Bring on the Cape Cod League

The premier summer collegiate baseball circuit harks back to a more innocent time.
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My Chatham A’s baseball hat has survived a decade now; indeed, it has outlasted the team of that name.

In warm months, I wear it when I run, the salt stains a testament to however many (but never enough) ugly miles I’ve logged. Exposed to direct sunlight, the salt evaporates and the hat seems almost refreshed, but the rusted metal fastener on the inside betrays its age.

I love that hat, not for its intrinsic value but for the memories it summons from the week we spent on Cape Cod in 2007.

The weather, the beach, the water, they were splendid. My son, Jack, then 6, learned how to catch a baseball on his backhand as we threw to one another outside the house we rented.

And on four evenings, we experienced the Cape Cod League.

‘Good to beat Orleans’

If you’re a baseball fan, then surely you’ve heard of the Cape League. It is the premier summer collegiate baseball league, with 10 nonprofit teams playing a 44-game schedule.

If you’re a reader, I highly recommend “The Last Best League,” which focuses on Chatham in its season-long chronicle of the Cape League.

If you’re a movie fan, maybe you saw the movie “Summer Catch,” which is set on Cape Cod (but mostly filmed in North Carolina) and against the backdrop of the Cape League. Actor Brian Dennehy plays a fictional version of the real Chatham manager, John Schiffner.

The winningest manager in Cape League history, Schiffner is retiring after this season.

In 2007, I had a brief exchange with Schiffner after watching Chatham beat arch-rival Orleans, in a showdown of the league’s two easternmost clubs. Watching from bleachers, we could hear Chatham third baseman Jermaine Curtis offer an encouraging “Nice pitch!” to Tom Milone on the mound.

“It’s always good to beat Orleans,” Schiffner told me after I congratulated him on the win.

We were standing on the infield grass at Chatham’s Veterans Field. Meanwhile, A’s players signed autographs for Jack and other fans. In the A’s dugout, players ate a post-game meal off paper plates.

Such is life in the Cape League, which dates to 1885.

As a proving ground for future major leaguers, it has a heck of a track record. In 2016, Major League Baseball rosters boasted 297 Cape League alumni – or one in seven players.

We also saw a game in Yarmouth-Dennis in 2007. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox roster included Buster Posey and Gordon Beckham, each of whom was chosen in the first-round of the 2008 major league amateur draft.

Besides terrific baseball, the Cape League offers a setting that harks back to a more innocent time.

The Little League World Series in Williamsport once had a similar vibe until ESPN ruined it with wall-to-wall TV coverage that turned 12-year-olds into minor celebrities and the whole venture into one big corporate event.

Homespun heritage

Not so the Cape League. Games are played on high school fields, three of which don’t have lights. Players are accessible and even friendly; they stay with host families. Admission to games is free. (You can purchase souvenirs and food; we still talk about the hot dogs served on a buttered and grilled New England-style bun in Cotuit.)

Some Cape League teams even had the temerity to stand up to Major League Baseball back in 2008 over a trademark dispute. Wrote the New York Times:

“Now, Cape Cod teams are being forced to choose between maintaining a link with the major leagues and remaining true to their homespun heritage. In the case of the Chatham Athletics [shortened to A’s], homespun is winning out.”

Chatham was one of five teams named after major league franchises. The Cape League teams had to choose between keeping their names and purchasing team uniforms and merchandise exclusively through MLB-approved vendors, or adopting new names.

“We found that too restrictive,” Chatham’s president said at the time. “We have longstanding relationships with local vendors.”

Chatham stayed true to its principles and became the Anglers.

I doff my salty A’s cap to ’em.


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