Kids dressed in Orleans Firebirds colors organize their own game along the first-base line at Eldredge Park.

Kids dressed in Orleans Firebirds colors organize their own game along the first-base line at Eldredge Park.
Photo: Howard Megdal

ORLEANS, Mass. — The fever dreams of everyone at the offices of Major League Baseball who frets about the aging population of the fanbase look a lot like the scene found one night in early July in Orleans, Massachusetts, home of the Cape Cod League’s Orleans Firebirds.

The Firebirds were facing the Brewster Whitecaps, and a group of six children, all in Firebirds gear, shirts and hats, created a makeshift ballgame of their own right alongside the game at Eldredge Park, on the slope of grass above the first-base dugout — a hitter, holding his glove like a bat, a pitcher, staring in for the sign from a catcher, a pair of fielders, hands on knees, even an umpire to call balls and strikes. Decisions were made by rough voice vote, and the umpire served as broadcaster, too, even amid the rising and falling of crowd noise at the town park from those spectators fixated on the main game.

That it had been a lousy weather day on Cape Cod that day didn’t matter — fans brought their chairs and sat together amid the soupy gathering of dusk to watch baseball. Families — some who host the players in this premier wood bat summer league, prospects who are more likely to be drafted than any other group you can find, others who just love the game — often leave their chairs at their preferred spots early in the day, with views of the fields in high demand.

Only the announcement from the public address announcer breaks up the game within the game: “Now batting for your Firebirds, number 36, Connor Kokx!”

Pandemonium reigned, the gloves, and even hats, thrown in the air, the kids shouting “Connor’s up! Connor’s up!” An amused adult responsible for them all, it seemed, based on her distribution of snacks to the group earlier in the evening, just smiled. I asked her how Kokx was related to the group. She replied that he wasn’t. The Firebirds ran a baseball clinic in the community, though, and the kids all found their new idol.

“They’re just huge Connor Kokx fans now,” she said.

Once Kokx’s at-bat ended, the kids returned to their grouping and picked up their gloves and hats. One announced: “OK, time to practice hitting the cutoff man!” The entire scene strained credulity, it adhered so completely to the place baseball once held in the public mind, and whose displacement from that spot is the source of decades of heartache among those of us who love the game.

So given what else we know about Major League Baseball here in 2021, it should come as no surprise to you that the Cape Cod League, source of fandom for countless locals and visitors as well as the most effective tool for amateur player evaluation the sport has, survives in spite of MLB, not because of it. And its days as that oasis could be numbered.

What about the Cape?

Brewster Whitecaps coaches talk to local children.

Brewster Whitecaps coaches talk to local children.
Photo: Howard Megdal

The Cape Cod League has existed in its modern form since 1963, when sanctioned by the NCAA, though the circuit has existed in one form or another for virtually a century prior to that. But what the Cape League has been, more than anything else, is a magnet for players in college with professional aspirations, and legitimate ones.

While there were other summer wood bat leagues — in Alaska, the Northwoods League in the midwest — it’s been the Cape Cod League that has drawn the most talent every year for decades. One in six current major leaguers had Cape League experience, and more than 1,250 players have made that journey in all. Nor is that pipeline slowing — the past four top overall draft picks, including 2021’s Henry Davis by the Pittsburgh Pirates, are Cape League alums. So, too, was the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year, Kyle Lewis.

And since the decision to move to wood bats in 1985, the Cape League serves an invaluable function to scouts and player development folks alike — a significant sample of at-bats against top competition playing by the rules of professional baseball. It’s a win for fans, it’s a win for teams, and it’s a win for players who want to prove themselves.

“Ever since growing up, playing high school ball, middle school… we’ve always heard about the Cape League,” Brewster Whitecaps catcher Kurtis Byrne, an all-Big 12 performer as a sophomore this past season at TCU, told me. “It’s a huge thing. It’s a blessing to be able to come out here and actually play. It’s the premier league in college baseball. I’m very excited and really fortunate to be able to play out here, and I always wanted to come out here.”

The path from college prospect to Cape League roster is largely one based on long-standing relationships between college coaches and Cape League managers, one longtime league insider told me. He is simultaneously a host family and a long-time volunteer for one of the teams dating back nearly two decades. The overwhelming majority of the 501(c)3 Cape League is volunteer-based, meaning that this paean to baseball and huge feeder league for MLB is largely supported by sponsorships and volunteers — MLB contributed $100,000 or so per season to the Cape Cod League through 2019, $10,000 per team, 10 teams in all, and a Cape League source said that support continued in 2021. Still, that is a tiny fraction of what running a new, rival league would cost and thus, the boon to baseball writ large that is the Cape Cod League poses no significant financial burden to MLB, which earned $10.7 billion in revenue in 2019.

“But MLB doesn’t care about us, and hasn’t at every turn,” the insider told me. It is worth noting that another source said Cape League leadership as a whole has been very pleased by interactions with MLB this year.

Still, it is hard to square the idea of MLB and the Cape Cod League as partners with Major League Baseball’s decision to announce a series of summer, wood bat prospect leagues around the country last November. Purely as an effort in disaster mitigation, it was understandable — with the affiliated minor leagues chopped from 160 teams to 120, in what was a short-term cost-cutting measure — healthy teams with strong fan bases accounting for many of these teams lost — MLB finding a way to get baseball back into those communities makes a degree of sense.

But of course, that inexplicable decision to gut 40 communities of future baseball fan incubators came from MLB itself, meaning that the draft league was a response to a fire ignited by Major League Baseball, with the potential to weaken the Cape Cod League, another baseball success story.

The level of gaslighting directed at the Cape Cod League in this quote from MLB exec Morgan Sword is hard to fathom:

We are thrilled to partner with Prep Baseball Report and the founding members of the MLB Draft League to create a one-of-a-kind league that will attract the nation’s top players who are eligible for each year’s MLB Draft and allow local fans to see top prospects and future big-league stars in their hometowns.

The extent to which this wasn’t fully thought out, even in the short-term, was evident by the timing of the announcement — by late November, players have already committed for their summer plans, and MLB, instead of claiming the best amateur talent for itself as promised, was left with embarrassing headlines like this about its Draft League.

Whether a full offseason — and pressure from MLB — changes the equation of who ends up at the Cape next summer, no one really knows. That MLB will lean on college coaches to send players to the Draft League instead is an uneasy worry hanging over this season of Cape Cod League baseball. Hoping MLB will see the long-term benefits of avoiding a desperate cash grab hasn’t been a great bet, especially in the Rob Manfred Era.

Field of dreams

Brewster Whitecaps players and coaches chat with the kids and play catch.

Brewster Whitecaps players and coaches chat with the kids and play catch.
Photo: Howard Megdal

For their part, the Cape League players couldn’t imagine life anywhere else this summer. A group of Whitecaps settled into a game of catch with a group of children on a hotel lawn in Brewster on a midweek summer afternoon in July.

These are some of the biggest stars in college baseball, with their names destined to be called at an upcoming MLB Draft and, for many, a trip to the majors to follow. But they are also young enough to appreciate the families that have given them a home, mornings at the beach, and what it feels like to dream while playing catch with a Cape League star Kids with eyes wide taking every bit of advice to heart as the throws were sent back and forth.

“I think this will always be the top league to showcase your abilities,” University of Washington and Brewster outfielder Will Simpson said that afternoon. “It’s all the scouts that are here. I think that’s always been the case, I noticed a lot of other leagues that are coming into fruition, that are getting a lot of popularity, but I always think this will be the top spot to be.”

After catch ended, the Whitecaps introduced themselves to the kids, talking about their journey — favorite players, hometowns. My daughter, Mirabelle, had gotten some throwing tips from Simpson, and bonded over her Jersey roots with Rutgers left-handed pitcher Harry Rutkowski, before autographs and selfies followed.

Her urgency to go see them play fueled the rest of our day, and led us to join the masses gathered in Orleans that evening despite the weather. We settled into our lawn chairs, finding what spots we could, hot dogs and pretzels in hand, as Mason Barnett threw one 95 mile per hour fastball after another for Brewster. I saw games all week on the Cape, and velocities seldom dipped below 90, and generally stuck in the mid-90s. For reference, MLB’s average fastball velocity is 93.7.

And those who aren’t throwing such heat know how to pitch — Orleans righty Hayden Thomas, a pitcher at Texas A&M – Corpus Christi, topped out at 91, but got swings and misses with his slider at 84 and changeup at 80.

Everyone knows the stakes of making an impression on every play. Brewster center fielder Colin Davis chased a long fly ball up and over the center field fence, his leap carrying him onto the berm beyond the wall as well. A dozen well-wishers rushed over to him to help him onto his feet. Two innings later, Davis crushed a three-run homer of his own.

The contrast between the hyperlocal surroundings and the nationally-gifted talent is always on display. The kids played catch along the grass abutting the first-base dugout, while just beyond third base at Eldredge is Route 28, the PA announcer at one point helpfully reminding foul ball-chasers that cars might not be expecting them. Home runs mean a $50 donation to the local food pantry, and the Orleans Library’s Storytime with the Firebirds was advertised just before Chase DeLauter stepped to the plate for Orleans.

DeLauter wasn’t a high-Div. I prospect, ending up at James Madison, and he seems determined to take that snub out on every baseball pitched to him. He crushed the first pitch of the bottom of the fourth inning over the 350 mark in left-center field, one of five hits and two home runs he hit that day. An appreciative crowd of onlookers in the scouts section — yes, there’s a section just for MLB scouts at the Cape League venues, and it is generally filled — took notice. Simply playing for James Madison, which finished last in its division in the Colonial Athletic Association, DeLauter might have gone undiscovered.

The weather got worse, rain coming more steadily, but virtually no one retreated, happy instead to take in the Firebirds’ rout. Home runs kept coming, much to the delight of George Hoskey, better known as Mr. Firebird. He has dressed in the bright red bird suit, complete with beaked head, since 1998 after his wife told him he ought to be a mascot since he makes so much noise at Cape League games. He bought and designed the outfit himself, and felt fortunate that Orleans kept a team name that still reflects it once MLB successfully squeezed the non-profit Cape League over trademarks. The strong-arm tactic forced Cape teams to either pay MLB-affiliated vendors or give up longstanding names — the Hyannis Mets are now the Harbor Hawks, for example, costing MLB generations of free advertising for its product in the process.

Mr. Firebird

Mr. Firebird
Photo: Howard Megdal

Mr. Firebird’s cheering only paused when kids occasionally wanted to take selfies with him, and as the game ended after seven innings — the rain proved too much for the umpires — Mr. Firebird made sure to ask a family of four walking toward its car, holding lawn chairs — “Will you be here Friday?” The kids happily responded with nods, and Mr. Firebird countered with an emphatic “Yeah!”

Many people didn’t leave, however. The Firebirds gathered by the pitchers’ mound in the rain for a post-game meeting, and then an Orleans intern opened the gate next to the first-base dugout, handing masks to a stream of children who headed onto the infield for autographs. Mirabelle, whose allegiance to Brewster was fleeting, wanted to meet Chase DeLauter, and did.

I caught him just after he spoke to the Orleans summer broadcaster for the team’s in-house postgame show, and asked him what it meant to have this kind of a game, especially knowing that he’d had to wait to prove himself — 2020 meant no baseball, an enormous missed opportunity when thousands play and scouting is so limited.

But DeLauter’s wait dates back even further. He’s known since he was in high school: to live his MLB dreams, this was the place to be.

“Personally, I think there’s no league like this,” DeLauter said. “Not even just the best players in the country, but the entire communities involved… We have hundreds if not thousands of fans out here every night cheering us on, no matter the circumstances.” He gestured toward the sky. “I mean, it’s raining. Yeah, 60 degrees. Still.”

And even after that, DeLauter and his teammates stayed on, meeting Mirabelle and dozens of other kids who just wanted a little more time with the game they all love. There seemed to be an understanding that this moment would be fleeting, though perhaps no one on that field fully grasped how short their time would be.

Just under a week later, the Brewster center fielder who’d scaled the fence, Colin Davis, was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in the seventh round of the 2021 MLB Draft. The folk hero for the children playing baseball, Orleans’ Connor Kokx, went in the 12th round to Cleveland. And a week after that, Mirabelle’s buddy from New Jersey, Harry Rutkowski, signed a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays.

I stood on the hill along first base and watched them all soaking it in, players and kids, the small gap in their lived experiences melting away. As I waited, Orleans catcher Garret Guillemette, who plays for University of Southern California, greeted a man from his host family. Guillemette had homered, his first of the Cape season.

“Nice shot!” the man said to Guillemette.

“Thanks,” Guillemette answered, “It felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”

The man clapped Guillemette on the shoulder and said, “See you at home.”