ST. LOUIS -- It was intended to be a one-time experience, a 50th birthday present that Abe Cherrick gifted to himself. But since attending the Cardinals' fantasy camp in 2005, Cherrick hasn't missed the yearly gathering.
What was intended to be a unique opportunity to reminisce with former ballplayers and take the field with fellow fans has grown into a family function with a much deeper significance.
"I just thought it was going to be about dad playing baseball and meeting his favorite baseball players," said Cherrick, who recently participated in his ninth camp. "But it became much more than that for me. I didn't expect that."
For the last 13 years, the Cardinals have organized a fantasy camp at their spring complex in Jupiter, Fla. This year the camp included about 90 general campers, four Cardinals Hall of Famers (Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Bruce Sutter and Whitey Herzog) and more than a dozen other Cardinals from eras past.
The camp was largely the brainchild of Al Hrabosky, who, as current camp commissioner Rick Horton put it, had "a vision to take this event to another level. Al wanted to make this camp a high-level thing."
Horton joined in the second year.
"I loved it from the second I got involved in it. It's good for my soul," said Horton, who spent six seasons pitching in St. Louis and now works on the organization's broadcast team. "It just connects me with baseball in a way that's unique. It connects me with people I played with, and I laugh for four days. And it's more than a connection with people I played with; it's a connection with people I've met who have now become good friends."
Cherrick brought his entire family -- wife, Debra; daughters, Danielle and Lauren; and son Efram -- south to Florida to watch him play in 2005. Debra took photos, and Efram, who is developmentally disabled, took a liking to several of the Cardinals players.
And like his father, Efram has not missed a camp since. Brock and Hrabosky have, in particular, made the 26-year-old feel welcome and loved as he watches.
"He interacts with them in a way that's very special," Abe Cherrick said. "He stands behind the screen or sits behind the bench. The players go up to him and the campers do, too. I think they are happy to see him because they know how happy he is to be in that experience. It's really a beautiful thing. It's very unique, very special."
The Cardinals' fantasy camp, which runs four days, kicks off with a Wednesday night banquet and opens Thursday with some practice time and a draft. Seven camper teams are formed; each is managed by a former Cardinals pitcher. An eighth team is comprised of Cardinals legends.
The teams compete in a round-robin format, and each camper team faces the team of legends once on the main field inside Roger Dean Stadium. There are daily morning meetings, during which no one is immune from the coaches' playfully pointed criticism. The Cardinals also supply team trainers and clubhouse attendants to meet players' needs. Chapel service is held on Sunday.
The intent is to mimic Major Leaguers' Spring Training routine as closely as possible.
Striking, too, is how much the former Cardinals players embrace the experience. There's little segregation, as campers and Cardinals eat together, play on the same fields and stay in the same local hotel.
"I think what the Cardinals do really well with their fantasy camp is they bring guys down that want to be there and they make you feel like one of the guys," said David Noble, a Jupiter resident who has been to all 13 of the Cardinals' fantasy camps. "It's obvious they enjoy being there. Maybe they aren't the biggest of names, but they turn out to be some of the best guys. It takes a certain person to do that."
Last month, Noble had the added surprise of meeting a cousin -- one he had never previously seen -- at the camp. Both men had grown up Cardinals fans because of family allegiances.
"I think by the end of the week my mouth hurts as much as my arms and legs because I've spent so much time laughing," said the 46-year-old Noble. "It's kind of surreal. You're hanging with Ozzie Smith, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock. Now I've become friends with these guys, so it's catching up and having fun."
There's another important wrinkle to this camp, as well, and that is the other benefactor: charity. For several years, the Cardinals' fantasy camp has been run by Hire Heroes, which used camp proceeds to support its work in creating jobs for US military veterans and their spouses.
But beginning in 2014, the Cardinals will take over the event, and proceeds will be directed to Mercy's Cardinals Kids Cancer Center in St. Louis.
With the Cardinals now in charge of all the planning, Joe Pfeiffer, a senior account executive for the Cardinals, said that there is already talk about possibly expanding enrollment or eventually adjusting the age requirement. Currently, the camp is open to men and women 30 years and older, regardless of ability.
"There's always a sense that you have to have been a high school or college player to come down and participate," Horton said. "But there's really no experience necessary. You have all levels of ability. I pitched to an 83-year-old man once. We have fathers and sons, brothers, coworkers. There are all kinds of reasons to come down here. You don't have to be an elite player."
The Cardinals' 14th annual fantasy camp has been scheduled for Jan. 8-12, 2014, and additional information is already available at cardinals.com/fantasycamp.
"I honestly feel if I can go another 10 years or more, I'm going to do it," said Cherrick, 58. "It's etched into our plans every year."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.