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Top 30 Cape Cod prospects

High School store

Summer of Love

Charm and tradition make the Cape Cod League unique

By Jim Callis

CHATHAM, Mass.–Chatham Hardware sits at 624 Main Street in the middle of the quaintest village on quaint Cape Cod. It’s surrounded by the usual suspects: restaurants, gift shops, ice cream parlors.

A warm, friendly store, it’s immaculately kept and has polished, hardwood floors. People are apt to come in for conversation as well as hardware.

If their need is the latter, everything from hammers and nails to lawn mowers to boating accessories to beach toys is available. But if they’re really interested in tools, they really should check out a couple of the younger employees.

David Bush is better known for pitching for the Chatham Athletics and the Wake Forest Demon Deacons than he is for hauling bags of concrete or cans of paint. His lively fastball sometimes reaches 93 mph, and he has a hard breaking pitch that’s a cross between a slider and a curve.

When he’s not stocking shelves or working the counter, Todd Linden regularly punishes baseballs for the Athletics or Washington Huskies. He has a quick bat that produces for power and average–from both sides of the plate–and can cover 60 yards in 6.6 seconds.

Tourism is the main industry on the Cape, as up to 11 million people visit the easternmost part of Massachusetts annually, with half of them spending at least one night there. The development of baseball players just might rank second.

The Cape Cod Baseball League, the oldest and most prestigious summer college league in the nation, traces its roots back to 1885, when Barnstable and Sandwich met in a July 4 contest. But evidence uncovered by Christopher Price for his book "Baseball by the Beach" suggests holiday games were played as much as 20 years earlier, and the first organized Cape team was founded in Sandwich in 1866.

Several Cape towns formed semipro teams that competed against each other and against teams from southeastern Massachusetts. Hall of Fame third baseman Pie Traynor played shortstop for Falmouth in 1919 before signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The first structured league appeared on the Cape in 1923, when Chatham, Falmouth, Hyannis and Osterville agreed to a 12-game schedule. Teams consisted of players ranging from high schoolers to semipros who hailed from the Cape or summered there.

While Cape Cod began to emerge as a tourist mecca in the late 1920s, teams were dropping in and out of the Cape League on a regular basis. Five teams competed in 1939, but with the dawn of World War II, the circuit shut down between 1940 and 1945.

Resuscitated in 1946, the Cape League was divided into two divisions, the Upper Cape (the western half) and the Lower Cape (the eastern half). Players initially had to be legitimate Cape Cod residents, and they could no longer be paid. The residency restriction was altered to include anyone with a summer home on the Cape, and then anyone with a summer job on the Cape.

The Sagamore Clouters first used those rules to their benefit, with a club led by Manny Pena. Sagamore won four championships between 1951 and 1959, drawing talent from New England colleges off the Cape.

Eager to compete, Cotuit Kettleers GM Arnold Mycock wrote to several major league teams. The only response came from Phillies scout George Owen, who had played baseball and hockey for Harvard. Owen helped Mycock recruit a manager and players from all over the East Coast, and also donated equipment to the Kettleers.

With stars such as Kentucky outfielder Cotton Nash (a basketball all-American who had three cups of coffee in the majors) and Missouri pitcher Keith Weber (who still holds the NCAA Division I career ERA record at 0.56), Cotuit won four straight titles from 1961 to 1964. In spite of initial fan resentment as local players got pushed out of the league, other teams recognized they had to recruit nationally to compete.

"There were some growing pains with the changeover from local players to out-of-towners, but it didn’t last long," says Mycock, who has been involved with the Kettleers since 1950. "When people saw the kind of baseball being played when the caliber improved, they came back."

The league as a whole went through growing pains as well, with the Upper and Lower divisions often at odds. As teams increased the scope of their recruiting, the other event that ushered the Cape Cod League into its modern era took place in October 1962.

Chatham selectman Bob McNeece gathered the league’s leaders and built a consensus for a unified league. They agreed to a reorganization plan and named former Cape player and manager Danny Silva as the league’s first commissioner. Silva, who played one game with the 1919 Washington Senators, won NCAA sanctioning in 1965, making the league eligible for grant money.

As the league grew more stable, it stepped up its production of major league talent, including all-star catchers Carlton Fisk and Thurman Munson. Though the Cape is fiercely partisan–a 1976 Cape Cod Times article mentioned that "while some of the bored Alaskan fans are drunks and gamblers, everyone agrees that the Cape League fans are the finest anywhere"–current league president Judy Scarafile admits the Cape wasn’t the premier summer league in the late 1960s and 1970s.

"Alaska was consistently maybe a notch above," says Scarafile, whose association with the Cape League began in 1970, when she was hired as an official scorer by Dick Bresciani, now vice president of public affairs for the Red Sox. "They were much more competitive, especially for the West Coast players. Since the 1980s, we’ve been clearly No. 1."

The Cape’s rise can be traced to 1985, when commissioner Fred Ebbett led a return to wood bats for the first time since the NCAA and summer leagues began using aluminum to save money in 1974. Eager to see top prospects use wood, which makes both hitters and pitchers easier to scout, Major League Baseball increased the Cape’s grant by $10,000, the cost of the switch. The wood bats, combined with the history of the league and the lure of the region, made the league unquestionably the place to play during the summer.

"This was always an excellent place to come evaluate talent," says Bill Livesey, a special assistant to Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar. Livesey played six seasons on the Cape and managed Falmouth and Wareham to a total of six championships. "But with the wood bats it became the best."

Other leagues were slow to follow suit. The Great Lakes League was the first in 1987, and the Central Illinois Collegiate League did so in 1989. Alaska, like most other leagues, waited well into the 1990s, by which time it split into two rival circuits. The caliber of play in the reunited Alaska League no longer approaches the Cape.

Even after his record 58-game hitting streak as an Oklahoma State sophomore in 1987, Mets third baseman Robin Ventura was told by scouts to head to Cape Cod in order to prove he could hit with wood. He did exactly that with the Hyannis Mets, batting .370 to finish second in the league to Yarmouth-Dennis’ Mickey Morandini’s .376.

"The Cape League helped me prepare and see what it’s like with the wood bat," says Red Sox shortstop Nomar Garciaparra, who hit .327 with the Orleans Cardinals in 1993. "You can see what a pitcher’s really like: ‘Man, this guy’s got a live arm. Why’s he getting beat up?’ Then you see him against a wood bat, and no one touches him. You say, ‘See, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.’ "

Thanks to the wood bats, which drew more quality prospects and helped them develop, the Cape League churned out more big leaguers than ever. It claimed 185 alumni in the major leagues in 1999 alone, roughly one-sixth of the players who appeared that season, and close to 600 more in the minors. Seven Cape leaguers went in the first round of the 1999 draft, signing for a combined $11.39 million.

Several players owe their careers directly to the Cape. One is Mets shortstop Mike Bordick, a 2000 all-star who wasn’t drafted as junior despite playing on two College World Series teams in three years at Maine. Dejected, Bordick decided the best way to attract the attention of scouts was to play for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.

One of his teammates was Princeton center fielder Drew Stratton, who had been taken in the eighth round by the Athletics. When A’s area scout J.P. Ricciardi (now a special assistant to Oakland GM Billy Beane) visited the Cape to negotiate with Stratton, he came away impressed with Bordick. On the night Stratton came to terms, Bordick was especially impressive, and Ricciardi signed him a couple of days later for a modest bonus.

"That’s my favorite Cape story," says Cape League commissioner Bob Stead, a former league manager. "Here’s this kid from the hicks in Maine, and had he not set foot on the Cape, who knows? Nobody might ever have signed him."

Nobody signed Jeff Reardon after a sterling four-year career at Massachusetts and three strong summers with Cotuit. Once he completed his college eligibility in 1977, Reardon’s only offer was to play semipro ball in Nova Scotia. His hot temper was partly to blame.

That June, Mycock got a call from Mets scout Len Zanke, who was looking for a righthander to fill a spot on a farm team and remembered Reardon. Mycock vouched for him, saying he could throw a ball right through a wall and was worth taking a chance on. He gave Zanke the telephone number for Reardon’s girlfriend, a Cotuit girl Reardon met while with the Kettleers and eventually would marry.

Zanke tracked down Reardon in Canada and signed him. Two years later he was in the majors, beginning a career that saw him become baseball’s career saves leader until Lee Smith broke his record. Reardon never forgot where he came from.

"There’s no question in my mind that I’m where I’m at today because of the Cape League," Reardon said in 1992 after passing Rollie Fingers for the all-time saves lead. "Those three summers made the difference in my life . . . If it wasn’t for Arnold Mycock, I don’t think the Mets would have signed me."

Several other players who had no problem getting drafted used the Cape League as a springboard to becoming first-round picks. Ron Darling, Cory Snyder and Ventura each won the annual outstanding pro prospect award voted on by scouts. So did Chuck Knoblauch, Doug Glanville and Billy Wagner, none of whom were big names before arriving on the Cape.

Munson and Darin Erstad were league MVPs the year before they went fourth and first overall, respectively, in the draft. Munson, Jason Varitek and Lance Berkman won batting titles on the Cape, as did Nat Showalter, whose .434 average with Hyannis in 1976 is the third-highest in league history.

Showalter, who’s now known as Buck, never reached the majors as a player but has been a successful manager with the Yankees and Diamondbacks. He’s one of 120 former Cape players or managers involved in baseball administration.

The Expos have a GM (Jim Beattie), farm director (Don Reynolds) and scouting director (Jim Fleming) with Cape experience. Others with similar backgrounds include Giants GM Brian Sabean, Yankees farm director Mark Newman, Mets manager Bobby Valentine and Cubs farm/scouting director Jim Hendry.

The Cape also has its share of success stories outside baseball. Valentine played for Yarmouth in 1967, the last year high school players were allowed in the league, on a team managed by Lou Lamoriello, who has built two Stanley Cup champions as GM of the New Jersey Devils. Bill Richardson pitched for Harwich in 1966 and Cotuit in 1967 before becoming a Congressman, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and, currently, Secretary of Energy.

Most Cape observers believe the quality of talent this summer wasn’t as high as in the past. This may have been an anomaly or the result of major league teams aggressively signing high school prospects.

The overall level of play may have declined, but there was no shortage of emerging stars. The three best prospects this summer were Linden, Falmouth Commodores righthander Bob Brownlie and Wareham Gatemen catcher Tyler Parker, none of whom projected as a surefire first-round choice before playing on the Cape.

Linden wasn’t drafted out of high school in 1998 and played briefly as a freshman at Washington. He hit .390 this spring, though he had just six home runs and still needed to prove himself with a wood bat.

That he did. Linden batted .323-4-25 with 22 extra-base hits and 18 steals in 44 games, ranking among the Cape leaders in virtually every major offensive category. As an athletic switch-hitter who does everything well except throw, he should be one of the first picks in the 2001 draft.

"I think I got people’s attention by the year I had at Washington, but nowhere near the attention here," Linden says. "Scouts say, ‘That’s fine and dandy, but the aluminum bat doesn’t matter.’ This has made a world of difference."

Brownlie has made an even bigger leap forward. Though he earned Freshman All-America honors this year after going 10-1, 2.52 for Rutgers and winning the Big East Conference championship game with a 1-0 shutout on three days’ rest, he came to the Cape as just a name to follow for the 2002 draft. He left with a 4-2, 2.01 record, the league strikeout crown (73 in 63 innings) and the outstanding pro prospect award.

Brownlie gained 2-3 mph on what had been an average fastball and developed a changeup with the help of Falmouth pitching coach Bo Bridges. Bridges was tipped off about Brownlie by Rockies area scout Mike Garlatti, whose team drafted the pitcher in the 26th round in 1999.

"I didn’t expect this type of stuff and this type of command," Commodores manager Jeff Trundy says. "His makeup was what we heard it was. He’s really developed physically and as a pitcher in a short amount of time, and you really have to credit Rutgers and credit him. And if you could clone a kid for attitude, he’d be the one."

As a 1999 sixth-round pick of the Mets, Parker had a better pedigree than Linden or Brownlie. But he couldn’t match their success this spring, batting .238-11-41 for Georgia Tech and playing first base because the Yellow Jackets had an established catcher in junior Bryan Prince.

A lackluster season with an aluminum bat and playing out of position did little to enhance Parker’s skills, but he made up for lost time on the Cape. Parker looked so good behind the plate, several managers wanted to know why he didn’t catch for the Yellow Jackets, though they also respect Prince, who has had two strong summers with Orleans.

"I’ve coached five big league catchers, and Tyler Parker has all the skills behind the plate," says Gatemen manager Mike Roberts, whose prize pupil is B.J. Surhoff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 1985 draft. "Arm strength, foot quickness, blocking, preparedness on every pitch. He has all the skills B.J. had except he doesn’t run as well, but he’s quick and has a power arm."

Parker also has improved with the bat at Wareham, hitting .272-1-19 with 10 doubles and 18 steals in 20 attempts. He’s back on course as one of the best prospects for the 2002 draft.

"This is a totally different game from college baseball," Parker says. "Up here, you don’t get two men on and wait for the three-run homer. You’re not playing little teams from around your area. Every top college pitcher is up here. This has helped me out a lot."

For all the strides they’ve made, Linden, Brownlie and Parker will take away more than baseball from this summer. Players and the local communities become intertwined.

All of the players live with host families who volunteer to house and feed them. These relationships often endure. Bordick and Garciaparra still stay in close contact with their hosts, as do several other players who have reached the major leagues. Fenway Park in nearby Boston is often the site for reunions of a player and his Cape family.

Brownlie says the Martin family–parents Doug and Dotty, sons Len, 13, and Eddie, 10–helped pave the way for his successful summer. They made him feel at home and took care of anything he needed.

"I’ve been very fortunate," Brownlie says. "I come back home after the game and talk to them about what happened. I play some ball and fool around with their kids during the day. They’re a great family."

NCAA rules stipulate players pay their host families $70 a week toward room and board. Though Brownlie attended classes at Cape Cod Community College to add three credit hours, almost all players have part-time jobs in the mornings to earn that money.

Braves shortstop Walt Weiss remembers working for the city of Wareham, doing maintenance at Clem Spillane Field, where the Gatemen play.

"It was fun," Weiss says. "With the lawn equipment, we had tractor races around the ballpark. We had the sprinkler-head throw. It was our version of the Olympics."

Weiss may have goofed off at times, but most players have to take their jobs seriously. Ventura worked in the sporting-goods department at the Puritan Clothing Company in Hyannis. Mets teammate Jay Payton spent a summer bagging groceries for a Stop & Shop in Orleans.

"Those kids play hard and work hard all day," says Bob Schaefer, a former Cape player and manager who’s now a special assistant to Orioles GM Syd Thrift. "If a kid can play in that league, he can play, because they’re working all day. Pete Filson used to split his fingers opening clams for fish houses, and then he’d go out and pitch."

Len Magnusson is the president of Chatham Hardware, which employed Bush and Linden this summer and gave work to Thurman Munson under previous ownership. He says players attract customers into his store and generally make very good workers.

The plum job is to work in youth clinics, a concept pioneered by Mycock and the Kettleers in 1975. Other franchises wondered how Cotuit was going to get kids to pay for baseball instruction, then quickly copied the Kettleers, who had no trouble at all. Now each of the Cape’s 10 franchises runs clinics, and Cotuit runs an additional one in nearby Centerville.

Though it doesn’t take on the appearance of an annual $1 million business, that’s what the Cape Cod Baseball League is. The league operates on a $250,000 budget–$95,000 comes from an MLB grant, with corporate sponsors such as Ocean Spray kicking in the rest–while the individual franchises run on amounts ranging from $50,000 to $150,000.

Of the 200,000 fans that attend games each summer, none has to buy a ticket to see most of the nation’s top amateur players. Not one of the clubs charges admission. When Chatham’s Veterans Field hosted a matchup between Team USA and a Cape all-star team in July, there were signs suggesting a $3 donation from adults, $2 from kids and $8 for families.

That’s as forceful as it gets on the Cape, and Chatham packed in 8,000 fans. Most teams pass the hat–Cotuit, appropriately, passes a kettle–and raise money from concession and souvenir sales. Another source is a 50-50 raffle, in which the winner shares half the cash with the team. At the Team USA game, the parents of Bourne Braves third baseman Kevin Youkilis took home $2,500, the largest pot anyone could remember.

But the Cape Cod League isn’t about money. Costs rise yet it retains its charm, much as Cape Cod has kept its charm in the face of increased development. Add up the baseball, communities, beaches and benevolent climate, and Cape Leaguers can’t imagine a better place to spend a summer.

"I like everything about this place," Parker says. "It’s always cool and you’re always ready to play. The weather is really nice. Everything is really nice. It just revolves around baseball this summer. Everything shuts down and everyone comes to the games."

The managers feel the same way. Cotuit manager Mike Coutts moved his family to Mashpee, a mile away from the Kettleers’ Lowell Park. Chatham coach John Schiffner has bought a summer place in Harwich. He says when he realized he wouldn’t be a major league player, his next goal was to coach and get invited to manage on the Cape. Wareham’s Roberts, who had last managed the Gatemen in 1984, jumped at the chance to return this summer.

"You’re sure to fall in love with Old Cape Cod," Patti Page sang in her hit single that rose to No. 3 in 1957. Forty-three years later, players, managers, scouts and baseball fans would testify the lyric still rings true.

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