Every summer growing up, my family and I took our yearly vacation to Cape Cod. Heading off in late August as a final hurrah before the school year resumed, it was the week I looked forward to most, more than my birthday or even Christmastime. That week was filled with mountains of fried seafood, lobster and corn on the cob slathered with melted butter, boogie boarding, and mini golf. Most importantly, it included trips to Cape Cod Baseball League games.
I remember sitting on the grassy hill overlooking Eldredge Park, home of the Orleans Firebirds. Barbecue smoke wafted through the warm late summer evening air while groups of kids played catch beyond the center field fence. I can still hear the crack of the wooden bat and the booming of fireworks following a game.
The Cape League is the premier collegiate summer baseball league and has produced over one thousand major league players in its 135 year history. It consists of ten teams playing a 44-game regular season, culminating in a three-round playoffs of best-of-three series. Many of the country’s top college baseball players travel to the Cape in the summer to keep in shape and hone their craft. The Cape League only allows wooden bats and attracts many MLB scouts, making it the perfect setting for future stars to show what they’ve got.
More than just a showcase of young talent, the Cape is truly a slice of Americana. Teams play on local neighborhood fields that probably haven’t changed much for the better part of a century. The atmosphere at the games is as much about the sense of community as it is about the baseball.
The baseball players themselves play a large part in the building of this community. They live with the families who open their homes as host parents. They work in the small community businesses and are familiar faces around town. When you watch them play, it feels like rooting for the hometown kid, even though they are only in town for three months out of the year.
The Yankees are no strangers to the Cape League. In fact, Damon Oppenheimer, Director of Amateur Scouting for the Yankees, is a big proponent of the league. “The Cape Cod League is really important to our evaluation,” he said back in 2010. “It is generally the better college players in the country playing on a daily basis and using wood, so it gives us an accurate depiction of what the player will represent.”
Indeed, dozens of current and former Yankees plied their trade in the Cape League during their college summer months. Two of their three picks in this year’s draft got the Yankees’ attention in part due to their standout performances on the Cape. Trevor Hauver sharpened his discipline at the plate playing for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, with a .401 OBP in 38 games. Beck Way caught scouts’ eye by striking out 18 across only 13.2 innings pitched.
They join a Yankees system which currently has six former Cape Leaguers on the major league roster. Aaron Judge batted .270/.365/.450 with five home runs and 18 RBI in 32 games with the Brewster Whitecaps in 2012. Luke Voit slashed .250/.320/.413 with three home runs and 14 RBI in 28 games with the Harwich Mariners in 2011.
On the pitching side, J.A. Happ also played for the Harwich Mariners for one summer in 2003. More recently, Chad Green played for the Bourne Braves in 2011, putting up a 6.85 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 22.1 innings. Tommy Kahnle struck out 10 in seven innings with a 1.28 ERA with the Orleans Firebirds in 2009. Jonathan Holder was probably the best of the bunch, sporting a 1.98 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 22.2 innings with the Wareham Gatemen in 2012. He played on a team that included Kyle Schwarber, and their efforts led to a CCBL championship that year.
The COVID-19 pandemic has furloughed many of the activities we love most. For the first time since World War Two, there will not be a Cape League season this summer. The Yankees will hope for the full recovery of the league next summer, as it has served as a pipeline to the organization. More importantly, the Cape Cod Baseball League is an integral part of America’s pastime and it is imperative we keep one of the great baseball traditions alive.