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Bleeding Dodger Blue

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dodger fans know No. 32 as Sandy Koufax, but for two weeks in 2002 and 2003, Phil Williams proudly wore the number at Dodger Fantasy Camp in Vero Beach, Fla. [Order this photo]
When the Los Angeles Dodgers open their season Thursday against the Giants, Phil Williams will be experiencing similar emotions to all baseball fans.

Opening day is the time of hope for all baseball fans. Everybody is 0-0. The World Series Trophy could be coming home to any one of 30 fan bases.

But after 15 years at Dodgers spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., and two rounds of Dodgers fantasy camp in 2002 and 2003, the retired South Putnam teacher feels an even closer bond to his favorite team. He said he's been told, "Once you come to fantasy camp, you're with the Dodger family."

"I've been so lucky," Williams said. "I'm not anybody special."

Even with the Dodgers leaving Vero Beach in 2008, Phil and wife Suzy have continued to visit the city each spring.

"Suzy and I saw a couple of (Mets) spring training games in Port St. Lucie last week," Phil said. "It's not as much fun when one doesn't care who wins, but it still is fun -- it's big league baseball."

Williams' journey as a Dodger fan started long before his annual trips to Vero Beach, though. As a kid in Oakland City, he became a Dodger fan like his dad, who followed the career of Gil Hodges, a native of nearby Petersburg.

Even after Hodges left the Dodgers in 1961, Phil and his dad continued to bleed Dodger blue.

"In 1962, I was 11 years old. My dad and I listened to games every day," he said.

The problem was, nobody was broadcasting Dodgers games to Oakland City, Ind.

"We'd listen to Cardinals games, if for no other reason than we might get a score from the west coast and hear how the Dodgers were doing," Williams said.

That summer, Maury Wills stole 104 bases, breaking the single-season record and outstealing all other teams in the National League. He not only won the NL MVP, he became Williams' favorite player.

Some four decades later, Williams found himself playing catch with Wills every day for a week at fantasy camp. He now has an ongoing friendship with a childhood idol.

"I said to Maury, 'I can't believe I'm sitting here with you and playing catch with you every day,'" Williams said. "Maury has become a good friend. He has sent us Christmas cards."

A visit to Williams' Dodger room at his rural Greencastle home is one filled with stories of Dodger greats like Duke Snider, Rick Monday, Ralph Branca and Preacher Roe. But after his experiences at spring training and camp, he's more in awe of the people they are than the ball players they were.

On his first morning at camp, Williams was sitting alone at the breakfast table when he got a surprise guest.

"The next guy in was Duke Snider," he said. "I pulled out his chair for him. My heart was pounding. I thought that was a moment that would never happen again."

It turns out the players enjoy it as much as the fans, so the interaction was continual. Monday even scolded him for assuming the players were only there for the money.

Some guys are so good, though, they remain above the "normal guy" status.

"I met Koufax at fantasy camp, but I couldn't talk to him," Williams said. "I just said 'Hi.'"

Then again, some heroes should remain larger than life.

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Great story!!!

-- Posted by talkymom3 on Wed, Mar 30, 2011, at 9:07 AM

I'll bet there were lots of "interesting" conversations in the Williams' household during the 1980s. Reds v. Dodgers bloodsport.

-- Posted by Balding Eagle on Wed, Mar 30, 2011, at 10:01 PM

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