July 12, 2003
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
By Jim Fenton, Enterprise staff writer
The nightly 50-50 raffle was taking place on a warm, summer evening as the Wareham Gatemen were in the middle of a game at Spillane Field.
Since he wasn't on the mound that night in 1998, a young pitcher was assigned to walk through the stands and sell raffle tickets.
Such a scene is part of the charm of the Cape Cod Baseball League, where college players from around the country spend the summer trying to boost their stock.
From Wareham to Orleans — with eight other towns in between — there is a special atmosphere during a 44-game season that lasts from mid-June to mid-August.
Players arrive on the Cape soon after their collegiate seasons end and find themselves playing in front of large crowds that include interested scouts from major league teams.
It is a time when college players can make a name for themselves and help open the door for a professional baseball career.
That pitcher who was selling raffle tickets in the stands at Wareham that night in '98 took a successful path from the Cape.
Four years after doing his part in the 50-50 raffle at Spillane Field, former Gatemen lefthander Barry Zito was the 2002 American League Cy Young Award-winner for the Oakland A's.
Where else can fans, who don't have to pay an admission fee, mingle with college players around the Cape one day, then watch their major league careers unfold a short while later?
With Major League Baseball having staked a financial commitment that began in 1965, the NCAA-sanctioned Cape League has evolved into the top summer amateur baseball league in the nation.
It is the place to be for any college player interested in going to the next level. All 10 teams have rosters loaded with top talent from all parts of the nation, making for good competition all summer long.
Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Varitek, Jeff Bagwell, Jeff Kent, Lance Berkman, Mo Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Darin Erstad, Todd Helton, Mike Lowell and Kevin Millar are just some of the many former Cape Leaguers now in the majors.
"When I coached (in a summer league) in Virginia, we had good players there,'' said Cooper Farris, now in his third year as head coach of the Gatemen. "We had David Eckstein, Juan Pierre, guys like that. We had some really good players, but I think here there's more quantity here.
"Each team had probably four or five outstanding guys in Virginia where up here, you got 16 of 17. The depth is the big thing.''
A measuring stick
Facing such quality opposition on a regular basis is a measuring stick for college players to use as they travel the Cape circuit.
"It can do one of two things,'' said Farris. "It'll either make you some money or bury you. Every night, you're facing one of the top pitchers in the country. As a hitter, you've got to be prepared mentally for that. There's going to be failure. Some guys can't handle that.''
Said Cotuit Kettleers manager Garrett Quinn, "I'll give you a perfect example: Last year, we had three guys on this team who had very good summers and they were first-round picks. You have a good summer up here and get the job done, you're going to get paid next year in the draft. The pitchers are facing top hitters and, vice versa, the hitters are facing the best pitchers in the country.''
In addition to trying to impress scouts, college players get to spend their offseason from school working on parts of the game that need improving and getting prepared for the next step.
Hitters get the chance to experiment with wooden bats rather than using the aluminum bats they are used to, and pitchers try to take advantage of having the upper hand.
"I view the Cape League as a bridge between college baseball and professional baseball,'' said John Wylde, the president and general manage of the Gatemen. "I think the kids here can learn some lessons that, if they learn them here, are better for them than trying to learn them in their first professional year when maybe it's going to impact on their whole career.''
Brower gains experience
Kevin Brower of Middleboro, who begins his senior year at North Carolina this fall, is one of those players hoping the Cape League experience will pay dividends.
He has been a three-year contributor to the Tar Heels' pitching staff as a reliever and joined the Cotiut roster this summer.
Brower is working in short relief for the Kettleers and is 1-1 with a 3.86 earned run average and a save in nine appearances.
After facing Atlantic Coast Conference hitters the past three years, Brower is now going against other top hitters, which can only help his development.
"It's really good down here,'' said Brower, who has 13 strikeouts in 14 innings. "You get to work on things you need to work on. There's really not too much pressure, you get seen by pro guys and you get to play. It's a great time. There's a lot of good guys here, so it's fun.
"I'm working on my pitches and my release point. I'm still getting used to throwing sidearm (after changing his motion at Carolina) and I'm trying to get strong.''
Brower said he was always too busy playing baseball growing up and never got the chance to watch Cape League games.
He visited last summer to watch some friends play and is thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of the league this year. Brower is living with a host family in Centerville and working at a baseball clinic during the day.
The 2000 Coyle-Cassidy High graduate, who took last summer off because of shoulder tendinitis, is having the time of his life.
"This is probably right up there with everything I've done in baseball,'' said Brower. "This is pretty much what every kid wants to do in his life. If you're not playing pro baseball, this is the closest thing to it. A lot of people end up playing pro ball out of the Cape League. It's a great experience, even to play with guys you know are going to go far.
"Why spend 80 bucks to go watch a game when you can see all these prospects for free?" Brower added. "This is just real baseball. This is what we want to play for. Little kids come to the games and love meeting the guys. We love the fact they love baseball so much.''
Brower, who is 9-7 at North Carolina, is one of just nine Massachusetts players in the Cape League this season, a group that includes Chatham first baseman Jason Delaney of Hanson and Boston College.
He finds it challenging to be called out of the bullpen late in a game and go against hitters who are the cream of the crop in the nation.
"You get all the 2-3-4 hitters in college maybe hitting ninth here,'' he said. "It's tough. You can't make any mistakes. You have to throw your best stuff at every batter. You don't blow anybody away.
"More than anything, the experience will help. I want to play (pro baseball). I don't know what's going to happen, but it can't hurt. To get to play against all the best players in the country it can't do anything but help you.''
Cape rates the best
Wade Townsend, who helped Rice University win the College World Series last month, recently joined Wareham and is getting his first look at the Cape League this summer.
Townsend, a pitcher who went 11-2 for Rice this past season, spent last summer playing in Alaska and finds the competition better here.
"The competition is very good and it gets more attention,'' said Townsend, who is 0-1 with the Gatemen. "There are more big names and big schools here.''
The tradition of the Cape League plus the setting makes for an easy sell when the elite college players are recruited.
Fan support is incredible with Orleans averaging nearly 1,800 people per game and Chatham nearly 1,500. The Gatemen usually average 1,200 fans.
"I'm a little shocked how many people show up,'' said Wareham pitcher-outfielder Lance Pendleton of Rice. "It's awesome. We have great fan support up here. Back in the day when Rice hadn't made its name yet, we didn't have this many fans. But not anymore.''
The entire package the Cape League has to offer far exceeds the other summer baseball leagues for college players.
"By far,'' said Quinn, the pitching coach at St. Thomas in Miami. "Above and beyond. Everything about this league is better than all the other leagues in the nation in terms of talent, support, fans, host families, the way they treat the players. You look out at the talent and the competition and it's above and beyond. This is where guys dream of playing in the summer when they're in college.''
Said Farris, who has won the last two titles with Wareham, "It's awesome. If you love baseball, this is the place to be. There's outstanding weather, outstanding crowds, great people. They love their teams and towns. The tradition is so good, it's always going to be that way.''
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