Cape Cod league attracts premier players, fans

There is no better example of what baseball should look like and sound like than the Cape Cod summer league, writes David Albright.

Updated: July 27, 2006, 2:19 PM ET
By David Albright | ESPN.com

COTUIT, Mass. -- Kevin Costner had it all wrong.

Lowell Park
Paul Andrews, Special to ESPN.comElizabeth Lowell Park, home of the Cotuit Kettleers, is a baseball fan's mecca.
The real "field of dreams" shouldn't have been about a cornfield in Iowa filled with baseball's past. The real "if you build it, they will come" scenario should have been about the annual two-month lovefest with baseball's future known as the Cape Cod Baseball League.

From Chatham to Wareham on this famous stretch of land about an hour south of Boston, nothing is a better central-casting depiction of what baseball should look like and sound like than the 10-team college summer league that attracts the best players and caters to a fan base that ranges from small children to the elderly.

Here at picturesque Elizabeth Lowell Park, home of the Cotuit Kettleers, a Sunday afternoon in July looks like a scene right out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

It's still three hours before game time, but the 60-year-old ballpark that is surrounded on all sides by a forest of pine trees is already abuzz with activity.

Kettleers assistant coach Adam Warchal, fresh from putting a new coat of yellow paint on the right- and left-field foul poles, is helping fellow assistant Jeremy Boles chalk the first- and third-base lines. Later, they will rake and water the infield to complete their duties as the de facto grounds crew.

As Cotuit manager Mike Roberts prepares to throw batting practice to his collection of players that have come here from as close as New Jersey and as far away as California, he rattles off everything that helps set the Cape league apart from the rest of summer college baseball offerings.

First, there are the people who open up their homes and house the players from June to August. Then there are the year-round volunteers who help run every part of the organization.

But it's the fans across the entire league that Roberts marvels at the most.

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"It's a mini-Red Sox Nation," Roberts said. "And people who don't understand Red Sox Nation can't understand the Cape league. Why would thousands of people come out to watch college baseball? They understand the game, they understand the league and they understand the tradition.

"If the center fielder for the other team makes a diving catch, our fans will clap for him. The only place in America that happens is Omaha, Neb., that I know of. And there's no home team in Omaha, so it's everybody wanting to see good baseball. It's the same thing here. It's very special."

Roberts isn't the only one who notices the quality of the eyes watching the 200-plus college players who are fortunate enough to be invited to the Cape each summer.

"It's a whole different environment up here," said Texas outfielder Kyle Russell, a first-year Cape player. "I didn't know the crowds were going to be so amazing -- especially for summer-league ball. In the summer you usually have crowds of a hundred people or so. Here you've got thousands cheering you on, then you've got the wood bats, the pitching here is amazing and the competition is outstanding.

"Playing baseball every single day with wooden bats and a lot of competition, that's the real life of pro ball, and it's good that we get the adjustment to think about that. Everyone talked about how the competition was going to be unbelievable, but now that I see it with my own eyes, I can finally agree with them. This is the real deal."

One of the most talked-about aspects of the Cape league from the players' perspective is that it's a wood-bat league. The crack of the bat replaces the familiar aluminum ping that's heard throughout college baseball in the spring.

That equipment change takes some getting used to for the hitters, and on this evening the pitchers clearly had an edge as Falmouth topped Cotuit 2-0 in front of an overflow crowd of 1,584 in a park that's official seating capacity is listed as 600. Clemson's David Kopp threw seven innings of one-hit ball to pick up the win for the Commodores. On the other side, Riverside's James Simmons allowed only four hits and one earned run in his 7.2 innings of work.

"The biggest adjustment is the wood bat and the competition," said South Carolina first baseman Justin Smoak, another player spending his first summer on the Cape. "It's unbelievable. Every day you'll see guys throwing upper 80s or 90 with good off-speed stuff. It's great to get out here and play against guys like that, because if you want to play at the next level, that's what you're going to see."

And that's what the dozen or so MLB scouts who line the backstop behind home plate are here to see, too. Their radar guns and stopwatches chronicle every move, but it starts well before the first pitch.

Several scouts showed up a couple hours before the game to watch batting and fielding practice, as well, and they scribbled notes throughout the pregame workouts.

"You know that how you play here is going to be used to decide how you're going to do in the draft and whether or not you're going to have a future there," said Notre Dame catcher Sean Gaston, who was the 2005 Cotuit MVP.

"If the center fielder for the other team makes a diving catch, our fans will clap for him. The only place in America that happens is Omaha, Neb., that I know of. And there's no home team in Omaha, so it's everybody wanting to see good baseball. It's the same thing here. It's very special."
-- Cotuit manager Mike Roberts
"You either get used to it or you're going to struggle the whole time."

Enough batters and pitchers adjust during the summer season or the scouts wouldn't show up in the numbers they do.

"To me, the proof is in what transpires," Roberts said. "How many of the guys get to the big leagues? That's what tells me whether or not it's consistently the best [summer] league."

Based on the results, the Cape's reputation is well-deserved.

According to league statistician John Wylde, nearly 40 percent of MLB players who attended a four-year school before advancing to the majors made a summer stop on the Cape during their college careers.

The list of Cape league alumni who were on 2005 MLB rosters reads like a who's who of professional baseball, with names that include: Jeff Bagwell (Chatham '87-88), Kris Benson (Hyannis '94), Craig Biggio (Yarmouth-Dennis '86), Sean Casey (Brewster '94), Darin Erstad (Falmouth '93-94), Nomar Garciaparra (Orleans '93), Todd Helton (Orleans '94), Mike Lowell (Chatham '94), Mark Teixeira (Orleans '99), Jason Varitek (Hyannis '91-93), Billy Wagner (Brewster '92) and Barry Zito (Wareham '97-98).

A quick look at this summer's Cape rosters reads like a who's who of college baseball, including many players from every team that advanced to last month's College World Series.

"The biggest thing about [this league] is the level of competition," Gaston said. "You know you're playing against the best guys in the country day in and day out. This is absolutely the place to play. If you ask anyone one place they want to play in the summer, it's the Cape.

"This is the place you dream about playing."

David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at david.albright@espn3.com.

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