Book Review: The Last Best League
Every year, the top college baseball players gather about 70 miles southeast of Boston to hone their skills and showcase their talents in front of amateur scouts from all 30 Major League Baseball teams. This is the Cape Cod League, the most prestigious of all the college summer leagues, made of 10 teams that play 40-game schedules. In the summer of 2002, Jim Collins chronicled the season for the Chatham A’s of the Cape Cod League.
The A’s manager is John Schiffner, a high school teacher and baseball coach in Plainfield, CT for most of the year. His challenge is to recruit these 19-21 year old prospects by cultivating relationships with Head Coaches from schools all across the country to put together the best team possible. Once assembled, he has to ensure adequate playing time for each of his players in order to appease the head coaches from their respective schools.
In assembling his 2002 roster, Schiffner takes the risky path by recruiting a good number of players who were taken in the June draft. It is often in these players interest to play in the Cape Cod League against a high level of competition while increasing their bargaining leverage. But the downside is, once they sign a professional contract, they become ineligible to play for their Cape team. It’s a bold move since these drafted players are among the most talented, but they can be gone in an instant.
Jim Collins takes you through all that goes into one season in the Cape Cod League. From recruiting players throughout the year, to the volunteers who help procure uniforms, to the host families that take in the ballplayers during their time on the cape. It’s almost as if the entire community is involved in one way or another and they are rewarded with free baseball from the top college players in the country.
Collins also describes the day to day life of the Chatham A’s players. How they are required to find a day job during the season and the relationships they establish with their host families. You learn that while all these players have elite talent for their age, they also all have different motivations, goals, and expectations for their careers.
As a baseball fan, the beauty of reading a book from a decade ago was recognizing and following players that I’ve seen on top prospect lists and even the select few that have made a career in the Major Leagues. Even twelve years later, Tim Stauffer and Chris Ianetta, two Chatham A’s are still in the big leagues. Other future Major Leaguers from around the league are Anthony Gwynn, David Murphy, David Aardsma, and Jeff Niemann.
Brad Ziegler was even viewed as sort of an antagonist. As a member of the 2001 Chatham A’s, he made a comment in the local newspaper that rubbed some of his teammates the wrong way. He would return to the Cape in 2002, but this time with the Harwich Mariners and he would face off against his old team more than once along the way.
The most current release of The Last Best League is the “10th Anniversary Edition” (the book was originally released in 2004). This edition includes a chapter titled “10 Years Later”, which catches up with each of the ’02 Chatham A’s. All throughout the book, I had the urge to hop on the internet and check out how each player fared in professional baseball. Knowing that this chapter was included, I avoided doing any research until after I was finished. These players are still just in their early 30’s, but it’s surprising just how many of them are already out of professional baseball. Jim Collins continually refers to the baseball “pyramid”. By this he means that at every level, only the very best of the best will advance to play at the next level, all the way up to the “tip” of the pyramid, the Major Leagues. Ten years later, it’s easy to see that only a very few make it to the “tip”.