If you recognize the name John Schiffner, chances are you're either part of the college baseball scene or a big fan of the 2001 romantic comedy, Summer Catch. The long-time coach of Chatham in the Cape Cod League, Schiffner is played by Brian Dennehy in the film, and he considers it one of the highlights of his baseball career — though he wouldn't have minded the role going to Tom Selleck or Kevin Costner, he admitted.
Schiffner played on the Cape while at Providence College, started as an assistant coach in 1978 and has been the head man in Chatham since halfway through the 1993 season. Over the last 24 summers, he's coached major-league luminaries such as Evan Longoria, Matt Harvey and Mike Lowell and twice won the Cape League title.
While Major League Baseball celebrated its All-Star break last week, we caught up with the man everyone calls Schiff to talk about the professionalization of college baseball, the evolution of pitching, and how Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Jessica Biel once cost him a recruit.
Tim Britton: What keeps you coming back? What do you enjoy about this so much?
John Schiffner: It's so pure. You'll see dad playing catch with his son beyond the left-field fence, dads introducing their babies to the players, the people come right onto the field after the game and say hi. It's so neat to see the athletes, too. They're so good, and at this point they're not totally taken over. It's not as pure as it once was, but they're still amateurs and still wide-eyed and still in awe of some things.
TB: Is coaching different here than in some of the other places you've coached?
JS: Not really. I coached high school for 33 years. I coached [in the Atlantic Collegiate League] in 1989 and that was the same thing. I coached at the University of Maine in 2014-2015, and it's the same thing with college athletes.
The kids are changing. College baseball has changed since I was in college and since I started coaching in the Cape. A lot of it has changed, and we've had to adjust as coaches. If you don't, you're in trouble.
TB: How has college baseball changed?
JS: Well I think the advertising and endorsements have changed it. There are now college baseball coaches that fear for their jobs. When I started coaching, it was the greatest job in the world. You could be a college baseball coach forever. Now, it's million-dollar contracts and endorsements and ADs wondering why you're not winning 40 games. You see some of the guys who have been let go recently in college baseball, 'That guy's a good coach. Two years ago he was in a super-regional and now he's out.' That makes it difficult.
It makes our job very difficult too. At one point, the coaches had a great deal of faith in what the summer coaches were doing. Now they're apprehensive, because they're afraid that their kid could get hurt down here, whether it's by accident or abuse. That's their bread and butter right there. So their attitude is starting to become, 'If somebody's going to screw that kid up, it's going to be me and not some summer coach.'
We're experiencing that right now. We're talking about how a kid walks up to a coach and says, 'Hey, I've got three innings left and I'm done for the summer.' You look at him, 'Who told you that?' 'Oh, my college coach.' 'Well he never told me that.' That's putting a bad taste in a lot of our mouths.
We know what we're doing down here. We're not going to abuse your kids. I think we're treating them too easy. We're not pushing these kids a little bit, and if they're not pushed, it's a dramatic jump from here to pro baseball. It's totally different. You can teach them some of the nuances they're going to need to know in pro baseball, but it's tough to push them now. They don't want to be pushed.
TB: How much conversation do you have with college coaches throughout the summer?
JS: You have it throughout the year. You ask about things, you watch the stats on the Internet and you see a guy who might not be performing well and you have a conversation, 'Hey coach, maybe we should make a change here.' Some coaches agree, some don't.
There's great conversation with pitchers. How many pitches should they throw? I've had some coaches who say, 'Let him go, 85-90 is good.' Others will go, 'Well, if he goes 50 or 60, that's enough.' I had some pitchers who they only wanted 15 or 20 innings, and that's why we made them temps. Now we're getting the regular-contract guys who are being told that they're on pitch counts that we're unaware of.
Just as you walked in, I was on the phone trying to find a pitcher. Everyone in the league is looking for pitching. There's nobody left. I'm bringing a kid in right now who has not thrown in a college game since May. He's been throwing bullpens throughout the summer. At least I've got an arm on the mound. I'm not bringing in my center fielder.
TB: How different is the pitching conversation than it used to be?
JS: Tremendously. You didn't have one back in the day. 'Just don't hurt him, Schiff.' That was it. I remember, it wasn’t that long ago, it would be nothing to have a kid go 95 or 100 pitches and that was fine. He'll get six days off. Now if you go over 75 or 80, you get calls or texts.
I had a kid come out of the game at 8:05, and I turned my cell phone on after the game and had a text at 8:07, 'What's wrong?' Are you kidding me?
TB: If it were up to you, how much do you think guys should be pushed in the summer?
JS: I don't think 100 innings, total, is awful. I think they should because they're going to be asked to do that in a year or two anyway. And what gets me is that I go crazy when I see the first February weekend, my supposed starter for this coming summer goes 138 pitches and nine complete in his first outing. Really? You're kidding me, right? That just drives me crazy. Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't they be rounding him into shape to get him ready for the end of the season and postseason where he can go 125 pitches?
TB: You mentioned how college has changed. Do you see that filtering down to the players?
JS: The ones who have 'advisors' always seem to have really nice batting gloves and the really expensive wooden bats. Yeah, it's changing a lot. I have to remind these guys about the third week of June that, I call it Agent Season. All these guys are out looking for the guys who don't have advisors. That has changed college baseball significantly.
The process down here is like bees swarming or sharks smelling blood. They see a really good player and immediately I get a text, 'Is he attached to anybody?' I don't want to get involved in that. I try to stay out of that when I can. There's a number of guys who I think are good people and their interest is about the kid, and there are some guys who are just the sharks.
TB: There are some teams in other sports — I think the LA Rams have done this — that worry about how they work with Millennials. Have you noticed a shift in the way kids are?
JS: Oh sure. Thank God I was a teacher for 36 years and am still in the range of some of these kids I had in the classroom. I survived because I adjusted. I've seen some of my colleagues who have not and have struggled. I'm glad I was in a high school classroom, glad I spent a year on a college campus [at the University of Maine in 2014-15].
I still think I can relate to this level of kid. I listen. I deal with incidents one at a time. I don't have a blanket policy because those get you in trouble. The kids respect that. I talk to them and try to be friendly with them and get to know them. I make sure I walk around batting practice, 'Hey, how are things going?' You laugh at their jokes and try to listen to see what's going on. I think that'll be the time when it's time to go, when you say something and the kids just look at you and you realize they didn't get that or I'm not reaching them. I'm not there yet.
TB: You only have them for such a short period of time. How close are you able to get with your players and how do you build a team?
JS: Well, you let them build the team. You encourage, but you can't force things on these kids. The natural leaders have to emerge, and oftentimes they do. The teams with the best chemistry win the most games. When you start this season in June, it's 10 college All-Star teams, and there's not a dramatic difference in talent level between the best team and the 10th team. The chemistry takes over and then teams emerge.
TB: How close-knit can a team become over the few months here?
JS: Really close. You see guys from various schools that send a group text and they'll include me. They're friendly and still stick together. I got a text not too long ago with a picture of three of the guys from here, two are on one pro team and the other's on another pro team, and they took the time to send the picture back to me. That's fantastic.
I think that has a lot to do with the community as well. This community is fantastic — the things that these people have done for these players over the years. One of my favorite stories is that five of my ex-players have come back to Chatham to get married. And they didn't marry a Chatham girl. They came back here to get married, and that's special. This whole thing, I like to call it The Chatham Experience, had that kind of impact on them.
TB: When you start to put together your roster, how closely do you follow those guys during the college season?
JS: Wednesday and Thursday, I'm online checking what they did. And then Friday night, Saturday night, Sunday night I'll check everything to see what's going on. The college coaches get notes from me too. 'What's up with so-and-so?'
TB: The Cape has a reputation for being hard offensively…
JS: Oh God yeah, it's a pitching league. We recruit pitching right away. You've got to have arms in this league.
TB: …so how do you prep offensive players for understanding that the stats aren't going to be what they're used to?
JS: You tell them the first night, 'The first thing you're going to learn to do here is fail.' If you come into this league and take this league by the horns, it's not going to happen. Eventually you'll start to be successful. Do not expect to have this league bow down to you. There are not Sunday relief pitchers in the Cape Cod League. They're not here. You're seeing the No. 1, 2 and 3 starters and the two best relief arms out of most of your Division I programs. You're going to see some shit you've never seen before.
It goes back to when I got here. My freshman year I played at Providence, and we had great competition in the Yankee Conference with really good baseball. Rich Gale pitched at UNH, Jeff Reardon. Those were rare occurrences. You come down here and there's seven Rich Gales on the roster and seven Jeff Reardons.
I never saw a true slider until the first game I played in the Cape Cod League. I didn't know what it was. I had seen a slurve, a good overhand curveball, but in the '70s, not a lot of guys were throwing sliders. The first one I saw I was like, 'My God, what was that?' The catcher was laughing at me. I thought, 'It's going to be a long summer.'
TB: We talk in the major leagues about the uptick in velocity across pitching. Do you see that here?
JS: Ninety-five is the old 92. There are more guys now throwing 95 than we've ever had. I always use this comparison: You see those photos when a jet plane breaks a sound barrier, with that puff? To me, that was 95. When a guy topped 95, you could tell. Lots of guys were throwing 92 a few years ago and not that many were throwing 95.
Now there's guys throwing 95 all over the place, and 98 is the old 95. I always tell the story, we were over at Orleans and David Bush who pitched in the big leagues was pitching for us. It was a 2-2 count in a tight game, and the umpire just kicked it. Perfect pitch, ball three. Everybody's going crazy, and David was a competitor. So David reached back, and it exploded into the catcher's glove. Everybody in the dugout gasped. I thought it had to be 95 or 96, and I asked a scout after the game and it was 96. They knew, I knew, that that was a special fastball. It was a breaking-the-sound-barrier fastball. And now that's the norm! Now you do that on a 98.
There are so many guys that can throw 93-95. We ran out a game against Wareham about three weeks ago, the starter was 94, the guy that backed him up was 95 and the next two guys were both 93 — and that's normal. Ten years ago that would be 'Oh my God.'
TB: How often do you find your teaching experience carry over to this?
JS: Oh God, especially my masters in psych, too. I use it every day — on myself, on my coaches. It's really helped to be a trained teacher. You have to have patience — more patience now than ever. The kids know a lot more, and even the ones that don't tell you they do. They're just like your students. It was a great training ground for me to do this.
TB: What do you think makes a good Cape League manager, and is that any different from a manager at another level?
JS: You've got to convince college coaches you've got a good program going. You've got to be a good recruiter. You don't have to be a genius as a coach because you've got the best players in the country. Let them play. I see sometimes guys overmanage and it gets them in trouble, trying to do too many things. Just let the game happen.
Some people don't remember this: It still is a developmental league. You let these kids play, let these kids feel success, let them feel some failure. When they have the failure, you pick them right up and say, 'You've got to get back to work.' You don't bench them. I've seen some teams down here where kids don't play for weeks. That's not right. I have a rule where you don't sit for more than three games in a row. The college coaches expect these kids to play.
TB: You mentioned the masters in psych. We've seen major-league teams with sports psychology staffs now. How much does that come into play?
JS: An awful lot. You have to deal with these kids. This sometimes is the first time these kids are really away from home, and they're failing, and maybe they don't like their host family. There's a lot of things you've got to deal with. It's mostly talking to the kids and being honest with them and helping them through.
TB: How important is it for them to experience failure that first time and get through it?
JS: They don't know it, but it's great. We need to fail. We all have to fail at something. If I'm never failing, I'll never know what it is to fall down until I do, and it may be too late. I need to know what it feels like to go 0-for-4 and make mistakes and then have someone say, 'OK, you made a mistake. Let's go to tomorrow and work from there.'
TB: I want to run through some players you've had here and your memories of them. I'll start with Evan Longoria.
JS: The best. Nobody worked harder than Evan. The only other person who had as much fun as Evan Longoria was Todd Frazier. If you took baseball away from Todd Frazier, I don't know what he'd do. He loves baseball, Longoria loves baseball. He had a great time. He's a really good guy.
He's so genuine and so generous. Three or four years ago, we had a night off and our association was able to get a whole block of tickets [to Fenway Park] and the Rays were in town. We got our people let in real early, so the kids are along the wall along third base with their Chatham A's stuff on, and Evan comes right over and shook every hand, had every picture taken, put his arm around people, recognized some of the host families. Just phenomenal. And Todd Frazier does the same thing. Those two will forever be Chatham A's.
TB: You had Matt Harvey for two summers.
JS: I coached against his father for 33 years in Connecticut. I've known Matt since he was a child. It was decided on in the eighth grade that when Matt was going to college, he'd play for me.
Matt's a great kid. Worked hard here. Struggled his sophomore year, just did not have a really good summer, but he figured it out that fall. Good person, good teammate.
TB: You had Rich Hill for two years going back a bit.
JS: Fabulous young man. He was so deer-in-headlights down here. From Milton, Mass., goes to Michigan, comes to the Cape. He never stood the Cape on its ear, but you knew it was there. We couldn't be happier for the way he's performed now.
TB: Jason Bay.
JS: Another really quiet kid. Boy, did he struggle here. He struggled and he never said a word. He brought the lunch pail. He had the five tools, but some days he wouldn't show all five tools. Monday he'd show his arm, Tuesday he'd show some power. You knew it was there. You were hoping and praying it would come out.
TB: Mike Lowell.
JS: I call him the governor. If Mike Lowell wanted to be mayor of Miami or governor of Florida, he could. Fabulous person. He couldn't appreciate more the experience he had here. He thanked me forever. He honored me by asking me to induct him in the Cape League Hall of Fame, and that's one of the greatest honors I've ever had. We hadn't seen one another in a number of years until that weekend, and we just sat one night at The Squire — the local bar — and baseball hardly came up.
TB: Most importantly, what was it like to see Brian Dennehy playing you onscreen?
JS: Are you kidding me? It was fantastic. How honored am I to have an internationally known actor play my name. It was phenomenal. The fact that I met him once before and then after the movie was great. Maybe one of the highlights of my baseball career is being played by Brian Dennehy. How could I complain? I'll take it. Sure, would I have wanted Tom Selleck or Kevin Costner? Hell yeah, but Brian Dennehy is pretty cool. I had no problem with that.
TB: After that movie came out, did kids change at all based off that movie? Did they view Chatham differently?
JS: One story, we had a player coming in from an unnamed college and the coach told the kid, 'You're going to play for Chatham.' His mother and father said, 'Nope. You're not going there. That's where that movie was.' So the kid went someplace else. That was the only negative I can remember. I'll take it.