June 14, 2008
Steven Liddle is one of six Commodores playing in the |
Cape Cod Baseball League this summer.
WAREHAM, Mass. - Walking down Main Street on this picturesque day in mid-June, you realize how much this town has missed its ballplayers.
"It's been a long winter," says Bob Prophett, owner of Dawson Seafood. "We're ready for baseball."
Luckily for Prophett, the wait is finally over. In just a few hours, the Gatemen will square off against the Falmouth Commodores in the Cape Cod Baseball League season opener, which means summer has officially begun.
Outside the town fire station is a painted sign that reads "Gatemen home tonight 7:00 p.m." and team posters hang in store windows to remind everyone that the boys are back, as if they hadn't been counting down the days already. Sure, the players will be different, but what they represent is the same.
"I love their innocence," says Demetrios Kalkanis of Minerva Town Pizza, which has been open since 1969. "That's the greatness of it. It's pure baseball. Triple distilled, as they say."
Just an hour earlier several Gatemen stop by to grab a bite to eat before heading to the field.
"Coming to the game tonight?" they ask on their way out the door.
"If I can get out of work, I'll be there," Kalkanis responds.
He doesn't know all of them quite yet, but since this exchange will become an almost daily occurrence from now until mid-August, it won't be long before Kalkanis will have their names and orders' memorized.
"It's amazing how the town just livens up when they come to town," Kalkanis says. "In the Midwest, where I grew up, the excitement comes from college sports, especially football. The buzz here is the Gatemen."
It has been for more than 40 years. The CCBL's modern era began in 1963 and it appears as though little has changed in this town known as the "Gateway to Cape Cod" since then, with the exception of a strip mall that includes CVS, Dunkin Donuts and Hollywood Video.
Sure, some stores have been renovated, but many, like the auto repair shop, home appliance center and liquor store known as "The Jug Shop," are beginning to show their years.
Not that it matters to players like Vanderbilt outfielder Steve Liddle, who gladly made the 18-hour trek from his home in Franklin, Tenn. He didn't come to Wareham for the flash or glamour, but to get away from it. To play America's pastime the way it should be played, in front of passionate fans that wait 10 months for his arrival, where the irritating "ping" sound from the DeMarini is nonexistent, gladly replaced by the sharp crack of the wood.
Ahh, triple distilled, indeed.
Take a left off Main Street onto Marion Road and go through one set off lights. On the left you'll see two buildings, the town hall and multi-service center, and tucked behind them is Clem Spillane Field, proud home of the Gatemen, in addition to Wareham Middle & High School, which is located along the third-base line.
While no one mistakes Spillane for Fenway Park or even Vanderbilt's Hawkins Field, the fact it's so ordinary only adds to the CCBL's mystique.
The Falmouth players arrive in true Cape fashion, cramming in one of the classic yellow buses that were a staple of their childhood. As they step off the bus, many of them look like little kids again, staring in awe at the Gatemen, who are already taking batting practice. So, this is it.
For a lot of players, this is the first time they have used a wooden bat. With aluminum, players have the advantage of a big barrel and generous sweet spot. There is no such thing as forgiveness with the wood, which is why scouts love evaluating talent on the Cape. It helps separate the good from the great.
Some are dreading to switch, but not Liddle, who looks like a natural with the wood, hitting line drives to all fields during his round of BP. It helps that he played in the Coastal Plains League, which uses wooden bats, last year, but the lefty also benefits from a quick, smooth stroke.
"I love wood," he says. "I love the sound. I love the feel. When you hit the ball on the nose perfectly with a wood bat, there's no greater feeling."
After both teams finish batting practice and take infield, they retreat to their respective dugouts and look on attentively as Wareham honors its president John Wylde for 25 years of service to the Gatemen and CCBL.
The players are moved by the ceremony, by the words being spoken about the gracious and soft-spoken Wylde, who was diagnosed with inoperable cancer in the fall but could possibly live until 2010.
Wylde represents everything that is right about the league. The Gateman know that too, which is why they worked hard to make sure this day was perfect.
The press box, Wylde's favorite spot, is re-named in his honor, and league commissioner Paul Galop announces Wylde's induction into the CCBL Hall of Fame, since Wylde was too sick to attend the actual ceremony in November. Wylde also receives citations from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick and Major League Baseball, among others.
Alumni are on hand to witness the event and players from all ages - Little League to Babe Ruth to American Legion to the CCBL - line the infield to pay tribute to the man one volunteer fittingly called "The Red Auerbach of the Cape."
Throughout the hour-long celebration, Wylde sits graciously in his seat in the press box, waving to the crowd.
"Thank you from the old man in the press box," he says in his signature voice. "I'll never forget this night."
And with that remark, it's finally game time.
Fans get settled in their seats in the bleachers along both the first and third-base lines, while others do the same in left and center field. There is no bad seat in the house and all of them come at the same great price of $0 (although donations are always encouraged).
The game itself almost seems like an afterthought given the pre-game festivities, but once the first pitch is thrown, people remember how great it feels to be watching baseball again.
By the fifth inning, the youngsters have lost their patience, leaving their parents to devour a hot dog or chase down foul balls with their equally-hyper friends. Meanwhile, the old-timers remain glued to the action, discussing strategy, second-guessing the decision not to bunt and reminiscing about their playing days.
By the eighth, most fans are ready to leave since it is cold without the sun and the Gatemen are behind. But, after watching the Boston Celtics come back to beat the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals a night earlier, they are afraid to miss out on a dramatic finish. Besides, they still have to wait for the winner of the 50/50 raffle to be announced.
While the Gatemen end up losing 9-2, that's of little concern to the crowd, which knows there is plenty of baseball left to be played - and watched. Even Liddle isn't discouraged by the loss.
"Not really having a great game on paper," he says, "I'm still so happy to be here."
Liddle was the designated hitter and batted fifth. He struck on a curve ball in the first, moved runners up to second and third with a well-executed sacrifice bunt in the fourth, struck out looking on an outside fastball in the sixth and lined out to deep left-centerfield in the eighth.
Yet, listening to him talk about his first game in the nation's premier collegiate summer league, you would have thought he went 4-for-4.
"The crowd was unbelievable," he says. "All those people who came today, I just want to thank them for coming. It was an unbelievable atmosphere to play in. The weather is definitely a nice change from Nashville. I'm just really happy to be here. Everything's awesome, everybody's been good me."
Liddle says he is privileged to be playing in front of such passionate fans.
"I feel like these guys in Wareham, and throughout the Cape, live for this in the summer and they just anticipate this all year," he says. "To be around these people when they're happy that they're finally seeing Cape baseball, it's special."
In a minute, Liddle will head back to his host family's home on Onset Beach, 100 yards from the water.
"It's a good little set-up," Liddle says with a smile, fully aware of the fact that he is living the baseball player's dream.
After grabbing his bats, both 33.5 inches, 31 ounces, from the dugout, Liddle begins to walk across the diamond toward his car in the parking lot when he is greeted by a couple of young spectators.
"Can I have your autograph?" one of them asks.
"Of course," says Liddle, quickly bending down to grab the Sharpie and sign their baseballs. You would have thought he had been doing it for years.
They say thanks and run back to their parents elated.
And with that, Liddle's night is over. The summer, however, is just beginning.
-Jarred Amato is a senior at Vanderbilt University and also writes for "The Sports VU" (sportsvu.blogspot.com). This summer he will be providing coverage from the Cape Cod Baseball League and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.