Oct. 17, 2012
By Courtney Ratkowiak
Michigan junior outfielder Michael O'Neill got out of the car after a 14-hour drive to Falmouth, Mass., to play in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League. He walked in his new house to meet the family he would be living with for the next two and a half months and realized the distance between Little League and the Cape League was shorter than he expected.
His roommate was Drew Dosch, a childhood friend from their middle school days in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. Shortly after their unexpected reunion, O'Neill and Dosch went to the ballpark for the first time and ran into another Little League teammate, Jared King, who had attended a rival high school eight miles down the road and played with O'Neill in elementary school.
All three had enjoyed success in collegiate baseball -- O'Neill with the Wolverines, Dosch with Youngstown State, and King with Kansas State -- and all were recruited to play for the same team in the nation's premier amateur summer baseball league.
"It's amazing how baseball shrinks the world," said Falmouth Commodores coach Jeff Trundy, who wasn't aware of the Little League connection when he recruited the three players. "The Cape is obviously a very competitive league, with the best of the best from the college baseball scene. To see those kids come together from the state of Ohio, it was neat. And you find examples of it again and again and again."
Trundy and O'Neill didn't have to look far to find another example. In addition to the three former Ohio Little League teammates, the Falmouth Commodores boasted a trifecta of Wolverines this summer -- O'Neill, senior pitcher Ben Ballantine and sophomore pitcher Trent Szkutnik.
Along with senior outfielder Patrick Biondi, who played for the Cotuit Kettleers, the four Wolverines spent the summer in the Cape Cod Baseball League improving their chances to be selected in next June's Major League Baseball draft while preparing to lead Michigan during the 2013 season.
The 127-year-old Cape Cod Baseball League is considered the nation's top amateur baseball league. In 2011, 250 Cape League alums were active members of Major League Baseball rosters, and 258 more were selected in the 2011 draft. The list of successful alums, both current Major League Baseball standouts and retired legends, includes the likes of Tim Lincecum, Mark Teixeira, Joe Girardi, Buck Showalter, Thurman Munson and Craig Biggio.
The link between Cape Cod, Ann Arbor and Major League Baseball has been similarly strong. Five former Wolverines and Cape Cod League alums were on active Major League Baseball rosters during the 2011 season. Most recently, former outfielder Ryan LaMarre (2008-10) and pitcher Tyler Burgoon (2008-10) were selected in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft after playing in the Cape League in 2009.
And after his success during the 2012 Cape League season, Biondi hopes to join them. The outfielder played for Cotuit for the first time in 2011, after his sophomore year, but struggled at the plate (.172, 15-of-87). However, after a strong junior collegiate season during which he led the Wolverines in hitting, he had a breakout summer on Cape Cod. Biondi led the 10-team league this summer with a .388 batting average, started in the Cape Cod League All-Star Game, and won the Thurman Munson League Batting Championship.
Biondi and parents at the Cape Cod All-Star Game
O'Neill also played in the Cape League for the first time in 2011 but saw limited playing time on a team with seven first-round draft picks. After learning he could play consistently if he moved to Falmouth, he switched teams this summer. O'Neill played in all 44 games for the Commodores (21-23) and finished the summer with a .263 batting average and five home runs.
With a critical draft year ahead, O'Neill talked with scouts from various teams throughout the summer about his strengths and weaknesses. From those conversations, he learned to work on reducing strikeouts and playing more aggressively in the outfield.
"He's a kid that can hit with power, he can run, and he's a great defensive player -- I think in next June's draft, he'll certainly have an awful lot of interest," Trundy said. "I was really pleased with the summer he had. The biggest thing he needs to do, to be honest, is just play. As he continues to get more experience and more at-bats, he's going to continue to flourish."
Experience was the main reason why Ballantine decided to play in the Cape League this summer. He originally planned to give his arm a break and take the summer off, but when the Commodores called, he couldn't resist the opportunity. Ballantine pitched 22 innings in five games before his summer ended early with an injury.
In his last start of the season, on July 16 against Hyannis, he gave up one earned run and six hits in five innings. Ballantine felt the start epitomized the most useful part of his Cape League experience -- learning how to pitch effectively even when he didn't feel he was performing at his peak.
"I was able to work with what I had and found a way to get some of the best hitters in the country out with not my best stuff," Ballantine said. "My velocities weren't anything like what they usually are, but I was just competing and doing whatever I could to make pitches so my defense could make plays."
Szkutnik, on the other hand, came to the Cape as Ballantine's summer ended. Szkutnik started his summer with the Dayton Docs of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, a smaller amateur league, and instantly stood out. On June 26, he threw a 123-pitch, complete-game no-hitter in which he struck out 14 batters. That game came on the heels of his previous start, six days before, when he struck out 10 and allowed no runs in six innings.
The Cape League noticed. The Commodores needed extra lefthanded relief pitchers on their roster, and O'Neill told the Falmouth coaches about Szkutnik's success. Szkutnik was able to opt out of his contract with the Docs, return to his hometown of Toledo, and move to Massachusetts the next day. In six appearances and 9.1 relief innings pitched, Szkutnik allowed 14 hits and nine runs.
"Coach really helped me for the short time I was there and talked to me about my mental game," Szkutnik said. "Don't let the big moments take control of your outing. Be comfortable being uncomfortable, especially while on the Cape and playing against such big competition. Just be relaxed out there and focus your pitch."
For the Wolverines, playing in the Cape League this summer was a continual balance between relaxed and focused. Their typical summer days were filled with baseball and the beach. During the week, some players helped run a baseball skills camp for elementary and middle school kids, while others took jobs at local restaurants, supermarkets or country clubs. Afternoons consisted of optional gym workouts, batting or fielding practice, and time at the ballpark before evening games six nights per week.
"The day can be long, but the season's really short, because it's almost a 24/7 experience for a couple of months with these kids," Trundy said. "It's a full-time job, and in many ways, that does sort of parallel a professional player's life."
The occasional off days were times to recharge. O'Neill went deep-sea fishing with his host family and roommates, and the group caught a 300-pound bluefin tuna that they filleted and ate that night. Ballantine went offshore fishing three to four times per week and improved his golf game between shifts at the local country club. Biondi gathered with his team for bonfires at night and after games.
The atmosphere at games is similarly family-oriented and low-key -- inexpensive, relaxed entertainment that often matches the pace of the small Cape Cod towns. Families spread towels out on the stadiums' grassy hillsides to watch baseball while eating picnic dinners, and local organizations walk around the games selling raffle tickets and snacks. Kids run up to players for autographs after games and get to know the athletes around town, knowing that they're likely meeting future professional athletes.
For the players, though, the intensity of the games is much different. Major League Baseball scouts are present at most games, and the majority come to Cape Cod during the middle to end of July. During that period, between 20 and 30 scouts will often attend multiple games per night, and up to 100 scouts attend the All-Star Game in mid-summer.
With professional scouts present at nearly every game, all the Wolverines mentioned mental toughness as a key lesson learned this summer -- and one that will help all four going into the 2013 season as the Wolverines enter the year with a new coach and revived expectations.
"I just want to get better for Michigan baseball for this season. I want to win a championship, and I think playing in the Cape Cod League in the summers gives me the best chance of doing that," Szkutnik said. "Having the opportunity to face the best hitters is something you can't ask for every day, and being able to do that in the summer every day was huge. I can't state enough how much it helps you prepare for school."