SARASOTA, FL—Moments after attempting to swing for the fences in a home run derby at Ed Smith Stadium, Norb Petr tried to catch his breath. The balls were well short of the wall, but for Petr, the experience was a grand slam.
The longtime Baltimore Orioles fan was living the dream at the team's Spring Training home, feeling like he was part of the team he's cheered on for decades. The Rosedale resident survived both prostate and melanoma cancers, so this was a good as year as any after going through so much.
"Every year I would make an excuse even though my wife and sons would say, 'Do it, you'd love it. You're going to be 60 this year,'" he said. "Now I'm mad I didn't do it before."
Petr stood on the same field outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones will take to next week, but the big difference is that Petr hasn't played baseball since he was 18, putting him at a slight disadvantage from becoming a sudden sensation. He has managed to keep up in softball leagues through the years.
"I'm having the time of my life," Petr continued. "I take a line from the Field of Dreams. I close my eyes and look up and ask, 'Is this heaven?' I'm here with 90-some people who love baseball and 18 former baseball players that treat you like a major leaguer—I couldn't ask for any more."
Dream Week is a fantasy camp where fans 30 years old and up can be treated like a pro, taking batting practice, getting treatment by team athletic trainers, laundry service, and their own Orioles uniform—pants, belt, socks, jersey and all.
O's fans from all over North America and the world participated in the camp last week, taking them from being "scouted" to drafted and on the field in the matter of a week.
"They have workouts and drills, short evaluation games. Then we divide the pros and managers up into eight teams, they select and draft, and they play a round-robin throughout the week," said Bill Stetka, Orioles director of outreach and development.
The winning teams played in a championship Friday at Ed Smith and earlier during the week, the O's Dream Week teams played the Detroit Tigers' fantasy camp in Lakeland.
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That all mixed with two games a day, meals, a banquet, time at the beach and a home run derby.
But the players don't do quite everything pros would do to hone their game.
"They don't do video coaching, but they'll get a video during the summer," Stetka said.
Petr, though, is grounded about his abilities despite his treatment and wearing No. 5 in honor of his all-time favorite Oriole, Brooks Robinson.
"Not that I'm great—you saw that, but I'm doing better than what I thought I was going to do," he said. "I'm 60 years old and haven't played in 42 years."
Several of the participants are weekend warriors in softball leagues, and after a lot of workouts, several of the campers needed taped up and plenty of massage treatment, Stetka added.
"I've seen more ice this week on people's shoulders than they have at 7-Eleven," he quipped.
Charles Schelle is the editor of Sarasota Patch.