream Week.
Along with their personalized uniforms and batting practice jerseys, the participants received breakfast and lunch in the clubhouse, their own lockers, treatment by club athletic trainers and laundry service by the clubhouse attendants.
Many of them found that playing baseball every day can be harder than it looks, some of them obviously feeling sore or just plain tired as they moved slowly back to the clubhouse after their games.
"It's always fun. They're kids at heart still. They absolutely love baseball. They love the competition," former Orioles pitcher Scott McGregor said. "Their bodies probably can't do what their brains think they can. They make us laugh. They make us proud because they're all hurt, limping around, but they get out there and play."
Each morning, the players were treated to skits and stories from the coaches. Among those to participate this year were Dempsey, McGregor, Jim Palmer, Mike Boddicker, Al Bumbry, Mike Devereaux, "Diamond" Jim Gentile, Chris Hoiles and Tippy Martinez.
Dempsey said one of the most rewarding parts of the week can be when a camper asks for an autograph. Not that the request itself is unusual, but sometimes the story is. Dempsey recalled signing an autograph for a camper who first requested the former catcher's signature when he was a 6-year-old O's fan.
"We spend a lot of time answering a lot of questions about the game and what happened because they're die-hard fans. These guys are the ones that lived it from Day 1," Dempsey said. "It's pretty special because those guys now are bringing their kids."
At some point during the regular season, the Dream Week participants will reconvene at Oriole Park at Camden Yards to play a few more games. Odds are, most of them will be getting back together this time next year, too.
"I've gotten to know the guys that come back and the players," Rairigh said. "It's something I look forward to."
Their coaches do, too.
"It's a yearly reunion for us. We either played with each other or watched each other play," McGregor said. "It's a gigantic reunion, the whole thing. There's campers that we know. Now there's new guys this year that will come back next year. Everybody looks forward to it."