Let’s start today with a bit of trivia: what do Aaron Judge, DJ Lemahieu, Jonathan Holder, Mark Teixeira, John Flaherty, Todd Frazier, Andrew Miller, Joe Girardi, and Aaron Boone all have in common? OK, that’s not a fair question, since I haven’t really given you enough information to answer - sure, looking at the list you would probably guess that each of these guys have worn pinstripes at one time or another, but that’s not all they have in common. If I expanded this list of guys to include Frank Thomas, Nomar Garciaparra, Matt Wieters, Albert Belle, Yan Gomes, Tim Lincecum, Evan Longoria, Brandon Crawford, Kolton Wong, and Stephen Wright, do you know what connects all of these guys? Yes, they all have played Major League Baseball, but prior to that, they all played summer ball in college for the most prestigious amateur summer league in the country.
Deep in the heart of Red Sox country, 8 teams in the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL), consisting of the best talent college baseball has to offer, battle it out on iconic small-town American diamonds across the peninsula of Cape Cod from the beginning of June through the first week of August every year. Not only are these fields filled with fans for the summer, but at any given Cape League match-up, it is impossible not to notice anywhere from 3-15 MLB scouts in attendance. Scouts are intrigued not just by the talent pool available for viewing on any given night, but also because the CCBL allows scouts the opportunity to watch players in game settings with a wood bat. For fans of baseball, the games are fantastic for a number of reasons: a relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere, admission is free (though donations through 50-50 and pass-the-hat are greatly appreciated), and you can get as close to the action as your lawn chair will allow. For hardcore baseball fans who are prospect geeks, the CCBL allows you to see some of the best amateur baseball prospects in the country up close from the same angles as professional scouts. The league is truly unique, and there is some magic at each of the Cape League’s fields. I have been going to the Cape for 1-2 weeks every summer for the last 25 years, and CCBL baseball is at the heart of every trip.
I plan my entire week around which nights I want to spend at Eldredge Park, home of the Orleans Firebirds (formerly the Cardinals). As spoiled as I am to have watched baseball games at the House That Ruth Built and New Yankee Stadium, my favorite ballpark to watch a game is Eldredge Park. The field is in the back of the local middle school, but that doesn’t make the field any less impressive. Stepping out of the car in the rear parking lot, there is an energy that rushes through my body when I see the field, gently lit by the early evening sun and the lights that make the field glow in stunning fashion. The outfield grass is well groomed, but lush, meaning that line drives occasionally die when they hit grass. A chain link fence surrounds the furthest reaches of the outfield, and joins at a perpendicular point in CF. Much like Yankee Stadium, RF is 314 feet away from home plate. The dimensions get crazier, though. LF is only 300 feet from home plate, while CF (“The Bermuda Triangle,” as I call it, where long fly balls go to die) looms 434 feet away.
On game night, crowds plant their blankets and lawn chairs along the RF and LF foul lines to watch the games, while countless others hang around the press box behind home plate and beyond the outfield fences by the home and away team bullpens. I typically plant my chair halfway up the right field line, but I also spend a fair amount of time near the press box and standing behind the catcher at the Orleans bullpen (I’m a pitcher at heart, and I can’t help but stare at bullpen sessions, even mid-game). Some of the most memorable baseball moments I have ever experienced as a fan happened at Eldredge Park. Most importantly, I combine the two things I love the most there: spending time with my family, and geeking out over baseball.
Every year, my brother, father, and I talk about who the big-time prospects are on the Cape for the coming summer, and how we can catch a glimpse of them. I have had the opportunity to see so many players before they were big names, and Orleans has had their fair share. I attended my first Orleans Cardinals game at Eldredge Park in 1994, which means I just barely missed out on the left side of the infield they put together for 1993: Aaron Boone and Nomar Garciaparra, but I’ve still been able to see some guys. I remember the kid from Georgia who played 3B and 1B who could really hit: Mark Teixeira. Every year, there are players who generate a ton of buzz. Sometimes they live up to the hype, sometimes they don’t. The first time I remember being in awe of a guy’s all-around talent was when Matt Wieters played for Orleans in 2006. The book on him at the time was that he could really hit, but his defense was suspect. I try to get to games more than an hour early, and I saw Wieters play twice that year. He spent his entire pre-game warm-up working with that night’s starting pitcher, and doing catching drills. In-game, the bat was real and so was his ability to play behind the dish. I knew after watching him on the Cape that Wieters was going to play in the Majors for a long time. I also made a point of seeing Andrew Miller and Tim Lincecum when they were the big stories moving through the Cape. Needless to say, things worked out for them as well.
I’m also often pleasantly surprised by guys who don’t get a ton of hype. Sometimes, those guys make it all the way. Orleans had two guys up the middle who didn’t get a ton of fanfare, but who stood out to me when I saw them play. Brandon Crawford did not have much of a bat on the Cape, but man could he pick it at SS, so I was pleasantly surprised when he had such a good run a few years back with the Giants. The same can be said for Emmanuel Burriss, a SS/2B on the Cape who could absolutely fly, play defense, and make contact at the plate. Not many people talked about either guy, but they made their mark on the Cape, and parlayed their success into professional opportunities.
Like any prospect watching, some of the prospects that stick out the most in my head are guys who didn’t make it. In the case of my memory, the two guys that stick out are guys who were diminished by injuries. One name will be unfamiliar to Yankee fans: Dennis Raben. He was a star for Orleans, and not only did his bat have serious pop, but he sat 90-93 MPH on the mound as well. I was sure he was going to be a star, and the Mariners drafted him high. Sadly, knee injuries wore Raben down, and he never made it. To this day, he’s the only guy I ever saw smack a ball over the Bermuda Triangle at Eldredge Park.
The other guy will be very familiar to Yankee fans: Andrew Brackman, one of the “Killer Bs”. I got to stand behind the catcher as Brackman threw in the bullpen. To this day, even having played with guys who got into the mid 90s with their fastballs, I have never seen a ball jump to home plate as quickly as Brackman’s fastball. He was electric, and it was sad to see arm injuries and mechanics break him down.
This year, I was beyond excited to see one of the best amateur pitchers in the country spin it for Orleans: Kumar Rocker, who threw a 19 strikeout no-hitter for Vanderbilt in the College World Series this year. Sadly, but understandably, Rocker did not come to the Cape following his extended season, but I still got to see some darn good baseball. I was able to bear witness to the Yankees/Red Sox match-up of the Cape Cod Baseball League: the Chatham Anglers at the Orleans Firebirds. The game didn’t go the home team’s way, as the Anglers beat up on the Firebirds, 6-1, but the baseball was great, and some guys stood out to me. Chatham’s catcher, Keaton Rice, drew 3 walks and showed off a gun from behind home plate, throwing out a runner from his knees with strong velocity. Chatham’s 3B, Anthony Vilar, is having a rough summer at the plate, but he showed well last summer for Chatham, and his actions at 3B are smooth.
The two most impressive guys on the field were Chatham starter, Parker Scott, and Orleans starter, Austin Love. Love had a bit of a tough night, giving up 3 BB and 4 hits in 4 innings, but he showed good velocity in the 89-93 MPH range and decent, if inconsistent bite on his slider. He’s having a good summer on the Cape, even if this start wasn’t his best, but Love will be a guy worth watching. Parker Scott stole the show, however. A quick look at Scott’s bio tells a scary story regarding his injury history, as he had nerve damage in his elbow prior to needing Tommy John the last two years. He just returned to pitch this past season at OK State, but his talent is readily evident. From the left side, Scott throws an easy 88-91 MPH, loading up in the later innings when he wanted more velocity, and showed off two strong breaking balls (a curveball that he mixed speeds with from 69 MPH all the way up to 76 MPH, and a slider that he threw 78-82 MPH) to keep the Orleans lineup through 7 innings. Scott was one of the most impressive pitchers I’ve seen in the last 3 seasons on the Cape. Hopefully, he stays healthy (hey, the Yankees could use some starters!). Scott could very easily find his way to the Majors if he stays healthy.
I’ll be eagerly counting down the days until I get to come back to the Cape next summer. I may be behind enemy lines as a Yankee fan in Red Sox territory, but there’s no place I’d rather be.