The Cape Cod League: One Notch Below the Pros

IN the fourth inning, Orleans shortstop Nomar Garciaparra sends a long drive deep into center field. It looks like a towering home-run shot. But Chatham center fielder Larry Williams sprints to the chest-high chain-link fence, leaps toward the 400-foot mark with his arm extended, and catches the ball above the fence. The Orleans crowd of 1,000 erupts with a roar.

Remember the names: Nomar Garciaparra and Larry Williams.

Chances are, if they make it to the major leagues in the next few years, some of the credit should go to the Cape Cod Baseball League, the premier summer league for the best college baseball players in the United States.

"These are talented guys from all over the country," says Garciaparra, who was the starting shortstop for the US Olympic team in 1992 and plays for Georgia Tech at the collegiate level. "I wanted to play here because the level of maturity is high, too."

There are currently 118 players on major league rosters who have played in the Cape Cod League. And of the first 20 players chosen in the recent amateur baseball draft, half played here.

"The experience here is a lot like pro ball," says Rolando Casanova, coach of the Orleans Cardinals. "The players work here, play ball, and live with strangers. For a lot of them, it's their first time away from home."

The origins of the league stretch back to 1885, when the small towns dotted around the Cape had teams of their own. In 1963 the league changed to include college players. Now it's all college players playing in the 44-game schedule, and the league is sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), along with 10 other summer leagues around the country.

To cover equipment, umpiring, and scoring expenses, the two major leagues give the Cape Cod League $85,000 a year.

But the enduring success of the league depends on enthusiastic community support and the ability to recruit the best players.

"We'll get an average of about 1,000 people to each game," says Orleans general manager David Mulholland, standing near third base at Eldredge Park three hours before the night game with the Chatham Athletics. The all-star game each year draws about 5,000 fans.

By game time it's a family atmosphere. Adults and kids bring folding chairs and picnic baskets and sit along the terraced first-base side of the field. Many fans know the players by first names, and the players are accessible for photos, autographs, and baseball talk.

'I've been coming here on vacation with my family since 1975," says Keith Noack, a mail carrier from East Hampton, Conn. "The caliber of play is tops, and it's a great atmosphere."

"We can't charge admission," says Mulholland, who is responsible for raising money for the team, "because the ballpark is town property. But we pass the hat at each game, sell T-shirts, hats, bats, a roster book, and do fairly well at the refreshment stand."

The annual budget for the Cardinals is about $80,000. "We estimate the league generates about $1.2 million to the local economy," he says.

Why does he spend endless hours every summer on the team? "Some people join the Rotary Club or Kiwanis," he says, "and this is my way of helping the community. But mostly I do it for the kids, and the values the league represents."

This year there are 200 players in the league from 110 colleges in 23 states. "When we recruit the players," says Mulholland, "we tell them about all the major leaguers who played here. And we show them a video of the games with crowds of 1,500 or more. Some of these kids have never played before more than 100 people."

The players stay in local homes and pay $40 a week for room and board. Some players have jobs in the communities at gas stations, restaurants, or retail stores, but most mow lawns, baby sit, prepare the field for play, and work in the league-sponsored baseball clinics for local kids.

"We pay them at least $6 an hour," says Mulholland.

"According to NCAA rules we can pay all their expenses, but we can't afford to. We tell the players to conduct themselves as representatives of the community. In the last five years we've only had to send one kid home. Some of the players have met their wives here," he says.

League players draw plenty of major league scouts, too. At this year's all-star game there were an estimated 75 scouts. "The Cape Cod League is the most competitive of the summer leagues," says Richard Perko of the NCAA.

Garciaparra says he was recruited by other leagues, but chose the Cape Cod League because of its reputation. "The chemistry among the players on the team is really good," he says. "We respect each other, and work hard."

For Larry Williams, from the University of California at San Diego, the summer league has been a chance to try to improve his skills. "I batted around .340 in college," he says, "but it's a lot more difficult to do that here." Currently his batting average is .176.

"It can be a humbling experience," says Mulholland, "to bat over .300 in college, and not get over .150 here. The scouts want to see these guys play against the best college players."

As of this writing, the Orleans Cardinals are in first place in one of the league's two divisions, and are in the playoffs against Chatham. "Going into the playoffs keeps the kids focused," says Mulholland. "On some of the other teams, the players are anxious to get home and already packing their bags."

Ten years ago, when Cape Cod Leaguers reached the major leagues, it took them five to seven years to make the jump.

Now, says Mulholland and other managers, it's not uncommon to see a Cape Cod player reach the majors within three to four years.

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