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Swinging for the Bigs

Despite typical boys-of-summer high jinks, the Cape Cod Baseball League is a proven feeder for the pros, and collegiate star Jamie D'Antona struggled mightily to parlay his season with the Chatham A's into a diamond-studded career.

HIS BACK WAS KILLING HIM. SOME DAYS HE couldn't stand straight without wincing. Before games, he strapped on a TENS unit, a nerve stimulator, to help ease the pain. But in 2002, Jamie D'Antona was still throwing 50-pound fish totes around at South Cape Seafood, a day job he didn't need. "Hey, the Cape Cod League gave me a job," he said. "I'm not going to complain about it." He had paid off the speeding ticket he'd been handed on his way into Chatham. He was covering his expenses without asking for anything from home. But he hadn't chipped away at the $1,200 of debt he'd racked up back at Wake Forest University. He was still lifting with his back instead of his legs.

His parents, Joe and Karin D'Antona, had driven out from Connecticut for a week to watch their son play. They urged him to find easier work or to quit altogether -- to worry about his baseball, not money. Joe, a bear of a man, not tall but heavyset, had a strong grip and strong opinions. He had recovered most of his weight since his chemotherapy treatments had ended, and all of his hair, along with his quick laugh. He stood out in a crowd, oliveskinned, animated. Jamie got it from him. At the Hyannis game just before the Fourth of July, Joe D'Antona had sat in back of the plate in a lemon-yellow golf shirt, sunglasses, and a straw hat, shouting out instructions every time his son came to bat. His hoarse voice had cut through the noise of the crowd. "Keep your weight back, Buzz!" "Stay balanced, Buzz!" He couldn't help himself. He'd always been there with Jamie, had coached him from a young age, had sat through so many hours of his son's batting lessons that he'd come to know that beautiful swing almost as well as Jamie did himself.

Jamie, then 20, said he didn't mind the constant advice -- and he didn't always follow it. "Me and my dad, we're both stubborn," he said. "We butt heads like it's our job." The two argued about hitting, about fishing, cooking, things they were both passionate about. Sometimes they argued just to get each other going. "I don't know why he doesn't listen to me," said Joe. "I guess he has to make his own mistakes. Just like I did."

The older D'Antona had been a catcher at Southern Connecticut State and had drawn the eye of professional scouts. He later became a coach on Jamie's Little League team. Baseball dads in Trumbull, Connecticut, could be a nightmare, he knew, and he'd wanted to protect his boy from their wrongheaded notions.

Over the past year, he had been treated for Hodgkin's lymphoma. Jamie had learned about it only at the last minute, at the hospital, from the doctor, just before returning to Wake Forest for his sophomore year. Jamie was still angry -- angry in general and angry at his parents for the way they'd let him find out. He hadn't talked to his father about the disease for about a year.

Joe and Karin had traveled to a lot of games at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, flying several times a season from Connecticut. Jamie had burst into the Atlantic Coast Conference. As a freshman, he'd batted cleanup -- the power position in the lineup, the one with the most pressure and highest expectations -- and hit .364 with 17 home runs and 77 runs batted in. Atlantic Coast coaches had voted him the conference rookie of the year. Collegiate Baseball Newspaper had named him the NCAA freshman player of the year. He'd added a superb sophomore season in which he'd hit 20 home runs and driven in 83 in 57 games.

Over the past year, though, Joe had felt his son slipping away, needing him less and less as Jamie built a life at college. During his parents' visits to Wake Forest, Jamie, too busy with his friends, didn't see much of them. He didn't acknowledge them at the games. He'd practically stopped calling home, stopped asking his dad for advice. Jamie's independence was a natural part of growing up, of course, and for Joe, a part of letting go. But the transition coincided painfully with Joe's illness and Jamie's splashy entrance on the national college baseball scene. "He becomes a big star at Wake Forest, and look at him," said Joe, "already big-leaguing his own family."

George Greer, Jamie's coach, had arranged for him to play that summer for the Chatham A's of the Cape Cod Baseball League, the best of the NCAA summer baseball leagues, the most important national showcase of college talent. The Cape was a launching pad for professional careers -- intensely competitive, intensely scrutinized by major-league scouts. One out of every six big leaguers had risen through that single league.

ON THE CAPE, Jamie struggled for the first time in his life. He'd only begun to raise his batting average after managing just two hits in his first 24 times at bat. He'd struck out 29 times in 24 games. Joe saw some old flaws in his son's swing. Instead of keeping his weight back and quickly snapping his hips to trigger the swing, Jamie was sliding his weight into the pitch as he swung, relying more on linear force than the more explosive rotational force. Jamie's back foot wasn't pivoting and providing purchase; it was light on the ground, "flopping all over the place," Joe said disgustedly. His swing's arc had shifted from an almost-flat plane to a pronounced uppercut, to generate greater lift, as George Greer taught at Wake Forest. That swing might have been fine during batting practice and against ACC pitching, Joe thought -- especially with a metal bat. And it undoubtedly produced more distance and home runs for Jamie in college. But with a wooden bat against top-drawer pitchers, that swing took too long, and its upward arc intersected just a fraction of the pitched ball's trajectory. That narrow tolerance too often produced strikeouts and pop flies. Joe wanted his son to get back to the swing Jamie had worked so hard perfecting.

Joe had shown up early one afternoon at Veterans Field in Chatham and walked with Jamie down to the batting cage in left field to try to recapture the old sweetness. Chatham coach John Schiffner looked out at the old man standing in the batting cage while Jamie took cuts off a tee and was none too pleased. Schiffner saw his own authority undermined, in public, on his field. He saw a pushy father mistrusting Chatham coaches. He lumped Joe D'Antona with other overinvolved fathers he'd dealt with.

Schiffner's approach generally invited little parental disagreement. He made sure all of his players got a chance to show their stuff. His assistants worked with the players at their request. The coaches gently pointed things out: To relax and be confident. To throw strikes, get ahead in the count. To see the ball and hit it. Parents found little to argue with in such general instruction. Except that when your kid was hitting .210 with scouts watching, it was tempting to blame the coach. When a kid failed for the first time in his life, a parent couldn't easily sit by and not try to help.

Joe D'Antona didn't know Jamie was stubbornly overswinging, trying to kill the ball to impress the scouts, against the wishes of the Chatham coaches. Schiffner watched the father talking with his son, and -- childless himself -- saw the arrogance, not the love.

JAMIE'S HOUSE PARENTS in Chatham, Paul and Laurie Galop, had hosted ballplayers since 1994. They never mentioned it to Jamie, but they'd specifically asked for him. They'd heard about Joe D'Antona's health problems from the A's general manager, Charlie Thoms. Laurie's mother had lived with cancer for 14 years before passing away. Paul had told Thoms, "In case Jamie's having a bad day, we might be able to talk to him." Also, Paul had grown up in New Jersey and thought he could relate to D'Antona. "The kids from Jersey, the city, the New York side of Connecticut, they can be a little mouthy, a little rough around the edges. I've been there, done that."

Unlike some newer host families, the Galops knew how little time the ballplayers might spend with the family's kids -- they didn't expect surrogate big brothers or sitters. "Most of these guys," said Paul, "they get up at 7 o'clock and take a shower. Then they come back after lunch and take a shower or a nap, and then they lift or go to the beach and come back and take a shower before the game. Then they go to their game, and come home at 9:30, 10 o'clock and take a shower, then go out. They take a lot of showers. We just try to be around for them whenever they need us."

The Galops didn't lay out a home-cooked meal every night, didn't take players out sailing or pulling lobster traps, as some house parents did. When was there time? Laurie, a third-grade teacher during the school year, handled the A's merchandise business with her daughter, Kate, working the tent at home games. She set up early at the field and didn't get home most nights until 10:30. Paul assessed loans all day at a bank in Yarmouth and put in extra hours as the team's treasurer and PA announcer. He chaired the league's hall-of-fame committee. The hours they devoted to the A's were insane, and they had paid off. By the end of the season, only a few dozen unsold hats would remain in Chatham's merchandise inventory, and sales would pass $95,000 -- about as much as the other nine teams combined. The team's revenues for the fiscal year topped $250,000. The checkbook balance, $36 when Paul Galop had taken over a few years earlier, sat a hair under $150,000. By 2002, thanks to Paul, Laurie, and a handful of others, Chatham had become the New York Yankees of the Cape Cod Baseball League -- prosperous, hated, emulated, envied. The commitment of the A's top volunteers ran year-round.

At home, the Galops grabbed time with the players staying with them as they could, rehashing the games late at night -- Paul loved that part of the day -- and cherishing the moments. They had hung framed pictures on the living room wall of every player they'd hosted and kept in touch with many by e-mail or phone. They could walk a visitor through eight summers of stories, in detail, as if they'd happened yesterday. Both Paul and Laurie told dozens of tales of boys being boys -- they'd found stolen baseball bats beneath one player's bed; found girls in their players' beds; found a player asleep in a rolled-up living room carpet; found a mushroom growing in the damp, wet-towel-filled downstairs bathroom. One summer, a neighbor called to complain about water balloons raining down from the direction of the Galops' back deck. "Can't be us," said Paul. "We're a good hundred yards from your place." Then he looked out on his deck and saw two players launching balloons skyward from a homemade catapult.

Another time, he and Laurie had driven home after dropping Kate at summer camp and discovered 200 kids partying. A Chatham cop, Joe Fennell, showed up and said to Paul, "You know, they sent me up here, but I couldn't believe it was your house."

"I can't believe it's my house, either," Paul had answered.

A player named Gabe Alvarez, who went on to play shortstop with the Detroit Tigers, pointed a video camera at Fennell and said, "Officer, we'd like to get a few words. What do you think of this party?"

"Turn that thing off!" Fennell commanded.

Alvarez came back a few minutes later and said, "Now, back to you, officer. What do you think? Never mind. Camera back on me!"

After that, whenever Paul and Laurie saw Alvarez on TV, one of them would say, "Camera back on me!"

The stories were fun -- the brushes with celebrity added luster to their lives, too, and reflected some glory -- but there was a deeper level to ballplayers living with host families. The athletes, some for the first time, were 100 or 1,000 miles from home, living with strangers who might be difficult, overweening, wonderful, generous. Coping with unfamiliarity was part of the players' coming of age. Host families exposed the players to different lives, to couples who were long married and in love and had no idea that they were role models; to other couples who were wealthy and distant; to single moms, even, who tried to sleep with them. (The seduction scenes in the movie Summer Catch angered a lot of adults around Chatham, but they were based on real events, as Thoms and Schiffner reluctantly admitted. One woman's name had been stricken from the housing list in recent years, and a current one was suspect. What coming-of-age memories would those players carry?) The intensity worked on families, too. On kid sisters who got first crushes. On young boys who looked up to the boarders as heroes. On families that, some years, got intimate introductions to a different class or race.

Over time, the Galops had learned to read 20-year-old athletes. "Boys in men's bodies," Laurie called them. But they had trouble agreeing about Jamie D'Antona.

Laurie said, "I got tired those first couple of weeks of Jamie's woe-is-me routine. I came back one night, and Jamie was standing in the kitchen, banging his head right on the counter and saying, 'I suck, I suck.' I said, 'Yeah, you do suck. And it's about time you sucked it up around here. There are people who work their asses off all winter long for you guys, and the least you can do is go out and play like you mean it.' But my whole relationship with Jamie changed. We became closer after that."

Paul said, "I think his father's illness is weighing on him. I've talked a little bit with him about it, but Jamie is always scattered, bouncing from one subject to another. His energy is exhausting. But he's a good kid, he's got a good heart. He works his butt off. When Jamie gets a taste of something, he's going to run with it."

NEAR THE END OF HIS PARENTS' VISIT, Jamie D'Antona spied a help-wanted sign at a tackle shop on Route 28 between Chatham and Orleans. A day later, he quit at South Cape Seafood and took the new job. He fit the opening perfectly -- he worked mornings in the store, talked with customers about gear and techniques and where the fish were biting, and worked the register. He didn't need to lift anything heavier than a saltwater rod.

He'd opened up to his parents again, letting them in. He promised to call home. He wasn't done needing them yet. "It hurts like hell watching Jamie struggle so much," said Joe D'Antona. "But, at least for a while, it's nice to have our son back."

This article was excerpted from The Last Best League: One Summer, One Season, One Dream, copyright © 2004 by Jim Collins. Used by arrangement with Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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