ORLEANS, Mass. — Spectators pack the berm that stretches from the backstop behind home plate and down the first-base line to the rightfield foul pole. They sit on blankets and beach chairs, some placed hours before game time and between trips to the beach. First pitch is at dinner time, so most have brought picnic baskets or takeout orders from area clam shacks and pizza parlors.
Down the incline and closer to the field, children play in the open spaces where fans would have only an obstructed view. Admission is free, but fans can support the home team by buying a T-shirt or a hat or tickets for the 50-50 raffle. Kids race onto the field to get player autographs after the last out.
A Cape Cod Baseball League game is an idyllic scene, right out of a Rockwell painting — American leisure time at its best. That is, except for the players and the scouts evaluating them in the best college summer league in the country.
“Cape Cod means vacation time to all these people,” said Harwich Mariners righthander Joe Savino, who played for Connetquot High School and now for Elon. “To a baseball player, it means the Cape Cod League, a chance to play the best competition and doing it every night in front of scouts from every major-league team.”
“So many great players have played here on the Cape,” said Orleans Firebirds outfielder Travis Honeyman, who played for Massapequa High and now for Boston College. “You want to be good enough to play here because so many big-leaguers have played here. [The other] night I heard people talking about when Aaron Judge played here.”
Savino and Honeyman are two of the seven players from Long Island who have played on Cape Cod this summer. North Carolina infielder Johnny Castagnozzi, also from Massapequa, and South Carolina outfielder Matt Hogan, from Half Hollow Hills East, are teammates on the Chatham Anglers. Tufts righthander Cameron Mayer, from Syosset, played with Savino on Harwich. Hofstra outfielder Brian Morrell, from Shoreham-Wading River High, played for the Wareham Gatemen.
Rutgers lefthander Brian Fitzpatrick, out of St. Anthony’s High School, played briefly for the Brewster Whitecaps before the Milwaukee Brewers selected him with their 10th-round pick in the MLB Draft.
For a college player, the College World Series is the pinnacle in team achievement. Being invited to the Cape Cod League is a collegian’s pinnacle for individual achievement. A great performance at the CWS could be memorable. A great summer on the Cape could be a runway to a professional career.
“Every night it’s like you’re playing in a college All-Star game — the competition is much better than you’d see in the good college [conferences] like the ACC or the SEC,” Castagnozzi said. “The places may have a small-town feel and you’re playing on glorified high school fields. But you’re going against the best players in the country in games with wood bats. It’s a step removed from professional baseball.”
“Every night in the box, you’re looking at 90-plus,” Hogan said, referring to the pitchers’ velocities. “If you’re not seeing that, it’s 85 and moves all over the place. The big-league scouts see you every day. This is a real opportunity.”
For some of the Islanders and their pro ball dreams, getting to perform in front of the scouts is a very big deal. All lost a season to the coronavirus pandemic. Some haven’t seen that much playing time.
Morrell won the Yastrzemski Award as Suffolk County’s top player in 2016 and 2017 and was a 35th-round pick of the Phillies out of high school. He chose instead to pitch for Notre Dame the next season, appearing in eight games, and then transferred to St. John’s, where he became a position player. Now at Hofstra, he was an All-CAA selection this past season.
Hogan, the 2018 Yastrzemski Award winner, didn’t get a lot of playing time in three seasons at Vanderbilt and the past one at South Carolina. He’ll be a grad transfer at another school next season. Mayer has been a Tufts standout, but Division III players don’t get as much exposure.
“I haven’t had much playing time in college and that’s been hard,” Hogan said. “When you don’t play well enough to make the most of an opportunity it weighs on your mind. The Cape League has been a chance to play and be seen, and it’s reminded me of my true love for the game.”
There are a lot of quirks that come with playing in the Cape Cod League. There is no draft; the teams invite the players they want. Once in town, the players stay with host families. In some cases, they are given part-time jobs to earn spending money.
Mayer stayed with a family of four and said, “I felt so welcomed and included, had meals with them when I could — it’s like a family away from your family.”
As for standout performances by the Long Islanders, Fitzpatrick, Honeyman and Savino put up particularly good numbers. Fitzpatrick threw 19 scoreless innings in June before leaving for the draft and Honeyman batted .289 and was tabbed as an All-Star before a hand injury halted his summer.
Asked if, in his experience, Honeyman could be a major-leaguer, Orleans coach Kelly Nicholson replied: “He will need to keep developing, but he has a barrel-to-ball skill not many have.”
Savino, a college starter, is 3-0 with one save, a 1.59 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings as a reliever.
“My first game, I came in with the bases loaded and got the [inning-ending] strikeout,” Savino said. “It was a different experience, getting out of a mess that I didn’t cause.”
The seven Long Island players also get the extra kick out of seeing one another when their teams face off. Honeyman called those encounters getting “a little slice of home."
“It’s a little like a reunion down here or when you bring your college friends home to meet and they meet your high school friends,” Hogan said. “We have college teammates playing here. We get to introduce them to guys we know from the Island. We’re all here trying to make our mark, but that’s a great bonus.”