cod balls words and photography: alex gagne Every June, elite college ballplayers are drafted by one of ten teams in the Cape Cod Baseball League. They’re in for a spartan summer—players earn no money, bunk with host families in spare bedrooms and den foldouts, and typically car pool to and from games. But the stakes are high—small-town crowds are dotted with scouts from every Major League team. Cape Cod alumni include Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio, Kris Bryant and Marcus Stroman. This is a certified proving ground—top talent, wood bats, 44 games in eight weeks. Between Orleans, Cotuit, and Harwich, some players will find their ceiling. For others, this is the last time they’ll play baseball before agents, signing bonuses and the rest of the business take permanent hold. It is what many will remember as the purest distillation of the game. Sunflower seeds are consumed (and shells expertly spat) in mass quantities. Each player has his preferred flavor be it Original, Barbecue, Dill, or Ranch. In a sport pursuing every angle from boosting spin rate to collecting advanced statistics, the “concentration grid” has emerged as a popular mental exercise. Firebirds pitchers are timed while they locate numbers 1-100 in a randomly sequenced grid. Daily completion of the puzzles is supposed to help focus from pitch to pitch.A rainy night at Eldredge Park, on the grounds of Nauset Regional Middle School in Orleans, MA. Most Cape Cod teams play at local high schools in front of crowds that can range from a couple hundred to a thousand. Orleans’ is known for its multi-tiered hill on the first base line—almost a natural bleacher. Die-hards lay out their blankets and chairs on the hill in the morning to reserve a good spot. Coaches and players maintain the field themselves: some water the infield dirt, others lay down the chalk lines for the batters’ boxes and baselines or clean the dugouts after the game. Zach Kokoska in his room at the Nickersons’ home in Eastham, MA. “It was my first time living with a host family but they couldn’t have done any better with the experience. They fed me every night and it was a great time.” The Nickersons have been hosting players for 19 years, staying in touch with many, and the walls of their home are adorned with photos of these past guests. Pitcher Jeff Praml of Southern New Hampshire University. While the opposing team takes batting practice, players typically make runs to the nearest gas station for snacks and energy drinks. First basemen Raymond Gil (University of Miami) makes the stretch during the first game of a doubleheader against the Wareham Gateman. Gil later won the game with a walkoff homer. He hurt his wrist towards the end of the season and had to go home home early. Like pro ball, Cape Cod rosters are always changing with departures and arrivals due to injuries, burnout or call-ups to Team USA. Infielder Eddie McCabe of Georgetown University takes a moment to focus himself before a game in Brewster. NCAA baseball still allows aluminum bats, but the Cape Cod League became the first collegiate summer league to mandate wood bats in 1985. Many players have never swung a wood bat in competition before, and evolving preferences on length, weight and brand are a constant topic of dugout conversation. Outfielder Max Troiani (Bentley University) at bat against the Cotuit Kettleers. He came into the season as a temp player, but was offered a full summer contract by the Firebirds after a strong June. He finished with a .345 average, third in the league, becoming the first Division II player in ten years to crack the top five in Cape League batting. Troiani says the experience, “convinced me that I have a shot at going to the next level.” The customary post-game handshake line at Red Wilson Field in South Yarmouth, MA. The Firebirds finished their season 23-17-4 tied for first in their division. But they were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Y-D Red Sox. After the game, Y-D served a free buffet-style dinner to the visiting Firebirds. The loss marked the end of summer for the town of Orleans and literally sends players home, most for a brief vacation before early fall practice begins at their schools. share this story If you liked this story consider purchasing Victory Journal 17 where it was first printed.