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What the loss of Cape League baseball means for the community that supports it

The basepaths at Guv Fuller Field, home of the Falmouth Commodores, are growing over now that the Cape League season has been canceled because of the pandemic. Commissioner Eric Zmuda (above) said he had no choice.
The basepaths at Guv Fuller Field, home of the Falmouth Commodores, are growing over now that the Cape League season has been canceled because of the pandemic. Commissioner Eric Zmuda (above) said he had no choice.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

BREWSTER — Nancy Sveden ponders the question: What will Cape Cod do this summer without baseball?

“I don’t know,” the Brewster native says quietly, thinking about the prospect of the first summer since World War II without the Cape Cod Baseball League.

There are roughly 150 host families who open their homes to baseball players every summer. Sveden, a widow who will turn 83 this month, has been housing players in Brewster since 2016.

But on April 24, the executive committee of the Cape Cod League voted unanimously to cancel the 2020 season, which was scheduled to begin this weekend. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’ll be the first summer since 1945 with no games.

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“I love these kids like my grandchildren,” said Sveden while on her back deck, sifting through pictures of former players who stayed with her over the years. “I love them so much.

“I mean, the Cape League is just a piece of my world. Now, it’s not going to be there.”

Nancy Sveden, shown at Stony Brook Field in Brewster, home of the Whitecaps, normally volunteers to host players in her home. Instead, she's left with no summer visitors.
Nancy Sveden, shown at Stony Brook Field in Brewster, home of the Whitecaps, normally volunteers to host players in her home. Instead, she's left with no summer visitors.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Many on the Cape are dealing with the same question: What will summer look like with no baseball?

Every year, from June through August, in 10 ballparks that stretch from Orleans to Wareham, the nation’s premier summer college league showcases the country’s best amateur talent.

The first pick in this year’s MLB draft, Spencer Torkelson, played for Chatham. He’s the third consecutive Cape League alum to be taken first overall. At one point, it was estimated that close to one in every six players in the majors had some connection to the CCBL. That included Red Sox stars of past and present such as Mo Vaughn, Jason Varitek, Nomar Garciaparra, Chris Sale, and Jackie Bradley Jr.

A family-friendly activity that doesn’t charge admission — teams ask for a donation or pass the hat as part of a 50-50 raffle — Cape League baseball offers something for everyone. A slice of nostalgia helps satisfy those who yearn for what they remember baseball to be. Others get a chance to flex their knowledge of the intricacies of the game and play amateur scout from the bleachers.

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But for many like Sveden, it’s about more than baseball. The league is sewn into the fabric of the region. For three months, players work at town businesses, families open up their homes as host parents, and volunteers provide meals and work as part of the support staff. It all combines to create a baseball community unlike any other.

READ MORE: The best Cape League players who made it to the majors, position-by-position

“This was the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make,” said league president Chuck Sturtevant, who has been associated with the CCBL for more than 30 years. “But it was the right decision, given all the input we received from health professionals.”

Mid-level prospects hurt

Brewster head coach Jamie Shevchik, who also coaches at Keystone College in Pennsylvania, had his spring season wiped out in March because of COVID-19, but he was able to comfort himself with the fact that he and his family would have another summer of Cape League baseball.

That was until he got the news.

“I love what I do for the summer,” said Shevchik. "It’s one of the 10 best jobs in the world. At that point, I was hopeful and optimistic to get the summer started . . . but when [the decision] came down, it was just devastating.

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“Our lives run in circles. We look forward to the Cape every year, and we get disappointed when it’s over. We get through the fall and winter, and start counting the days and weeks literally when Christmas is over. I’m just really disappointed. I’m in shock.”

Cape League fields sit dormant with the cancellation of the season.
Cape League fields sit dormant with the cancellation of the season.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

From a players perspective, Shevchik said, the biggest impact will be on a very specific subset. For generations, the best college players in the country have used the Cape League as a jumping-off point, a proving ground to show MLB scouts they can hit consistently with wooden bats against high-level pitching.

The players who will be most affected are the lightly regarded prospects and the temporary players — those who often are invited to fill roster spots while high-profile prospects are at the College World Series — but play so well they end up earning a spot for the duration of the season.

Through the years, several players have made the most of those opportunities. Last season, Max Troiani arrived on Cape Cod as a (comparatively) lightly regarded prospect out of Bentley, the sort of player who might be overmatched against the best college talent in the country. But Troiani played well enough to stick around all summer; he hit .345, cementing his status as a big-league prospect.

“Those kids aren’t going to get the same sort of opportunities this year that they would have in years past,” Shevchik said.

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Ray Fagnant, who scouts New England for the Red Sox, says that while MLB-ready talent will always get noticed one way or another, having no Cape League season could mean a struggle for mid-conference prospects to get recognized. He mentions Braves pitcher Sean Newcomb, a University of Hartford product who landed on the national radar after a strong performance with Wareham in 2012-13.

“Where that helped him was his first start the next year — and I remember it so vividly, it was in Washington, D.C., at Georgetown," said Fagnant. “And there were so many [scouts] in there. A lot of national cross-checkers. There were scouting directors there for the first start for a guy from the University of Hartford.”

Newcomb eventually became a first-round pick by the Angels (15th overall) in 2014.

“I think they’re still going to go where they should, but it might take a little bit longer for them to get on that level," Fagnant said of the mid-conference and Division 2 players who won’t get their chance on the Cape this summer.

"The area guys up here, we kind of know who the guys are. But I think that’s the type of kid who is the most impacted — those mid-conference guys.

“The thing I look at is all the kids who unfortunately won’t get the tremendous experience, the great experience of being there. The Cape, that’s where you want to be.”

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Sean Newcomb was able to parlay two strong seasons in the Cape League into getting picked in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft.
Sean Newcomb was able to parlay two strong seasons in the Cape League into getting picked in the first round of the 2014 MLB draft.John Bazemore/Associated Press

Cape League commissioner Eric Zmuda acknowledges the decision to cancel the season wasn’t an easy one, saying there were contingency plans kicked around, including one for a July start. But the league is always operating within a relatively tight window, one that opens in early June when the college season wraps up and closes in August with the fall semester looming.

“If we had delayed the start of the season, that would have pushed the playoffs ahead into August, and that would have been tough with schools,” Zmuda said. “The bottom line was that we couldn’t delay the year too much and have a full season.”

For now, financial stability

The financial impact of a lost season will have a ripple effect. Regionally, the league is a lure for tourists.

“We’re known as much for our baseball as our beaches,” said Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross, who noted that the league boosts the economy by more than $3 million on an annual basis.

While attendance numbers vary from town to town, a 2016 study indicated that most teams average in the vicinity of 1,000 people per game.

As for the league itself, it has a variety of revenue streams. There’s the annual $107,000 grant from Major League Baseball, financial backing from major sponsors like the Yawkey Foundation, as well as donations from fans.

Cape League president Chuck Sturtevant, shown at Lowell Park in Barnstable, home to the Cotuit Kettleers, said the league remains financially solvent, despite the season's cancellation.
Cape League president Chuck Sturtevant, shown at Lowell Park in Barnstable, home to the Cotuit Kettleers, said the league remains financially solvent, despite the season's cancellation.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

At this point, the financial picture is still a positive one. Sturtevant said the league has been banking money for several years (a “rainy day fund”) and will rely on that if there are any major issues. And when it comes to the 10 teams, the fiscal state right now is “very solid.”

“Fortunately, all the teams have been very frugal in terms of doing what’s right and basically saving money for a rainy day,” he said. "That’s helped us.

“Honestly, the biggest financial concern for us right now is sponsorship money. Will some of those businesses even be around? That’s my concern. And if so, will they be able to help us? They don’t even know the answer to that question right now.”

For his part, Shevchik is still hoping to wring some baseball out of this summer. He and some other Pennsylvania college coaches put together the Baseball U PA Collegiate Summer League, which is currently scheduled to kick off June 23. Admittedly, it’s a modest version of what happens on the Cape. But some college baseball is better than no college baseball.

“We decided to give this thing a go,” Shevchik said. “We’ll see how it all comes together.”

For its part, the Cape League is eyeing a return to normalcy in 2021. In the meantime, league officials stressed the fact that there are other ways to get your Cape League fix: a Cape League podcast has launched, and an announcement about this year’s Hall of Fame induction should be forthcoming.

But for Sveden and the rest of the host families, they’ll have to make do with photo albums and Zoom chats with former players, with the hope that their baseball community will be made whole again next summer.

“I mean, we’ll get through it,” she said. “It won’t be easy, but we’ll get through it.”

Veterans Field, home of the Chatham Anglers, sat vacant except for a boy riding his bicycle through it last week.
Veterans Field, home of the Chatham Anglers, sat vacant except for a boy riding his bicycle through it last week.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Christopher Price can be reached at christopher.price@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.