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THE STATE OF THE GAME

The Cape Cod League
By Adam S. Ferber


Amateur baseball attracts a special group of fans, incurable romantics about "America's Pastime." To them, the Cape Cod League is where baseball flowers most richly. The Cape's "All-Star Week 2000" included both the annual all-star game and the match between those all-stars and Team USA, America's national amateur team. The week reminded one fan that, far away from the major leagues, the soul of baseball is often found in its smallest moments.

Established in 1885, Cape Cod is America's oldest summer college league. It draws its players from NCAA Division I colleges, many from perennial baseball powerhouses such as USC, Stanford, and LSU. From June to early August, the players live with local families and compete in a forty-four game schedule, culminating in a three-game East-West divisional playoff. Games are played at town and school fields on and around the Cape. Six of the twenty-three-player teams affect the dress and names of major league franchises. On name and style, the remaining four teams more rightly embody the league's heritage and culture: the Cotuit Kettleers, the Wareham Gatemen, the Falmouth Commodores, and the Brewster Whitecaps.

No admission is charged to games. A hat may be passed for donations. No music is played between innings. Often the only sound beyond the players' grunts of effort is one fan's flinty intonations: "Have a hit," or "Go Hahwich." Unlike say, the Northwoods League, which apes minor-league hucksterism with its dizzy bat races and "no beer batters" (announcer-designated visiting team patsies, whose strikeouts occasion five minutes of reduced beer prices at the concession stands), the contests are dignified and traditional.

Observers take their pleasures from baseball's own simple accompaniments. Players groom and line the field for each game. At Brewster, when short reliever Dan Rich drags the infield pregame, his speeding cart throws out a wake of Beam clay, and his sadistic laughter mingles with the screams of the batboy or bench player who has been lured by "Big Daddy" into the "death seat" today. Throughout batting practice and during each game, P.A. announcers remind fans that each child returning a foul ball from the woods surrounding the field will receive a Friendly's free ice-cream certificate. The practice has created competition parallel to the one between the white lines: the crack of the bat launching a hundred pounding Nikes; the shoving and grunting, until finally one child's hand-over-head display of the prize confirms her victory.

After the game, fans come on the field for autographs and photos. Dads' flash-cameras blaze on players with their arms draped around Little Leaguers. Moms carry infants holding baseballs and pens. In the humid, buzzy twilight, it feels like one's backyard, only framed by the dugout and the outfield tree line. With the game over, the players look younger and more appealing, more like the children being presented to them. At this moment the world crackles with happy promise.

The league's centerpiece has always been—and still remains—the astonishing nascent ability of the players themselves. More than one hundred current major leaguers have spent summers in Cape Cod. In the home run hitting contest that preceded the 1988 league All-Star game, Frank Thomas defeated a field that included Chuck Knoblauch, Jeff Bagwell, and Mo Vaughn. In recent years participants in the annual competition have included some of the new crop of major league stars—Bobby Higginson, Darin Erstad, and Todd Helton. At the Cape League "All-Star Game 2000" home run derby, the crowd roots loudly for Doc Brooks, the brawny, sweet-faced Falmouth Commodore left fielder. Several professional scouts in the stands downgrade Brooks's bat speed. They prefer Cotuit Kettleer Daylan Holt, who led all NCAA Division I players in home runs as a sophomore, or Todd Linden from the University of Washington, whose swing mechanics and strength attest to his major league potential. Brooks, last year's winner, wins the first round, adeptly uppercutting ball after ball into the wind blowing out to left field. Surprisingly, in the second round, he is overtaken by Jason Cooper of Stanford, who will hit but two home runs during the entire Cape season.

All-Star Game 2000 at Cape Cod Regional Technical High School Field features a ninth inning comeback by the East, which gives them a 7–6 victory and leaves the three thousand spectators humming contentedly all the way to the parking lot. Down by four, the East binges on the pitching of Bob Brownlie and Mike Prochaska. Brownlie is Falmouth's inning-eating strikeout king from Rutgers, but today he manages to record only one out amidst an outbreak of hits. Having run out of pitchers—this is, after all, an amateur showcase game—head coach Mike Coutts turns to Prochaska, today's designated hitter. Wareham's big-hitting first baseman and spot-starting pitcher walks in the winning run.

Until then, events on the field proceed quietly, kept under control by the succession of thirteen pitchers—both side's entire staffs. This leaves time for other, serendipitous treats. Muscular John Baker, a UC Berkeley sophomore and non-roster walk-on catcher for the Yarmouth–Dennis Red Sox, chats in the stands with his host family and several players while, nearby, Berkeley alums debate the hiring of an alumnus of arch rival Stanford to replace retiring Bob Milano, the school's crusty and beloved long-time head coach. Teenagers hawk the "50-50 raffle," where the winner takes home half the pot; an arm's length of tickets goes for five dollars. Volunteers sell team merchandise from folding tables set up under a blue and white tent. One table features a photo that captures the Cape Cod League's aesthetic: the aerial shot recalls Hawthorne's woods, set against the blue Atlantic seas and skies, until the eye is drawn to a civilizing baseball field cut into the forbidding countryside and the tiny white dot of a home plate.

The following Saturday at Veteran's Field in Chatham, the Cape League All-Stars play Team USA. In tiny Chatham the game is an event. Families spread blankets and set up beach chairs; the small stands behind home plate are reserved for scouts, agents, and "VIPs." There will eventually be over five thousand assembled four-deep in foul territory and arrayed on the outfield hillside across from the fire house. Smoke curls from charcoal grills, and planes pulling celebratory banners fly slowly above. Behind home plate, the Chatham Bat Company displays its made-to-order wooden wonders on a folding table. The 50–50 raffle promises to be the richest of the season.

There is good reason for a town celebration. Team USA is made up of this country's twenty-two preeminent college players. Each summer it plays an exhibition schedule against the world's best, including the national teams of Cuba and Japan. Like the Cape League (where many Team USA members have performed), many of its players will advance to the majors. The 1984 team was perhaps the greatest assemblage of amateur players in history, including Mark McGwire, Will Clark, and Barry Larkin. Notable players on this year's team include pitchers Mark Prior and the surprising Dewon Brazelton, as well as infielder Xavier Nady.

Nady was arguably the nation's best amateur at the start of the 2000 NCAA season, worth $3 million or more as a pro. However, by the day of the professional draft, talk that the UC Berkeley slugger would accept no less than major league roster status and "Eric Munson money" raised "sign-ability" concerns that dropped him to the forty-sixth pick. "Slotting," the majors' latest flirtation with questionable trade practices, dictates that "X" receive no more bonus money than the players drafted ahead of him. That meant almost $2.5 million less than Munson, last year's top pick. So while the instructional and short-season professional leagues cranked up, Nady and eight other drafted players represented by the controversial agent, Scott Boras, remained unsigned and uncompensated.

Along the right field fence before the game, snatches of conversation reflect the crowd's make-up. A fan with a heavy Brooklyn accent explains how, when his right-handed son was five, he "turned him around" at the plate to gain the speedy child two steps to first base. Nearby, one of over a hundred sports agents and scouts who will be at today's game is on his cell phone. He sports the field uniform worn by most of them: impeccably pressed Dockers, a knit polo shirt, and tasseled moccasins. A gentle phone voice betrays what appears to be both anger and desperation as his eyes scour the field and the sidelines. His calls this weekend afternoon predictably reach voice mailboxes (noted sportswriter Ron Fimrite's is one); the agent apologizes to one mailbox after another for "being out of touch," and agrees to make his unnamed client available "for whatever you need" in the coming week. Setting up their beach chairs next to the dugout are the parents of Josh Persell, Brewster's talented power-hitting first basemen and a starter today. With their clear view of first base assured, they are discussing how a reservation miscalculation left them without a hotel room after one month on the Cape. They are fit and tanned, but both look dark-eyed from lack of sleep.

Two hours or so before game time Team USA arrives at the field in a yellow school bus. When the country's best players emerge, something about the nature of high-level amateur baseball becomes evident. They have an enviable insouciance: each tanned, clean, and angular face, each fine and functional physique, each aura of disinterested involvement. These boys in this moment link the fan to an iconography that flickers through hundred-year-old sepia-toned movies and grainy videos, through a million narrated and imagined images. They are a bridge between the greatest and the most modest who ever played: our big league heroes and ourselves. And because of that, they are the reason for this party on this day. We are celebrating them.

The Cape Cod–Team USA game turns on the play of USC teammates and roommates (and the game's Most Valuable Players) Persell and Mark Prior. Prior pitches six scoreless innings, striking out seven Cape Cod starters, two of them twice. He allows only two hits, one of them in the fifth inning to Persell. (Returning to the first-base dugout at the end of the inning Prior, sotto voce, informs his roommate's parents, "your son cheats.") With Team USA up by two, Dewon Brazelton, a six-foot-four, 205-pounder who relies on a change-up as his "out pitch," succeeds him in the seventh. Brazelton's personable pre-game manner—he is a master of horseplay and chats easily with fans—masks a competitive nature. When Prior left the team earlier in the summer to attend his brother's wedding, Brazelton took his place, going 3–0 with a 0.38 ERA in twenty-four innings, striking out thirty-nine and walking only five. Today, though, he hits the first batter and surrenders a run-scoring double to Persell. And, with the bases loaded in the eighth, Stanford's Mike Gosling hits Persell. The All-Stars tie the game at two runs apiece.

For the next four innings neither side is able to advance a runner past second. Persell flies to left to end the twelfth. Then, with the perfunctory announcement that the "All-Stars have depleted their bench," the game is called so abruptly that even the ritual team handshake is overlooked.

The tie is a non sequitur. Because baseball is a game without a clock, in theory, each contest must be played to a conclusion. Indeed, extra-inning games are part of its lore. Although the stands and sidelines have thinned since the winner of the 50-50 raffle is announced, many fans remain.

Head coach Coutts' strategy explains the Cape's depleted bench and points up the singularity of how baseball is conducted in this league. As in the 2000 All-Star Game the previous Saturday (when the stands were rich with scouts), he has chosen to showcase his pitching staff. There is strategic sense in this; except for the two-run fifth inning, in their one- and two-inning stints, the eight All-Stars have blanked Team USA on five hits. What's more, the crowd has had its share of treats. Chatham's Chris Young has struck out four in two innings of work. Regarded as Princeton's finest athlete in a generation, and the Pittsburgh Pirates third-round draft pick, the six-foot-ten sophomore invites comparison to Randy Johnson. In the eighth inning, flamboyant David Bush induces phenom Mark Teixeira to ground into a double play and strikes out Nady, silencing conversation among scouts who disparaged Bush's bright yellow hair and the bandana tied under his cap. On the chance that he'd get in, Brewster's Mike Weel gave pitching coach Pat Shine his video camera. And, with Shine dutifully taping from the third base stand, Weel worked back from a fourth inning leadoff single and stolen base to retire the side on a pop-up and two long flyballs. "A typical Weel outing," Shine would dryly observe.

So the game has really been more than its outcome. It has also been the scores of found moments that provide a view into baseball's inner workings, and that intimacy, as much as anything else, will etch this game and this league into fans' memories.

This point is corroborated the Thursday before the game with Team USA. Brewster is taking infield at Cape Cod Regional. On that day, one hour before the start of the game against Yarmouth–Dennis, two scouts are sitting in the two-row, ten-seat stand to the right of home plate, evaluating Josh Persell's arm. The parlance of scouts often relies on comparisons to major leaguers with clearly identifiable playing styles: "He's a Matt Williams. He's an early Andy Van Slyke." Tonight, however, they use a standard evaluative numerology: forty to eighty, with sixty amounting to present major league ability in a baseball skill. Persell is fielding grounders at first base with the sound fundamentals of most Division I NCAA players. How he throws, though, marks him even to the untrained eye as special: the ball held across four seams with fingers vertically aligned to the dead overhand release; the ball's velocity and late hop inexplicable without resort to neurological jargon. He is clearly working his butt off. "Fifty fahve," one scout intones before getting on his cell phone to check reservations at a hotel somewhere in the Shenandoah Valley, "with major-league upsahde." Then, as practice winds down, Brewster's shortstop airmails a throw to first; Persell throws his glove in the air and knocks it down. When the ball lands in his bare right hand, all one can say is "how about that!"

—EFQ

ADAM S. FERBER is a lawyer living in Orinda, California. During the college baseball season he works in the press box of the University of California Golden Bears.

©2001 Adam S. Ferber

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