Every winter, for one week, a Field of Dreams-like experience comes true for Pittsburgh Pirates fans in Bradenton.
All the magic that takes place at Pirate City and LECOM Park, where fans ages 30 and older will pay thousands of dollars each to put on their favorite team’s uniform and play ball all week long (including doubleheaders) while being coached by Pirates of their youth, comes down to one man—Joe Billetdeaux.
The Pirates’ media guide lists Billetdeaux’s organizational responsibilities as promotions, licensing, and director of alumni affairs. Add managing the annual fantasy camp to his overseeing fantasy week.
For many who are campers (the upcoming camp is sold out), converging in Bradenton January 6-13, and being pampered to a level members of the major league club experience, is something they circle on their calendars very early on each year.
According to Billetdeaux, who has been steering the camp since 2006, records indicate that the unique fan experience the Pirates (other MLB clubs also promote fantasy camps) offer in Manatee County each January go back to at least 1999.
“It’s a great week for getting out of Pittsburgh weather, and the guys demonstrating their love for the game, and for the Pirates,” said Billetdeaux during a recent phone conversation.
The camp isn’t exclusive to men. Females are in attendance as participants, too. Billetdeaux says three to four females register annually.
Putting on a Pirates uniform, getting out on the same fields that their baseball favorites utilize each spring training, and playing ball all day, allows the nearly 100 campers to be younger again. They also get to remember all that is good about the game, and simpler times when they went to a park and pretended to be a Pirate player.
“Over the past 12 to 15 years the camp has been a sell-out,” said Billetdeaux.
A contributing factor to the yearly camping success in Bradenton is the team that Billetdeaux assembles to create “Pirate Magic”.
Former Pirate MLB all-star and member of the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh World Series championship club Kent Tekulve is the camp’s director. When you have roughly eight teams of 12 players, coordination is paramount to success.
The Pirate's camping experience has proven to be so MLB authentic that each year those in attendance are 75% repeat customers.
“They get it in their blood, and want to get back the following year,” Billetdeaux explains of the big-league experience offered. “The campers become friends; a fraternity for a week.”
Perhaps the best complement to the work Billetdeaux, Tekulve, and several former Pirates receive for the experience they create is the happiness shared by campers of living out their childhood dreams. Getting to put on a pair of spikes after years of not doing so, being treated like a member of the MLB Pirates; a locker to their own at Pirate City, cleats polished and waited on by clubhouse attendants, these are smile creators.
Each team selected during the week has two former Pirates assigned as coaches. Among coaches from past camps have been Doug Drabek, Al Oliver, Jim Rooker John Candelaria, and Jack Wilson, who retired as recently as of 2012. Steve Blass, a member of the Pirates’ 1971 World Series championship club, also plays a role with the campers.
Aside from instructing campers on pitching, Billetdeaux reminds me that Blass leads the fantasy camp’s “Kangaroo Court”.
“Each session is about 10-15 minutes; silly, stupid stuff. Fines, and other things. That’s Steve’s job.”
A typical camp day begins with a morning briefing around 9:00 a.m., then it’s off to work/play. All campers are in full uniform. All four fields at Pirate City are in use. The teams get to play a game at LECOM, the same surface where the Pirates play their Grapefruit League schedule each spring.
“This is open to the public. We have a public address announcer. The campers get the big-league experience,” Billetdeaux said.
As a Pirates employee for the past 36 years, who better than Billetdeaux knows what Pirates fans are expecting when flying into SRQ, and making their way to 27th Street East?
Taking over alumni affairs after former director Nellie Briles passed in 2005, steering the fantasy camp was also offered. Working with his childhood Pirates’ heroes is gratifying to Billetdeaux. This positive baseball energy is what he passes along to those signing up, some first, having to be put on a waiting list, to travel to Bradenton in January.
For a Pirates fan to make their first stab at being among the chosen few who gain a roster spot for the fantasy camp, there is early registration in March. Veterans, those who have previously participated in the camp have up until April to claim their roster position for the following January’s event. Billetdeaux suggests that for each annual camp, there are about 8 to 10 spots a year for rookies to get in on.
In the past campers have come to Bradenton from 16 different states and Canada. And after packing up their gear and heading out of Manatee County, back to their “real world”, campers will take home with them lasting relationships. They do become a close-knit group.
Then, during the regular MLB season, at a home Pirates game, campers are invited to PNC Field. A reunion is planned. The morning of the Pirates home game, campers get to play on the big-league playing surface. Of the anticipated 60 to 65 returning campers, each will be called out, and get to tip their cap to ticket buyers for the big-league game.
Awards, karaoke night, and the fun and mission to make memories are continuous. The week of January 6-13 offers another unique look at Pirates baseball to locals, and what’s good for them is good for Manatee County.