On a chilly late-July Saturday night at Spillane Field in Wareham, Mass., more than 5,000 fans gathered to watch 55 of the best amateur baseball players in the country. If history and statistical precedent are any indication, anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen of them will one day play Major League Baseball.
There was only one problem: the Wareham High School parking was full three hours before the 6:05 p.m. first pitch, necessitating overflow parking being sent across Marion Road to the Wareham Public Library. Fans (and a few dozen scouts) would have to walk a couple hundred yards farther than anticipated with their beach chairs, balls and tiny bats ready for autographs, and padded seat cushions — most of the seats are backless aluminum bleachers, after all.
Welcome to the 2015 Cape Cod Baseball League All-Star Game — and the quaint, charmed life of the Cape Cod Baseball League, where one in every seven major leaguers spends at least one summer.
Do not be fooled by the idyllic seaside setting of the 10 small New England towns and villages that comprise the “Cape League,” as it referred to by most. For the 250 boys who play in the league — the majority of whom who cannot yet drink alcohol legally — it is the most crucial summer of their baseball lives, one that can make or break their big league dreams.
At first, it might seem like an unlikely juxtaposition — vacationing families watching from beach chairs, and all-business big league scouts, ready with their stop watches. On this summer night, both crowds gathered at this high school ball field in a tiny corner of New England for the same reason: to watch the next generation of major league talent. On the Cape, the beach and baseball have co-existed in perfect unison for more than a century.
What is the Cape League?
Imagine having seen Dave Chappelle at open mic in New York City in the early 1990s, or Nirvana in a Seattle basement in the late 1980s, and then having a casual conversation with them at the bar. That is the mystique in which the Cape League traffics. For many baseball fans, the game’s ability to transport you to a simpler time, whether it existed or not, is as important as the player’s statistics or accomplishments on the field.
The Cape League is one of 11 summer leagues sanctioned by the NCAA. While the other leagues — notably the Alaska Baseball League, Jayhawk League and New England College Baseball League — have been summer homes to future big leaguers, none have more former players in the majors than the Cape League.
This year, 15 Cape League alumni were selected to the MLB All-Star Game in Cincinnati, including four starters. Home Run Derby Champion Todd Frazier played two summers in Chatham (2005-06). National League starting catcher Buster Posey also spent two summers on the Cape (2006-07), playing catcher and shortstop for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. This year’s American League starting pitcher, Dallas Keuchel, toed the rubber at Spillane Field in Wareham in 2007 and 2008.
During the 2014 season, 256 Cape League alumni played in the majors. Cooperstown inductees have played on the Cape (Craig Biggio, Carlton Fisk, Frank Thomas), along with retired All-Stars (Jeff Bagwell, Albert Belle, Lance Berkman, Will Clark, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek), former All-Stars who are still active (Jacoby Ellsbury, Evan Longoria, Tim Lincecum, Nick Swisher, Barry Zito) and even a future governor. Former New Mexico Governor and U.S. Representative Bill Richardson (Tufts) pitched for Harwich in 1966 and Cotuit in 1967. In all, more than 1,100 Cape League alums have went on to play in the major leagues.
Despite the roll of long ball-hitting alum, pitching tends to dominate both the Cape League All-Star Game and regular season. Hitters are using wooden bats for the first time, and struggling and adjusting to the change against the best pitchers in the nation. The league switched to aluminum bats in the late 1960s, citing the cheap costs. Prior to the 1985 season, though, the Cape League returned to wooden bats, seeking to cement its status as the premier summer league.
By doing so, as Hall of Fame writer Peter Gammons noted in Christopher Price’s Baseball by the Beach, “It took it to a place where guys could really prove they could really play. It also made things much easier for scouts, to gauge a hitter’s ability.” Wooden bats are what ensures major league scouts will be in heavy attendance for each Cape League game of the summer.
The wooden bats and presence of scouts at every game have also helped build the Cape League’s mystique and importance over the past 30 years. There is the sense that, on any given night, you could see future greatness, unspoiled and far removed from the big cities, billion dollar stadiums and nine-figure player salaries.
All the cliches and nostalgia overload goes double for the Cape League. With the wood bats, free admission, old New England locale and families lining the sidelines with blankets and beach chairs, it lends itself to the romantic notion of a “simpler time.” At most Cape League games, including Saturday’s All-Star contest, you will find a dozen or more kids beyond the outfield fences ignoring the play on the field in favor of their own games of catch and pickle. Author Jim Collins, when detailing the league’s 2002 All-Star game in his outstanding book The Last Best League, wrote “The league stitched generations together across the timeless white lines of a green field.”
Indiana University’s Logan Sowers — just minutes after winning the Home Run Derby that preceded the All-Star game — could be found signing autographs for a gathering of excited kids in the concrete walkway situated between left field and Wareham High School. At few All-Star games will you find a home run derby winner chatting with young fans in a high school parking lot, standing halfway between a row of Porta Potties and football goal posts.
It’s hokey, maudlin and slightly manipulative, but damn, does it work.
The All-Star Game
During the school year, Spillane Field is home to Vikings prep football and baseball. But in the summer it becomes a launchpad for the country’s best 19-to-21-year-old baseball players. The 1988 Wareham team is considered by many to be the greatest team in league history. Led by Mo Vaughn (Seton Hall) and Chuck Knoblauch (Texas A&M), the Gatemen finished 29-13 and won their second league championship.
Spillane Field has also been home to memorable CCBL All-Star Games. In 1999, Cotuit’s Chase Utley (UCLA) hit a sixth-inning sacrifice fly that brought the West within two runs. It would not be enough, however, to overcome the two-run homer in the first inning from Orleans’ Mark Teixeira (Georgia Tech), the East MVP.
In 2015, by the time Wareham’s Blake Fox (Rice) threw the game’s first pitch to Brewster’s Colin Lyman (Louisville), the estimated 5,200 fans in attendance had filled the bleachers along both baselines and the bleachers located behind the left field fence. The game itself was simply a continuation of the party that began four hours earlier — fans had begun arriving at 2 p.m. for batting practice, autograph sessions and the Home Run Derby.
When evening rolled around it was cool, but it had been a perfect 75-degree beach day, and many of the fans look sun-baked and fresh from the sand. This includes those who spend the summer on the Cape, along with those who made the drive over the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges for their Saturday-Saturday rental. From fans who never miss a game — team volunteers, longtime residents of the towns and families who host the players for the summer — to those on vacation who it saw it advertised over the previous few days in the Cape Cod Times. For the hundreds of young children in attendance, all eager for autographs, it was a chance to see All-Stars up close.
Take Bourne’s outfielder Ryan Boldt, whom Fangraphs has projected as an early top-10 pick in the 2016 draft. Boldt is expected to be the first college outfielder off the board next June, and perhaps in a half-decade, those in attendance on Saturday will be shocked to learn they saw him play in the Cape League All-Star Game. The same goes for Chatham’s Will Craig (ACC Player of the Year from Wake Forest) and Orlean’s Willie Abreu (Miami), both of whom took part in the Home Run Derby and project to be early-round picks in 2016.
These types of realizations are simply par for the course for fans of the Cape League
At the 2006 All-Star Game in Yarmouth, the Eastern Division won, 7-2, aided by a starting lineup that featured a 2-3-4-5 of Buster Posey-Matt Wieters-Matt LaPorta-Josh Donaldson. In the 2009 game at Fenway Park, Yarmouth-Dennis’s Chris Sale was named the East MVP, while Wareham’s Brandon Workman was the game’s winning pitcher. By 2013, Sale would be pitching in his second MLB All-Star Game, while Workman would make three appearances in the World Series for the champion Boston Red Sox.
On Saturday, 40-50 scouts sat in roped-off aluminum bleachers between the backstop and third base dugout, looking for the next Donaldson, Posey or Sale. A handful were crammed into a 3′ dirt space between the fence behind the backstop and press box. Predominantly young-to-middle-aged white men, they sat at the ready with their leather binders, legal pads and stop watches looking for the next all-star. In no other place in the country can big league teams watch, scrutinize and evaluate such a concentration of amateur talent who will be available in the next two drafts.
This year the East prevailed, 1-0, on a RBI single from Yarmouth-Dennis’s Donnie Walton, the East MVP. The game was finished in a tidy 2:20 (I counted just three three-ball counts and one walk).
Thanks for coming
Fans straggled out after the game, with the kids pleading for one more autograph or picture. A few could be heard reminiscing about past Cape League All-Star Games (“there were more people here in 2007”) and players (“Varitek was a man among boys, even then”). The fans would be back for next summer’s game at a different Cape League ballpark, watching different players with the same dream.
As Collins wrote in The Last Best League, “The summer refused to end. And that was at the heart of it. The game had the awesome ability to stop time. There was no clock in baseball. The players out there on the field were 20 years old, just as they were last year, five years ago, 10. Nothing had changed–that was the illusion. … That was real grass out there, those were wooden bats. The generations blurred. Mike MacDougal, Mike Lowell, Jeff Bagwell, Thurman Munson. … These were the same kids out there, chasing the same dream, giving the same gift. There was still a fishing fleet in Chatham. There was still sand. The family was still there.”
The players will move on, like Chicago Cubs rookie slugger Kyle Schwarber and Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Blair. They squared off in the 2012 Cape League championship series, and now have both arrived in the majors in impressive fashion this summer. The Cape League All-Star Game will still be here, same time next summer. Just make sure to get here early, because the high school parking lots fill up quickly.