CHATHAM — Not long after he downs a couple cans of Red Bull, John Schiffner goes fishing into the candy bag, pulls out a Crispy Crunch bar, peels off the wrapper and bites through the blend of peanuts and milk chocolate.
On an already pulse-pumping night, in which he’s trying to become the all-time winningest manager in the history of the Cape Cod Baseball League, it seems like the last thing the famed Chatham Field Manager needs right now is a sugar rush.
Chatham A's Coach John Schiffner acknowedges the crowd after becoming the winningest coach in Cape League history
But Schiffner, sitting with his arms folded in the A’s dugout, is as calm as can be as he watches his team take on the Bourne Braves on this muggy and murky Thursday evening in early August.
There are others, like the 2,500 on-the-edge-of-their-seat fans who’ve come to see Schiffner surpass Don Reed and earn his record-setting 335th career win, who aren’t so subdued.
You can hardly blame them. After all, they were here when the classic Chatham fog rolled into Veterans Field and spoiled Monday’s originally scheduled game against Bourne. And they sat through the same scenario again Tuesday night, as the A’s and Wareham Gatemen played soft toss along the first and third base lines, but never a lick of baseball.
Clearly, Schiffner’s quest to reach the majestic wins mark, not unlike Barry Bonds’ simultaneous pursuit of Hank Aaron’s home run record, has been ripe with anticipation. And though they’ve never met, and are separated by miles in terms of morality, the embattled Giants slugger and beloved A’s skipper share one thing in common: they pay no mind to their approaching milestone.
Schiffner treats Thursday’s game like any of the others he’s coached during his illustrious 15-year tenure in Chatham. He signals for a sacrifice bunt when one is warranted, he cheerleads for his players, and argues on their behalf.
It’s not that Schiffner doesn’t know history is on the line tonight, it’s just that it doesn’t change his approach to winning. And it certainly doesn’t change his competitive spirit and hallmark humor, which, as evident by a close call in the second inning, aren’t always mutually exclusive.
When Chatham shortstop Scott Lyons goes deep in the hole, makes an acrobatic backhand stab, and fires across the diamond to retire Ben Guez – a play that would surely make Ozzie Smith smile – there is roaring applause from the A’s dugout. But those cheers turn to jeers when first base umpire Jim McCulloch rules Guez safe.
“Jeez, Jimmy, even the other team is laughing at you,” Schiffner blurts out.
It’s Schiffner who’s laughing in the home half of the inning, however, when Chatham catcher Tim Federowicz sends T.J. Hose’s 0-1 fastball high into the charcoal-colored sky and out of the park to put the A’s, ahead 2-1, up for good.
“Never enough, never enough,” says Schiffner, a man who, as A’s assistant coach George Barnes playfully remarks, “says everything twice.” Maybe the repetition is to help get his message across, and so be it, because it works.
Heeding Schiffner’s clarion call, the A’s pull away with four runs in the fourth on the strength of five straight hits, beginning with Zach Putnam’s infield hit, followed by Jeremy Synan’s RBI double that nearly hops over the ocean-blue wall in centerfield.
The red-hot bat attack continues when Federowicz doubles to right center. Lyons smacks an ensuing triple to right, prompting the Braves to pull the plug on Hose, and Andrew Crisp caps the binge when he singles off reliever Matt Karl to make it a 6-1 game.
The A’s, who seem determined to not only make sure Schiffner breaks the record, but that he does so in style, score four more over the final four innings.
Putnam’s run-scoring single and Federowicz’s sacrifice fly widen Chatham’s lead in the fifth. Federowicz later caps his 3-for-3, five RBI night with a run-scoring single in the seventh.
An inning later, Kevin McAvoy doubles in a run to cap the scoring and put the A’s in the double digit bracket, an impressive feat in the pitcher-friendly Cape League. It’s even more remarkable when you consider Chatham was off for five straight days, its longest idle stretch of the season.
As the A’s are lighting up the scoreboard with neon totals, the pitching staff, meanwhile, is bottling up the Braves’ batters. Starter Ryan Hinson, who leads the charge, limits the West Division champions to one run on five measly hits in six solid innings.
Reliever Trey Watten and set-up man Rob Wooten work a perfect seventh and eighth, respectively. And though the Braves make a little noise in the ninth by loading the bases, Jeff Lorick strikes out Addison Maruszak to end the game, as the crowd, knowing full well they’re witnessing history unfold before their eyes, rises to its feet.
Moments after hugging his assistant coaches, Pat McGee and Tyler Kincaid, Schiffner – no longer the Dean of the Cape League, now its king – is anointed by being doused with a bucket of ice water.
He is presented with a commemorative bat from Chatham General Manager Charlie Thoms, is kissed by his loving wife Martha, who has been to all but three of her husband’s 335 wins, and is greeted, one-by-one, with handshakes from his players.
What’s more, for the first time ever, the autograph hounds who always flock first to the players immediately swarm Schiffner, who pens his legendary name onto paper.
“It’s really special to break the record and even more special to break it at home, because these people have supported me all these years and this has become home to me,” said Schiffner. “I don’t live in Connecticut anymore,” he said, referring his residence in Plainfield, where he teaches high school. “I consider Chatham my home, so it’s very special to break the record for the home crowd, the fans and the Chatham Athletic Association.”
The spate of support couldn’t help Schiffner reflect on win number 335, and how win number 35 almost never came to pass.
“My history of getting the job was, at best, tumultuous, because I had so many interviews and an offer that came off the table within 24 hours,” said Schiffner, who took over as Chatham’s interim field manager in 1992. “I was told that I’d never be a coach down here because I’m a high school coach and I didn’t have the contacts college coaches have. So breaking the record is humbling, really humbling, and overwhelming because I never expected this to happen.”
To a similar degree, the current contingent of A’s players never imagined that at the start of the season they’d be the ones to help Schiffner achieve Cape League immortality. But once the season progressed and they realized they could, nothing was going to stop them.
“We definitely had extra incentive to win tonight,” Federowicz said. “It feels good to be able to get some base hits when we needed them, and it feels good to have done it for Schiff. He’s a great coach. He just lets us go out there and play.”
The win put Chatham (which three days later clinched a playoff berth), in prime position to make the playoffs. That, to Schiffner, was the most important thing all along.
“You could tell the kids really wanted to win for me tonight, and I’ll never forget them for that,” he said. “But we’ve got something that’s much more important to concentrate on – making the playoffs. I would have eventually got my win this year or next year, and I’ll take my victory with me, but making the playoffs is something these kids can take with them.”
Schiffner should know. He’s guided the A’s to the post-season 10 times, won five division titles and boasts two CCBL championship rings. Still, he’s the first to admit he didn’t do it alone.
“You can’t win 335 games without great players and we’ve had great players, 38
in big leagues alone,” said Schiffner. “And most importantly you can’t win without great assistant coaches, and they’ve all been phenomenal.”
Those who know Schiffner best know that numbers and records only tell a small side of the man. “He’s a great coach, just a guy you can talk to about anything and everything,” said Crisp. “He’s really more of a friend than a coach.”
The non-stop well wishes and congratulations from past players and colleagues leading up to and following Schiffner’s big win is a further testament to that.
Of the many pats on the back Schiffner received, three came from former Chatham A’s and current big leaguers Brian Roberts, Kyle Snyder and Mike Lowell, who saluted their erstwhile coach during the Cape League All-Star recognition ceremony at Fenway Park Wednesday night.
Touched by all those who reached out and touched him, Schiffner seemed most pleased he was able to share his walking-on-air moment with former Chatham coach Eddie Lyons, who’s record of 331 wins he broke last week.
“Eddie taught me so much about coaching college players and the way you manage a baseball game, so I’m proud he’s here,” said the 51-year old Schiffner. “My mom and dad couldn’t be here, they passed away a long time ago, and Eddie was like a second dad to me.”
Following a warm exchange with Lyons on the outer edges of the park, Schiffner returned to the field and stayed until the lights shut off. It was a symbolic act for a man who dedicates summer-after-summer to molding young men into future major leaguers, and who does it with such conviction.
So it comes as no surprise that Schiffner stayed until the end of his Cape League coronation and savored every second of it.
He’s always said it was his dream to coach in this league.
Now, he is the coach of this league.