Along with Cape's sand, surf, a gem of a league

July 25, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

CHATHAM, Mass. -- Baseball in the Cape Cod League is a "finishing school" concept, where college players come to improve, to entertain, enjoy summer vacation and have their talents measured against each other for future financial consideration by professional teams.

So many scouts, general managers and farm directors -- even agents apprising likely clients -- show up it suggests some kind of a baseball convention has been called to order. It's not difficult to understand the attraction. This is where the prospects are, which explains the vast manifestation of interest. There's also an incredible statistic introduced by researcher John Claffey:

One out of every six big-league players in 1999 is a graduate of the Cape Cod League. Furthermore, nine selections in this year's major-league All-Star Game were graduates of this summer program. And in four of the last five years, the first selection in the annual draft was a product of the Cape Cod League, namely Darin Erstad, Kris Benson, Matt Anderson, who has been clocked at throwing 100 mph, and Pat Burrell.

This year's draft included a total of 144 choices with Cape Cod backgrounds. One team, the Baltimore Orioles, picked three Cape Cod products in the first round -- Mike Paradis, Larry Bigbie and Brian Roberts. "There has been a proliferation of college leagues across the country, but this is the oldest and the best," says Ron Rizzi, a national scout for the Milwaukee Brewers who lives in Joppa and is here evaluating. "It's a league, year after year, that draws most of the better college players."

Ten teams are in the Cape Cod League, all within l5 to 46 miles of each other, which makes for easy travel during the 44-game schedule. Franchises operate in Bourne, Cotuit, Falmouth, Hyannis, Wareham, Brewster, Chatham, Harwich, Orleans and Yarmouth-Dennis.

Admission to all games is free, but most spectators donate by putting money in a hat or buying a 50-50 ticket, similar to religious and fraternal groups. The funds pay for equipment, ballpark light bills and other expenses. Major League Baseball and the Yawkey Foundation make grants, but others, such as Ocean Spray, Coca-Cola and Bank of Boston, are involved.

The league's 222 players, all college underclassmen, are not paid but, adhering to NCAA rules, are permitted to hold part-time jobs (20 hours a week) such as landscaping, painting houses and teaching at morning baseball clinics for children in each locale. Families host the athletes, coming this year from 38 states and such colleges as UCLA, Duke, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Purdue, Florida State, Texas, Stanford, Miami, Oklahoma. Only five are junior-college products. The youngsters, 19 to 22 in age, are required to pay $40 a week for room and board. Meals are often served by their enthusiastic hosts or the teams they represent.

Coaches, for the most part, are college-affiliated and make "around $5,000" for the summer and live rent-free. "I played here, coached as an assistant, and now I'm back as head coach at Harwich," said Scott Lawler, from Norristown, Pa., now on the staff at North Carolina State. "This is as close to pro caliber as you can find."

It's rare when players create problems for themselves or police departments in the various jurisdictions. The cape is a family destination for vacationers. Picturesque cottages, with green lawns and blooming flowers, abound. Some bars close as early as 10 p.m., and team members are not looking to spoil their opportunities by doing something foolish enough for them to be asked to leave.

Six current Orioles came through the Cape Cod League -- Will Clark, Scott Erickson, Jeff Conine, Albert Belle, Mike Bordick and Scott Kamieniecki. The most talked-about player this year is Mark Teixeira, who played in high school at Baltimore's Mount St. Joseph and rejected $1.6 million from the Boston Red Sox. He enrolled at Georgia Tech, where he was a freshman standout. Other Marylanders in the league are Justin Singleton (Clemson) of Sparks, son of former Oriole Ken Singleton; Shane Rhodes (West Virginia) of Monkton, Ryan Dacey (George Washington) of Edgewater and Peter Bauer (South Carolina) of Hagerstown, who is only 6 feet 8, 245 pounds.

Such established names as Frank Thomas, Nomar Garciaparra, Chuck Knoblauch, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Salmon, Sean Casey, Tino Martinez, Charles Nagy, Denny Neagle, Terry Steinbach, Todd Stottlemyre, John Franco, Robin Ventura and Mo and Greg Vaughn are among the alumni, plus managers Jim Riggleman, Buck Showalter and Bob Valentine; coaches Marv Foley, Dave Jauss, Joe Kerrigan, Matt Galante, Brian Butterfield, Don Radison and Glenn Sherlock.

Going back a spell, the late Thurman Munson, Charlie Hough, Bobby Witt, Jeff Reardon, Ron Darling, Paul Sorrento, Carlton Fisk, Chris Sabo, Mickey Tettleton and Bob Tewksbury were here.

Before them, in this league that is 114 years old, were such standouts as Mickey Cochrane, Pie Traynor, "Deacon" Danny MacFayden and Shanty Hogan -- back when the league was a collection of true town teams and not college recruits.

The league produced a Most Valuable Player in Mo Vaughn, a Cy Young Award winner in Mike Flanagan and a Rookie of the Year in Garciaparra. No other amateur league can make such a claim.

In 1985, the league voted to use wooden bats exclusively. This added authenticity to the records. Balls hit on the sweet spot of the barrel of wooden and aluminum bats carry almost identical distances. But pitches that are mis-hit, say on the trademark or handle, will fly farther with the metal than the wood, which often shatters on contact.

The Cape Cod experience for the players is momentous. The bay and ocean settings, history of the league and its exceptional playing conditions create a coveted distinction all its own.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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