In other places, baseball fields are diamonds. On Cape Cod, they look more like oyster shells. There's something just short of wonderful about Cape Cod baseball, but then—if we are to believe Henry David Thoreau and/or Patti Page—there's something just short of wonderful about Cape Cod.
The basic facts are that games of the Cape Cod Baseball League run from the middle of June through the middle of August, in eight towns—from Wareham, which isn't even on the Cape, to Orleans, which some oldtimers think is where the real Cape begins. College players from all over the country come to test themselves, and scouts come to watch. This is an NCAA-sanctioned summer league that major league baseball helps support financially. The league has produced some pearls—about 40 current major-leaguers, including Carlton Fisk and the last two American League Cy Young Award winners, Steve Stone and Mike Flanagan.
But that kind of information belongs in a brochure. The greater truth is that these towns live for their teams, and these players live with the townspeople. Before the season starts, while the managers are recruiting a roster of 18, local committees line up jobs and housing for the players. Then it's up to them to do their work, usually at the minimum wage, play their game and learn to chew tobacco.
Four of the Chatham Athletics live in an attic above Woody and Kathy Laird's garage. The Lairds, who have three children of their own, charge each of their temporary sons $20 a week. "That just about covers the cost of the orange juice each one consumes," says Woody. Some living arrangements are a little more exciting. Last year Jim Sherman and Dave Stenhouse Jr. found themselves rooming in a haunted house. "We kept hearing strange noises," says Sherman, an outfielder and criminal justice major at the University of Delaware. "Doors that we had closed at night would be open in the morning. When we casually mentioned it to the owner of the house, she just freaked out." It seems the previous owners had died in a gruesome boating accident.
That experience didn't keep Sherman from coming back; after he was drafted in the 20th round by the Cubs last month, he chose not to sign immediately. This year he has a slightly better arrangement, having moved in with four girls, ages 16 to 21. It's strictly platonic, of course, although the girls do come to Chatham games and wave a pair of his red shorts on a stick while yelling, "Oh, Shermie."
Last year Sherman had a job in the local sewage treatment plant (flies on him). This year he's lining clay tennis courts and teaching baseball to children. Six of the A's work at the posh Wequassett Inn as dishwashers, busboys and bellhops. Others roll dimes in a bank, park cars and man hardware counters. Players are expected to work hard so that the jobs will be set aside for next year's crop.
There are all sorts of peculiarities that the players must contend with: the fog that sometimes shrouds the field at Chatham because of its location on the elbow of the Cape; the field at Yarmouth, which is 357 down the rightfield line and 351 in straightaway center; and the roads. The other night at a postgame spread hosted by Manager Ed Lyons, his wife, Kay, and their dog Connie Mack, the players got to talking about that scourge of tourists, the rotary. "What are these rotaries? Give me some dividers," said Sherman, mimicking a teammate new to the Cape. "I think they're kind of cute," said Columbia Pitcher Kurt Lundgren, who is called Gene because of his uncanny resemblance to Gene Wilder. Lundgren can't act, but then Wilder can't throw a knuckle curve.
Gene was the starting pitcher last Friday night against visiting Orleans. Among the first to arrive at Veterans Park was a scout. Porter Blinn of the Cincinnati Reds. "You can learn more from infield and outfield practice than you can from a whole game," he said. Scouts like the Cape League, both for the level of competition, which is roughly equivalent to that in the rookie leagues, and for what it does for the players. "This is where they mature, learn responsibility," says Blinn.
The fans include some local celebrities: juvenile fiction writer John F. Waters, Noel Kinski, who set the league record for wins (10) in 1965, and Ken and Dorothy Cahoon, the couple who housed Thurman Munson when he played for Chatham. A truck catering to Cape Cod's obsession with ice cream drives up, bearing "Fudgicals." The town's teen-agers begin their mating rituals, even before a Boston Pops tape of the national anthem is played.
Up on the hill that overlooks this natural amphitheater, people in cars pull over to watch as if it were a drive-in baseball theater. Little children try to crash the A's dugout, and nobody boos when Lundgren's fielders betray him by dropping fly balls. A batting helmet is passed for donations, and almost everybody gives.