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The Cape Cod Baseball League Should Be On Every Fan's Bucket List

In early August I spent five wonderful days watching playoff action in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Probably the oldest summer league in the country, dating back to 1885, the Cape is also the most prestigious. As many as 1 in 7 of current major leaguers played at least a summer on one of the ten teams in the CCBL.

The Giants’ Buster Posey (Florida State), Astro stalwarts Dallas Keuchel (Arkansas) and George Springer (Connecticut) and the Yankees' Mark Teixeira and the Orioles' Matt Wieters (both Georgia Tech) honed their skills in the CCBL. So did onetime catchers and current MLB managers Joe Girardi of the Yankees (Northwestern) and Mike Matheny of the Cardinals (Michigan).

One of the many charms of the CCBL is the players’ college is always announced as well as their names. There is never an admission charge during the regular season that stretches from early June to late July. Only in Hyannis for the playoffs, where the Harbor Hawks lost the final series to repeat champion Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, did I see a suggested donation sign of $5.

The secret to CCBL success has been that it is a wholly volunteer operation. Players stay with host families all summer and many are provided with day jobs. All athletes are expected to participate in youth clinics. There are no ground crews so it’s players you see watering and raking the field before and after games.

During games, one of the players – usually a pitcher not slated to hurl that day – joins an team intern and they pass around a basket collecting money for raffle tickets. It adds to the pleasant informal feeling that permeates every ballpark in the CCBL.

I didn’t get to visit every stadium, but I attended games in Orleans, Yarmouth-Dennis, and Hyannis. There are very few stands at Eldredge Park in Orleans, but families come out early and bring lawn and beach chairs to stake out places behind the foul lines.

There is more seating at Yarmouth-Dennis’s Red Wilson Field located behind the regional high school. Here, too, portable chairs line the area behind the foul lines. Y.D’s public address announcer morphs the late Sherm Feller of Fenway Park in his opening greeting: “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls.”

Another nice touch at Y-D is before the game the Johnny Carson Show theme is played. Just another a retro charm of Red Wilson Field.

Hyannis’s McKeon Field is the biggest park I visited. It is located behind a Catholic high school not far from Main Street and the JFK Memorial museum. To my delight I discovered a Cape Cod League Museum in the basement of the JFK building.

The room is not yet air-conditioned but it is a considerable collection of memorabilia and an explanatory film about CCBL history. I am sure it will reward more visits in the future.

The sense of intense quietude at the Cape Cod ballparks is remarkable, especially to a New Yorker who goes to a lot of major and minor league games where there is no escape from blaring sound systems.

There is some canned music at CCBL games but in moderation and never during an inning. So there is time to savor the interval between pitches without being bombarded with the puerile “Everybody clap yo’ hands!” and other maddening noise.

As for the games, most memorable was the semi-final series between the favored Orleans Firebirds, possessor of the best regular season record, and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox.
All games were the kind of tight pitchers' battles I adore.

After losing the opener at Orleans, 4-0, the Y-D Red Sox stayed alive by winning a classic 13-inning 2-1 game that was decided on a two-out bases-loaded wild pitch on an 0-2 count. Orleans had tied the game in the 7th inning on a home run by outfielder Ronnie Dawson (Ohio State).

Adding drama to the Y-D elimination game was the absence of lights at Red Wilson Field.
The game could have been called by darkness and would have been resumed at noon the next day.

Unfortunately for the Firebirds, Dawson and fellow Buckeye, pitcher Taylor Tully, couldn’t stay for the rubber match because they had to fly back to Columbus for the funeral of a teammate who died of leukemia.

In the deciding third game, Y-D held off Orleans, 2-1, behind a great performance by Cory Macolm (Arkansas, Little Rock) and a first inning home run by Gio Brusa (U. of Pacific). The jury is out on whether Brusa has the bat speed to advance high in the pros, but Brusa is certainly a great name for a slugger.

Red Sox shortstop Donnie Walton (Oklahoma State), undersized in this day and age at 5’ 10”, saved the game with a remarkable diving stop up the middle in the bottom of the 8th inning with the tying run on third base. Somehow from his rear end Walton managed to throw the ball to second to force an Orleans runner preserving the 2-1 lead.

Gio Brusa also came up big at the plate in the final best-of-three games against Hyannis. The series proved almost anti-climactic because none of the games were close.

The Red Sox again lost the first game on the road, a one-sided affair that did feature two of the most remarkable diving infield catches I have ever seen: one by Hyannis shortstop Tristan Hildebrandt (Cal State-Fullerton) and the other by Y-D second baseman Jose Vidales (U. of Houston).

The Y-D Red Sox came back to win the final two games convincingly thereby copping their second straight CCBL flag. Kudos to coach Chad Gassman and his remarkable volunteer coach Ron Polk, one of the all-time winningest coaches in college baseball history at Georgia and Mississippi State and now a volunteer coach at U of Alabama-Birmingham.

It was a year of loss in the CCBL. Legendary Red Sox scouts Bill Enos and Buzz Bowers and Bill Kearns, a longtime Mariners talent hunter, all passed away.
A moment of silence was held at Red Wilson Field in memory of Florence Wilson, Red’s widow, who also recently died.

At the end of the playoffs league president Judy Scarafile announced her retirement after 24 years on the job. More than anyone Scarafile epitomizes the volunteer spirit of the CCBL. Though these losses are signficiant, I predict the CCBL will continue to thrive in one of the most picturesque settings imaginable, forty miles out to sea from the Massachusetts mainland.

Next year I am vowing to see more Cape Cod baseball, starting with that special Elizabeth Lowell Park in Cotuit with its renovated wooden grandstand and a convenient ramp that will make access easier for your creaky correspondent.

Next time – commentary on the exciting major league pennant races that should all go down to the wire.
For now - Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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First Summer Edition of the YIBF (Yours In Baseball Forever) Journal

I hadn’t decided to go to the opener of the June 20-22 Oriole-Yankee series at Yankee Stadium until Friday morning. Got myself through StubHub an upper deck seat on the aisle giving me plenty of room for my aching right knee to stretch out.

Didn’t realize that the seat would also provide me plenty of exercise because there was constant traffic of fans in my row coming back and forth back and forth from concession stands. Watching the game for them was obviously of secondary importance. They didn't even get involved in the wave that kept many of the crowd involved on this pleasant evening.

The late Mets broadcaster Ralph Kiner had the best line about what the wave is good for:
"straightening your shorts."

Though Yankee starter Hiroki Kuroda no-hit the O’s for five innings, I didn’t think that streak could last because his pitch count was elevated. And sure enough the Orioles rallied with two runs in the 6th. But they couldn’t add more runs - a persistent problem in 2014.

Once again Lowenfish’s Law – no four run lead is ever safe until the game is over – proved correct. Usuallly reliable O’s closer Zach Britton couldn’t get the third out in the bottom of the 9th though he had two strikes on Mark Teixeira with two out and a man on first.

Teixeira walked, was pinch-run for, the latest Big Buck Yankee free agent addition Brian McCann singled in a run, and on a 3-1 count another free agent Carlos Beltran blasted a long home run to left center to win the game.

The Orioles showed their resiliency by winning the next two games convincingly,
6-1 and 8-0. In the Sunday afternoon shutout they beat another big ticket Yankee signing Japanese phenom Masanori Tanaka. And to add to the O's recent surge the following night they limited White Sox star southpaw Chris Sale to six innings. And they came from behind to win on their own walkoff homer by Chris Davis.

Walkoff homers – a term likely coined by Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley – are quite rare. And the ones that turn defeat into victory in one swing of the bat are unforgettable.

I still remember nearly 40 years ago when Orioles second baseman Bobby Grich won a game in Baltimore by beating the Red Sox reliever Jim Willoughby. And while the memory won’t be as warm, I think I’ll always remember how Beltran spoiled my Friday night. But fortunately not the entire weekend.

Lots of baseball still to be played, of course. Question marks on the mound and in the lineup continue to perplex followers of the Orioles. Even though this seems like a year of parity or mediocrity, my LD (Lively Dinosaur) roots incline me not to get too enthusiastic until my team is at least 10 games above .500.

But I am certainly keeping the faith and if the starting pitcher-winners this weekend Bud Norris and Chris Tillman and bullpen arms T. J. McFarland and Tommy Hunter continue to pitch well, 2014 might be another fun summer in Baltimore.

I will be in attendance this weekend in Baltimore when on my 72nd birthday the Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays tangle in a June 27th day-night doubleheader. Impressions of that experience and more next time we meet.

In the meantime always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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