The Santa Barbara Summer Camp of my Dreams

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Have any strange dreams during this crazy California summer? Me too.

Mine compressed time and space. In dreamland, I toggled between the smoky claustrophobia of summer 2020 and childhood memories of the Santa Barbara-area baseball camp I attended in the 1980s.

What took me back to Ken McMullen Baseball Camp in Carpinteria?  Maybe it was because this summer my three sons were stuck at home, glued to their screens. Maybe it was the cancellation of youth baseball—our family’s primary connection to community—during the pandemic. Maybe it was the power of geographical suggestion; to beat the heat, we twice drove through Carpinteria on our way to cooler, less-COVID-plagued San Luis Obispo County.

Or maybe those dreams came because the steady spirit of that camp, and the dependable ballplayer who ran it, seem precious right now.

Ken McMullen was a rock-solid third baseman for five teams, hitting 156 homers in a  career spanning 1962 to 1977.  He wasn’t a star. Dodger fans remember him as a skilled pinch-hitter for the team that won the National League pennant in 1974. Ken was someone who knew his role, and reliably performed it—the sort of person in short supply these days. 

Late in his career, he started a summer baseball camp for kids near his hometown of Oxnard (his father had run a service station). Family members and pro baseball were constant presences at the camp, though the location moved around, to wherever he could find fields and dorms. He wanted dorms to recreate Dodgertown, the Florida camp where Dodger players lived and trained each spring.

“I wanted to run it just like a spring training camp, and so it was a boarding camp—and you had to stay there,” Ken, 78, recalls. “That way you could have the camaraderie with the kids, and it wasn’t just us teaching them. The kids could coach each other.”

In the 1980s, Ken moved the camp to Cate School, in Carpinteria. My parents generously sent me for one week each summer. I was just 10 my first year—it was my first and  only sleepaway camp—and I remember feeling nervous about going. 

The feeling didn’t last. The camp coaches were welcoming—and kept you busy. Tough football coaches hold twice-daily practices. Ken McMullen Baseball Camp held three practices daily—morning, afternoon, and early evening, hitting until it was too dark to see the ball. During breaks, kids would play whiffle ball games so intense that we broke school windows.

Never have I ever been instructed as thoroughly as I was at that baseball camp. While all coaches preach teamwork, the camp taught the all the details of actually practicing it—the myriad ways you back teammates up, and communicate on the field. At each week’s end, campers were sent home with written report card.

My report cards said I was a smart aleck, who often challenged other players and coaches. But the camp’s coaches said my personality could be an asset to a team.   They encouraged me to devote my critical energy to watching the game intently, teaching me to identify pitches before they were thrown, and read bats to anticipate where the ball would be hit.  When I was 12, I won the camp’s award for Best Attitude, and I asked if it was a joke. Ken told me I had the best “bad attitude” he’d seen. It may be the finest compliment I’ve ever received.

In essence, the camp wasn’t just teaching us baseball; it was teaching us how to teach others. I started coaching Little League at age 14, using McMullen drills, and still coach today. A few campers played professionally, but many more became coaches and educators.

“The philosophy behind the camp was fun but not just that: We’re also going to teach you a lot, and hopefully you’ll take some of this home,” says Scott Young, who started as a camper, became a  camp counselor, and went on to be a coach, teacher, and principal in Orange County.

I moved on and the camp eventually ended, but Ken McMullen’s Camp never left my brain. In one dream this summer, I was playing in the campers-versus-coaches game—which Ken often won with a pinch-hit—and flying out to right-center field. In another dream, I’m running the bases endlessly, trying to make sure I hit each base on the inside corner.  

Then I woke up, still stuck at home. I wish I were back at camp.

 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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