Of all the extraordinary memories Al Voss, Washington, brought home with him from the 2013 Cardinals Legends camp held at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., last January, the most special is the moment Lou Brock asked for his autograph.
Brock, who played outfield with the Cardinals from 1964-’79 and was “the most prolific base stealer in baseball history up to that time,” was Voss’ biggest childhood hero.
So when Brock approached him during breakfast the first morning of camp and asked, “Can I sit down next to you?” Voss felt like the luckiest kid in the world. As they made conversation, Voss somehow found the courage to tell Brock one of his lifelong baseball dreams.
“I said I really wanted a picture of him asking me for my autograph.”
Brock delivered that afternoon, and Voss thought he achieved everything he’d hoped for in going to the Legends Camp. A few days later Brock surprised him.
“He signed a ball for me that said, ‘Thanks for the autograph,’ ” recalled Voss, holding the ball in his hand.
About 10 years ago, The Missourian ran a feature story on another Washington man, Leroy Eggert, who attended the Cardinals Legends Camp. After reading the article, Voss talked with Eggert about the camp and dreamed that someday he’d have a chance to go, but never expecting he actually would.
Then last fall for Voss’ 55th birthday, his wife, Barb, their children (Ben, Laura and Jake) and their families, chipped in to make it a reality.
Voss, who had grown up in Washington playing baseball — first Little League, then for St. Francis Borgia High School, the American Legion team, at East Central College, the Washington Buds . . .
“He’s a huge fan,” Barb remarked.
She knew the trip to Cardinals Legends Camp would be a dream come true — five days playing and talking baseball with legendary Cardinals’ players like Brock, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog . . . ; wearing his own authentic Cardinals uniform with his name on the back; and hanging his cleats inside his own locker with an authentic name tag on the front like all of the Cardinals legends at Roger Dean Stadium.
When Voss opened the birthday card to find that his present was a trip to the Legends Camp, he actually cried tears of joy, she said.
Voss was one of 93 campers who attended the 2013 Cardinals Legends Camp. Of the 93, 63 were returning campers who had attended previous years. Some come back every year and make an annual vacation of it. One camper was a Catholic priest who was at camp for his third time, said Voss.
The 30 new campers naturally were referred to as “rookies.”
The campers were divided into seven teams with one team of Cardinals Legends.
The five-day camp ran Wednesday to Sunday, Jan. 23-27.
The first day, campers spent the day hanging out at the hotel pool before attending an opening dinner where two legendary Cardinals were seated at each table.
“Tito Landrum was one at our table,” said Voss. “He lives in Manhattan, so we talked bout Hurricane Sandy.
“We heard stories from every player. It was so cool to talk to every one of them.”
On Thursday morning, the campers head over to Roger Dean Stadium Clubhouse for their first team meeting and team selection process, which included batting practice so the Cardinals Legends could scout which players they wanted to recruit.
“Each team has a pitcher as a manager, and then they pitch to you when you play against the Cardinals’ team,” Voss noted.
He was recruited by John Costello, who played for the Cardinals from 1988 to 1990.
Once the teams were set, the campers played doubleheaders.
That night, they enjoyed a special dinner with the Legends, including the Hall of Famers — Brock, Smith, Sutter and Herzog — before they had to leave Friday morning to fly to St. Louis to attend Stan Musial’s funeral. It was another opportunity to socialize with the baseball greats, who didn’t disappoint campers, or their spouses.
“To listen to the stories . . . ,” said Barb Voss, recalling how Whitey Herzog told the story of how he recruited Ozzie Smith. “They all told such great stories the whole time.”
Friday morning, the campers had team pictures and then they played a game against a full lineup of Cardinals Legends. Voss’ team faced their manager John Costello on the mound, so for this one game they were given Ozzie Smith as a coach.
“My first at bat I hit a line drive to center field and got on first base,” said Voss.
“My second, I hit the ball to left center but it ended out because Tito (Landrum) had the catch.”
It was a bittersweet moment, Voss said. Afterward, Smith came over to talk to him about that “good hit,” and later Landrum autographed a ball for Voss adding, “Sorry for catching that fly ball.”
It’s those kinds of personal comments and mementos that made the trip so extraordinary, said Voss. The entire camp was full of them.
“After the first game, I was going into the clubhouse to rest before the next game, when Lou Brock came in and we started talking.
“I told him how I was at his Hall of Fame induction in 1988, so he sits down next to me . . . . I asked him what it was like being called up to the majors, and he tells me how he was a power hitter, but they used him as a lead-off hitter . . . and he ended up being the best lead-off hitter.”
Voss, who played first base and outfield for his camp team, said playing baseball was really just the icing on the cake of the experience. The real treat was just being so close to the Cardinals Legends.
“You don’t go there to play ball as much as you do just to hang out with them,” he said.
“They put you so at ease, so you’re not nervous talking to them at all.”
“They treat you like you’re their best friend,” Barb Voss added.
Saturday morning campers lined up for a home run hitting contest, team by team. A ground ball counted for one point, in the air counted for two points and past a cone that had been set out was worth four points.
Voss performed well — tying for first place out of 28 campers in the 50-60 age category, perhaps boosted by a comment he overheard a Legend making.
“When I was hitting, the Cardinals were behind the cage, and I heard one of them say, ‘Watch this guy. He can really hit.’ That made me feel pretty good,” said Voss.
He ended the contest with 14 points out of five swings.
An awards banquet was held on Saturday night, and each team selected an MVP. Voss’ team selected the man who had been their catcher — a 55-year-old doctor who caught every pitch, every game, said Voss.
‘Better Than I Thought’
Voss admits he was initially worried that the camp might prove too much for him, that he wouldn’t be able to keep up or that he would embarrass himself.
“I went into this thinking, ‘Don’t strike out every time’ and ‘Don’t get hurt so you can’t play anymore.’
“I dreamt about it for four months and it was even better than I thought,” Voss remarked.
And the best part wasn’t playing ball. It was getting to know the Legends.
“We’ve gone to spring training before, but it’s like going to the zoo — you can’t touch or talk to the players. Here, it was like, ‘Oh, give me a ball; give me a pen; I’ll sign it!
“The most boring part of camp is the games when you’re separated from the (Legends),” said Voss.
“To anyone who loves baseball, this is the ultimate . . . Skip ever going to another game or anything and just do this one time.”
Voss said he couldn’t express his gratitude to his family enough.
“The whole weekend, I kept asking (Barb), ‘Did I ever tell you thank you for this?’ ”
“He smiled for a month afterward,” Barb remarked.
Camp Helps Veterans Find Jobs
The Cardinals Legends Camp isn’t just a fun opportunity for baseball die-hards. It’s also a fund-raiser. Proceeds benefit Hire Heroes USA, a nonprofit organization that helps returning soldiers and their spouses find jobs, with priority given to veterans who are statistically most likely to be unemployed: veterans of Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and veterans who are wounded or disabled.
For more information about the Cardinals Legends Camp, visit www.legendscamp.com.