Cape Cod

Cape Cod Baseball League celebrates 100 years as pathway from college to majors

For 100 years, the Cape Cod League has given top college players the opportunity to hone their skills and show off for scouts while facing other top talent from around the country.

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Pete Alonso didn't hit a home run the summer he played in the Cape Cod Baseball League. He made a different kind of connection.

On a day off during his time with the Bourne Braves during the summer of 2015, Alonso headed out to Provincetown, at the tip of the New England summer paradise. That's where he met his wife.

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"For me it was a disappointing summer because I expected to play well," said Alonso, who returned to Florida and played himself into a second-round selection in the next year's draft. "But I thought it was awesome because I met my wife during that summer, and it was phenomenal.

"You get to play ball and create incredible relationships," he said. "It's a super memorable baseball experience for any kid who gets to go out there and play. It's super fun, it's a super special place to play during summer."

For 100 years, the Cape Cod League has given top college players the opportunity to hone their skills and show off for scouts while facing other top talent from around the country. Using wooden bats and riding buses like they would in the minor leagues, they get a sense of what pro ball might be like.

They might learn a few things about life, too.

"Shoot. You're 19, 20, 21 years old. So you're kind of figuring out who you are as a man," said Boston Red Sox outfielder Rob Refsnyder, who played for the Wareham Gatemen in 2011.

Before he came to the Cape, New York Mets manager Buck Showalter played high school and community college ball on the Florida panhandle. He won the 1976 Cape League MVP award with a .434 average that is third-best in CCBL history.

"Best summer of my life," Showalter said. "See, I was from a little Southern town and a little junior college and I went up there and all of a sudden they let (us) out there on the beaches and I was like, 'Oh my God, there's another world here.'

"That was quite the summer," Showalter said. "And then I went from there to Mississippi State and I was ready for anything."

100 YEARS

Like the tourists that stream to the beaches every summer, a century of baseball history has flowed through the Cape Cod League — more, if you count the Fourth of July games held in some towns starting in 1885. The league that formed in 1923 with an Original Four of Chatham, Falmouth, Osterville and Hyannis just finished up its 100th anniversary season, trimming 10 teams down to three rounds of playoffs that start Friday.

College players who are invited settle in with host families, maybe pick up a part-time job but mostly work on getting the attention of major league scouts. So many of them have: Through this season's opening day rosters, more than 1,700 Cape League alumni have played in the major leagues; in 2022 alone, there were 377.

Among them: Hall of Famers like Pie Traynor and Carlton Fisk, a handful of MVPs and Cy Young Award winners, and a half dozen current managers, including Showalter.

"You get a taste pretty quick of whether you can hang," Fisk said.

No wonder, then, that the Cape League is a fertile ground for the MLB draft. Five of the last six No. 1 overall picks were Cape alums, including LSU right-hander and former Gateman Paul Skenes, who was picked by Pittsburgh last month.

"I feel like it's any college guy's dream to play summer baseball on the Cape," Chatham Anglers shortstop Chris Maldonado, who goes to Vanderbilt, said before a game against Bourne last month. "Just the history of it. These fields have been the same for a very long time."

IDYLLIC SETTING

Just over the canal that separates the Cape from the Massachusetts mainland, Bourne's Doran Park sits behind the Upper Cape Technical High School, within view of one of the bridges that bring millions of vacationers over each summer.

Admission is free for Cape Cod League games (donations are accepted), and most fans bring their own beach chairs and sit wherever they can find space on the hills lining the playing field.

The teams are spread from Wareham, on the mainland, to Orleans, just above the elbow on the flex-arm shaped peninsula. The proximity of the ballparks leaves less time on buses and more for hanging out.

Prior to a recent game, Bourne manager Scott Landers gnawed on Mike and Ike candies the way his predecessors got their buzz from chewing tobacco. Behind him, Braves starting pitcher Bryce Cunningham played catch with Landers' 9-year-old son, Cal.

"He's got new favorite players every day, every year," said Landers, who is the head coach at Oswego (New York) State during the academic year. "And he follows them."

Growing up in central Massachusetts before going to Yale, New York Mets pitcher Ron Darling knew the pull of the Cape: Long after he played there, he would come back most summers with his family.

Just a guy, pulling up his lawn chair, taking in a ballgame.

HOST FAMILIES AND ODD JOBS

Most players stay with host families, often leading to a lifelong connection. Darling's host family had a barn out back where he slept with future major league teammate John Franco and an infielder named Dave Myers, who never made it to the majors.

Showalter's host father had a car rental agency.

"So I would get a Chrysler Cordoba on Fridays, with the Corinthian leather," he said. "And then I would go wash my uniform, take a nap, go hang out two line drives, and hit the streets."

When Darling played for the Cotuit Kettleers in 1980, players needed to get a part-time job to maintain their college eligibility. He worked as a middle school janitor, cleaning the floors so they would be ready for the students to return in September.

Showalter had a job as a short-order cook, whipping up breakfast at the Hyannis news stand; he also painted houses, including the Kennedy Compound.

"I could tell you a lot of things looking through those cracks," he said.

SCOUTING HEAVEN

A's scout John Mesagno has coached at Yale and in the Futures League, where the teams are spread across four states and a couple of hours apart. On the Cape, the longest ride is 45 miles (though in peak season, that can take hours).

"It's unique in the fact that all the fields are so close to each other," Mesagno said while he waited to watch Bourne play Chatham last month. "It's kind of a different vibe here, you know? These are some of the better players in the country. So it's cool to see them all on one field playing against each other."

For the players and scouts alike, the talent is the draw.

Darling heard plenty about how he couldn't compete against the kids from California, Florida or Arizona, where the weather allowed for year-long seasons.

"And then I came here and played against all those guys. I was like, 'Wait a minute, I'm as good as any of these kids here,'" Darling said last month at a dinner for the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame, where he was inducted in 2002. "So for me, personally, it provided a platform to play, and the confidence I was lacking that I was good enough."

White Sox outfielder Gavin Sheets said the 2016 summer with Wareham was "still one of my favorite baseball experiences ever."

"It's such a cool atmosphere, the way the city rallies around you, the way just the community just loves the game there," Sheets said. "Just the history there and the talent that you're playing against, just on high school fields, it's such a cool experience. Certainly one that I'll never forget."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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