30 July 2007

Cape League Special

New Jersey Devils’ Boss Started Star-Studded
Career on Cape Cod’s Baseball Diamonds

    Tradition. It’s what makes baseball such a wonderful game. And all-star games are nothing without it. That thought occurred to me on Sunday when I had an opportunity to read Mark Colageo’s feature story in the New Bedford Standard-Times about a longtime friend of mine who got his start in coaching as a manager in the Cape Cod Baseball League and is now a highly successful and widely respected professional sports executive.

Lou Lamarillo
photo: New Jersey Devils

    Colageo was looking for a different angle for one of several stories his newspaper published in advance of Saturday’s Cape League All-Star Game at Wareham’s Clem Spillane Field. And the one he found brought back a flood of personal memories of my experiences as a young sports writer and Cape League volunteer in the early 1960s.

    The story that caught my attention focused on Lou Lamoriello, president and general manager of the National Hockey League’s New Jersey Devils. Lou has reached the pinnacle of success in his chosen sport, winning three Stanley Cups and elevating the New Jersey franchise to the ranks of the elite in the NHL. He will be starting his 20th season with the Devils this fall when his team moves into its new home arena, the Prudential Center, in Newark. But he has never forgotten his roots, nor those he met along the way.
   His biography that appears on the Devils’ website mentions his days as a player and manager on the Cape and he frequently credits that background with providing the foundations for his later successes in sports. “The Cape … you can’t beat it,” he told Colageo. “I’m just disappointed that I can’t get back there.”

    My history with Lamoriello started in the mid-1960s. I had been working with the old Bourne Town Team, giving manager Gabe Mottla a little assistance in his attempt to offer an opportunity for local ballplayers to play during the summer, while the trend in the Cape League at that time was toward importing college players. In fact, Bourne’s major rival was manager Manny Pena’s Sagamore Clouters, who shared Keith Memorial Field in Sagamore as a home park. Pena pioneered the use of “outside” players and fashioned a virtual dynasty with his Sagamore teams.

    When Mottla decided to pack it in and Pena turned his efforts to umpiring, Bourne was left with a single team and nobody to run it. So I was asked to help get things organized. Enter Dave Gavitt, then the assistant basketball coach under legendary Joe Mullaney at Providence College and a veteran player and manager in the old Lower Cape League. Dave called me at my office at 319 Main St., Hyannis, where I was employed as sports editor of the Cape Cod Standard-Times. He knew of my ties to the Bourne team and said he would like to meet with me to discuss a possible manager for the club.

    So the meeting was arranged. I think it was for coffee at the old Mayflower Restaurant, directly across Main Street from the newspaper’s offices. Gavitt, who would go on to become a highly successful head coach of the basketball Friars, first commissioner of the Big East Conference, general manager of the Boston Celtics and a major figure on the national and international basketball scene, had two words for me: Lou Lamoriello.

    He had watched Lou star on the diamond and on the ice for the Friars -- being named captain of both the baseball and hockey teams -- and he saw not only a talented athlete with loads of potential, but a smart player with a knack for picking up the nuances of the games he played – in short, a young man who he felt would develop into a fine coach one day. Lou had already played three seasons with Gavitt in Orleans, so Dave knew he was already familiar with the workings of summer baseball on Cape Cod.

    I was intrigued by the idea of bringing in a bright, young manager who would invigorate the Bourne/Sagamore franchise, so I took Gavitt’s advice and called Lamoriello. We arranged to meet and we hit it off immediately. I knew at once that Lou, at age 21, was the man for the job.

    The rest, as they say, is history. Lou guided that 1965 Sagamore team to the Upper Cape championship and capped off his incredible season by beating his old arch-rival Chatham in the All-Cape Championship series, which in those days was a three-game series which took place on Labor Day weekend, often ending with a morning-afternoon, two-town double-header on the holiday itself.

    Because his Sagamore team was leading its division at mid-season, Lou was given the honor of managing the Upper Cape squad in the annual all-star game against the Lower Cape’s best players.

    As it happened, that game 42 years ago was the first Cape Cod League All-Star Game to be played at Spillane Field in Wareham. According to Colageo’s story, Lou doesn’t recall much about the game. “All I remember,” he told the reporter, “is that it was under the lights.” Cape League historian Bruce Hack filled in the details, noting that Lamoriello’s Upper Cape squad edged the Lower Cape, 10-9, in an eight-inning game shortened by an 11 p.m. curfew.

    Lamoriello signed on at PC that fall as an assistant to head hockey coach Zellio Toppazzini, the start of a hockey career that would see him achieve great success of his own. He decided against returning to the Cape League in 1966, opting instead to accept an offer to manage at Thetford Mines in the Quebec Provincial League. But he came back to Cape Cod in 1967 as manager at Yarmouth, when the team played at the John Simpkins School Field, just across Route 28 from the South Yarmouth State Police Barracks. One of Lou’s recruits in ’67 was a 17-year-old kid out of Rippowam High School in Stamford, Conn., who was highly rated as a football quarterback and a can’t-miss baseball prospect. That kid was Bobby Valentine, who dazzled the scouts with his bat and glove and became the Los Angeles Dodgers’ first round draft choice the following spring. Another prospect who had the scouts buzzing that summer was making his mark in Chatham. Catcher Thurman Munson, out of Kent State University in Ohio, was so impressive that the New York Yankees made him their first-round draft choice in 1968, marking the first time two Cape League players were chosen in the first round.

    Lamoriello’s duties at PC were demanding too much of his time to allow him to continue as a Cape League manager, so he reluctantly turned down a return to Yarmouth for 1968. He was named Toppazinni’s successor as Friars head coach in 1969 and held that job for 11 years before being elevated to director of athletics. He was a co-founder of Hockey East, whose championship trophy to this day bears his name. But in 1987, he “turned pro,” leaving the hallowed halls of Providence, with which he had been so familiar for so long, to enter the uncertain world of professional sports as the new president and general manager of the New Jersey Devils. 

    Now, as he starts his 20th season with the Devils, Lou is looking forward to moving out of the team’s old digs in the Meadowlands and into the brand new Prudential Center in Newark, where a fourth Stanley Cup would be a perfect housewarming present. 

By Joe Sherman, CCBL Web Editor (jws02673@aol.com)

John Garner, Jr.
Director of Public Relations & Broadcasting
(508) 790-0394

Joe Sherman
Web Editor
(508) 775-4364)