Face Of The Cape Moving On After 25 Years In Chatham
It was just supposed to be a resume builder, something to help him improve as a high school baseball coach.
That’s what John Schiffner thought, at least, when he first took over as manager of Chatham in the Cape Cod League in the summer of 1993. He never envisioned it turning into a 25-year career.
“And here I stand,” Schiffner, 61, said with a laugh, with his iconic mustache framing his never-fading smile as he watched his team take batting practice prior to its playoff series against Orleans. When his career came to a close Aug. 7 after the Firebirds defeated the Anglers to win the first-round playoff series, Schiffner was the longest-tenured and winningest coach in the Cape’s history.
Schiffner was an assistant coach for Chatham in 1993 when then-manager Rich Hill was hired by San Francisco in the middle of the summer and had to leave the Cape. Schiffner, who played for Harwich from 1974-1976 and had been an assistant coach in the league for 10 years over the course of two stints, was appointed interim manager.
Schiffner’s term as manager was supposed to last just the summer, while the team compiled a list of potential replacements. Schiffner had a different plan and led Chatham to a 16-7 record in the final month and a championship berth. It was enough to earn him the job permanently.
Schiffner would go on to coach more than 100 major leaguers and 39 first-round draft picks. He won 541 games and won the league title in 1996 and 1998. He was also portrayed by Golden Globe winner Brian Dennehy in the 2001 movie, “Summer Catch,” which was set in Chatham.
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There may be no better way to describe “Schiff,” as he’s known around the league, than by who he named as the player he most enjoyed coaching—Todd Frazier. Schiffner’s affection for the future All-Star didn’t derive from his impressive bat, however.
“I don’t think anybody has ever had more fun playing baseball than Todd Frazier,” Schiffner said. “He just really loves the game of baseball, tremendous guy in the dugout.”
The same can be said about Schiffner, who by all accounts, was a true player’s coach, and a joy to play for.
“He made playing the game so fun,” said third baseman Johnny Aiello (Wake Forest), who spent two summers with Chatham. “Off the field, he’s the same guy he is on the field. It’s been awesome.”
Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson learned early on in his career on the Cape what Aiello—and many of Schiffner’s players—preach about their skipper. When Nicholson first came to the Cape in 2002 as an assistant coach, all he heard about was the heated rivalry between Orleans and Chatham.
Two years later at the all-star game at Eldredge Park in Orleans, Nicholson sat in the outfield with Schiffner and watched on as each team took batting practice. It was the first time Nicholson truly got to spend time and pick Schiffner’s brain.
“We started talking,” Nicholson said. “And I was like, ‘This is a good dude.’ Once I really got to know him, and didn’t listen to all the noise about him and Chatham, I could form my own opinion. That day, I would like to think that was the day our friendship really started.”
Nicholson learned to do what Schiffner did best that day—put people above the game. That’s not to say that he didn’t value winning; his wins record and two league championships show he does. But Schiffner saw the value in player’s developing as people—not just ballplayers.
“It’s not just the big leaguers. It’s the guys who are now lawyers, teachers and they’re coaching, and they’re in professional baseball,” he said. “They didn’t make it to the big leagues. But they still used this experience to help them with the rest of their lives. I think you become a better person. It helps you in life with your family life, and your job. This league is that changing for people.”
That philosophy wore off on his contemporaries—the fraternity of Cape coaches, as they affectionately refer to it as. Nicholson learned to, “let the players play,” from Schiffner. Falmouth manager Jeff Trundy, who has known Schiffner for more than 20 years, is the first to recognize that taking a trip to Chatham wasn’t about getting a win or a loss.
“It’s never about that,” Trundy said. “It was just about that we shared an evening together.”
Schiffner’s loyalty to Chatham was strong. He had been a scout for the Expos before returning to the Cape and over the years he had several offers to return to scouting or become a Division I coach.
But nothing was enough to pull him away from Chatham.
“Twenty-five years in one place, you’ve got to tip your cap,” Nicholson said. “It says a lot about him as a person; his commitment, dedication and passion to college athletes. You can’t put a price tag on loyalty. That speaks volumes about who he is as a human being.”
Schiffner knows a thing or two about winning on the Cape. There might be know one blueprint for success, but he preached this much: let the players play.
“Don’t try to manipulate them. Don’t try to make them do things they shouldn’t do,” he said. “Let the kids play. Put your arm around them when they fail, and let them have fun.
“On the last day of the season, I want to make sure that they got better over the summer. I want to make sure that they helped us win some games. And I want to make sure that they had the best summer of their life. That’s the three goals of the Chatham A’s.”
What Schiffner will miss the most are the close friends he’s made on the Cape. Their relationships went further than on the field. Whenever Harwich manager Steve Englert found a new brand of bourbon, he would send a picture of it to fellow bourbon enthusiast, Schiffner. When the weather report showed a snowstorm moving up the East Coast, Schiffner would get a mocking text from Nicholson, who calls sunny California his home.
“I know they’ll still do that,” Schiffner said. “It just won’t be the same—because I’m not part of the group anymore.
“We’re a brotherhood, a family. It’s a great group of guys. What we have is special.”
But that’s just Schiffner—someone who had an affinity for building relationships. It’s only right that he became the patriarch of the league, as Trundy called him.
As Schiffner walked off the field for the final time on Aug. 7, the league saw the end of a fruitful patriarchy in Chatham. One that produced countless ballplayers who learned the values of relationship and fun under Schiffner.
Schiffner isn’t completely done coaching. His next stop will be at Maine, where he’ll join the staff of Nick Derba, a former Angler, who, like Schifner, parlayed an interim role into a full-time job as head coach this year.
While Schiffner isn’t retiring from baseball, he will leave a void on the Cape after 25 years in the dugout at Veterans Field in Chatham.
“He’s been the face of the Cape,” Nicholson said. “It’s going to be weird not seeing him over in the other dugout.”