The Cape Cod Baseball League that runs from June till August every year is widely regarded as the country’s best league. It features college players on the threshold of stardom. These are players as yet unsigned to a professional contract and are quite eager to showcase their talent to major league scouts. More importantly, the league’s players want to test their mettle against their peers and see if they measure up.
Author Jim Collins, himself a tremendous high school talent when an injury crushed his dream of playing professional baseball, spent a season with the Chatham A’s of the Cape Cod League. The book focuses on the players, the coaches, and the many volunteers as they go through the trials and tribulations of a season filled with losses, injuries, self-doubt, and personal triumphs. Set amidst the backdrop of the many small towns that grace the Cape Cod area, Collins captures both the quintessential charm of baseball and its strong links to the community, as well as the drama that occurs on a regular basis when a talented group of young men battle their opponents, each other, and their personal demons.
Collins’ narrative focuses on the fortunes of three young men who come to the Cape to play for the Chatham A’s. Jamie D’Antona, the powerfully built third baseman from Wake Forest University, is one of the highly regarded amateur players in the country and almost certain to be drafted very high in the Major League draft. But he is also a fun-loving and partying twenty-year-old who alternates between bravado on the field and questionable judgment off it. Thomas Pauly, the academically bright pitcher from Princeton, came to baseball much later in his life and is not sure whether he wants to pitch in the major leagues or lead the easy life on Florida’s beaches. His ambivalence infuriates the coaches, who regard him as lacking the necessary work ethic. Then there is Tim Stauffer, whose immense pitching talent is matched only by a demeanor that can best be described as unemotional. All three protagonists battle injuries during the season as they exhibit their talents to the many scouts who are a fixed part of the League’s fabric.
Collins populates his narrative with several interesting characters. John Schiffner, the manager of the Chatham A’s, has a keen eye for talent but knows that the players in the Cape Cod League are apt to listen more to their college coaches than to him. This frequently frustrates him, particularly when Chatham’s season disintegrates. Blake Hanan is the diminutive second baseman whose attempts to bulk up during the season are both laughable as well as poignant. Charlie Thoms is the general manager of the A’s as well as its most ardent supporter and the keeper of the flame. The supporting cast of characters adds color and texture to Collins’ description of the season and emphatically underlines baseball’s unique hold on both the athletically inclined as well as the athletically challenged.
The common thread in the book is the underlying tension that young ballplayers go through because of the Darwinian nature of the professional game. All the players who come to the Cape Cod League have been stellar talents their entire life. They have stood out at every level. But as they progress through each level, the talent pool becomes stronger and it becomes more difficult to distinguish one self. The recurring theme in Collins’ book is the constant sizing up that goes on as each player compares his talent with those of others and the resultant joy and sorrow that accompanies the assessment. Collins has played the game and is aware of the mind games that athletes play with each other. He brings this out quite tellingly in the book as a counterpoint to the almost pastoral nature of the summer season in the Cape Cod League. The Last Best League introduces us to a talented writer who writes with feeling and empathy for the amateur baseball player on the cusp of major stardom.