21July, 2005

Diamond Gems
A typical evening in the Cape League

     Imagine you are flying in an airplane over Cape Cod. It is late afternoon on a summer day. Evening approaches. In amongst the beaches, the main streets and the neighborhoods here and there you spy green spaces where crowds are gathering, drawn together by baseball, Cape Cod League style. 
     Taking in a Cape League game is a ritual for many and a part of the summer scene on the Cape. Last Thursday, the Cape Codder dispatched reporters to five Cape League ballparks to report not on the games, but on the atmosphere - the things that make each place where Cape League ball is played unique, yet still part of the tradition.

Yarmouth: Nothing like it

     "And leading off for your Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox ..." roars through the public address system, "your center fielder from Stanford, Jimmmmmm Rapoporrrrrrrt!

     With that, a half dozen baseball uniform-clad 6- to 9-year-olds from the team's youth clinic escort Rapoport to his outfield position and stand with him. After all the Red Sox starters have been introduced and escorted and the national anthem has been played, it's time for a special presentation.

     It's five o'clock, game time at Red Wilson Field behind Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School in South Yarmouth.

     The Cape Cod Baseball League is built on volunteers and sponsors, and 77-year-old Rita Winer has been running the Y-D merchandise booth for a decade.

     "I didn't even know tonight was recognition day," the Bass River resident says after receiving the Sullivan Tire Volunteer of the Year award and throwing out the first pitch.

     "I didn't know my family would be here; I'm totally overwhelmed. I signed up to volunteer Tuesday and Thursday. When the calendar is empty, I sign up."

     Although not an official volunteer, Dave Walcott is known to all the Y-D regulars for photographing volunteers and action on the field.

     Walcott, who lives in Peach Tree City, Ga., a community where 9,000 golf carts substitute for cars, has a cottage in South Yarmouth in July and August and has been following the Red Sox for years.

     One special visitor to this game is Masayuki Shinoyama, deputy sports editor for the Nihon Keizai Shimbun newspaper in Tokyo, who is on his first stop observing baseball in the United States.

     Shinoyama gets a special orientation from Bob Mayo, president of the Y-D team, who explains the league and tells him about the all-volunteer setup in the Cape League. "It's a hobby for me; my job is with Coca Cola," which Shinoyama acknowledges with a big smile and a "Coca Cola!"

     Cape League president Judy Scarafile chats with another volunteer, Barbara Ellsworth, the person in charge of finding host families for the Red Sox players. The Y-D-Hyannis Mets game is the first of Scarafile's two games this night - she later went to the Chatham at Harwich game. "This is a unique wide open setting and has the best, good old-fashioned American hamburgers," she says. "And Y-D draws crowds like no other team in the league."

As the traditionally late arriving crowd at Red Wilson Field grows, Rita Winer sums up what makes her favorite team special: "We have no exclusive field; it's down to earth summer baseball; nothing like it."

Bourne: Crack, not clunk

     The crack of wood bats was sweet when the Bourne Braves encountered the well-heeled Gatemen from across the ditch in Wareham and vaulted back into first place in the Cape League's Western Division.

     No aluminum bats here. No sun either

Bourne Brave Beau Mills signs an autograph for Brendan Smith before theGatemen game.
Staff photo by Paul Gately

     Baseball at this level is best played on a hot but still weekday late afternoon. Coady Field was an appropriate setting even with the breeze blowing in, fog drifting across the outfield and the Cape Cod trash train whistling its way west in the distance. Game time was 4:45 p.m. Fans had been arriving for nearly an hour.

     The scene was vintage sand dune baseball. Shorts and T-shirts. Coolers and lawn chairs. Pooches on leashes and a lost dog notice. Bottled water and score sheets. Hot dogs, pizza, fries and sunflower seeds. Kids were running around with their baseball gloves, seeking autographs from the college boys from faraway places in their summer uniforms and harboring big-league dreams. Some day, the young kids will be ready themselves.

     It was Rockland Trust Night. Michaela Almeida from the bank handed out plastic containers. Danielle Knapp and Jessica Shaller sold 50-50 raffle chances. One prize: Pawtucket Red Sox tickets. Carole Valeri was in the gift shop.

     Everything was in alignment. Alesia Vaccari, a student athletic trainer from Springfield College, lined up with the Braves for the national anthem. John Fogerty followed with his immortal "Put me in coach; I'm ready to play ... today."

     Play ball! Two pitchers with different styles were on the mound. The lanky Gatemen hurler could throw junk. Braves bats were mostly silent in the early going. But the Bourne pitcher was no slouch either.

     Lynn Ladetto of the Braves organization said the middle innings are usually the most difficult in these games. You need focus then, she said.

     The fog rolled in during the fifth. In the bottom of the sixth, Bourne tied it at 1.

     The Braves went on a hitting spree with two outs in the seventh to pull ahead 4-1. Blurred bats whipping around. The fans were delighted. Foul balls bounced onto Trowbridge Road. Stinging fingers. The youngsters with gloves and dreams were gleeful.

     Wareham tried to rally in the eighth. It was 7:10 p.m. Aircraft from Otis disappeared in the clouds overhead as a setting sun poked through the mist above the tree line in center. Far in the distance, the trash train sounded more desolate at each crossing, like a freight running deep through a prairie night.

     Bourne skipper Harvey Shapiro was on the verge of his 57th win over three seasons with the Braves. He has won more than any Bourne manager. He was applauded from the bleachers along both base paths. The fans, after all, know the league and a lot about winning. They respect talent and appreciate achievement.

     Ladetto was happy. "Into first place and toward a championship," she said. "That's the story tonight."

A view from 'the hill' 

      It's known simply as "the hill" as if there just couldn't possibly be another.

     The large, steeply sloping hill on the first base side of Cape Tech Field in Harwich dominates the experience of watching a Brewster Whitecaps baseball game. It boasts an incline that would challenge a mountain goat but apparently not the packs of adolescent boys who traverse up and down its cliff face like so many pint-sized Sherpas in search not of Everest glory but something far more tangible: souvenir foul balls.

     Early birds or those in the know spread blankets on a terraced section of "the hill" just in front of the press box and slightly to the right of home plate. Kitty corner and back from that section is a small stretch of wooden stands that sit in the shadow of a newly installed wind turbine spinning like a giant pinwheel atop the hill. Oh, by the way, it's windy.

     Sitting high on "the hill" behind home plate offers a gorgeous view of the game below, but comes at a price: balls fouled directly over the backstop do not "drop" in the traditional sense but appear as line drives with serious sizzle. Daydreaming fans chatting about the day's beach weather or the prospects of winning the 50/50 raffle are sometimes forced to scatter amid cries of "heads up," "look out" or some such warning.

     "The hill" creates the dynamic of top-notch baseball as athletic theater, with the game and only the game in front of its angled spectators. There are no Jumbotrons, bleacher seats, parking lots or other distractions behind the field's fences, only tall green trees serving as a monochromatic backdrop to the action.

     But, in many ways, "the hill" is the action. Immediately before a recent game between the hometown Whitecaps (who will actually be the hometown team when they move to a new field in Brewster next year) and the Falmouth Commodores, the area is abuzz with activity. Two Brewster Boy Scouts battle to the virtual death with "Star Wars" light sabers while another offers encouragement. "Use the force, use the force," he urges them.

     At the top of the slope, one Falmouth player discusses pitching grips with an older couple seated in folding chairs while a Brewster player waits patiently in line at the snack bar for a bag of peanut M&M's. Below, a fellow Whitecap leaves an impromptu throwing contest with teammates to jog up the hill; at first he appears to be performing a pre-game warm-up until it becomes evident he is anxious to use the portable rest rooms near the school.

     At the foot of the hill, a half-dozen baseball scouts unpack their radar guns and make small talk to pass the time.

     "Yeah, I heard he had the surgery today," one confides to the other as they discuss a prospect while watching the Whitecap pitcher warm up, each pitch pounding the catcher's mitt like the crack of a whip.

     Minutes later, the home plate umpire shakes the hand of the Brewster bat boy before turning to the Falmouth dugout.

     "C'mon, batter," he barks.

     The batter strides to the plate. Most zero in on the unfolding action on the field but others are content with their own games of catch, grabbing a snack or continuing their summer's day conversations.

     "Play ball."

Harwich: Play, then watch

On a sultry evening, cars snaking along the stretch of curving driveway leading to the ballpark bear license plates from Wisconsin, Virginia, New Hampshire, Florida, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut - about one out-of-state to every two from Massachusetts.

Future star Bobby Luca was on hand for the Harwich-Chatham game.
Staff photo by Nicole Muller

     Others walk, ride bicycles, skateboards or Rollerblades, with a common destination: Whitehouse Field behind Harwich High School, home of the Harwich Mariners.

     "We figured something fun must be happening because there were so many cars headed in the same direction," says Robin Weitzel of Jacksonville, Fla. "We were on our way back from dinner, and we followed the others here. This is great!"

     Balancing a can of Sprite purchased from the nearby concession stand, Weitzel stops to grab a free sample bag of Cape Cod Potato Chips being offered this night as a promotion. "These are wonderful," Weitzel says, grabbing a second bag for her husband before joining him in the bleachers.

     Just then, an invitation comes over the PA system for children to join the team on the field for the national anthem. Following a scurry of grinning small fry to and from the field, the leadoff batter approaches home plate.

     Meanwhile, a half-dozen fifth-graders toss a football on a stretch of grass. One, shy at revealing his name to a reporter, wears a Harwich Little League All-Stars cap. Asked why he isn't watching the game, he replies. "We do - later. We like to listen and toss the football for the first few innings." 

     Other children line up, hands clutching crumpled bills, to examine the Cape league T-shirts, caps and stickers for sale at a booth across from the concession stand. Julia Harod, a summer intern with the Mariners from Syracuse University, lives with her grandparents in Harwich. "I work in a child-care center during the day and do this at night," she says.

     Behind the packed bleachers, Harwich patrolmen Rob Horgan and Kevin Considine balance their bicycles. They have stopped to chat with Jeff Van Weel and Susan Jordan of Harwich. Horgan ruffles the fur of Jordan's Shih-tzu Gus as they discuss the perks of bike patrol. "You can't beat a job that lets you take in a ball game," a passer-by notes. Smiling, Considine replies, "Kids behave better when we're around."

     Beyond the bleachers, with an open view from behind third base, two teens sit leaning against a tree, laughing, each with an eye on the game. Brittany Williams and Brittany Officer both hail from Londonderry, N.H. Williams, visiting her Harwich grandparents, and Officer, vacationing here with her family, catch up on hometown news while nibbling cookies.

     "My grandfather plays with the Old Timers' [softball] League, and when he has a night off, we come to these games," Williams says.

     It's the seventh inning stretch, and folks leave the bleachers, heading for the Porta Potties, snack bar and souvenir stand. Chris Luca from Milton watches his sons Bobby, 3, and Jack, 5, both wearing Mariners' caps, play catch. "We're here for two weeks, and Jack's attending the Mariners' kids camp weekday mornings," Luca says. "Bobby can't wait until he's old enough to go."

Orleans: Top collegiate park 

     It's 6:30, a half hour till game time and the parking lot behind Eldredge Field in Orleans is filling up fast.

     Spots on the hill along the first base line, many of which were staked out hours before with beach chairs and blankets, are filling up as well. Out by left field, families that have planned their day around the game, are in the midst of a picnic dinner. Later they'll settle in beside the outfield fence for an unobstructed view of the action.

Mr. Cardinal's costume gets a thorough inspection by a young fan during a game.
Staff photo by Joe Burns

     On the field the Cardinal players, doubling as ground crew, serve as perfect hosts for the Cotuit Kettleers, putting the finishing touches on the field while Abbott and Costello's classic "Who's on First" routine is blaring out from the PA.

     This is baseball as it was in the beginning. They may be called the Orleans Cardinals, but they could be the Mudville Nine, and the strapping young slugger tied for the home run lead could be the Mighty Casey himself. It doesn't matter that he hails from San Dimas, Calif., or that his teammates come from equally exotic reaches such as Alpharetta, Ga., Sammamish, Wash., and Belmont, N.C. Like the migrating songbirds that come each spring, they may be different from the ones that came last year - but they're still Cardinals.

     Maybe it's the sight of the life-size statue of a baseball player on the front lawn of a home across the street from Eldredge Field, or that the baseball diamond is set, like a crown jewel, right in the center of town. But it's evident that Orleans takes its baseball seriously. In the hearts and minds of many, the Orleans Cardinals are more than just a baseball team, they're a source of pride, a force that unites a community and keeps alive a piece of small town life that too often seems to have passed us by.

     A perennial Cardinal is George Hoskey of Eastham, aka Mr. Cardinal. Now in his eighth season as the official team mascot, Hoskey was the first mascot in the Cape League. Wearing his bright red Cardinal costume, Mr. C is a one-bird ambassador and cheerleader for the team, posing for photos with the fans, greeting old friends and making new ones. Extolling the virtues of Eldredge Field, Hoskey emphasizes its family friendly, safe environment.

     "The people put their chairs down at noon and they come back at game time and their chairs are still there," Hoskey says.

     The field itself, described by one scribe as "a Norman Rockwell painting come to life," was named by Baseball America magazine as the top collegiate baseball league park in the country. A roomy, open park, with only a few token benches, separation between field and fan in some sections, is nonexistent, defined only by white lines drawn in the grass.

     "For a lot of folks, this is as close as they'll get to a major leaguer," Hoskey says, recalling the now legendary '93 Cards that featured Nomar Garciaparra, Aaron Boone and Jay Payton.

     Hoping to discover the next superstar, major league scouts cluster under the concession stand overhang, squeezed between the shingled siding and a chain link fence. Repetitively raising their "Stalker Sport" radar guns in unison, they point them toward the pitcher's mound and then, like arcade automatons, lower them again to record the results. Among them is Matt Gruebel, a scout for the Cleveland Indians, who played here in the late '80s when he was with Wareham and Harwich.

     Not far away a father squats by the backstop, explaining the finer points of the game to his son, who's sitting on his lap. Meanwhile, at the other end of the field, behind the left field fence, another father cradles his infant daughter in his arms, rocking her gently as he watches the game unfolding before him.

     Not all eyes are on the game. Behind the center field fence boys play catch, imagining themselves the heroes they aspire to be, while just-turned teens play a different game, giggling and flirting in the dark of a balmy July evening.

     "You have to like it," says Barbara Kavanaugh, whose Orleans home displays the baseball statue, and who like her husband, Barry, is a longtime Cardinal fan and volunteer. "On a summer night I can't think of anything better."

By - Nicole Muller / - Paul Gately / - Don Sherlock / - Craig Salters/ - Joe Burns