In every sense, last Tuesday was a perfect day for baseball on the Vineyard.
The sun shone brightly over the new baseball diamond at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, as a tangle of wispy clouds stubbornly refused to give way fully to the brilliant blue behind. The smell of hot dogs and hamburgers hung thick in the air, while dust kicked up on the infield floated by on a slight ocean breeze.
Last Tuesday marked the first-ever Cape Cod League baseball league played on the Vineyard. By any measure, the game was a runaway success.
Crowds of people jammed the bleachers along the first and third base lines, while people sitting on blankets and lawn chairs dotted the hill that runs along the entire outfield fence.
It’s hard to tell, exactly, how many people attended Tuesday’s game between the Wareham Gatemen and the Falmouth Commodores, which Wareham won 6-1. The Web site for the Gatemen lists the official attendance as 2,232, an eye-popping figure when considering most Cape League games attract around 1,000 fans. But that number may be misleading: tickets were not sold for the game, and people were instead asked only to make a suggested donation of $5 to Vineyard Baseball to go towards completing work on the high school athletic field.
Whatever the final attendance figures, it was clear that the turnout was tremendous.
“It was awesome . . . better than we hoped for,” said Gary Simmons, coach of the high school baseball team and president of Vineyard Baseball. “I think everyone was excited to see this high level of play in their own backyards.”
Coach Simmons is spearheading an informal effort to explore whether a team from the Cape Cod League might move to the Vineyard on a permanent basis. Both local baseball enthusiasts and league officials say such an idea is a longshot at best, but if Tuesday’s robust turnout was any indication, it is clearly not impossible.
Dann Dunn, the general manager for the Commodores, said he didn’t entirely rule out a Cape League team coming to the Vineyard. “I would say it’s remote, but not out of the question,” he said, surveying the crowd around the ballpark. “If we get this type of crowd every game, it would be something the league would want to think about.”
Mr. Dunn explained that the Cape League is run entirely by volunteers, who are driven not by paychecks but by a pure love for the game. While many major league players are now making headlines for taking steroids and demanding trades in the middle of the season, the players of the Cape Cod Baseball League in the summer are working part-time jobs to make ends meet while playing games almost every night, Mr. Dunn said.
And instead of living in luxury homes and apartments, Cape league players live with host families who offer up space in their homes and hearts. It is estimated that one in five major league players played in the Cape league at one time; including popular Red Sox players like Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Lowell and Mo Vaughn. At one point, all of these players lived with a host family while playing for the Cape league.
Mr. Dunn said the Cape league takes its role in the community very seriously.
“We know the memories people have of these players will last forever . . . they may go on to play in the major [league], but to the people here they will always be that young kid they saw hit a home run or make a great catch on a summer evening on the Cape,” he said.
Chuck Sturtevant, the former general manager and treasurer of the Commodores, said the league has a standing order for players to create positive memories for the fans.
“If I ever saw a player who refused to give an autograph to a young fan, he would be the next bus out of here . . . but that has never been an issue. These players may go on to the majors, but at this level they are just happy to be playing baseball,” he said.
Mr. Sturtevant was visibly moved when recalling tales of his former players — most notably when major league all-stars Darren Erstad and Eric Milton inducted him into the Cape Cod league hall of fame in 2002. “A lot of these guys don’t forget their time here because they don’t want to forget . . . to them it was special.”
It was clear a special bond was already forming between some of the players and the Vineyard fans throughout the game. During the bottom of the fourth, with Wareham leading 4-1 and the game already in hand, a pair of pitchers for the Commodores — Rex Brothers and Nate Stritz — took time off from warming in the bullpen to talk to some young fans.
“You’re from [the Vineyard]? Do you like baseball?” asked Brothers, as the young fan nodded in agreement and climbed to the top of the chain-link fence to scoop up an autographed program.
When asked if he could throw the ball as hard as Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett, Stritz carefully worded his answer. “I’m not sure [who throws faster] . . . it would be close,” he said.
By the bottom of the eighth inning, after the Gatemen tacked on another run to make it 5-1, most of the drama surrounding who would win the game had faded. The Commodores were listed on the scoreboard as the home team, but it was evident people were more interested in just watching the game then the final outcome.
When Wareham catcher Cole Leonida, a standout at Georgia Tech University, pounded a two-run home run to left field in the second inning, many in the crowd stood and cheered as if he was one of their own.
“That shot landed in the Monster seats . . . it could have hit the Coke bottles,” said one Vineyard woman, imaginatively comparing the cozy confines of the high school field (315 feet on the corners and 385 straight away to center) to Fenway Park.
There were signs everywhere of major league careers to come. A man wearing sunglasses and holding a notebook confirmed he was a major league scout for the New York Mets but declined to give his name. As he jotted down notes on seemingly every player and every play, he explained that scouts are generally assigned to two teams in the league with the goal of identifying potential major league players.
“This league has a history of players who come out and break into the majors relatively quickly. Jacoby [Ellsbury] played for Falmouth back in 2004,” he said.
But despite the radar guns trained on young fireballers and the reading of the starting lineup by ESPN’s Steve Levy, the game had a markedly minor league feel. Players from both teams walked among the fans to sell 50/50 raffle tickets, with a portion of the proceeds going to complete the work on the high school baseball field. The high school baseball booster club ran the concession stand, while young fans scampered after foul balls to retrieve what would surely become treasured souvenirs.
Wareham manager Cooper Farris said he was impressed by the Vineyard ballpark and the healthy crowd.
“This whole experience has been great for the fans and for us. Our players were pretty excited on the boat coming over. Usually in the mornings you can’t get them moving. But they were moving this morning,” he said.
The Vineyard game marked the fourth and final off-Cape game on this year’s schedule. There was a general agreement among players, coaches and league officials that the tradition should continue in the coming years, which might even include a Cape team being relocated to the Vineyard.
But for now, many were simply happy for a sunny day at the ball park on the Vineyard.
“I just thank God every day for the chance to play baseball,” said Wareham first baseman Aaron Baker earnestly during an autograph session after the game. “I hope we can bring some joy to people watching this game that I love to play . . . and it seems people really love baseball here.”