Cape League Opens ’21 Season This Weekend

By: Brad Joyal

Topics: Cape Cod Baseball League , Orleans Firebirds , Chatham Anglers , Harwich Mariners

After missing out on the 2020 season due to COVID-19, the Cape Cod Baseball League will return to action this summer. The league includes 10 teams and spans the region from Wareham to Orleans. FILE PHOTO

The wait is down to the last couple days. For the first time since Aug. 9, 2019, when the Cotuit Kettleers defeated the Harwich Mariners 10-3 to capture the Cape Cod Baseball League title, the top collegiate summer baseball league in the nation will return this weekend after the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.

There will be a full slate of opening day games on Sunday, with all 10 of the league’s teams returning to the field. The Chatham Anglers open their season with a road test against the Falmouth Commodores at 6 p.m., while the Harwich Mariners and Orleans Firebirds will open their seasons with a 7 p.m. tilt at Eldredge Park in Orleans.

“It’s going to be good to have games back on the Cape,” Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson said. “I think the players are excited to get back out there and compete. I know the coaches are excited, I think the fans are and I think the organizations are anxious. There’s nothing like Cape League baseball, right?”

Missing out on last season created a major void for some Lower Cape managers, including Nicholson and Harwich manager Steve Englert. Nicholson opted to stay home with his wife Donna in sunny California, while Englert still came to Harwich.

“I had just gotten married in December 2019, so I spent a lot of quality time with my wife,” the Orleans skipper said. “Southern California isn’t the worst place to spend a summer. It was definitely different, but we made the most of it.”

“That was like the first summer in 25 years that I didn’t have something to do, you know?” Englert said. “There was just a huge void that needed to be filled. I came down to the Cape and played some golf and tried to do some things around the house that I hadn’t been able to do the past couple summers. After coaching for so many years and then not having that there, it was just really, really tough.”

Chatham manager Tom Holliday didn’t stay away from the game last summer. He managed the newly-formed Tulsa Drillers squad in the Texas Collegiate League, a last-minute opportunity that attracted a good portion of the roster he had expected to coach on the Cape.

“We played 35 games in 40 days and I had about one-third of my Cape team come to Tulsa to play,” Holliday said. “I think I had a 32-man roster and I didn’t have one incident with the COVID virus.”

Holliday said that even though the players playing on the Cape this summer will have the benefit of playing a college season, the fact that the league is starting later in June than it normally has will likely lead to some players showing rust at the start of the season.

“Some of these kids have been out of school and they’ve been done (playing baseball) for about two weeks,” Holliday said. “Nobody thought about what that does to the players — how far away you can get from playing and then you lose your swing, you lose it as a pitcher. With the late start, you actually have to bring them together and have a week of practice, which I’ve never done in the two years I’ve been here. I don’t even know what to expect. I think pitchers are probably going to dominate early because hitters are lacking at-bats.”

How the players will fare on the field is one uncertainty; who the players will be is another question altogether. There are multiple components that affect Cape League rosters in a normal year when the league isn’t returning to play after a global pandemic, and this year there are even more wrinkles that are giving managers headaches.

The Major League Baseball draft will take place in July, a full month later than the usual early-June timing it had grown accustomed to before the pandemic. The change impacts the Cape League because some of the players are unsure whether they should play here and risk injury or train on their own and wait to see if they get drafted — a dilemma that had been previously solved when the draft took place before the CCBL season began.

Another wrench added to the mix is the MLB has created two summer leagues — the Appalachian League and the MLB Draft League — to compete against the Cape for the nation’s top collegiate talent. USA Baseball also puts together a collegiate summer team that draws from the pool of players expected to play in the Cape League.

In addition to Team USA plucking some Cape League players, some are also still finishing up their college seasons at the College World Series and will be late to arrive to their respective Cape teams. All of these components mean it will likely take a couple weeks before rosters are really set.

“The roster is kind of flaky because it’s changing every day,” Englert said. “With the draft being late it’s kind of an extraordinary situation, it’s usually early.”

“This has been more work than I ever dreamed of,” Holliday said of organizing the roster. “It’s like when you’re the head coach and you’re the recruiting guy yourself, which I did for 40 years. It’s nothing I haven’t done before, but it’s been tricky.”

Even though there are challenges ahead for the managers of the Lower Cape, all three said they are thrilled to see baseball back on the Cape.

All Cape League games are free admission for spectators, though donations are welcome.

Email Brad Joyal at brad@capecodchronicle.com