June 30, 2004
Afternoon in Cape Cod
I think The Blizzard Theory is ready for its closeup.
The Blizzard Theory states that any ballpark with an ad for Dairy Queen somewhere on the premises is a great place to spend an evening. The theory gained steam on Saturday, when I caught a Cape Cod League game at Guv Fuller Field in Falmouth, Mass.
The league, perhaps best known as the source material for the cinematic epic Summer Catch, is a showcase circuit for college players, one which provides an opportunity for scouts to watch potential draftees play games using wood bats. The league has a long and distinguished list of alumni, and even as more summer leagues geared towards collegians proliferate, it retains its place as the #1 summer circuit.
Atmospherically, this isn't even minor-league baseball. Guy Fuller Field consists of the diamond, two sets of metal bleachers extending just past the corner bags, and a concession/souvenir stand behind home plate. The field is in pretty good condition, although the outfield grass might have been a bit long, judging from the way balls rolled dead in it. Picture a high school field in a middle-class suburb, add a lot of advertising on the outfield fence--including a DQ logo--and souvenirs, and you're there.
The players are invitees, generally sophomores from four-year colleges who will be draft-eligible in 2005. There is a sprinkling of freshmen and juniors, but by and large, this is a showcase for players who will be playing with wood bats in other small towns a year from now. Last week, the league wasn't at full strength yet, as a contingent of its best players were still playing in Omaha, at the College World Series, and in Mississippi, where the Team USA tryouts were being held.
I'm not a scout, and as Jonah Keri pointed out last week, our untrained eyes can deceive us, so take my player evaluations with a grain of salt. Oregon State freshman Dallas Buck started for Falmouth, and extended his season-opening scoreless string to 15 innings before giving up two runs in the sixth. Buck looked very good in six of his seven innings, using an easy motion to reach the low 90s with his fastball and mixing in a sharp breaking pitch. When he had to pitch from the stretch, though, he looked as if someone had just taught him baseball as he was coming over the Sagamore Bridge. He's just 19 and not draft-eligible until '06, so there's plenty of time for him to work on that, and he was very impressive from the windup.
Falmouth shortstop Cliff Pennington, from Texas A&M, looked good defensively and had a couple of singles up the middle. Falmouth's Mark Hamilton, from Tulane, and Chris Looze, from George Mason, each homered, although neither looked very impressive aside from that. Looze's homer was strongly wind-aided, a pop-up to right field that just kept going.
I sat next to an older couple from Virginia during the game, and the lady, a George Mason alum, cheered enthusiastically for Looze's every at-bat. She and her husband also cheered for every other player from colleges in the mid-Atlantic region, which was infectious. I got so excited I ended up cheering for Brewster center fielder Danny Perales, a freshman from USC. Perales, unmoved by the gesture, went hitless in the three at-bats I saw.
The Cape Cod League shares an unfortunate trait with the Arizona Fall League in that the players are largely playing not to win a championship, but to be evaluated by scouts. If you decided to not keep track of the game score in either league, it wouldn't matter to all but the most competitive of the participants. On the Cape, though, unlike in Phoenix, the teams are wholeheartedly supported by their respective communities, communities which open their doors to league players, housing and feeding them throughout the two-month season, and showing up at the games in force.
It's a strange situation to go to a baseball game where the crowd is so much more invested in the outcome than the players are. For all the griping in the free-agent era about greedy players who care more about their stats than winning, watching AFL or CCL games is a real education in what baseball played for those reasons would look like.
I'm coming off a lot more negative about the league than I actually feel. I had a great time at the game, and more than once remarked to Sophia that I could easily spend a summer down there, watching baseball games each day in that atmosphere.
I'll leave you with one anecdote that I think reflects the place of the league in the Cape Cod community. Somewhere in the middle innings, a Falmouth player walked into the bleachers with a roll of tickets, accompanied by a local high-school student with a big bucket. The two were selling chances for the 50/50 raffle, one for a dollar, 15 for $10.
While he was doing this, the public-address announcer informed the crowd that the Falmouth players would be available immediately after the game for autograph signing.
Players who sign autographs and collect for the 50/50. That's the Cape Cod League.