In the summer, Cape Cod (on the eastern side of Massachusetts) shares its bucolic charms with tourists and vacationers with second homes. Dotting the Cape are places such as Wareham, Chatham, Orleans, and Barnstable--each redolent with small-town charms and a close connection of locals with their community. In this thicket of Norman Rockwell’s America is an annual Darwinian exercise that pitches a collection of young men from all over the country, who come to the Cape to test their mettle against the best amateur baseball talent with a hope of catching the eye of a major league team. Jim Collins chronicled, with a careful eye and lyrical prose, the 2002 season of the Chatham A’s in a book that was originally published in 2004. Juxtaposing the joys of the game with the heartbreak that accompanies a player when he finds out that he is not good enough for the majors, Collins traced the arc of several players who promised much at the end of the season. In an afterword to this tenth anniversary edition, Collins catches up with the players and coaches of 2002 to find out their paths in the years hence.
College and high school baseball players play on fields that have dimensions similar to those of the professional leagues, in that the distance between the pitcher’s mound and the batter’s box as well as that between bases are identical. What is different, though, is the aluminum bats that batters use, unlike the wooden bats of the professionals. Standout college players use NCAA-sanctioned summer leagues to play with wooden bats and compete with like players to catch the eye of professional scouts. To these players, the Cape Cod League is akin to the Holy Grail. For ten weeks, they play against a carefully curated pool of standout players, knowing that a good performance could open the path to a professional future. The league is supported by the myriad towns and its volunteers and tradespeople. Collins mixes the town/player link with the on-field drama of players confronting the realities of the game to produce a compelling tale of amateur baseball that forms an essential conduit to the professional game.
The afterword in the anniversary edition is both poignant and informative. We learn that many of the “can’t miss” players of the 2002 Cape Cod League did, in fact, miss out on the golden ticket. Jamie D’Antona flamed out after a smattering of major league games for the Arizona Diamondbacks, hurt both by his deteriorating knees and his inability to man his position at third base capably. We also learn that some marginal 2002 players, in fact, made it to the mountaintop and thrived--players such as Chris Ianetta. Regardless of the trajectory of their professional career path, though, they all seem to remember their summer in the Cape Cod League with ample fondness.