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Nostalgia, Hope and The Return of Cape Cod Baseball

Photo by Norm Kenneally

When I was a kid staying with my grandfather in the summer, I used to walk to the end of his driveway and collect The Boston Globe, excited to see who won last night’s game, only to find, most mornings, that the results were incomplete, since The Globe’s print deadline often occurred around the seventh inning. In college I would watch the playoffs in the dorm common room with my buddy, tell him what pitch was coming and where it would go. Backdoor slider, high fastball, cutter inside, fastball away. Major League Baseball is intricate, and exciting, and fun. 

It’s also expensive. Fernando Tatis Jr., shortstop for the San Diego Padres, recently signed a 340 million dollar contract extension. It was a reminder that Major League Baseball has become, by necessity, a flashy, high octane product as it has carved out a space among more action-packed sports like football and basketball. It wasn’t always like this. My dad tells a story about how, when he was a kid, the New York Mets became a team, and they were terrible. Laughably bad, they needed to do something to drum up fan support. They started sending players to little league banquets. During one of those attempts to expand their base, Ed Kranepool and Al Jackson ended up taking the train to Westport, Connecticut, and ate dinner in my dad’s house alongside his entire little league team. Players worked winter jobs, and there used to be more guys with a funky delivery and an eighty-three mile per hour fastball. Today MLB pitchers average over six-feet-two-inches-tall and throw 93-mile-per-hour fastballs. It used to be a little easier to imagine yourself out there at second base, choking up on the bat and slapping a single to the opposite field. Now the players seem larger than life, driving their Bentleys and Ferraris, signing contracts for hundreds of millions of dollars, showing up in commercials for Subway and dating popstars. If you want to go to a game at Fenway Park in Boston you’re lucky to pay $30 to sit way out in the bleachers, and that’s after paying $40 for parking and $13 for a hot dog and a beer.

Photo by Meghan Murphy

In that way, the Cape League is a throwback. Admission is free, and when I worked there the suggested donation was two dollars. The league attracts all kinds of fans. In Hyannis, where I spent two of my three seasons with the Harbor Hawks (they were the Mets at the time), we’d get local folks who’d been attending games for 40 years. They’d sit on high school bleachers next to tourists who showed up as a family to see what it was all about, and kids who would smuggle alcohol up to the top row to sip with their friends. The farthest seat in the bleachers couldn’t have been more than 30 feet from third base. After the seventh inning, or whenever the PA guy (who announced like he had big league dreams of his own) got hungry, he’d announce dollar hot dogs for the rest of the game. 

Photo by Meghan Murphy

The Cape Cod League reminds you that baseball, at its core, is a bunch of people getting together. When I worked for Hyannis, a grade school teacher named Laurie Pfeifer was in charge of the interns. She and her husband Brad were always around, the kind of amiable people who remind you of the character of Cape Cod, that underneath the vacationland veneer is a fishing town full of folks who will drag the infield by hand, put sponsor signs up on the outfield fence, attach a hand-pump to a hose after a big rain and get enough of the water out of right field so that the ball doesn’t float when it lands. Next to the baseball diamond was another large field and sometimes during the games there would be pickup soccer happening simultaneously, families picnicking in the grass and kids laughing as they watched their not-as-fast-as-they-used-to-be dads run up and down the field.

This is where I spent my high school summers, living with my grandfather and riding a bike with no brakes, using my heels to slow down until I’d worn straight through my shoes. One summer, I worked at a country club in the morning, shoveled seaweed off the beach with a pitchfork, ran the flag up the pole and then stepped out onto the roof itself, sat there to watch the sunrise over the water in Osterville. I’d wait until I heard the sound of my boss’ Jeep, hustle down and be sweeping the floor by the time he got inside. I used to wander onto the fancy golf course between jobs, nap under a tree at the edge of the green, wake up to the wealthy members in their fancy golf attire staring down at me. 

Photo by Norm Kenneally

Of course, nostalgia is a funny thing. It can make you forget about the hard parts, like watching my grandma’s Alzheimer’s progress until she didn’t know who I was, who my grandfather was, until the only thing she remembered were songs from 50 years ago that she would hum while she sat in her green chair in the living room. Or how I got so tired working the two jobs that I fell asleep behind the wheel, only to be startled awake by the rumble strips. It’s easier to remember the funny stories, like the next day at work when I poured scalding coffee into a little plastic cup that melted in my hands, a lesson that was etched in my psyche as I accepted the styrofoam one handed to me by my incredulous coworker. 

At its best maybe nostalgia doesn’t have to be simply an escape from the real world, doesn’t have to be denial. 2020 was a terrible year. It started with unprecedented fires in Australia, and ended with almost two million people dead from COVID-19. In between, we had unrest sparked by the ugly truth of systemic racism, more terrible fires, (this time here in the US), and an election that has strained our ability as a nation to share common facts, to live in the same reality. Even the baseball season was a shell of its normal self. Sixty games in the Major Leagues, the Cape League completely canceled.

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