VERO BEACH, Fla. — Cary Sarnoff, a court reporter by trade, had just put on his baseball shoes when Duke Snider, the greatest Dodger ever to play center field, walked right by him.
"Good morning, Duke," said the court reporter, casual as can be.
"Morning," said The Duke, matter of factly.
After a moment, it had sunk in.
There stood Sarnoff, his mouth gaping in awe, his head shaking in disbelief, his voice trembling as he exclaimed, "I can't believe I just said good morning to Duke Snider!"
Dressed like a kid in a real Los Angeles Dodger uniform, Sarnoff, 40, was in an actual Dodger locker room, preparing to play baseball on a genuine Dodger ball field.
Should he need a tip on swinging the old bat or throwing the ball, all he need do was ask The Duke. Or Ernie Banks. Or Warren Spahn. Or Don Drysdale.
In fact, there were 13 of Sarnoff's baseball heroes on hand. We're not talking mere run-of-the-mill baseball heroes. We're talking Hall of Famers whose likenesses hang right with Babe Ruth's and Ty Cobb's in the game's hallowed halls in Cooperstown, N.Y.
(For the two or three culturally deprived readers who have been on the moon since birth, let us explain that those enshrined in the Hall of Fame are baseball's Michelangelos and Albert Einsteins. They are, of course, larger than life, greater than great and can walk on water. With one foot tied behind their back.)
So, there stood Sarnoff. And there stood The Duke. Sarnoff called it a dream come true.
The Dodgers call it "Baseball Heaven."
One week each February, the Dodgers conduct a Hall of Fame Fantasy Camp at Dodgertown, their spring training facility in Vero Beach, Fla. There, for a $4,195 fee, produce salesmen, doctors, lawyers, meatpackers, insurance brokers (and this year the creator of the Ginsu knife) play and talk baseball with The Duke and Ernie and all the rest.
They put on their uniforms in the same locker room. They lounge in the same lounge. They dine at the same dining room tables. ("Please pass the salt, Duke.")
To give you an idea of how important this is, consider that it rained the night before camp began. The rain stopped by morning. For five days, 96 fantasy campers and the Hall of Famers romped around Dodgertown's ball fields. They played 16 games. It didn't rain the entire time.
"It wouldn't dare rain on our parade," one camper put it.
An hour after the final game, it rained cats and dogs. Now, that's clout.
Among the campers in Vero Beach with Sarnoff, a Newport Beach resident, were Fred Jacobson, 45, of Tustin, Ralph Rollins, 39, of Costa Mesa and Dan Tsujioka, 38, of Newport Beach.
Call them the Orange County Dodgers.
In this age of anti-heroes and rampant cynicism, what draws grown men to such a place?
Sarnoff, who last played organized baseball in high school, said it's "a what-if feeling." He hoped to glimpse "what it would have been like if I'd stayed in the batting cages two or three hours a day" as a teen-ager.
From Feb. 11 to 16, Sarnoff got an eyeful.
The Florida rain may have been chased away by Mr. Sunshine himself, the forever young Banks, who trod daily upon the manicured Dodgertown fields of play.
"I feel like a Texas millionaire!" the 57-year-old former Chicago Cubs shortstop announced to everyone and no one in particular. Then he wanted to know: "How do you feel?"
Banks' infectious chant became a watchword. Wherever he appeared, he was greeted with, "How do you feel, Ernie?" He always felt great.
Cary Sarnoff felt great the first day too. He expected so much fun that he telephoned his wife to tease: "There's a one-in-three chance I'm not coming home."
But at Sarnoff's age, wasn't there at least a one-in-three chance of overdoing it?
"The only thing that gets hurt here is egos," Sarnoff assured.
Remember those words.
Campers began with half an hour of stretching exercises, then a couple of hours of infield, outfield, catching, pitching and batting practice. The campers were divided into six teams, with Hall of Famers as managers and coaches.
At 1:30 p.m., umpires yelled, "Play ball!"
Sarnoff was an immediate standout and the first Orange County camper to score a run. On the bench, teammate and stockbroker Ralph Rollins squinted into the sun and yelled.
"Joonwhaddayasaynah!" slurred Rollins at the top of his lungs, just like they do in the big leagues.
(For those unfamiliar with baseball-ese, Rollins was imploring Junior Marques, a motel operator from South Yarmouth, Me., to do well at bat.)
The first-day skies were angry gray, and gusty winds lashed the playing fields, blowing fly balls beyond the reach of sloth-footed fielders and sapping the strength of the less-than-fit.
"This is opening day, and on opening day you run into a little turbulence," said Banks, coach of the San Antonio Dodgers, who were beaten 11-7 by the Albuquerque Dodgers, managed by Lou Brock, the great outfielder for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
Tsujioka was on Banks' team. Rollins, Sarnoff and Jacobson were on Brock's.