The Cape Cod league is baseball’s most beautiful bargain – For The Win
This is the first of For The Win’s two-part series on the Cape Cod Summer Baseball League. Part II will more closely examine why top college players and MLB scouts and executives flock to the Cape every summer.
ORLEANS, Mass. — Sunlight spilled over Nauset Regional Middle School late Tuesday afternoon and shimmered off one of Brian Sabean’s World Series rings as he chatted with a young scout from the comfort of an olive-green canvas folding chair. Sabean architected three championship teams during his long tenure as the San Francisco Giants’ general manager, but for Cape Cod Baseball League games at Eldredge Park, even celebrated MLB execs need to provide their own seating.
On a hill alongside the first-base side of the park separating the field from the school, a bunch of empty chairs just like Sabean’s faced the baseball diamond. Many had been set up since the night before, when the Orleans Firebirds beat the Chatham Anglers to advance to a second-round matchup with Brewster.
“The players get so excited – they’ll come to work our (youth baseball) clinic at 8:30 in the morning, and this hill will be packed with blankets,” said Nancy Nickerson, a resident of nearby Eastham and an assistant General Manager for the Firebirds. “The other night, we played in Chatham, and people came back here at night to put their stuff out.
“People are very territorial. You better not move a chair or a blanket.”
Securing a good seat at a Cape Cod League postseason game might require some vigilance, but it doesn’t require so much as a dollar: Every contest in the nation’s premier collegiate summer baseball league is free to attend, and while some clubs suggest donations near the entrances, the circuit’s mostly bare-bones venues and generally low-key vibe allow for locals and tourists alike to stroll into and out of games from the picture-perfect resort towns that host them.
Staying on the Cape in the summer, of course, hardly comes at a discount price, but the peninsula’s baseball league offers perhaps the best bargain in the sport: Elite college players from around the country competing in beautiful beachside summer weather at idyllic settings with egalitarian access.
From a small section behind home plate reserved for scouts, Sabean watched as Orleans Firebirds players prepared the field for play: wetting basepaths and chalking foul lines and tamping the dirt in the batter’s box. Many of these guys will soon be drafted into the professional ranks, and at least a few will likely reach the Majors -– Cape Cod teams produce big-leaguers at roughly the rate of affiliated Class A, and 21% of Major Leaguers in 2016 once showcased their abilities on fields like this one.
During games, players in full uniform walked through the crowd soliciting donations, selling raffle tickets, and mingling with young fans. Before last Monday’s game in Orleans, the Firebirds’ Jaxx Groshans sang the national anthem. Some players take on part-time jobs for extra cash and many work in the youth clinics teams run during the week, but for the most part they’re here endeavoring the baseball equivalent of a summer internship: Honing their skills, making connections, and trying to prove themselves. It lacks even the glitz associated with minor league ball, but there are worse ways to spend a summer than living on Cape Cod and competing among and against the best players at your level.
“It’s been incredible,” says Mickey Gasper, a catcher for Bryant University and the Brewster Whitecaps. “It’s a really awesome community, great fans, and just great baseball. I couldn’t be happier. This is where every baseball player in America wants to be when they’re in college.”
“That was some of the most fun I had playing baseball,” says Dodgers reliever Josh Fields, who starred for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox of the Cape Cod League in 2006. “We had a blast…. We played putt-putt at Pirates’ Cove every day, because we played for free, then we went to the Dairy Queen and got a Blizzard after that. That’s pretty much all we did.”
Games here offer the small-town feel of minor league games, but with a decided lack of any of the promotional stunting associated with that level. Between innings, in the absence of loud music or the likes of on-field dizzy-bat races, a PA announcer read brief ads for local sponsors — a call-out to a nearby margarita bar showcased the thick New England accent of the PA guy in Brewster on Wednesday. Fans in the crowd shouted out greetings to old friends sitting nearby and cheered on athletes who have spent the summer becoming as much a part of the Cape Cod communities as weathered wood shingles and mom-and-pop ice-cream shops. College ballplayers covet the opportunity to play on the Cape, and know that scouts and executives like Sabean will consult with their clubs for input on their behavior and character.
“The players are great,” said Nickerson, who coordinates Orleans’ host families and hosted Kansas catcher Jaxx Groshans this summer. “This year, they’re exceptional kids. I try to tell the families to consider them their summer sons, really just part of the family. Each host family can set up their own rules whatever they’re comfortable with, the house rules, but really the guys are just accepted as part of the family for the summer.”
Cape Cod League managers mostly recruit players to their teams through their relationships with college coaches, though sometimes players will successfully lobby for roster spots by contacting Cape coaches directly. This is only one of 11 summer baseball leagues sanctioned by the NCAA in the National Alliance of College Summer Baseball, but the league’s sterling reputation and desirable location help it draw premium college-baseball talent.
For many of the players, a summer on the Cape means their first experience living with a host family, but the league’s mandatory curfew and rules against drinking and drug use prevent potentially uncomfortable situations. Some families, Nickerson said, will stop hosting players “when their daughters reach a certain age,” but every once in a while, a player winds up more permanently attached to his summer family: Minnesota Twins pitcher Jason Wheeler fell in love with his host sister while playing in Orleans in 2011 and married the former Madelyn Walters four years later.
“The first week or two, it’s an adjustment,” Nickerson said. “They’re getting used to you, you’re getting used to them. I usually play 20 questions — what do I need to know? What do you like to eat? That’s usually the host mom’s biggest thing: What do they like to eat?”
“It’s fun,” Groshans said of the experience. “My host family’s really, really generous. I love ‘em to death. They’re awesome people, and I can’t thank ‘em enough for taking me in.”
Players in Cape Cod League games get an opportunity to face some of the best competition at their level and keep working on their skills after the NCAA season ends. Fans get to chance to see some of the future stars of Major League Baseball up close and for free: Kris Bryant, Evan Longoria, Buster Posey and Chris Sale, among plenty others, all played here before going pro.
And all involved get the chance to enjoy excellent, unadorned baseball in a gorgeous place full of positive vibes. Baseball’s a complicated sport with particulars and complexities that only become more difficult for players as they rise through its ranks. But here, with the sun setting over Orleans’ quaint little downtown and lighting up the sky in spectacular pinks and purples as people of all ages sit on picnic blankets to watch some of the best young players in the world, the baseball feels simple and perfect and beautiful.
“If you’re a college baseball player, you want to wind up on the Cape,” said Orleans head coach Kelly Nicholson. “It’s the Cape. This is a little slice of heaven up here.”