October 26, 2014

Cape League Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

November 24, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

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Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

Chatham Bars Inn

Saturday, November 20, 2010

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“You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

- Jim Bouton

Part I.

The Cape Cod Baseball League has been near and dear to my heart for many years, because it is the world in which my children learned to love the game.    My dad brought me to Veterans Field one summer evening about twenty years ago, and that blissful moment of standing on a hill and surveying the live action down below brought me back to a way of life I once loved passionately as a young girl.

It was a powerful moment:   I knew then and there that I had to have baseball in my life again … and for the rest of my life.

I’ve always valued the Cape League for the good times and extraordinary opportunities it offers elite players and ordinary fans, but my admiration has grown immeasurably after attending the Hall of Fame event that took place this past Saturday in Chatham, Massachusetts.

I was excited about the day long before it happened.  In fact, I was so excited when leaving home for the ceremony that I almost closed the automatic garage door on my car as I backed slowly out of the driveway.   I get a lot of mileage out of anticipating baseball in any form.  And what’s not to like about having brunch at the Chatham Bars Inn, a luxury oceanfront resort, “an idyllic retreat set upon 25 acres of beautifully landscaped grounds and sandy ocean beaches.”   The hotel is indeed grand, and many who gathered there were impressed with its elegance; but truth be told, I don’t need a big, fancy sit-down brunch.  I’d happily sit at a picnic table eating a peanut butter sandwich just to experience an event like this.

Little did I know what a privilege was in store for me as an aspiring writer, baseball mom,  longtime fan and friend of the game.   You would feel the same way if you were gearing up for this event and pondering the lineup:   Peter Gammons, Nomar Garciaparra, Lou Merloni, David Aardsma, Tom Grieve, and many more.

The combined careers* of the 2010 CCBL  Hall of Fame inductees span more than eighty years:

David Aardsma, Falmouth Commodores 2002  (Seattle Mariners)

Casey Close, Harwich Mariners 1984-85 (sports agent whose clients include Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard)

Jack Cressend, Cotuit Kettleers 1995-96  (asst. baseball coach, University of Houston)

Peter Ford, Harwich Mariners 1965-68  (Cape League vice president)

Wayne Granger, Sagamore Clouters 1962  (Cardinals, Reds, Twins, White Sox, Yankees, etc.)

Tom Grieve,  Chatham A’s 1966  (Senators; GM and broadcaster for the Texas Rangers)

Mike Loggins, Harwich Mariners 1984  (Royals organization)

Lou Merloni, Bourne and Cotuit 1991-92  (Red Sox, Indians)

Steve Robbins, Wareham Gatemen 1937  (longtime Wareham GM)

Tom Weir, Chatham A’s 1966   (U. S. Air Force); award presented posthumously
* Please visit the CCBL website for descriptions of inductees and their respective careers.

Known as the big leagues of amateur baseball, the CCBL is an elite wood bat organization in which many big league dreams do in fact begin to come true.  Thurman Munson, Ron Darling, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Lowell,  Evan Longoria, to name a few.  Of the nine Cape Cod Baseball League alumni who participated in this year’s World Series, two played for the Texas Rangers (Mitch Moreland and David Murphy), while seven held spots on the Giants roster:   Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Pat Burrell, Brian Wilson, Javier Lopez, Michael Fontenot, and Aaron Rowand.

Just twenty days after the 2010 season officially ended, I found myself sitting next to Nomar Garciaparra in the main dining room of the Chatham Bars Inn.   Unbelievably, from my vantage point two tables away, four empty seats stretched out to Nomar’s left (across from Lou Merloni’s parents), so I took a few steps across the room, sat down, and introduced myself.   We chatted for a few minutes about Omaha, the Little League World Series, and life in the broadcast booth.   I thanked Nomar  (CCBL HoF 2002) for being here, then took a moment to share a Cape Cod memory from my children’s early playing days.   Garciaparra could not have been more gracious when signing autographs for my son and daughter, who had once been renamed “Nomar” and “Mrs. Nomar”  by their Chatham A’s coaches back in the summer of 2001.

Dick Bresciani delivered a poignant invocation to the sold-out crowd, a lovely prayer composed in rhymed couplets full of baseball metaphors:  “Surround all of them with your glove, protect them from wild pitches and foul balls….”

Saturday’s audience wasn’t one that needed any convincing about baseball’s fundamental importance, but the three-hour program may have surprised many as it moved seamlessly from one eloquent tribute to another, reaffirming our faith in the essential goodness of the nation’s pastime:    “Oh, people will come.  People will most definitely come.”   Words written for a Hollywood fiction seemed especially apt on a day that honored ten gentleman who looked back with gratitude upon their own fields of dreams.

Their summer lives were not always glamorous:  stacking beer cartons at Kappy’s Liquors; painting weathered siding, shutters and trim eight to ten hours a day; coaxing an unreliable old loaner car by patting it on the dashboard every time it ascended a hill;  hanging foam dice from the rearview mirror of an old pink Cadillac that had no gas gauge; or having no car at all; slicing cold cuts at the deli; washing dishes at Friendly’s; digging for a landscaper who tended the local graveyards.

The common thread that bound all the Cape Cod memories was the theme of caring and affection. Helen Kennedy, Director of Recreation for the town of Falmouth and host mom, set the tone as she remembered the summer when David Aardsma joined her family:   “David is a caring, kind, humble individual who has never forgotten the people who helped him in his life.”    Recalling how the young pitcher willingly volunteered his services at the local kids’ camp (without pay), Kennedy praised David for epitomizing “the qualities that we want to envision in all of our professional athletes.”   The Seattle closer reciprocated with his own personal tribute:  “the Cape is one of those special places that will never leave me.”

When presenting Tom Grieve (who like his son Ben was a first-round draft pick), Peter Gammons focused on three principles – intelligence, integrity, and character – as he presented to the crowd a letter penned by former President George W. Bush in honor of his longtime friend.   It was Grieve’s voice that Bush was accustomed to hearing  “whenever I tuned in from the White House.”

As a young ballplayer, Grieve had worked with some of the best:   Ted Williams, Whitey Herzog, Billy Martin, and Joe Torre.   “That’s a pretty good learning curve,”  Gammons quipped.   Gammons praised the  former General Manager of the Texas Rangers as a dedicated individual who “took a comical situation and turned it into a tremendous franchise.”    “The nicest man I ever met,”  Jenna Bush once said.   (I was inclined to trust the opinion of a sassy young woman who had grown up watching the game.)

A solemn moment in the ceremony touched many in the audience when Tom Weir’s brother Christopher stepped to the podium to honor his late brother.  The onetime BYU star had played for the ’67 Chatham A’s with teammates Tom Grieve and Thurman Munson, then subsequently served in the United States Air Force.  A tour in Vietnam irrevocably altered his playing career.   Tom Weir’s widow addressed a sorrowful crowd, admitting that this occasion was a very tough thing to experience:   “He would have been so very honored. “  Her husband had recently lost a battle with leukemia.  “Baseball was his first love and our family is unbelievably honored.”

Peter Ford, a local Harwich boy and Boston College standout, praised the Cape League for the unpretentious beauty of its fields, qualities that “take us back to a simpler time.”   Thirty years ago, Ford remembered, finishing nine innings was more important than pitch count;  hitters didn’t have personalized bats, nor did they carry three or more pairs of cleats; icing down didn’t happen after the game – “it came before the game, and it had to be done with a cooler in the trunk.   But we got just as dirty and tired.”

Steve Robbins (b. 1913) was the oldest of the 2010 inductees.   A mailman by profession, longtime GM and volunteer for the Wareham Gatemen, Robbins often reached into his own pockets when  local fundraisers fell short.  He received his HoF plaque from a wheelchair and delivered words so hushed no one could hear, as he expressed his love of the game through tears.

Robbins had requested that a passage of scripture be read just before the presentation of his award.  This is the day the Lord has made.   Let us rejoice and be glad in it (Psalm 118).  Gerry Cunniff, who had played for Robbins in the 1960s, honored this request.   Just moments earlier, Cunniff had struck a lighter note when saying, “I’m so old I don’t remember any funny stories.”

A Cape League player’s summer experience would be much less meaningful were it not for the love and support of dedicated volunteers, including  host families.    Joan Frederici shared her first impressions of Mike Loggins, a young player from the University of Arkansas:  he was “intelligent, friendly, and everything that I wanted my kids to grow up to be.”

“He had his priorities in life and his goals in order.”  As I listened to Frederici’s words, I looked toward Mike’s daughter, who was sitting next to me, and his mother just three seats away.  “I will remember his smile.    He had the biggest and most wonderful smile.”

One summer afternoon, Mike’s  Harwich teammates happened upon a snake,  which they bottled in a jar and secretly transferred to Loggins’s gear bag.  Terrified upon discovering a live reptile wriggling through his stuff moments before the game,   “I was so jacked I hit two home runs that night in Chatham.”   One of those long balls traveled over the right field fence, well above the steep hill, across Depot Street, and straight into the fire station.    If you’ve never seen a home run like this in Chatham, trust me, it’s a magnificent sight to behold.

Loggins spoke of adversities he faced back in 1987 in the midst of his successes as a leadoff hitter batting .300  in Double-A:  a torn ligament in his finger, followed by a pulled hamstring, then a re-injured hamstring, followed by one Deion Sanders whose arrival in the big leagues jeopardized Mike’s aspirations.   Setbacks, heartaches, pain, and unfulfilled dreams.   “I did not have the illustrious career as did some of my fellow inductees,”  Loggins  acknowledged upon receiving his award, “but I am so blessed.”

After struggling at the plate for a brief stretch in Cotuit during the summer of 1992, Lou Merloni suddenly got three hits off Billy Wagner (Brewster Whitecaps).  Merloni attributed his offensive outburst to the steamer clams that his host mom had prepared for breakfast earlier that day.   “Clams, carrots, linguica . . . I swear to God, I had steamers every single day after those three hits . . . and went on to win the batting title.”  In fact, Merloni beat out future Red Sox teammate Billy Mueller, who would recall the incident down in Fort Myers some eleven years later.

“Billy, you gotta get over it,” Merloni laughed.

Host moms make space in their homes, buy extra groceries, attend games, and talk baseball.  They steam clams for extra hits, while host fathers talk baseball too.   “My slider wasn’t very good that day,” Jack Cressend remembered when describing his surrogate dad’s tendency to offer unsolicited post-game advice.  “He was my pitching coach at the house,” Cressend wryly observed.  The young right hander out of Tulane suffered a tough defeat in his first outing on a Cape Cod mound (L 3-2), but Jack Cressend would go on to win an unprecedented 14 straight games over two summer league seasons.

Casey Close, All-American out of Michigan and Baseball America’s 1984 Player of the Year, is now a sports agent whose clients include Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard.   Given all the material concerns that must fill his typical work day, Close chose to reflect on the purity of Cape League baseball.  The game wasn’t “all the bells and whistles”  during his memorable summer season.   “I love it the way it was.”   With hints of regret, the player turned businessman offered advice that might have struck some as ironic, though his words rang true:  he urged local folk to preserve the League’s simplicity and to be advocates for the game.  “It was never more important than it is now.”

Part II.

The Cape League is putting your blanket down at ten o’clock in the morning for a game that doesn’t begin until 7 pm.   It’s hearing the National Anthem every single night and actually singing it.   It’s dollar dogs for sale in the top of the 8th.   It is a form of baseball that costs the fans nothing – nothing, that is, unless you reach into the pocket of your jeans  for a few dollars when the batting helmet makes its rounds through the quiet crowd.

The League offers modest yet idyllic fields in Cotuit, Orleans, and Brewster, long team bus rides to and from Bourne and Wareham, port-o-johns near playgrounds full of squealing children,  close games and pitching duels that are often called due to darkness or fog.  It’s the infamous “hurlers” at the snack bar in Yarmouth-Dennis that I dare you to eat (jelly donuts with cheeseburgers inside, mustard and ketchup optional).   It’s kids with imperfect pitch singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game”  during the seventh-inning stretch.  It’s your own small boy singing those words up in the press box and hitting every note as a surprise to you on his birthday.

It’s the boys who remain my son’s best friends to this day, because they met on a sunny ball field when they were five or six years old.  It’s the baseball mom who brought homemade soup to my door last Sunday.  It’s the friends whom I met last Saturday night at The Squire for dinner, the same fans who bring candy bars to the dugout before every game.  It’s the 6’6″ catcher from NC State sitting on an upside-down bucket behind home plate at 9:15 in the morning, watching little kids run the bases, and assuming a relaxed pose that seems to say,  Hey, I deserve to take it easy now, because I squatted in my gear for nine innings last night, woke up at seven this morning, ate five donuts and drank a half gallon of milk, came here and got asked a ton of questions by a bunch of little kids, and now I want to sit.

It’s host parents who keep the refrigerator stocked.  It’s heading out in the skiff and bringing home a striped bass; eighteen holes of golf; campfires late at night out on an island in Pleasant Bay.  It’s a bat boy playing ping pong with a first-round draft pick at the VFW hall; it’s that same kid watching that same player in the ALCS on national television just a few years later.   It’s steak tip subs, “Thanksgiving” sandwiches, and lasagna for team dinners served up by loyal volunteers; homemade breakfast sandwiches and meltaways from Bonatts in the dugout, and pizza every weekday noon at Nick’s.

It’s guys who show up in your kitchen in rain-soaked uniforms after the game is called in the bottom of the fifth.   They borrow your kid’s clean, dry clothes, grab hot meatball subs, relax and read Baseball America while watching the Red Sox in the family room, then hang out in the kitchen until one o’clock in the morning.   They say “yes, ma’am” and “y’all,”  “thank you, ma’am.”  Some pray before bedtime or out on the mound.   They’re Tarheels and Dirtbags, Tigers, Hoos, Deacons, Rebels, Eagles, Bears, and Bulldogs.   Many drive thousands of miles to stay with strangers, just to play seven more weeks of baseball at the end of a long NCAA season; just to have a chance to face the best college pitchers in the nation;  just to hit a baseball with wood instead of aluminum.

The Cape Cod League is sitting so close to the game you can almost touch it.    The breeze shifts and the flag turns  and the children race for foul balls and suddenly you smell the sea, and you remember that the ocean is so very near, and you marvel at the fact that somehow everything works together magically.   No question about it:   there’s something in the Cape Cod air and in the water too that makes baseball better, keeps us coming back, and launches some amazing athletes out into futures that they face with wonder and excitement, but no guarantees.

“I cannot wait to get back,”  a player once said.  “They treated us like we were the Yankees.”

Part III.

Three hours after the 2010 Induction Ceremony ended, I met up with a few friends from the Chatham A’s at a local restaurant where I was privileged to dine with Hall of Famers and former players Ed Baird, Joe Jabar, Tom Grieve, and George Greer – outstanding individuals who once shared a championship summer season in the town of Chatham.   A fifth teammate, guy by the name of Thurman Munson, kept appearing in the same room, or so it seemed to me.

Judy Scarafile, longtime CCBL President – now well-deservedly recognized in Cooperstown’s Women in Baseball exhibit -  also joined the local group for dinner.  Lively stories, memories, jokes, and laughter filled the evening.  Spirits grew lighter, while the theme remained ever the same:   Best summer of my life.

It’s no accident that the final person I met on Induction Day was Tom Grieve.  Earlier in the day, he had concluded his acceptance speech with a warm recognition of baseball fans everywhere.   So here we were, a truly accomplished baseball guy and one ordinary fan, chatting about the 2010 MLB postseason and the transcendent, simple beauty of a game.

I’ve always believed in baseball as a worthy pursuit in life, though that belief is sometimes shaken, as it is for most fans.  My love of the game was reaffirmed last Saturday during twelve straight hours of baseball, because I was so very  privileged to spend time with individuals who have touched the sport in ways that matter, and then turned toward others to touch them with its magic too.   Here at home on Cape Cod, where I have always loved watching the game, my head and heart were once again full of the love of baseball, abundantly so.

I had expected that this local Hall of Fame event would give me the chance to see a bunch of handsome plaques, hear a few long speeches, enjoy some laughs, maybe spot a few celebrities from a distance.  But it turns out I set the bar far too low.   I didn’t anticipate such a class act.

I didn’t expect to encounter so many remarkable individuals from all walks of life, men and women who displayed true poise, character, intelligence, and depth of thought and feeling.   I didn’t anticipate such  kindness.   Nor did I expect to be invited to spend my evening with a few amazing baseball people.

“People don’t forget,”  Lou Merloni had said earlier in the day to a loving crowd.  “They don’t forget.”

I did not expect the experience to be so uplifting.  Thank you, Cape Cod Baseball League, for all the precious memories.

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Please click below to view three photo albums:

Chatham Bars Inn

Cape Cod Baseball League

Induction Ceremony 2010

To read my earlier posts on the CCBL, please visit

http://www.watchingthegame.typepad.com/

In the Dugout, Viewed from Above,  Rally Cups,  Opening Day,

Final Game,  Let Freedom Ring


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