Summer Catch: The Sequel

Four San Diego Padres are holding an impromptu
Cape Cod League reunion 11 years after a title

By Jerry Crasnick

Unknown-2.jpeg
Photo Courtesy of San Diego Padres Team Photographer Matthew Thomas

As the 2022 Cape Cod Baseball League season gets into full swing, scouts and agents around the game will descend upon towns from Wareham to Orleans in search of future MLB talent. Fans will carry lawn chairs and sunscreen to quaint venues to watch college players who are trying to use the Cape as a springboard to the majors, just as it’s been for more than 1,400 Capers-turned-big leaguers over several decades.

On major-league rosters, Cape Cod alumni will reflect fondly on the lessons they learned and the friendships (and tans) they cultivated while taking part in America’s premier college summer league. The memories are especially strong at Petco Park in San Diego, where every day is a 2011 Harwich Mariners reunion.

Padres pitchers Taylor Rogers and Pierce Johnson, catcher Austin Nola and first baseman Luke Voit were teammates on the Harwich club that won the 2011 Cape Cod League title. They’ve all seen the 2001 movie “Summer Catch,’’ which starred Freddie Prinze Jr. as an aspiring professional pitcher living the dream with the Chatham A’s.

“I don’t think any of us found our Jessica Biel, but the movie was pretty accurate,’’ Johnson says. “When you get a bunch of college guys playing baseball in a beautiful place and you don't have to worry about school, it’s a recipe for a really good time.’’

GettyImages-1402979811.jpg
GettyImages-1398186140.jpg
GettyImages-1391839730.jpg

San Diego general manager A.J. Preller assembled the final pieces for the reunion when he acquired Voit in a trade with the Yankees on March 18 and picked up Rogers in an April 7 deal with Minnesota. The Harwich connection came up early in Preller’s first phone conversation with Rogers. 

“A.J. asked if I knew anybody on the team, and when I told him, he was like, ‘Cape Cod strikes again,’ ’’ Rogers says. “It helped (to have those guys here), because I didn’t feel like the new kid in school.’’

It’s hard to find a major-league roster without some sort of Cape Cod League presence. Hall of Famers Pie Traynor, Carlton Fisk, Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell played on the Cape, as did Billy Wagner, Mark Teixeira, Nomar Garciapara, Todd Helton, Chris Sale, Aaron Judge and a slew of other All-Stars.

Will Clark, Thurman Munson and Steve “Bye Bye” Balboni are among the names enshrined in the Cape Cod League Hall of Fame in Hyannis. They’re joined by New York Islanders general manager Lou Lamoriello (a former baseball player and coach) and baseball writer Peter Gammons, who has chronicled the Cape League for decades and has an encyclopedic knowledge of its history.

Cape devotees wax poetic about baseball in its purest form, with minimal creature comforts. For road games, the Mariners crammed 30-40 players and staff onto a yellow school bus. It was a less than ideal arrangement for Voit, whose 6-3, 230-pound frame wasn’t meant for spaces designed for elementary schoolers.

“It’s like playing Little League at the highest level,’’ Nola says. “They had chain link fences, and people were basically sitting right next to you when you were playing infield. It was just a magical environment for baseball.’’

GettyImages-1391839842.jpg
GettyImages-1393159100.jpg

Rogers, San Diego’s closer, was entering his junior year of college when baseball nirvana beckoned. He drove a 1999 Jeep Wrangler with no air conditioning from the University of Kentucky campus to Cape Cod, making frequent stops to gas up and replenish the leaky radiator. Rogers used the vehicle’s 12-volt adapter to alternately charge his TomTom GPS system and his iPod during the nearly 1,000-mile trip.

Upon arrival in Harwich, Rogers lived with the Novak family, who kept him well-fed and had a casita next to their house that he turned into his private lair.

“I remember they had an awesome boat,’’ Voit says. “I was kind of jealous, because Taylor was always fishing. The life of a starting pitcher.’’

Voit and Johnson played college ball at Missouri State, while Nola squeezed in two summers on the Cape while going to school at Louisiana State University. Voit played catcher in Harwich while Nola was the Mariners’ starting shortstop. Now Nola is a catcher and Voit plays first base. 

GettyImages-1240087507.jpg
GettyImages-1239729227.jpg

Along with the four Padres, the 2011 Harwich roster featured future big leaguers Eddie Butler, Carter Capps, Chris Stratton, JaCoby Jones, Darnell Sweeney, Billy Burns and, for a brief period, Kevin Gausman. The Mariners were coached (and still are) by Steve Englert, a former Boston College assistant who wore Tommy Bahama shirts, blared 1990s rap music during batting practice and kept the players loose with his energy and wit. In a thick Boston accent, Englert would tell his starting pitchers that if they didn’t last five innings, they had to wash his Cadillac. Or in local parlance, his “cah.’’

Players were assigned a range of pre-game duties. Johnson’s job was laying the chalk outline in the batter’s box, while Rogers was tasked with hosing down the infield. “I took so much pride in that,’’ he says. As a starting pitcher with time on his hands, he spent many summer nights roaming the grounds with a bucket, soliciting donations for that night’s 50-50 raffle.

The four Padres formed lasting relationships with their host families -- local residents who opened their homes, hearts, refrigerators and pantries to ballplayers from far-flung locales. Johnson exchanged Christmas cards for years with his host parents, Tom and Ashby Crafts, while Voit reconnected with the Doncaster family and Rogers would share reminiscences and hugs with the Novaks during trips to Fenway Park.

Nola invited his host parents, John and Susan Blake, to his wedding, and still speaks glowingly of Susan’s go-to dessert -- apple pie with chocolate chips. 

Eleven years later, the memories extend well beyond the playing field. Johnson frequented the Hot Stove Saloon restaurant in Harwich, ate glazed doughnut burgers in the Yarmouth-Dennis bullpen, and was once kicked out of the Chatham Squire restaurant for trying to order clam chowder at the bar while underage. 

Photos Courtesy of SportsPix

During a visit to Lighthouse Beach in Chatham, Johnson saw a flurry of activity offshore and was later told that the locals had been tagging great white sharks. “I don’t think I touched my toe in the water after that,’’ he says.

Relationships were formed and strengthened with the simplest of gestures. Johnson brought a stockpile of Missouri State T-shirts and swapped them for jerseys from Virginia, Virginia Tech, Alabama and other schools. While players on the Cape were transitioning from metal to wood bats and testing themselves against top-flight competition, they were also expanding their cultural horizons and building lifelong friendships on the fly.

“What’s cool about Cape Cod back then is when you showed up, you had no idea who these other players were,’’ Rogers says.

“You actually had to meet them and figure out their stories and get to know them over the summer, instead of just going online and Googling each player and figuring out a little bit of their history. You went in blind. I think that’s what made it so cool and so genuine.’’

The 2011 season culminated in the highest of competitive highs. After the Mariners beat Falmouth for the title, they boarded the school bus back to Whitehouse Field and celebrated. “We got a bunch of coolers of beer and we parted on the field all night, until like 4 a.m.,’’ Voit says.

Sometimes reality is stranger than fiction. At the conclusion of “Summer Catch,’’ Freddie Prinze Jr.’s character, Ryan Dunne, is a relief pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies and gives up a home run to Ken Griffey Jr. in his MLB debut. In an even more improbable plot twist, Austin Nola, Luke Voit, Taylor Rogers and Pierce Johnson received their Cape Cod League championship rings and went their separate ways, only to reassemble 11 years later in San Diego.

“As much as we were there to play baseball, we were like a fraternity up there,’’ Voit says. “So it's cool to still see guys that I played with or against, and obviously be around the three guys here. It brings back a lot of fond memories. We had a blast, man.’’