For Most Temps, Playing In The Prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League Ends Almost As Soon As It Begins, But All Agree It’s An Opportunity They Can’t Pass Up
CHATHAM — Last Sunday night, George Carroll was a star. The New York Tech catcher threw out two base runners, singled, and scored an insurance run in the ninth inning in the Chatham Anglers’ 3-0 road win over the Brewster Whitecaps.
Three days later, he was cut loose from his contract and headed home.
Life as a temporary player in the Cape Cod Baseball League, as Carroll and many of his collegian contemporaries have learned, can be as quick as it is cruel. One minute, you’re shining on a big summer stage in front of Major League scouts, the next, you’re packing your suitcase and saying sayonara.
Abbreviated assignments are common in the Cape League, whose 10 teams can offer up to 30 contracts to players prior to the season, with many of those signed, sealed and delivered in the fall. When the season actually begins in mid-June, however, a number of players are missing due to injuries, summer school, the College World Series or Team USA tryouts.
During that time, field managers and GMs bring in underclassmen, who either come recommended by college coaches or perform well enough at the league’s annual one-day tryout, to fill the void until the permanent players arrive.
While getting a foot in the revolving door doesn’t secure a summer-long seat at the table, there are a few success stories of CCBL hopefuls who went from no-name to fame in recent years.
Take, for instance, UConn’s Tim Norton, a flame-throwing righty who showed up at the tryouts in 2005 with only his glove, and left 10 weeks later with a souvenir trophy as the league’s most outstanding pitcher.
An integral member of the Falmouth Commodores, Norton posted a 5-1 record with a 1.77 ERA and 77 strikeouts (second-best among all pitchers that year) in 62 innings, which also earned the Franklin, Mass. native the New England Top Prospect Award.
Another name that springs to mind is Charlie Furbush of St. Joseph’s (Maine), who auditioned at the tryouts in 2006 and impressed with his mid-90s fastball. He not only made the Hyannis Mets’ roster, but was later named the starting pitcher for the West Division in the auspicious All-Star game.
But the grim reality of the situation is that for most temps, where they come from, what connections they used to catch onto a club, or even how well they play during their short stints (ranging from a few days to two weeks) rarely reserves them a spot on the roster.
“When you tell a kid they have to go they’re always disappointed, because they all think there’s that glimmer of hope, but that’s why we’re up front with them from the very start and immediately tell them ‘this is a temporary position,’” Chatham coach John Schiffner said. “That makes it easier when you tell them they have to go, and I personally try to give them a target date or assign them a player, so they know when so-and-so comes into town, you’re playing time is up.”
When that time inevitably arrives, the Anglers provide their temps with travel expenses. They also make calls to help their players land a gig with another CCBL or summer league team (many Cape League castaways head north to the prominent but a peg less prestigious New England College Baseball League).
Chatham has turned a few temps into full-time players in previous years, said Schiffner, “But unfortunately, none of our [three] temps this year will be able to stay. No one fell off the roster since we locked it up May 15.”
The Harwich Mariners, who have eight fill-ins taking the field, are in a similar and equally uneasy predicament. “Telling a kid he has to go home is the only time I don’t like being a coach,” Harwich Field Manager Steve Englert said. “It’s never easy to do.”
It’s never easy to hear, either, but for many, playing in the Cape League, a proven stepping stone to the majors, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they simply can’t pass up.
“I’ve known about the Cape League since I was nine years old and it’s been my dream to play here since I left high school,” said Carroll, a native of Bayside, N.Y. “I’m happy I was able to accomplish that goal.”
Carroll played in only two games, but during that time showed that temps aren’t just glorified subs who fill seats in the dugout.
In addition to gunning down Brewster’s Mark Canha and Ryan Zrenda in the first and third frames, respectively, he blocked a wild pitch bound for the backstop with runners in scoring position in Chatham’s 3-2 win over the Y-D Red Sox the next afternoon that helped improve the Anglers to 3-0 at the time.
Less than 24 hours later, Carroll got his pink slip, which came in the form of a handshake from Schiffner, who said Carroll “worked hard and represented his school well.”
“It stinks having to leave,” said Carroll. “It’s a terrible feeling, so when Schiff told me I was leaving, I was kind of depressed. I knew I was going to have to leave soon. I just thought I was going to be here a little longer.”
That possibility remains considering Carroll impressed Brewster and Y-D, not only as an opposing player, but at the tryouts two weeks ago (he said he ultimately chose to play for Chatham “because that was the first team that approached me”).
At the start of this week, however, Carroll hadn’t yet signed with another Cape League team. He’s keeping his Hail Mary hopes alive, but as he drove south bound on Interstate 95, he was consoled by a single thought that provided a silver lining.
“I know I can play here, and I think I deserve to be here,” said Carroll. “But if it was only for a week and I don’t get another opportunity, at least I can say I competed with the best college players in the country. And I did real well.”
Harwich hurler Rob Gariano can say the same.
The Nutley, N.J. native and Fairfield University junior allowed one run and struck out eight over seven innings in the Mariners’ 2-1 home-opening victory over the Orleans Firebirds.
As he warmed up in the bullpen, Gariano had a businesslike look on his boyish face, but inside, he was busting as he prepared for his starring scene in the league popularized by the 2001 film “Summer Catch.”
“I didn’t know much about the other team, and I almost didn’t want to know too much,” said Gariano said. “You just know they’re good, they have to be if they’re playing here. I was a little nervous, but once I got on the mound, the butterflies disappeared. It was all fun from there.”
Using his strong two-seam fastball, Gariano attacked the Firebirds batters by throwing an unusually high number of inside pitches while keeping them off-balance with a slippery slider.
“It takes these guys a couple of weeks to get used to wood bats, so as a pitcher you can go right after them,” Gariano said. “I tried to make them hit me.”
They did at first, as Gariano allowed back-to-back singles. But he got out of the jam without any damage done and was at his best in the sixth when he struck out the side in order.
“I think I was supposed to be done after the sixth, but probably bought myself an extra inning,” said Gariano with a grin.
After working a perfect seventh, the five-foot-10 righty walked off the mound to the applause of Mariners’ fans that included his proud father, his girlfriend’s mother and brother and his host family before getting back-patting praise from his teammates.
“I felt like I was on top of the world,” said Gariano. “Going into it, I knew I could play with these kids and afterward, I said to myself, I knew that I could do it. I showed to myself and hopefully everyone else I can play here.”
It’s a safe bet that other summer league teams took notice, but Gariano refused to entertain the thought of leaving Harwich, where he’s made close friends in only a couple of weeks.
“I played in NECBL last year, and I might be able to go back there, but to be honest, this is the best summer league in the nation, and this is where I want to be,” Gariano said. “I’m going to do everything I can to stay here.”
Gariano’s teammate, James Madison University third baseman/shortstop David Herbeck, is another who’s making the most of every moment, and he’s done that mainly by not letting the shame of striking out stand in his way.
“It’s easy to get down on yourself because you’re used to using aluminum bats, but coach Englert told us everyone struggles to get a hit,” Herbeck said. “It’s not that you lower your expectations, but you know that hitting with wood against such great pitching is a process.”
The entire Harwich team, hitting a league-low .181 at the start of this week, can attest to that. Herbeck’s steadily-climbing .267 average ranks second-best on the team.
“The Cape League is definitely a very, very tough league, but to be honest, it’s nothing too intimidating,” said Herbeck. “It’s summer baseball, guys are trying to have fun and get better.”
Chatham pitcher Peter Kennelly has done both while restoring a large measure of confidence.
Coming off Tommy John (elbow) surgery, Kennelly hadn’t pitched in a live game in 14 months before taking the hill in the Anglers’ second game of the season against Brewster. With Chatham nursing a two-run lead, the Fordham fireballer (who threw 32 pitches) worked a 1-2-3 eighth inning and struck out the side in the ninth to pick up the save.
“The best of the best are playing here, so getting those strikeouts was a big confidence boost,” said Kennelly, whose dad was “pacing back and forth” while watching the live feed at Kennelly’s home in Pearl River, N.Y.
Kennelly tossed three innings of scoreless relief in Chatham’s 5-4 win over Wareham last week and did not allow a hit in two innings of work in the Anglers’ 5-4 win over Harwich Saturday night, giving the Anglers’ their league-leading sixth win.
What’s made Kennelly’s summer truly satisfying is that he’s enjoyed himself as much on the field as off it.
“It kind of seems like everyone here looks up to you,” said Kennelly. “Everyone has been real nice, and even though you’re a temp, they treat you like you’re one of their own.”
That statement best sums up what Kennelly, Herbeck, Gariano and Carroll each said they’ll take away from their experience. Every day, if only for a few days, they put on the uniform, went to practice and played before a legion of baseball-crazed fans.
They were, and as the record books will reflect, always will be Cape Leaguers.
See more photos of the Anglers and Mariners here.
CHATHAM — When David Miller was chasing down ground balls and legging out hits for the Chatham A’s in the summer of 1994, he made a name for himself as a hard-working player willing to do anything to win.
Sixteen years and a lengthy minor league career later, Miller is as driven as ever, only now he’s putting his diligence to use off the diamond as the Anglers’ assistant coach.
“It’s a great feeling being back,” said Miller. “There isn’t a better place to be in the summer than Chatham, Massachusetts, and you can’t be in a better baseball setting than this.”
While most remember Miller as part of Chatham’s “Million Dollar Infield” that included ’95 draft choices Gabe Alvarez (second round) Mike Moriarty (seventh round) and Boston Red Sox third baseman Mike Lowell (20th round), his Cape League career began a town over and a year earlier when, as a Clemson freshman, he suited up for the Harwich Mariners.
“That was just an awful, awful season. I think we won nine games all year,” said Miller. “I led the team in hitting and I only batted .238. It was so miserable. I’ve put it out of my mind for so long that I don’t remember anything about it.”
Miller has no trouble recalling his second stay on the Cape, when he hit .294 with a pair of homers and 18 RBIs as the A’s sweet-swinging and (by his own admission) hard-partying first baseman. Ten months later, he was drafted in the first round and 23rd overall by the Cleveland Indians.
Miller was called up to the majors twice, but was stuck behind Kenny Lofton, Albert Belle and Manny Ramirez in the Indians’ organization and played primarily for the Tribe’s Triple A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons. Over his seven-year minor league career, he batted .262, hit 34 homers and drove in more than 250 runs.
After reoccurring leg injuries ended his playing days in 2003, Miller spent two years as the hitting coach at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.
“It was great place to start my coaching career, but I had to leave, because I had a real bad case of island fever,” said Miller. “People laugh at me when I tell them that, but it’s an actual disease. It’s like a small form of claustrophobia.”
Miller moved back to his hometown Philadelphia and opened up his own hitting school “Extra Bases” before undertaking his second coaching stint at the University of Rutgers-Camden this past season.
“That’s when I realized how much I loved being on the field and working with college kids,” said Miller, who put in a call to his former coach and current Chatham Field Manger John Schiffner to see if there was room for him in the dugout this summer.
“Schiff told me he already had a full staff, but said if the other coaches didn’t have a problem with me being here, then I could help out,” said Miller. “They didn’t, so here I am.”
And he’s getting paid the same exact amount he did when he was a player – nothing. “I’m doing this pro bono and I have no problem with that,” said Miller, hoping to sign on with a Division One college team in the fall. “When I was first here, I was trying to showcase my talent as a player, and now, I’m trying to showcase my talent as a coach.”
So far, he’s succeeding. At the start of this week, Anglers are off to a scorching and CCBL-best 7-1 start, and their .252 team average is best in the 10-team league. Miller deserves a measure of the credit, spending five sessions every morning working individually with batters before the team’s official round of BP in the afternoon.
“David has been phenomenal, and he’s a former big leaguer, so right away, he’s got credibility,” said Schiffner. “He tells these kids what to do and what flies and what doesn’t fly in pro ball, and they listen. He’s acting exactly like a pro coach.”
Miller’s main focus is helping hitters adjust from metal to wood bats, an annual rite of passage among position players, who all struggle to get the sweet spot of the barrel on the ball.
“I’m teaching the kids what I didn’t learn until I got into pro ball, which is to hit with my whole body, using my legs, my hips and my hands.”
If anyone can attest to that sound advice, it’s Chatham outfielder Steven Brooks, who’s raised his average to .320. after several clinics in the cage with Miller. “Steven is hitting the ball into the trees at Veterans Field,” said Miller. “He wasn’t doing that when he first got here.”
Miller said little has changed about Chatham since he last left, and the one thing that’s remained exactly the same is the players’ passion for baseball.
“Every kid I work with has the potential of getting to the next level, and I’m trying to help these guys go as far as they can go,” said Miller. “If I can help them get to the major league, it would make me feel good knowing that in some small way, I contributed to their success.”
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