CHATHAM/ORLEANS ─ To every beginning there is an ending, and on Aug. 7, many days after the arrival of new players, the first pitch, and the first home game of the summer, the Chatham Anglers 2017 season drew to a bittersweet end when the Orleans Firebirds claimed a 3-1 victory in the playoffs.
After the final out, the softly falling rain mingled with more than a few tears on the faces of fans as longtime head coach John Schiffner tipped his cap one last time as the man at the helm of the beloved team. Though many were clamoring to talk with the winningest head coach in the Cape League, his mind was where it had been for so many of his 25 years in Chatham: with his team.
“I'm very, very proud of the kids,” Schiffner said. “That's a very good team and we hung in there. I'm very, very pleased. No complaints. No problems. It's been a great summer. This has been a tremendous group of kids to be around.”
As players mingled with their host families, actual families, and friends that had made the trek to Cape Cod to see them play, Schiff spoke about what a special group of players he'd had this season.
“They worked hard,” he said. “They were fun. Oh my God were they fun to be around! It was the right kind of fun. They knew when to channel it, they knew when it was time to turn it on or turn it off, get serious and play ball, and I'm so proud to say I coached them. They were fantastic.”
In spite of the loss, the Anglers played great baseball in the final series. Although they struggled a bit in the opening game, falling 7-2 to the Firebirds at Eldredge Park, the Anglers battled back the Sunday night to take Game 2 with a final score of 3-1 on their home field.
The Firebirds found their way to the scoreboard first at the top of the second when Brandon Shearer scored on a sacrifice shot from Brandon Riley, but the Anglers were quick to respond, plating a run of their own at the bottom of the frame. With Johnny Aiello on base and one out on the board, Nick Patten swung into a ball that drew the second out but not before Aiello made it home to tie the game.
Solid pitching from the Firebirds' Brooks Wilson and Chatham's Austin Bergner kept the next two innings scoreless, but the Anglers struck again in the bottom of the fifth for two more. Cody Roberts was the first on base with a walk, advancing to second on a single to center from Jeremy Peña. Kyle Baker then drew the first out, but not before pushing Roberts and Peña into scoring position, with Roberts soon scoring on a wild pitch as Peña raced to third.
A walk on Josh Shaw loaded the bases, with Jake Palomaki on second, paving the way for Josh Stowers to bring Peña in, giving Chatham an unshakable 3-1 lead secured by winning pitcher Bergner and save pitcher Jack DeGroat.
The win set up a Game 3 outing in Orleans Monday night that ended, much to Chatham's dismay, with a similar 3-1 score, this time in the Firebirds' favor.
Orleans took an early lead in the game, with Jimmy Herron scoring on a fielder's choice from Jaxx Groshans, who kicked off the evening with a stunning rendition of the National Anthem.
The 'Birds scored again in the fourth when Niko Decolati came home, this time on a single from Groshans, with Stephen Scott crossing the plate on a sacrifice shot from Lars Nootbaar to give Orleans a 3-0 edge.
As the rain that had been flirting with the field all night finally began to fall the Anglers found their way onto the scoreboard when Jake Palomaki made it home on a single to center field from Josh Stowers. While the run gave hope to the visiting team, Orleans pitcher Jake Wong quickly ended the inning by striking out Aiello.
Chatham had one last chance in the final inning, but Orleans hurler Josh Hiatt stayed strong, striking out Shea Langeliers and forcing an easy putout from Fabian Peña before ending the game with a last strikeout against Ashton McGee.
“It was good baseball,” Schiffner said. “We kind of floundered a bit in game one, but then we played two real good baseball games. Bottom line is their pitchers out-pitched my hitters. That was it. They dominated our hitters tonight.”
After tipping his cap to the crowd, Schiffner gathered his team in the outfield for one last pep talk.
“I learned that there are still really good kids out there,” said Schiffner of his crew. “These were great kids. They had a fun time and they gave me hope. I've been down on the Millenials, and these are kids that should be role models for younger kids. I hope the kids who went to the camp, I hope that rubs off on those little kids.”
Schiffners charges also gained much during their Chatham experiences, including two-year player Mason Koppens.
“Being around a great group of guys every day, it just makes every game fun to go to,” he said. “Other teams I've been with you kind of dread going to the park every now and then, but here it's just a pleasure to go to the park every day and play for Schiff. I couldn't ask for a better coach.”
Koppens said of the many lessons he learned across his two summers, the one that will stick with him is to keep playing.
“Keep grinding, every bat, every game,” he said. “This league is obviously tough, that kind of gave me a little taste of how hard it really is to be successful.”
Jake Palomaki has also spent two years in Chatham.
“The coaches have been great and the competition has been unbelievable,” he said. “The memories I've made with these past two teams have been awesome. A lot of guys I'll stay in touch with forever.”
Palomaki said he learned “the right way to play the game.”
“The coaches have taught me a lot of things, but going about your business the right way, that's the biggest thing,” he said. “Work hard every day because you never know what day is going to be your last.”
Schiffner, he said, was one of the best.
“We obviously wanted to send him out on a better note than this, but he's been awesome the last two years,” Palomaki said.
“Everything I can tell you from here, it's amazing,” said first-year Angler Fabian Peña. “Playing here definitely got me better. It's a big jump from college to come here and compete against great players from all the schools in the country, so I definitely got better in all aspects of the game.”
Having Schiffner at the helm was also a plus.
“It was amazing having him as a head coach,” Peña said.
Though there were tears, there were smiles, including on Schiffner's face as he straddled the line between one last Chatham experience and a promising future.
“It's been an absolutely great summer,” Schiffner said. “I can't thank the players enough for making it a great summer. They've been phenomenal along with my coaching staff and trainers. It was a great family. We had such a good time. I'll take that with me forever.”
Orleans was scheduled to play Brewster Tuesday and Wednesday in the East Division playoffs.