“It always takes place a week before the Tigers’ pitchers and catchers report (for Spring Training),” Campbell said of the camp, which includes instruction from the Tigers’ legends, two games per day at the team’s practice fields near Joker Marchant Stadium, and several other special perks during the week-long event that could be considered a baseball fan’s dream come true.
Campbell, 73, said he saw a promotion for the camp during a Tigers’ rain delay on television 15 years ago, and thought aloud to himself that it would be a fun experience. Campbell’s wife, Maureen, surprised him by signing him up for the camp without his knowledge and presented the all-expense paid trip and camp as a Christmas gift.
“Now, she’s probably mad at me that I keep on going back,” Campbell joked.
“Norm’s the oldest of seven children, so he never got a chance to play that often when he was younger,” Maureen said. “He’s always worked so hard throughout his life to support his family. This is good for him. He can be a kid again.”
As a tribute to Campbell’s loyalty and his desire to get all of the campers involved in the fun but competitive games and other activities, the camp’s organizer has asked Campbell to throw out the first pitch at a Tigers’ game at Comerica Park in Detroit later this summer.
“It’s taking place on August 30. It’s a night game and Kansas City is in town,” Campbell said.
Campbell said another surprise is that his family recently rented a party bus, so several can make the trip to Detroit to watch his shining moment.
“Now I really can’t mess up,” he said with a laugh.
“I feel honored to be picked,” he added. “I’m not nervous or anything, as long as I get a chance to warm up before hand. The last thing I want to do is bounce one in there. I hope they let me throw off of the mound. That would be a real thrill.”
Campbell, a Muskegon Heights graduate and former North Muskegon resident, said this January may be his last at the camp. The minimum age requirement of the camp is 21, but Campbell said the average age of a camper is the early 50s.
“I had a good year down there this spring, but this next one will probably be my last session,” he said. “Of course this is probably my fourth last season. I keep saying this is the last year but I keep coming back. I am 73-years-old, though, and I’m probably on the down hill side.
“But they thought I was only 57 down there this year. I said, ‘nope, but if you flip those numbers, then you’d be closer.’”
Campbell said two Tigers’ legends are assigned as coaches for each of the eight-or-so teams at the camp. On Day 1, the camp opens with hitting and other skill clinics. Campbell said there is a wide level of skill levels among the male and female campers.
“One year, there was a kid from Japan who just picked the Tigers off the Internet,” Campbell said. “When he finally got his first hit late in the week, both teams rushed out of the dugouts and congratulated him. It’s not about wins or losses down there. Sure it’s competitive, but it’s more about doing your best and having a good time.”
Campbell said he sees several familiar faces year-after-year, and has kept the same roommate from the first year he participated. The campers stay at the same hotel as many of the Tigers’ legends.
“If you buy them a few liquid refreshments, they’re more likely to share some stories from the good old days,” Campbell said.
At first, Campbell said he was intimidated being around Kaline and the other Tigers’ legends, but he’s no longer star struck.
“There treat us as regular guys, because they’re just regular guys themselves,” Campbell said. “They’re a lot of fun to be around. John Hiller for one, he was a pitcher on the ‘68 team. He lives up in Iron Mountain and I travel up there from time to time. So he tells me “Don’t dare go through there without stopping and having a beer with me.’” A lot of them are just like that.”
Some of the more well-known Tigers scheduled for the 2012 camp include Darrell Evans, Willie Hernandez, Willie Horton, Lolich, Dan Petry, Frank Tanana, Dave Rozema, and one of Campbell’s favorites, Alan Trammell.
The highlight of the camp is the final day, Campbell said, when the campers compete in a spirited game against the Tigers’ legends.
“A lot of them are slowing down, but they’ve still got it. They can still compete,” Campbell said. “If you were cocky throughout the week, you’ll probably get three whiffs when you’re up to bat. But if you listened and worked hard, you’ll be rewarded.”
Campbell, who pitches and plays first, second or outfield, said his best memory from one of the final games was pitching against Brookens.
“He called me ‘Soupy’ because my last name was Campbell,” he said. “So Tom gets up there and yells out, ‘Soupy! Have I been a good manager?’ Yeah? OK, so let me have one right down the middle!’”
Campbell obliged, and threw a perfect strike that Brookens clobbered to the outfield.