By SKIP ROZIN WSJ
Cape Cod, Mass.
Tired of big-league baseball—of paying about $50 for a typical bleacher or top-deck seat at a Yankee or Red Sox game, only to cringe among beer-swilling fans and watch superrich players unwilling to run-out ground balls? Welcome to the Cape Cod league, where admission is free, no booze is allowed and everybody hustles.
On paper, the Cape Cod Baseball League resembles most other summer leagues, where college-age athletes play 30 to 45 games. But it is during real, live baseball that this league stands out.
This is Cape Cod, one of America's favorite vacation spots, a finger of land in the Atlantic Ocean. From mid-June to mid-August, residents and tourists can enjoy golf or the beach and then watch the very best amateur players. They're here to impress major-league scouts who, equipped with note pads, stopwatches and radar guns, decide who to draft next year or how much to offer this year's crop.
"The Cape Cod League is the big leagues of amateur baseball," said Matt Merullo earlier this summer; he's an Arizona Diamondbacks scout, a former player in the Cape league and the majors. "Other leagues have good players, but the competition doesn't compare."
The league is proud of its record, with 217 alumni in the majors in 2009. But those 217 came from 17 Cape seasons; the odds are against players in any one summer. Still, the fantasy burns bright. "Historically, guys who get to the Cape not only get drafted but go to the major leagues—that's my dream," said outfielder Steve Selsky, son of a former major leaguer and now in his second Cape league season.
Few of the locals who populated the league at its birth—in 1885 or 1923, depending on your source—had such dreams. Now, with teams in Bourne, Brewster, Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans and Yarmouth-Dennis on the Cape and Wareham across the bridge, they are rampant. Credit two changes: switching in the mid-'60s to all college players, and converting in 1985 to wood from aluminum bats, still popular in high school and college.
This combination draws scouts, who cannot accurately assess potential professional hitters or pitchers when aluminum bats are used, and are delighted to view 10 teams no more than 50 miles apart, the distance from Orleans in the east to Wareham in the west. All this attention draws the best college talent and offers a boost toward the pros; Tim Lincecum, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Chase Utley and Carlos Peña were all 2009 All-Stars who played here.
But this is more than about launching careers. The Cape experience separates itself from a pro-sports model that deifies talent. All players, no matter how highly touted, stay with host families, renting a spare room for $50 to $75 a week. The teams reimburse players about $250 for travel, and those needing additional expense money are offered jobs, either at the youth clinics the clubs use as fund- raisers or at a local business.
And while players are selected for their baseball skills, behavior counts. "We want players who are gentlemen and can fit in with the host family—host families are that important," says Cotuit manager Mike Roberts. "I don't want jerks."
The league, a tax-exempt nonprofit organization, could not function without community support. While field managers, coaches and umpires are paid, volunteers fill all league and team administrative posts. The more than $2 million budget comes from national and regional sponsors, club fund-raisers and donations given at each game. As it does with other wood-bat leagues, Major League Baseball gives an annual grant reported to be $100,000, a figure unconfirmed by the league.
The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce estimates that the league boosts the local economy by more than $2.6 million every summer, calculated from the nights spent and food eaten by family members and friends of players and coaches, scouts and fans who are attracted to games. Furthermore, league volunteers collect food for needy Cape families at Thanksgiving, ring Salvation Army bells at Christmas and work on the annual March of Dimes telethon. "We ask fans to come out and support us all summer long," said league president Judy Walden Scarafile. "The flip side of that is that we need to do our part to support the community."
Nature is the X factor here. Even the hottest days end with cool evening breezes. Rain canceled 65 games last season—64 were made up—and fog rolls in thick enough to suspend play. A pair of red tailed hawks likes to dive across Veterans Field in Chatham during late innings; at Hyannis's McKeon Field, two ospreys nested in the old right-center field lights in the 1990s, prompting the club to turn them off so the hot bulbs wouldn't cause fire. (New lights were installed in 2007 with a platform for the birds.)
This is the stuff of Cape Cod baseball, where everybody plays hard but winning is secondary. "We're not here for wins and losses as much as the player's development," says John Schiffner, manager of the Chatham Anglers. Harwich manager Steve Englert agrees: "Winning is just not the end-all."
Such thinking is antithetical to big-time sports, but a good fit here. Mike Bordick played only three weeks on the Cape in 1986 before signing with Oakland and playing 14 years with four major-league teams. "Back then, you're going to the beach and playing the game you love—it's just great," he said in a telephone interview. "Later, when you get signed and money enters into it, everything changes."
Even when big-league dreams come true, a Cape league summer is an experience to be savored.
Mr. Rozin writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal.