ORLEANS — A baseball story is more than a play-by-play and a box score. It's a summertime ritual that enfolds more stories than you can imagine.
Take last week's Cape Cod Baseball League game at Eldredge Park between the circuit's top two teams, the Orleans Firebirds and the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox. With just a week to go until the last regular-season contest on Aug. 3 (the Firebirds are in Chatham tonight to play the Anglers at 7 p.m.), the teams were keen to live up to their reputations.
And that they did, dueling into extra innings on a misty night when the rain held off to allow Y-D to plate two runs in the 10th and win 4 to 2.
There was a lot of good baseball, but the evening also saw a lot of what makes baseball good.
Around 4 p.m., it was time to lift the sand bags off the tarp that covers the mound, so batting practice could begin. Orleans Manager Kelly Nicholson did the job himself, carrying two bags at a time to a spot behind the visitors dugout. Someone offered to help, but Nicholson waved him off genially.
Y-D's starting pitcher, Josh McMinn of Oral Roberts University, is a right-hander. Had Red Sox Manager Scott Pickler gone with a lefty, Nicholson, who pitched for Loyola Marymount University, would have thrown batting practice himself.
Nicholson has been spending his summers at Eldredge Park since 2001, when he was named pitching coach. In 2005, his first year as manager, Orleans won the CCBL championship. In all the years since, the Firebirds have finished under .500 only once.
This information comes from the team's 2017 yearbook, because Nicholson would rather talk about his coaches and his players than himself.
“I like to compete,” he said in an interview. “I like to put a team together, to try to provide the best platform for the kids.” To do that, he said, “first and foremost, you hire really good assistants and let them do their jobs. Then you've got to have good players.” “Good” here means talented, but also having “high standards” and “high character.”
Asked to name some of this year's standouts, the manager said quietly, “We had eight All Stars.” He knows all his players, up and down the roster, and keeps an Excel spread sheet that lists their hobbies, their parents' names, and other information.
“I don't have any children,” Nicholson said. “My fiancee has two. These guys become our summer sons. We keep track of them, go to their weddings.”
Such baseball bonds can last a lifetime. When Kansas City Royals broadcaster Ryan Lefebvre walked onto the field to give his high school coach a hug, Nicholson was delighted.
Lefebvre, who played for Loyola High School of Los Angeles, has stayed in touch with his former skipper over the years, but this was his first trip to the Cape since the early '90s, when he played two seasons for Falmouth. “I hit my only home run in my Cape League career in this park,” he said, pointing down the right-field line. Noting the relatively short 314-foot distance, he said wryly, “Now I know why.” More than one Firebird assured him the fence had been moved in since his time.
Nicholson was deep in conversation with Lefebvre as batting practice began. Arms folded, he moved his feet like a tennis player getting ready to return service. He interrupted the reunion to fetch two bases from his dugout. He walked them out to third, where a player positioned one and then trotted off with the other to second.
In an interview, Lefebvre said he'd gotten into Boston at 2:30 that morning and had come to the Cape to visit his old haunts in Falmouth, including the fishing pond he frequented in the summers of 1991 and 1992.
He was playing at the University of Minnesota when the call came. “In those days if you were invited to the Cape League, you just went,” Lefebvre said. “I had one good year and one bad year.” After finishing his senior year, he was drafted by Cleveland and spent two weeks in the minors before “I realized I was done.”
Just as the Cape gave Lefebvre a place to test his baseball skills, it presented another option: a broadcasting internship at Falmouth's WCIB. “I loved it,” he said. “My interest was sparked.” Thus began a career that included becoming a Major League Baseball broadcaster at 24 and highlights such as calling the final out of the 2015 World Series when the Royals beat the Mets.
Lefebvre comes from a long line of coaches that includes his grandfather, his uncle, and his father Jim, who was 1965 Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers before managing the Mariners and the Cubs. Good coaches, he said, know that teams, not players, win games.
When he played for Nicholson in high school almost three decades ago, Lefebvre recalled, the manager could be “a fiery hothead. His demeanor is a lot different (now). He used to get thrown out of games.”
There's no doubt that the passion that stoked Kelly Nicholson as a young high school coach still burns in the soft-spoken skipper who attends to every detail to ensure a fitting showcase for all the members of his baseball family.
“We managers talk about it as being 10 of the best jobs in baseball,” he said.