Why is the Cape Cod League so special?

The best prospects play in baseball heaven

July 20th, 2021
Art by Tom Forget / MLB.com

Roll up to a high school baseball field one summer night in Cape Cod and you may find yourself in another world. After parking your car and ambling to the gate, you'll meet a friendly old-timer or high school volunteer who lets you in -- usually for free. Once inside, you'll find packed bleachers, a small snack shop cooking up burgers and hot dogs, and picnic blankets and beach chairs ringing the area as young children run around playing, blissfully unaware of what they're missing.

For those who have attended a Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL) game in the summer (or who watched the regrettable Freddie Prinze Jr. film, "Summer Catch"), this isn't new information. But for people who've never been, who have only heard of the league for its association with top prospects and draftees -- or who think the Cape is only for fresh lobsters and sea breezes, this might come as a shock. For here, nestled in New England's prime summer spot, you'll find 10 teams separated by about an hour and a half drive.

It's baseball paradise.

The earliest recorded games on the Cape stretch back into the 1860s, before later becoming a hub of semipro clubs and townball teams. The teams had names like the Townies, Clouters, and Canalmen and the rosters consisted of actual Cape Cod residents. That all changed in 1963 when the NCAA officially sanctioned the league, allowing clubs to recruit the best college players from around the country.

While it's become the most famous and successful of the summer leagues since then, it didn't immediately begin that way, with Alaska originally reigning supreme. But three things changed the Cape's trajectory, according to MLB Pipeline's prospect guru, Jim Callis. First, there was infighting in the Alaska leagues, splintering the teams and the stronghold they held.

Then, a rule change: The Cape Cod League switched to using wood bats. "That made it the difference maker," Callis said.

With college players using aluminum bats, it wasn't always possible for scouts to get a clear sense of just how a hitter would perform when making the switch to the pros. After all, aluminum bats don't break and there's a larger sweet spot.

"It's a totally different hitting experience," Callis said, comparing the two. "How you do on the Cape carries the day. There's cases where guys had a bad spring, but they were good on the Cape, and people remember that."

And then, of course, there's the location.

"I mean, it's Cape Cod!" Callis said with a laugh. "People vacation in Cape Cod aside from the baseball."

It's worked. More than 1,400 players have spent a summer on the Cape before later donning a big league uniform. That includes Hall of Famers like Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell and former stars like Nomar Garciaparra, Thurman Munson, Barry Zito and Jason Varitek.

Current stars including Aaron Judge, Pete Alonso, Kyle Lewis, Chris Sale and George Springer all wore jerseys for teams with names like the Cotuit Kettleers -- an old term for how the original settlers bartered for food and supplies. There's the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox or the Wareham Gatemen. (Wareham isn't actually on the Cape, but right before. Therefore, they're the gate to the Cape.)

One hundred forty picks in this year's Draft -- nearly 23% of the entire field -- played on Cape Cod, including the first overall pick, Henry Davis. In fact, the last four first overall picks -- Davis, Spencer Torkelson, Adley Rutschman and Casey Mize -- all spent their summers in the league.

Ryan Bliss, picked 42nd overall by the D-backs, played with the Brewster Whitecaps in 2019. (Photo courtesy Cape Cod Baseball League)

"These kids are the best of the best, and they have that atmosphere at school," CCBL commissioner Eric Zmuda told me in a recent phone call. "But when they get here, they're facing the number one starter almost every day. They're facing the best hitters from almost one through nine in the lineup. That challenge is what the players and the coaches want these players to have, because that's how they get ready for that next step."

"It's the best Summer League. There's other good summer leagues, but [Cape Cod] is still the best," Callis adds. "If a player were to ask a scout, they would recommend you go to Cape Cod, too."

With the teams all so close, players can sleep in their beds rather than spending the night riding a bus back home. Scouts can maximize their time, too, taking in multiple games in an evening -- while still managing to grab a fresh lobster roll or a scoop of ice cream before the evening is over.

"Brewster, Cotuit, [Yarmouth-Dennis] have no lights, and I don't think some of them ever will because that's the way they want it," Zmuda said. "So, they start games between four or five o'clock in the afternoon. Other teams will start between six and seven. If these scouts have their plans set up, they can go to Brewster at five o'clock and then end up at Chatham or Orleans at seven when that game starts and see two or three full games in a day."

But if that's where the league ended, if it were simply a place to see great baseball players, then it wouldn't be that special. You can see prospects at other summer leagues, showcases, or Minor League parks around the country.

No, what makes the Cape Cod Baseball League so unique and inviting is the community. It's a mantra you'll hear repeated from everyone involved in the league. The CCBL is funded thanks to grants -- including one from Major League Baseball -- and corporate sponsorships, but no one in the league earns a salary. Coaches and trainers draw a stipend, but from the president on down, a dime doesn't change hands. It's all done for the love of the game.

"The league is run by volunteers and people in community, and they are the most dedicated volunteers that you’ll ever meet," Ben Brink, the director of public relations, said. "I don’t know how you measure that, but they’re probably the most dedicated volunteers in the world. And you have hundreds of them, if not thousands, really come together and deliver an amazing experience with a league that’s run really well."

Once people join up, they rarely leave. The president of the CCBL, Chuck Sturtevant, started as the Falmouth Commodores president in 1987. Bill Bussiere, the senior VP of corporate development, started with Hyannis in the 1990s. And Jeff Trundy, the head coach of the Commodores, is in his 27th season -- give or take a few depending on when you start counting and what you do with last year's canceled season.

"I'm not saying that in any way lightly, trying to use a cliché, but that's what I missed last summer. I missed seeing everybody," Trundy said. "I missed seeing kids have a smile on their face and playing baseball in this atmosphere and this environment."

With players and staff all vaccinated and able to play again, Trundy is happy to be back out on the field, helping these kids follow their dreams.

"These kids are obviously very talented," Trundy said. "They wouldn't be in the league unless they were. But that doesn't mean that we can't help them with their journey. That's certainly what we want to do. Our entire organization -- and I think probably across the Cape -- everybody works hard all through the year to provide an opportunity for these kids to showcase their skills."

Cody Morissette, taken 52nd overall by the Marlins, with the Bourne Braves in 2019. (Photo courtesy the Cape Cod Baseball League)

The players become a part of this little world, too. They're given jobs in town, either at the team's summer baseball clinics, or they work in the local shops and businesses. Former big league manager Buck Showalter was first a painter at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port before becoming a short-order cook with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up time. Varitek had to wash uniforms and clean the clubhouse. Former pitcher and current SNY analyst Ron Darling was a school custodian.

"My job was to move all the desks in a classroom to the side, then lay down and sleep on them as the other guy buffed the floor," Darling said when he was inducted into the CCBL Hall of Fame in 2002. "Then he'd wake me up and I'd move all of them back."

The players all live with host families who live on the Cape, becoming members of those families along the way. Zmuda, born and raised in Falmouth, initially got involved with the league when he became a host in 2010. He currently has three players staying in his home and he admitted that from the first day they arrived, they were already part of the "fabric of the family."

"The very first player we had was a temp player for a week," Zmuda said. "And after that first week, he left on Father's Day. It was like, 'Why are you leaving?' Well, because he was a temporary player and the permanent kid came into town. Just the connection you make is just so fast and furious. It's fantastic. It was a great way to start -- painful at the same time. These players are here for a reason, but really, when they're off the field, they're just part of your family."

"They should have a Hall of Fame for host families," Garciaparra said at his Cape induction. "I would definitely put my host family [the Andrulot family of Eastham] in the Hall of Fame."

Matt McLain, right, with the Wareham Gatemen. He was selected 17th overall by the Reds. (Photo courtesy the Cape Cod Baseball League)

And then, of course, there are the games, which somehow combine the best and most talented young players in the game with the kind of atmosphere that Ray Kinsella in "Field of Dreams" would call homey. Every field is a public facility -- whether it's at a public park or a high school. Head out on an away day, and you just may find other youth teams in the area practicing and playing games on the field.

"Each and every park has its unique atmosphere, first and foremost," Zmuda said. "Cotuit is a fantastic park that's surrounded by 18 acres of protected land. Chatham in downtown Main Street is a beautiful area that people just walk to the game. Falmouth is very similar -- being downtown -- but it's more of a driving community so people will park nearby the harbor or at the rec [center], which is right in front of the field. The families will just be streaming in from there. Wareham is unique because it's the only dust infield in the league, right on a large football field. So that's a very large area to hit and patrol."

(All that, and he didn't even mention the donut cheeseburger that is served up at Yarmouth-Dennis' snack shack.)

It all adds up to what Zmuda calls -- stealing the phrase -- "a little slice of Americana." With no fee other than a request for donations, families can come down with beach chairs or a blanket and get a vantage point that can't be beat.

"When you go, you’re gonna stay. It’s irresistible," Brink said. "No one has ever said they’ve gone to a Cape Cod League game and said they’ve regretted it. Look out and the sailboats are bobbing in the breeze -- and there's the marsh! You take all that and throw in a beautiful baseball field, and a guy who is pumping 100 mph and the tickets are free!"

Though they're committed to keeping this atmosphere, the league doesn't ignore the future and the importance of technology. Trackman was installed in every ballpark years ago, with new technologies -- including one that attaches to the bat and measures the swing speed -- being added every year.

"It is something that's a very important consideration for all the scouting departments," Zmuda said. "They want to see as much information as possible on the player and still see them live."

Adrian Del Castillo with the Wareham Gatemen. He was selected 67th overall by the D-backs. (Photo courtesy the Cape Cod Baseball League)

In the end, the friendships, the fan experience, the community ties -- it's still about helping develop these college students as both players and people. It's why Zmuda continues hosting new players every year, and it's what Trundy takes most seriously.

He still keeps in touch with many of the players he's coached, and he's always thrilled when one stops by to say hi or sends a text. He hates being asked to talk about any specific player -- he doesn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and he knows that the important thing isn't whether they made the big leagues, but the impact that the summer made on their lives.

Eventually, he does pull out one recent example, putting a spotlight on current Twins rookie Trevor Larnach. Larnach spent two summers playing under Trundy at Falmouth, even staying an extra day after the end of the season to spend time with his host family and take in the Cape.

Trundy remembers seeing him one final time on the Falmouth field.

"I don't think he ever realized I was watching," Trundy said. "But I look out on the field when everybody's gone and it looks like a ghost town. And there's Trevor standing at home plate, looking out at center field. He stood there probably for four or five minutes -- just kind of taking it all in, not wanting to forget the memory."