ORLEANS – The surprise was put to the test early in the morning when Orleans Firebirds manager Kelly Nicholson sent his longtime friend and former player-turned-assistant coach Chris Beck a text message asking him if he was awake and available to chat.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I have kids, I’m awake,’” Beck recalled of the text exchange, which came right around 10 a.m. on June 28. “He thought it was 7 o’clock (in California), but I was just actually right down the road in Brewster. He had no idea.”
Nicholson received the surprise of the summer a few hours later when the Firebirds held a brief ceremony recognizing his 20th season with the organization prior to the start of Orleans’ game against Chatham at Eldredge Park that night.
Among those in attendance to surprise him was his pal Beck, who, like Nicholson, calls sunny Southern California home.
“I called him that morning and asked if he was going to be hanging out at his big fat pool in Southern California and the next thing you know he’s walking through the gate and onto the field,” Nicholson said. “It was great to see him, and he kind of put the whole thing together.”
After joining Orleans—then known as the Cardinals—as the club’s pitching coach in 2001, Nicholson took over as manager ahead of the 2005 summer. His coaching staff that first year included Beck, who pitched at Loyola Marymount University under Nicholson, who returned to his alma mater as a pitching coach after shining on the mound during his own collegiate career.
Robb Gorr and Mike Clement also served on the coaching staff that first year, providing Nicholson with some familiar faces from the Los Angeles area back home.
“They were kind of the coaching staff at Loyola High School and then we brought Mike Clement, who was coaching at Loyola High as well,” Nicholson remembers about that 2005 staff. “We had a bunch of high school guys from Loyola that first year and I was a little worried about it—how Cape Leaguers would react to a high school staff. They were great. I don’t think they thought much of it.”
It was a smooth transition for Nicholson, who replaced his close friend Carmen Carcone as Orleans’ manager. The 2005 team set a new club record for wins—posting a 30-14 record on the way to capturing the Cape League title. The pitching staff even set a new team record for lowest ERA after finishing with a 2.22 mark.
Nicholson has stayed the course in the years since.
He has seen a number of his former players advance to the professional ranks while also supporting assistant coaches and team staff as they pursue their own baseball dreams. Current Orleans assistant coach Brendan Eygabroat said one of the things he admires most about Nicholson—or Coach K as he’s referred to around league circles—is the fashion in which he interacts with the team.
“I think he has a really nice way with the players,” said Eygabroat, UMass Boston’s longtime head baseball coach who rejoined Nicholson’s staff for a second season this summer.
“He’s a super positive coach,” continued Eygabroat. “Some coaches can be sort of yellers or screamers, sort of roller coaster coaches, but I think he’s very steady and I think the players really feed off that. It’s awesome to see that from an assistant coach lens when I’m a head coach. It helps me reflect about the way I talk to my assistants and how I trust them to run the piece of my program they are assigned to run.”
Another one of the former Firebirds to return for Nicholson’s pregame ceremony was Alexander Levitt, a former baseball operations intern who went on to become a scout for the Chicago Cubs and the Director of Player Development for Vanderbilt University before eventually leaving the sport.
“He’s a role model and he’s somebody that I have a really good relationship with just because of the type of person he is—he really cares and is an unbelievable teacher,” said Levitt, who drove to the Cape from New York City where he works on Wall Street. “He does a really good job of making connections with people.”
Ask Nicholson to sum up what he has loved most about the past 20 summers and “people” is one of the first words the manager will turn to.
“It’s about the people,” Nicholson said. “The friends that I’ve made, the people that I’ve met. And the relationships with the players—the coaches around the country have done a great job sending us the right guys and it’s a real testament to those college coaches.”
For the past two decades, Nicholson has not only had a front-row seat to watch future big leaguers on a nightly basis, he’s actually helped them reach their goals. After 20 years of coaching, Nicholson fully recognizes the gravity of his role.
“It’s humbling to be a part of a league like this,” he said. “Obviously it’s been really cool for me to watch literally some of the best baseball players in the world grace the fields of the Cape Cod Baseball League, whether they’ve played for us or it’s been Buster Posey at Y-D or Andrew Miller at Chatham and the list goes on and on and on. It’s been a terrific journey… and 20 years means I’m getting old.”
While this summer wasn’t the return to play Orleans had hoped for—the Firebirds’ record sits at 13-17-4 with two games remaining—Nicholson said this summer has reminded him the Cape League is about much more than wins and losses.
“It’s nice to win games, but that’s not my purpose up here,” Nicholson said. “In our mission statement, in the PowerPoint presentation that we show our guys at the beginning, it’s way more than that. This has been a test for us to handle some adversity.”
As Nicholson’s former players and assistants proved during the pregame ceremony, the relationships the manager shares with those closest to him will remain intact long after the seasons change.
Email Brad Joyal at email@example.com. Twitter: @BradJoyal