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Childrey a happy Cubbie camper

Childrey a happy Cubbie camper
Childrey a happy Cubbie camper

Union City resident Al Childery steps in during Chicago Cubs’ Fantasy Camp.
As a young boy growing up 60 miles south of Chicago, Al Childrey regularly dreamed of suiting up for his favorite major league baseball team.
Fast forward more than 40 years and now a respected businessman in Union City, Childrey finally got to experience his ultimate fantasy.
Childrey, owner of Collision Specialty Auto Repair, recently returned from a week at Randy Hundley’s Chicago Cubs Fantasy Baseball Camp, where he lived the life of a big leaguer and rubbed elbows with many of his Cub idols.
The experience at the club’s spring training facility in Mesa, Ariz., was indeed everything Childrey had ever imagined while dreaming of pulling on a Cubs’ jersey as a youth in Wilmington, Ill., a small farming community less than an hour from the Windy City.
“When I walked into the clubhouse and saw my locker with my name above it and my jersey hanging inside, it just gave me chills,” said Childrey, now 54 years old and an admitted life-long fan of Chicago’s North Side National League entry. “Then to see my boyhood idols like Randy (Hudley) and Ron Santo and Ferguson Jenkins and Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert and some of the Cubs from the ’84 team like Jody Davis and Leon Durham and Keith Moreland and Bobby Dernier… It was just a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.
“And to have access to those guys and just be able to sit and talk and listen to their stories, I truly lived my dream. I was a major leaguer for one week.”
Cub fantasy campers from across the United States — many of whom were repeat attendees — were divided into eight, 11-member teams. The average age of players on each of the teams was 48, with the oldest competitor being 53. There were two women to participate, too.
The eight teams of ‘fantasy’ Cubs competed against each other as well as one game against fantasy campers from the San Francisco Giants as part of a two seven-inning games per-day schedule. 
At the end of the week, the Cubs’ eight teams of fantasy players played a club made up of former Chicago standouts with each fantasy team entry facing Cub old-timers for one inning.
The games in his own personalized Cub uniform were not the only big league experience that thrilled Childrey, though.
“We had a kangaroo court — a tradition just like they have in major league clubhouses — and Lee Smith presided over it,” he explained. “They’d fine you a few dollars for little things like running too fast or something, and all the money they collected from the fines was sent to Haiti as part of the relief effort over there.
“You always hear a lot of players say they miss the camaraderie when they retire and I see why now. The games were great, but the time in the clubhouse with the players was really special.”
Intent on making the most of his experience and “not embarrassing myself,” Childrey — who was involved for 14 years as a coach in the local youth league circuit — worked out regularly before leaving on his dream trip.
He said he focused on both his fitness and baseball skills over a several-week period and built a pitching mound at his home where he threw regularly. He also tossed batting practice to some high school players and claimed he shook the rust off his swing with batting cage work in Paducah and by using a Solo Hitter™ at home.
Childrey, who logged time at every position but shortstop in games at the camp, also claimed he ran some wind sprints prior to reporting to camp in Arizona.
“Not nearly enough though,” he laughed. “That was the toughest thing for me.”
Pressed to identify his personal highlights from the camp competition, Childrey said a two-inning pitching stint against the Giants’ fantasy team during which he gave up no runs and fanned a couple of batters was No. 2.
No. 1, he insisted, was easy.
“They brought me in to pitch to one batter when we played the Cubs’ old-timers and it was Pete LaCock,” he fondly recalled. “He played some first base and outfield for the Cubs in the ‘70s and is the son of (longtime Hollywood Squares game show host) Peter Marshall.
“I was a bundle of nerves. I got him down two strikes with a couple of cutters and then threw a ball. I threw him a 1-2 curveball and he hit about a three-hopper to first base and we got him out. I was obviously thrilled to have retired a major league hitter.”
Childrey said his loyalties to the Cubbies was born when he was “8 or 9 years old and we could come home from school and watch them on WGN (television) every day. And then, back in the ’60s, you could go to the games and sit in the bleachers for $1.”
He recalled the fondest of his childhood memories of watching Chicago southpaw Kenny Holtzman pitch a no-hitter in August of 1969 with Cubs’ leftfielder Billy Williams making a circus catch of Hank Aaron’s long drive to the ivy-covered wall to preserve the gem.
Those memories haven’t faded in time, and neither will his experience at the Chicago Cubs’ fantasy camp.
“I wouldn’t trade that week for anything,” he claimed. “I was like a kid in a candy store.”
And though that kid is grown now, he isn’t dreaming any more.
Sports editor Mike Hutchens can be contacted by e-mail at mhutch@ucmessenger.com.

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