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For 5 Days, Kids Bunt, Battle and Bond in a Major Way at Fullerton Baseball Camp


FULLERTON — Men already know this story, and women may not understand it.

It's about going for days without a bath because your mother's not there to make you. It's about having Pepsi for breakfast.

It's stealing someone's shoes. It's lofting cookies into a ceiling fan to see how far they'll fly.

It's summer camp--when you're away from home and parents, perhaps for the first time, and submerged in a sea of gruff, affectionate masculinity.

And even if camp is like this one--a baseball academy in an urban college dormitory far from forest or lake--the cast and scenario are the same: hundreds of boys in prime-time childhood and a few men who coach and counsel them. Male bonding on a cosmic scale.

"It's hard to explain," said one counselor. "These 8-year-olds, they just come together. It's like a tribe. Each team sticks together."

And while some may cry when they arrive, more shed tears four days later when it's time to leave. On the last day, "one mother called me over, and her boy gave me a hug and cried. That's a total pay-back. That gives you chills when that happens."

On the other hand, let's not get too dewy-eyed. Listen to Mel Franks, whose 13 years of running the camp dorm has given him a dry, pragmatic point of view.

They never listen: "On pizza night we try to tell them, don't have a chocolate malt as soon as you get to the stadium. Pizza and chocolate malt don't seem to mix, as the floor of the bus can attest to."

They're clever as hell: "You seldom catch anyone doing anything. That's kind of your goal walking around here at 1 a.m. If you catch one, it makes it all worthwhile."

But they're just regular boys, most of them: "Some of these boys, you want to take them home. I mean it, they're great kids. And some you want to take to Dahmer's house."

He's kidding, of course. Backed into a corner, Franks admits "it's fun." But he says that until you've done his job, "you don't know what noise is."

Monday, 7:15 a.m., at the Pacific Christian College dormitory, bunkhouse for the California Baseball Academy. Parents of 214 boys, mostly 8 to 12 years old, are arriving and lining up outside. That's too many kids for the dorm, so 62--mainly the older ones--and their counselors are sent to a nearby hotel, which has laid in additional security for the occasion.

The dormitory check-in has been under way only a few minutes, but already a crowd of boys is in the lobby pumping quarters into the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" game.

Others are banking their cash with Mike Murphy, one of the counselors. The average kid's bankroll is around $50, he says. By noon, Murphy will have about $8,000 in his tub of brown envelopes. He sleeps with it.

At 8:30, school buses begin hauling the boys to the workout fields at nearby Brea-Olinda and El Dorado high schools, where the 60 day campers--the ones who go home each night--are gathering.

Soon the boys, sorted by age into teams, are rotating from one "coaching station" to another, being shown baseball fundamentals by the 26 high-school and college coaches.

Their coach-like cadence is unmistakable: "We're looking for HUS-tle. We're looking for AT-titude, en-THU-siasm, positive COM-ments. We're looking to overcome the FEAR of FAIL-ure."

Be bulldogs, he says. It's the camp's emblem, motto, constantly repeated catchword.

Another explains why you don't mess around hitting two bats together. They glance off each other really fast and can hit you in the face.

Right, sure, say the boys' expressions.

"It happened! Yes," the coach insists. "It cut his eye. . . . It required stitches. "

The boys recoil in horror.

At one of the smaller diamonds, 8-year-olds are playing an intrasquad game. The third baseman picks up a ground ball, then throws it wildly.

Coach Steve Bernard: "Don't throw the ball unless you've got an out."

Third baseman: "There's one out."

Bernard: "No, no, don't throw the ball unless you can get an out."

Third baseman: "Oh."

Bernard is grinning. "This age group is the most fun to coach," he says. "They still have the enthusiasm but they also have some attention. You can really teach them."

Far away at the running station, Mike Kirby, a Cal State Fullerton coach, is urging his boys to run their best times.

"These kids, it's hard to keep their concentration, but a lot of them are real eager to learn. Right away you can tell the ones who are here because their parents don't want them at home. They're real withdrawn and down.

"But wait till you see these kids Friday. Night and day, night and day."

The toll by the end of the day: one finger in a splint, one wrist wrapped, one eye poked, one lip bruised.

Back at the dorm, 4:30 p.m.

The younger boys are in the pool, and many are captivated by one boy's withered leg. On the baseball field he limps severely, unable to put weight on it. But in the pool, he swims like a shark.

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