VERO BEACH, Fla. — Like marriage, baseball has its rituals.
On a cool and blustery day, some 30 fanatics have gathered on a diamond at the Los Angeles Dodgers Adult Baseball Camp. We're starting a week of games and instruction under the guidance of legendary stars, and it's time for the warm-up drill:
Furiously chewing a wad of bubble gum, I knock the dirt out of my spikes with a bat. I rummage in the dugout for a blue batting helmet that fits and park my butt on the bench.
Then I kiss my wife good morning.
"Hey, both of you cut that out!" yells veteran umpire Bruce Froemming, tearing off his face mask and charging up to us like a mad bull. "There's no kissing in baseball!"
Later on, Heidi sits on my lap, and I nuzzle her ear.
"No bench sex!" shouts a player, watching us through a chain-link fence. "One guy gets it, everybody gets it."
Welcome to married life in fantasy camp. You haven't lived until other men begin sizing up your wife in the sixth inning, wondering whether she's got what it takes to go the distance.
Ever since the Los Angeles Dodgers opened their sprawling spring training complex to fans 15 years ago, the lush green facility has been a male sanctuary, a hardball haven that few women have experienced. The typical Dodgertown crowd ranges from 30-year-old wannabes, lean and fit, to balding, 60-plus executives who shrug off their potbellies and stuff themselves into uniforms. They're all here for different reasons.
Some pay the $4,000 fee simply to rub elbows with the likes of Duke Snider, Ron Cey and Davey Lopes, and they wander the grounds in a semi-daze. Others come for a week of intense competition and, they hope, a first-place trophy for their team. A few are Brooklyn die-hards, rekindling childhood memories; others are L.A. fans, coming year after year.
I can empathize with all of them, and if Sandy Koufax made a surprise appearance, I'd . . . I'd . . . I don't know what I'd do.
But Heidi and I are here on a different mission.
We want to mark the 20th anniversary of our relationship. It began during the 1978 World Series between the Dodgers and the New York Yankees and somehow always has been colored by major league baseball. We also crave the freedom of summer camp the way it used to be, long before jobs, parenting and mortgages turned us into so-called responsible adults.
"I'm here to play ball," Heidi tells one camper after another. Many are incredulous, and it's easy to see why. Conventional wisdom has it that females might be repelled by the crude jock talk and rowdy disarray of a locker room. Common sense suggests that blazing fastballs and the aches and pains of a nine-inning game are meant for loud, carnivorous men.
"Women have fantasies," a reporter once wrote in a feature story about Dodgertown. "But generally they're not about baseball."
Well, buddy, you don't know my wife.
We are a strange couple.
When I was 10, growing up in Los Angeles, my parents bought me a Dodger uniform, and I slept in it the whole summer. When Heidi was 10, growing up in New York City, she was a tomboy who dreamed of playing shortstop for the Bronx Bombers.
In early October 1978, just as we met for the first time (in San Francisco, where we'd both gotten jobs), the Dodgers and Yankees were clashing for the 10th time in a World Series. Heidi and I clicked instantly, but it was clear from the beginning that we truly loathed each other's team.
"What kind of place is this?" she cracked on her first visit to Chavez Ravine, laughing at the palm trees and polite crowds. Obviously, she was homesick for Yankee Stadium.
"You aren't happy watching a ballgame unless there are tenements burning behind the bleachers," I shot back.
Our rivalry grew. And we realized, at the risk of sounding cliched, that baseball and relationships have similar ups and downs: Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you sleep through the game and call it a day.
It was bad enough, for example, that the Yankees beat the Dodgers in 1978. But when L.A. got sweet revenge in 1981, Heidi saw what was coming in the last game and left the room in the sixth inning to take a nap. I couldn't rouse her for hours.
In marrying Heidi, I bought into a family of Dodger haters. I remember nights at New York's Shea Stadium where my mother-in-law would roll up a program and whack me on the head after every Dodger home run. Once, she "outed" me to a hostile crowd at a Mets-Dodgers playoff game (I had to spend the rest of the night fending off La-La jokes). A week before Dodgertown began, my brother-in-law Richie sent me four rolls of blue toilet paper, along with an unprintable message.
On the afternoon we arrived in camp, Heidi brazenly walked in wearing a Yankee T-shirt. But the friction soon disappeared.
"The guys here are so nice, intelligent and generous," she confessed that first day. "I can't believe they're Dodgers."
For once in our relationship, I was speechless.