The Cotuit Kettleers won the 2013 Cape Cod Baseball League championship last night in Orleans over the eastern division champions, the Orleans Firebirds, in a two game sweep that ended with a 6-1 score. The win earned Cotuit its 16th league championship, it's second in the last four years.
For the last two months – beginning on June 12 at home against Chatham – the Kettleers put a great team of talented college ball players on the field of "beautiful, pristine, picturesque Lowell Park." Although a mere four players were on the roster for the entire season and a total of 50 or more players cycled in and out of the dugout due to the professional draft, Team USA, and the early opening of the school year, the team, like every team before them, came together with their own unique personality and presence, growing from strangers to adopted sons in a mere eight weeks of intense, daily play.
I'm happy to have seen more than a dozen of those games, most of them at home here in Cotuit where I can walk to the park in less than ten minutes, in bare feet, toting my little Kettleers bag (sons call it my "man purse") carrying my scorebook, water bottle, wallet, phone and bag of peanuts left over from the last game. I divided my time between the home stands along the third-base line and the more capacious and new visitors' bleachers along the first (where I can get a better view of the batters and also slightly annoy the visitors by cheering for the home team in their midst). Any baseball game that I can walk to in bare feet and watch for free (other than a grateful donation tossed into the plastic kettles carried around by Alan Blanchette's squad of little kids) is great baseball, win or lose.
My personal highlight of the season was the July 13 game at home against Hyannis, when Mike Ford, back for his second stint in Cotuit, went four-for-four, hitting a first inning home run, two singles, and another homer in the eighth to drive in a total of five runs. That was probably the best single performance I've ever seen in Cotuit; it was with mixed regret and pride that I cheered the news that Ford had been drafted by the Yankees and went off immediately in late July to play for the Staten Island Yankees for the remainder of the summer season before finishing his education this fall at Princeton. He entered that game leading the league with a .370 average and departed it with an astonishing .420 – a spectacular number if one considers that the Cape Cod Baseball League is one of the few wooden-bat summer leagues, often the players' first introduction to ash or hickory, a difficult transition for some, and the reason so many pro scouts flock to the fields in July to see how well the sluggers can adapt. Ford adapted and left Cotuit a guy to watch in the future.
The names on the roster in early June seem so familiar now as I read back through the scorebook: Zimmer, Diggar, Rosen, Kiene, Mazieka, Castellano, Cole, Cribbs, Bradley, Walsh … but flip ahead through the stained and tattered pages to last night's game and only one, Zimmer (the MVP of the championship series who left the team to play in Japan and for Team USA before returning) is a repeat. Many of the post-season stars were very recent arrivals, joining in the last two weeks to patch the holes on the dugout and bullpen benches. They will also be remembered for a long time to come.
I've read in the Cape Cod Times that the Kettleer's coach Mike Roberts estimates that 50 players cycled through the roster this year, a level of churn that must be grueling to manage as players come and go due to injuries, the pro draft, and other caprices of the summertime.
Mike Roberts is a constant. This was his tenth season with Cotuit and he's become a beloved figure in the village, peddling his bike up and down Main Street, rolling into the driveway to say hello, raising funds to improve the ballpark and settling into the community as one of its most colorful characters. His style of play – "Roberts SmallBall" the fans call it – is an education in the game itself; a constant strategic game of inches, of bunts and double steals, hit-and-runs, suicide squeezes … there isn't an opportunity that goes unexploited and I imagine for any player fortunate enough to get invited to Cotuit they come away with an intense education in base running and strategy unavailable anywhere else (Mike's son Brian Robert, second baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, was the stolen-base king a few years back and played for his father when Mike was coaching the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill).
The real hero of Cotuit isn't a player, the coach, or any individual. It's got to be the Cotuit Athletic Association, a largely anonymous, unsung collection of volunteers who raise the money, pass the kettles, mow the lawn, sell the 50-50 raffle tickets, staff the t-shirt store, house and feed the players, manage the website and drive the players to-and-from the airport. This isn't a group of folks who want to bask in the reflected glory of the players (Ron Darling, Chase Utley, Joe Girardi are some former Kettleers), these are genuinely devoted fans who work very hard delivering the best, free, family-friendly baseball experience available anywhere. They manage the interns, pick up the trash, sweep out the stands and recruit next year's roster all while working with their backs to the field and the game they love so fans like me can sit in the top row keeping score, talking trash, and applauding.
There's good reason for the myth of Cape Cod baseball in a game drenched in myth, it's a myth earned and deserved and goes far deeper than the usual glib shorthand description of "the best college ballplayers facing wooden bats and a daily game schedule for the first time in their careers under the scrutiny of pro scouts in quaint seaside ball parks." Movies, books, and countless blog posts and tweets have been expended on this league and its alumni, (and here comes one more). But the common theme that has emerged for me over the years is that the volunteers are the constant (see my ode to Ivan Partridge below), the players are ephemeral, few staying more than one season, and the fans are mixture of close family, friends, regulars and hardcore eccentric fans (some of whom have earned nicknames from me and my crew as "The Clapper", "The Fountain of Misinformation," "Bookworm" etc.); and of course the random parade visitors and tourists stopping by for a game to check out the myth and legend of Cape Cod baseball.
With no parade or celebration to mark their victory, this year's Kettleers are doubtlessly packing up their duffel bags this morning and getting ready for a ride to the airport, on their way back to Vanderbilt, Stanford, Concordia, NC State. Lowell Park will go quiet, the snack bar will cook no more, the volunteers will keep mowing the grass and eventually the tarps will cover the pitcher's mound and the place will return to the dog walkers while the weeds keep growing through the cracks in the parking lot. The coach might relax for a few days, but doubtlessly he's already recruiting the 2014 squad, and in a few weeks, at Bruce Hall in the Cotuit Federated Church, the Cotuit Athletic Association will gather to start planning for opening day next June.
For the first time in a few years I'm not in my usual post-season depression. Yes, I'll turn my attention to the Red Sox for the next two months, keep reading a steady stream of baseball books (my guilty pleasure) and continue my Walter Mitty fantasy of one day be sitting in the stands, scorebook in my lap, debating with myself over whether to mark that play a hit or an error, when a call goes out over the PA: "Is there a scorer in the house?"
I'll be ready.