Top Story, Spring

In Cape Cod, Johnny Adams Makes His Case For A Pro Career

At 2:38 p.m. on a sunny afternoon in Cape Cod, the Harwich Mariners are already on their field taking batting practice for a 5:30 start against the Chatham Anglers. The Mariners play their home games at Whitehouse Field, a rather plain diamond set amongst a group of trees. The field wouldn’t look out of place at your local high school, with the one real luxury being several light towers to allow for night games. There’s a rustic two-story building behind the backstop that doubles as the concessions stand and scorers booth. Some of the radio announcers will overflow to tables set alongside the first base line.

It’s a Sunday, which means it’s the perfect beach day. Of course everyone knows that—beach days are what makes the Cape famous. Only a select portion of the population knows about the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL), a 10-team amateur association designed for college players to keep sharp during the summer. After the collegiate season wraps up, the best players will often relocate to play summer ball for one of the many amateur leagues across the country. But only the best of the best head to the Cape.

Boston College, one of the closest schools to the Cape, sends several players down each summer. The shortstop that BC head coach Mike Gambino sent down to play for the Mariners strides back in from the left field batting cage. He spends a minute with his gear in the dugout before taking the field. Three batting practice pitches later, Johnny Adams ranges to his right at game-speed to make a backhand stab.

“Everything he does, whether he’s practicing or playing in the game, he’s doing at 100 mph,” said Greg King, Harwich’s hitting coach and acting field manager for the game—a temporary fill for former BC assistant coach Steve Englert, who is in his 17th year as the Harwich manager. “He does things the right way every single time. He doesn’t take a pitch off. He just doesn’t.”

But as Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger could attest, giving 110 percent isn’t necessarily enough to become a fixture on any given team. You need serious talent to play on the Cape, and at a glance, Adams isn’t someone you would peg to play with the “best of the best.” The rising junior flirted with the Mendoza Line and dwelled in the nine-hole for most of his sophomore season on the Heights. After a hot few weeks toward the end of the year, he finished with a .240 average (eighth on the Eagles), a homer, and 21 runs batted in. He was one of just two guys to start every game for BC and consistently dazzled with the glove at short, but he was still a middle-of-the-road player on a last-place Power Five conference team—not exactly pro-ball material.

Adams wasn’t initially full-on Cape Cod material either. The Harwich Mariners initially gave Adams with a temporary contract, a common occurrence for the Cape teams. All teams may have up to 30 full-time contract players on their roster, which just means the full-time players are signed up to play all summer for that team—of course, the players are still amateurs and cannot be compensated as the CCBL continues to stave off the wrath of the NCAA.

But with multiple players from each Cape team often still competing in the June-long College World Series, others who may get hurt, and still others who get drafted and then sign to a Major League club over the summer, teams need more guys to field a team for the games that begin in the second week of June. Therefore, the Cape clubs can offer up to 15 temporary contracts, with the condition that once a full-time player arrives, a temporary player must be let go.

Fortunately for Adams, he quickly impressed Englert and general manager Ben Layton.

“He came up here, hustled, worked his tail off,” Layton said. “He’s a great guy on and off the field, had that leadership quality we were looking for.”

Harwich also needed a left-side infielder. Other players that receive temporary contracts, such as Adams’ BC teammate Mike King, may perform well—he had a 3.27 ERA in five starts for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks—but not be needed at a certain time in a certain position and let go.

Luckily for Adams, he was needed. In the first week of the season, Englert gave him a full contract.

Chatham rolls up to Whitehouse Field at 3:20 p.m. Even though it’s just a 14-minute drive from Veterans Field (Chatham’s home) to Whitehouse, the team still arrives by a yellow school bus. Chatham manager John Schiffner makes his way over behind the batting cage from the first base dugout to confer with King on the timing of the day. He relaxes when he learns it’s a 5:30 start—he’d thought it was a 5 p.m. game—and light-heartedly complains of the team’s tardiness due to the bus driver forgetting her keys at home.

Bus transportation to away games, along with paying umpires and other key features of baseball, is a service that the league helps the teams out with, since the teams cannot make ends meet on their own. Every Cape Cod game is free of charge, meaning that you can actually drive to a field, park for free, walk to the field and sit down, for free, and watch some of America’s best young stars play in any one of the CCBL’s 220 regular season games, you guessed it, for free.

While the league and teams will cover most items necessary for baseball—travel, uniforms, field equipment, wooden bats, baseballs—players pay for their summer housing. The teams have housing coordinators that set up relations with host families for the guys every year. Players will then pay their host a weekly rent, a figure that is more of an honorary gesture than a true attempt to cover the cost of a bed, meals, and more.

Adams lived with two other ACC ballplayers this summer—Cavan Biggio, a second baseman at Notre Dame and son of the recent Hall of Fame inductee, and Joe O’Donnell, a pitcher at NC State. The three teammates (and soon-to-be rivals) lived with Mrs. Barbara Ellsworth, a woman in her mid-80s known around the league as “Mrs. E.”

Mrs. E is unafraid to push or speak her mind to her residents, even if they don’t always want to hear it. “They get a shock when they come to me because I tell them there are nine innings in a ballgame,” she said. “And I don’t think they ever knew that.” Out of all the tenured members that work with Cape Cod baseball every summer, there may not be anyone better to listen to.

She has been a host for the Cape for nearly 38 years, even hosting the elder Biggio ballplayer when he played for the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox in the summer of ’86. She has served as a general manager, a housing coordinator, and a league representative. She is known by college coaches across the country, and even makes trips to the Arizona Fall League to see some of her former players.

Most of all, she wants players who are appreciative of their time at the Cape.

“Northeast kids are usually hungry because they don’t get the exposure that the Southern and Californian boys do,” she said. “So they work hard and they’re grateful to be here, and that’s a switch from a lot of these entitled kids who believe we’re lucky to have them, rather than they’re lucky to be here. The Northeast kids all have something to prove, so they’re nice to have around.”

Although Mrs. E said she has enjoyed the many BC kids she has hosted over the years, she wasn’t sure about Johnny before he arrived.

“When he was coming, it was, ‘Oh, you’re going to have Johnny Adams, he’s the best kid in the world.’” she said. “I hated him by January because nobody could be that good. But he really is, he’s a wonderful boy. He’s a good baseball player and he’s a gentleman, and that’s all I ask.”

When Adams isn’t at Mrs. E’s or playing a game, he’s either enjoying the attractions of Cape Cod—playing puttputt, hanging at the beach—or working for Harwich’s youth baseball camp.

“It’s pretty fun working with the little guys,” he said.

That’s the life for just about two months—Harwich’s season wrapped up on Aug. 2, since the team missed the playoffs. It can serve as a relieving pace for many guys, who were playing and practicing around a university schedule for four to five months in the spring.

“What Stevie tells the guys, and I believe this, this is the last time they’re really playing baseball for fun before it becomes a job for them,” Greg King said. “It becomes more of a chore for them when they get back to school. After they get drafted, it becomes a job for them.”

Harwich wraps up its batting practice at five to four and clears the field for Chatham to take its warmup cuts. Most of the Mariners drop their stuff in the dugout and make their way out to the parking lot, off to hit the gas station before the game starts.

By 5:15, the modest field is finally alive. Kids of all ages are playing catch. “Sweet Alabama” is blasting over the loudspeakers. The two main bleachers on either baseline are moderately full with 50 people each, while the scouts’ area behind the backstop is bubbling over. Two men have fired up grills for hot dogs and burgers, while the concessions, souvenirs, and donations stands have all opened up.

On the field, the makeshift grounds crew preps the field. Two Harwich players, Anthony Pacillo and Scott Tully, hold a long, green hose as a coach soaks the infield dirt. Junior left-hander Anthony Ciavarella rakes the batters’ boxes, while right-hander Luke Scherzer lines the matching rectangles that will soon be blurred by fidgety cleats. Another coach rides a John Deere mower equipped with a flat, metal cage that smooths the rest of the infield dirt and leaves the field looking perfectly imperfect.

Adams starts the game at shortstop for Harwich. Nick Sciortino, a rising junior and starting catcher for BC in the spring, has also become the starting catcher for the Anglers but has the night off.

“I’ve played him a few times already, he’s been behind the dish,” Adams said before the game. “Talked to him a little bit when he’s behind there, and then we usually catch up before, during BP, and then after. It’s always fun to see how our summers are going.”

Looking back, both can say summer went pretty well. Sciortino was a recipient of Chatham’s Ed Lyons Coaches Award and led the league with 17 runners caught stealing. Adams represented Harwich in the CCBL All Star Game, received the Marty McDonough MVP, Harwich’s most valuable player award, and won the CCBL’s 10th Player Manny Robello Award for the most outstanding temp player of 2015. (Another shortstop to win the latter award: Nomar Garciaparra, who played for Orleans in 1993.)

Garciaparra isn’t one of the only future MLB stars to spend time on the Cape—in 2014, more than one in five MLB players were CCBL alumni. Most of the ones you’ve heard of—Mark Teixeira, Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson—came to the Cape on a track for the Show. Then there are the Alex Presleys, who don’t necessarily have an extraordinary amount of raw ability. Presley was a sophomore outfielder for the University of Mississippi in the spring of 2005. After starting half of the Rebels’ games and batting just over .300 for the season, he made his way to Chatham, Mass. to play for the Athletics (the name was changed once MLB stepped in and enforced its trademarks in 2008) and Schiffner. The manager, in his 23rd year at the helm for Chatham, has seen plenty of natural talent in his tenure (115 future Big Leaguers, by his count), but there are still those, like Presley, who can surprise him.

“If you asked me was he going to be a big leaguer [early on]—ah, I wouldn’t say he would, but hey, what do you think about Frazier?” Schiffner said. “Yeah, Todd Frazier, yes, that’s a big leaguer. Evan Longoria, yes, that’s a big leaguer. I didn’t know Alex could make it to the big leagues when he played for us, but perseverance, worked his way through, got stronger, and he became a big leaguer.”

While Presley hasn’t turned into a star—he has spent the past six seasons as a fourth outfielder for three different teams, and was most recently designated for assignment by the Houston Astros—he got a chance at pro ball, and has lasted longer than many do.

Adams starts out 0-2 with the bat, but 2-2 on fielding tough ground balls to his right—the same kind he went for in BP a few hours earlier. It’s this type of effort along with the accolades of the summer that can give Adams the chance to follow the path of Presley and make it to the next level from the Cape, even if Johnny hit just .214 on the season. By the end of the season, he had his manager convinced.

“I do believe Johnny is going to play pro ball,” Englert said in an article for The Boston Globe on July 31. “There’s always a chance you can play in the major leagues when you get drafted, which Johnny will. He’s one of those throwback kids from the 1950s with his work ethic.”

Sciortino enters the game as a defensive replacement in the eighth, and the two teammates share a couple quick words as Adams steps up to bat. He strikes out swinging on six pitches. It’s just not his day, but another will be soon, and the scouts will still be watching.

Chatham goes on to win 2-0, a pretty typical score for a wood bat league with high-caliber pitching. No one is overly concerned with the result—managers don’t have to fear getting canned for a sub-.500 season, all players by this point have full-time contracts for the rest of the summer, and the fans appreciated what they saw: a good, fun game of baseball. Today, that’s all that really matters.

Featured Image by Alec Greaney / Heights Editor

August 11, 2015
The offices of The Heights are located on Boston College’s campus. You can find us at:
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