Each installment of “The Friendship Files” features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of middle-aged men who met at the New York Mets fantasy baseball camp, where they trained with former major leaguers and lived like professional players for a week. They bonded over their love of the sport and the antics of camp life, but that connection quickly morphed into a deep, year-round friendship that they say has made them as close as brothers. They discuss the joy of living out their childhood dream and the magic of finding your best friends in your 40s.
Josh Boxer, 45, the chief compliance and privacy officer at a health-care technology company who lives in Davie, Florida
Eric Brown, 53, a lawyer who lives in Watertown, Connecticut
Josh Green, 43, a physical therapist who lives in Wallingford, Pennsylvania
Alan Herbert, 50, a teacher who lives in Taunton, U.K.
Bobby Patel, 46, a physician who lives in Homer, New York
Dave Shih, 46, the chief medical officer at a primary-care practice who lives in Long Island, New York
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Julie Beck: Let us begin with the fundamental question: What happens at fantasy baseball camp?
Eric Brown: About 120 guys around our age show up in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and have a week of playing baseball, drinking beer, and seeing friends. We’re affiliated with the Mets.
Josh Boxer: We live like major-league baseball players. We have former players as our coaches. We get personal trainers. We have a professional locker room. And we get to interact with our heroes from when we were growing up.
Dave Shih: For those of us who’ve never played baseball, like myself and Bobby, it was a chance to put on a uniform, swing the bat, and see what we can do.
Beck: What position do you each play?
Bobby Patel: I like playing second base.
Eric: I play shortstop, I pitch, and I play center field.
Josh Green: I play shortstop and center field.
Eric: I know that Josh Green wouldn’t say so but he’s a killer shortstop. I think he’s won three Gold Gloves in five years. He’s a legend.
Josh Boxer: I play second base and lately some outfield as well.
Dave: When you’ve never played, they stick you in right field. That’s the worst position. But over the years, I have become of some use and now I’m a catcher.
Alan Herbert: I play right field, where I’m no harm.
Beck: Take me back to the first day you showed up at camp. What was the vibe? Did it feel like the first day of school?
Bobby: I remember our first day, five years ago, vividly. I only knew Dave. We’ve known each other since childhood.
You walk into that locker room and your hairs are standing on end. You put on the uniform, which is amazing. Then you walk onto the field and there’s a bunch of guys that have already been to camp acting like they know what they’re doing. And Dave and I have never even played.
You take batting practice that first afternoon. I was really nervous. And Mookie Wilson and Lenny Harris—these are former major leaguers with the Mets—were heckling the campers. It was really scary and overwhelming, to tell you the truth.
Josh Green: It’s your childhood dream come true. It’s almost an emotional experience. Just seeing your uniform hanging there with your name on it, you revert back to a 10-year-old kid. Putting on the uniform and stepping out on the field is the ultimate equalizer. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what your job is off the field.
Dave: Essentially, now we’re all part of the same family. We’re connected by our love of the sport. That’s what got us all together. What we didn’t expect was the friendship. Most of us thought the camp was a one-and-done type of thing. I don’t think any of us expected to do this for five years.
Josh Boxer: It morphed into something more. Our group text can go anywhere from politics, to locker-room talk, to serious things that are going on in our life. Those are the moments where I’m happy to be on my phone.
Bobby: I go every year because of these guys right here. If I couldn’t play baseball, I’d want to meet up with them somewhere else.
Beck: I’m fascinated by the concept of camp friends—people you see once a year in a very specific context and that’s the only place you see them. Is there something unique or special about the camp friendship, the intensity of how you’re together all day?
Alan: For my part, having to go to America makes it all the more special. But the chance to spend that week with these guys—I wouldn’t change that for anything. I don’t have that dynamic anywhere else in my life.
Josh Boxer: Living together for an entire week, especially in our 40s, we had an intense time—some drinking, some late nights, some fun shenanigans. It morphed into something. If it weren’t for these guys, camp would’ve been a great experience, but I never would’ve come back. It’s a big commitment; it’s expensive.
Bobby: This is a very intelligent group. There’s a lot of jabronis, high-school-athlete types at this camp. We’re not those guys; we’re the nerds of the group.
I still got along with those other guys, because they were Mets fans, but I gravitated toward this group because they were so smart. And the conversations that we had not about baseball were amazing. We didn’t bring our baggage with us initially, but now I can open up to these guys more than I can open up to family, almost.
Josh Green: I know each of the five people on this screen has been through a significant thing over the last four or five years. We’ve all helped each other with those things. It’s beyond the baseball field at this point.
Josh Boxer: One of our coaches is seriously ill and he’s going into hospice. It’s very sad; he was a good guy. And we’ve raised over $50,000 in a matter of two days to airlift him home and to help them with his expenses. That’s what this is about. People step up. I’d give any of these guys a kidney in a heartbeat.
Dave: What else is there to say? These are my lifelong brothers. We have a pre-camp meeting and a post-camp meeting just to extend it.
Beck: Are there favorite memories or special stories from camp that come to mind?
Dave: They have this thing called “kangaroo court,” when the coaches pick on all of us for something we did. Luckily we had two lawyers in the group. What was the exact charge, Josh?
Josh Green: I showered, and someone snuck a picture of me in my towel before I was dressed. I believe it got put on social media. Then it was blasted at kangaroo court on a huge screen.
Josh Boxer: I was counsel for Josh Green. The charge was indecent exposure. I quickly realized that the kangaroo court did not have appropriate jurisdiction, since the alleged activities and exposure occurred in Orange County, Florida, and the judges were in St. Lucie County. Therefore we needed to dismiss the case. A plea deal was cut in which, in exchange for dismissal, we would disclose who took the picture. Eric represented the photographer and did a fabulous job.
Bobby: The root point is we’re men, but we’re boys. We like to bust balls. This is a pretty liberal group, but at the same time, we like to be inappropriate. It’s hard to do that without getting in trouble in your everyday life. This is an escape, where we can just let loose and be ourselves like we were when we were boys. We can curse and make fun of each other and, at the end of the day, we still love each other.
Beck: Do you feel like your friendship has two modes: the mode when you’re at camp together and then the mode when you’re long distance and keeping up in between camps?
Alan: The texting is fantastic. But camp is the centerpiece. That’s the high point.
Eric: I think you’re right when you say it’s like two modes. I look forward to camp every year like a kid looking forward to Christmas. Getting there, and seeing these guys, it’s intense. You’re in the sun and it’s warm and you’re in these beautiful fields and they treat you like a major leaguer.
Then, during the year, we’re texting all day long. That’s great on a day-to-day level. It just nourishes you and nurtures you and makes you feel good about waking up, knowing that you’ve got your brothers that you’re going to be talking to about whatever’s going on. That’s just very special.
Bobby: I never had a brother. This feeds a need. These guys know the real me maybe as much as my wife, more than maybe my parents. I don’t even think I really knew Dave until we went to this camp together.
Beck: What have you learned from your friendship?
Dave: I’m pretty selective about my friends. It usually takes a few years before I get comfortable with somebody and share. And wow, in one magical year I got four new brothers. Because Bobby had been a brother for a long time. It’s good to know that you can make lifelong friends later in life.
Eric: I never thought that in my late 40s I’d make friends for the rest of my life. People are jealous of that because it’s hard to make friends when you get a career and a family. This was such a special thing to come into my life at this age. We’re family guys. We talk about important issues that affect us as men and as husbands. It’s nurturing and it’s special.
Josh Boxer: Each of us came from such a different background. So I want to be a sponge and absorb so much from each person. I know who to go to for different things.
Alan: Coming away from camp I’ve learned that there are still things which can bring people together. You can meet people of very high standing and very high quality. I consider myself very lucky that I took that gamble.
Josh Green: Eric passed a book on to me a couple years ago about how guys form and keep relationships by extending themselves and making themselves vulnerable. Without even knowing it, this group does that.
Bobby: This group has taught me more empathy, more compassion, and more tolerance. I don’t think I would have the same level of understanding and empathy for myself if it wasn’t for this group. I feel like I’m a better human being because of that. They make me better.
If you or someone you know should be featured on “The Friendship Files,” get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.