THE LAST BEST LEAGUE
One Summer, One Season, One Dream
By Jim Collins
Da Capo. 269 pp. $24
Like everything else, the Cape Cod Baseball League has changed dramatically in the past few decades, whether for better or worse no doubt being a matter of individual opinion. A half-century or more ago, when I was a boy visiting my grandparents on the Cape, the league was a local variation on what used to be called "town ball," in which mostly local boys and men played for teams that represented their towns -- Chatham, Orleans, Brewster, Harwich, et al. -- and put the pride and honor of those towns on the line in every game. The players were semi-pros, unsalaried but picking up pocket change from various sources as compensation for their efforts.
Cape Cod baseball was lovely. The level of play varied widely, but the Cape hadn't yet turned into a strip mall, and the baseball reflected its small-town ambiance: Games were gathering places for townspeople and summer visitors, everything was informal and ad hoc, the mood was familial and friendly. Then, as Jim Collins writes:
"In 1965 the Cape Cod Baseball League became one of nine summer leagues certified by the National Collegiate Athletic Association. With the NCAA imprimatur (and money) came the requirements that defined the modern era. Cape Cod players could no longer be paid to play, as they had been for decades. Instead, teams provided host families and day jobs at going rates for real labor. Rosters could include only college-eligible players, which ended the eclectic makeup of teams and, in time, accelerated the evolution of the league from a mostly local one into a wholly national one. Local rivalries softened, became more polite, almost quaint."
The purpose of the league changed, too. The players now sign up not for a summer of fun but for a chance to prove themselves to the major-league scouts who cluster behind home plate with their speed guns, notepads and laptops. The players are the elite of college baseball, and some of them don't merely get professional contracts but go on to the big leagues, among them such certifiable stars as Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Nomar Garciaparra, Tino Martinez and Craig Biggio. Playing in the Cape Cod League is now, in effect, a tryout for the next year's major-league draft, where high first-round picks can count on seven-figure signing bonuses; it is "the best college summer league in the country, the most exclusive amateur baseball league in the world," but it's not town ball any longer.
Collins, who played baseball at Dartmouth and had professional aspirations before an injury ended them, nonetheless manages to take an essentially romantic view of the league in its present incarnation. He spent the summer of 2002 with the Chatham A's and has now come forth with "The Last Best League," the premise of which is that "many of the players, both the ones who stopped here and the ones who climbed further, would look back at this as the last, best summer of their playing careers." This seems at best a dubious proposition, considering that the team ended up in the cellar with a record of 19 wins, 23 losses and two ties, but in the world of baseball sentimentality, the facts rarely get in the way of the mush.
Collins is taking us into "Field of Dreams" territory, in other words. As the great commercial success of the book and movie of that title makes plain, plenty of people love to go there, so "The Last Best League" may be just the summer-reading ticket for them this year. Readers holding a more clinical view of the National Pastime, on the other hand, may be inclined toward my judgment that what we have here is basically the same old same old, that Collins blew the chance to write an interesting book about a little-known corner of the baseball world and instead cranked out another jar of treacle.
"The Last Best League" is formula to the max, "Field of Dreams" meets "Grand Hotel." Take a pretty little baseball field -- "Build it, and they will come" -- and then toss in a couple dozen ballplayers, many of them strangers to each other. Up close and personal profiles of them, one by one. Throw in a salty manager ("coach," as the manager is called in this league) and a couple of salty assistant coaches -- up close and personal for them, too -- and a few local fans. Focus on just a few of the players -- their hopes, their dreams, "It wasn't only the baseball I was interested in, but what happened to their dreams" -- and play the violins for all they're worth.
It's perfectly harmless, of course, and even intermittently engaging. The three players on whom Collins focuses are Tim Stauffer, a pitcher from the University of Richmond; Jamie D'Antona, a third baseman from Wake Forest; and Thomas Pauly, a pitcher from Princeton. They are at the high end of the A's talent chart, and as it turns out all went rather high in the 2003 draft, but their summer on Cape Cod had its ups and downs, which Collins follows with Talmudic intensity. The most interesting of the three is Pauly, not because of Princeton -- though Ivy Leaguers at that level of baseball are unusual -- but because his summer turned out to be immensely instructive, teaching him self-confidence along with refining his pitching skills.
Unfortunately, though, you have to wade through a lot of goop to get to the good parts. It's not that Collins is a bad writer but that he seems to have studied in the school of cheap emotion. It isn't enough for him that the last game of the season went into extra innings, he has to turn it into a threnody in which "the summer refused to end" and then, inspired, he cues the whole orchestra:
"And that was the heart of it. The game had the awesome ability to stop time. There was no clock in baseball. The players out there on the field were 20 years old, just as they were last year, five years ago, ten. Nothing had changed -- that was the illusion. . . . That was real grass out there, those were wooden bats. The generations blurred. Mike MacDougal, Mike Lowell, Jeff Bagwell, Thurman Munson. [The manager] watched from the dugout. Those were the same kids out there, chasing the same dream, giving the same gift."
No clock in baseball? Roger Angell did that stuff more than 30 years ago, did it so well that he retired the trophy. Ever since it has been nothing but imitations, each one seemingly lamer than the last. Add "The Last Best League" to the list.