They arrived last week with their spiked shoes and their gloves and their dreams ready to be fulfilled. One man brought his twin sons with whom to share the dream.
This was Fantasy Island in the desert. Fantasy turned to reality for about 60 men, aged 35 and older, dressed in real Chicago Cubs uniforms, playing on real baseball diamonds, coached by real former Cubs.
And not just any bunch of Cubs, but Cubs who were together in 1969, when a pennant almost flew over Wrigley Field. The Cubs didn't make it that year. The Mets did.
But the Cubs provided an unforgettable summer of thrills. And now Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Rich Nye, Jim Hickman and Gene Oliver were together again.
For the princely sum of $2,195, ordinary folks, most of them residents of the Chicago area, immerse themselves in baseball for a week, going through a simulated spring training under the tutelage of their heroes.
Hundley, the ex-catcher who, with his business partner, Allan Goldin, helped turn an idea into reality, wanted authenticity, right down to the post-workout soup. And he got it.
"Everything has been done on a first-class, professional level," said Hundley. "It makes me very proud."
Hundley, coowner of a baseball school for children in Chicago, said about 500 men expressed interest when the camp was publicized a few months ago. Some decided they couldn't afford the cost, which included round-trip air fare and lodging. But others found a way.
"My mama said I've never asked for anything, that I've been a good boy," said Bob Margolin, 36, owner of a small publishing house on Long Island. "So she gave me half the money."
Most of the players prepared rigorously for the challenge. Running, throwing, lifting weights. Several compete in sandlot hardball or softball leagues. A few were practically ringers, having once played college baseball.
The ages ranged from the minimum of 35 to 64. Leonard Arnold is 61, a physician from Winnetka, Ill., who listed himself as a catcher. His participation was limited but it mattered little.
"I've wanted to be a ballplayer all my life," said Arnold, whose thrill was not confined to just being here. His twin sons, Larry and Gary, 37, also played.
"I'm here because I love to play baseball," said John Patti, 42, who works for a money market firm on Chicago's La Salle Street. "I'm a big Cubs fan. Those guys were in their heyday when I was watching a lot of baseball. This is a chance to rub elbows with them and play the game I love, too."
Workouts each day began with a series of muscle-testing aerobics, clearly the low point. The players then split into groups for instruction and drills in each phase of the game. The ex-Cubs and one present Cub, Jenkins, presided over the stations.
The information imparted by the teachers tended toward the basic. Hickman to a group of first basemen: "Normally, the right-handed first basemen tags the bag with his right foot. It's more comfortable that way."
Santo at third: "Get those hands down!"
Jenkins, 22 victories short of 300 in his career, with some pitchers: "Keep your head up as much as possible. A ball thrown at 80 mph comes back at you at 110."
The "campers," as Hundley originally called them (amended to "players" later in the week) marveled that not only did the big leaguers show real patience, they acted just like normal people.
"One of the pleasant surprises is how easily they mingle with you," said Patti, who emerged as one of the talents of the camp. "I was a little concerned about that."
The real-life Cubs, who came here for expenses only, had a solid grasp of what this was all about. That made it easier to relate.
"If you're any kind of athlete, you have that dream of playing in the major leagues," said former second baseman Beckert, a commodities trader in Chicago.
"Now, they have a chance to go through it. When they go to a game now they'll have an understanding of what a player has to go through."
That includes an assortment of aches, mostly pulled muscles, blisters, and sore arms and backs. "We're getting a little more business than we get in a major league camp," said Larry Davis, one of the trainers here at what normally is the San Francisco Giants spring training home. "But it's the same type of thing."
As the week progressed the players' skills became more sharply defined. Or obscured. "The mind works but the body doesn't," said Philip (Butch) Mappa, a 38-year-old real estate man. Teams were selected for games and the players finally used what they were learning.
The week concluded with a 15-inning game. The Cubs, managed by Leo Durocher, beat the over-35 crew, managed by one-time Cub pilot Charlie Grimm and former pitcher Steve Stone. The score was 23-6.
Stone, who owns a restaurant here and will do television broadcasts of Cubs games this season, said he is no disciple of Earl Weaver.
"I'm not short enough," said Stone, the American League Cy Young Award winner with the Orioles in 1980. "And, besides, I don't have Jim Palmer to pick on." The end came too soon for most. But the memories will be timeless.
"This was above all my expectations," said Bill Mitchell, 35, sales manager for a sporting goods firm and a left-handed pitcher with a nifty curve. "We're being treated like major leaguers.
"I canceled a trip to France to do this. Heck, I could go to France any time. I don't get excited about anything. But I'm excited."