Editor’s Note: Nine Days in Cape Cod is a two-part series detailing the Brewster Whitecaps’ 2017 championship season in which manager Jamie Shevchik assembled a ragtag bunch of overlooked and underrated college baseball players to face the Cape Cod League’s most elite MLB prospects. Part II of the series will be published on on Aug. 8.
Part 1: “We were loaded with talent, and nobody knew it.”
Jamie Shevchik slammed his trunk closed and started the long drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania. It’s his second year leaving on a sour note; his first leaving embarrassed.
He told himself next year would be different. It had to be. Four out of five teams in both divisions of the Cape Cod League make the playoffs, and Shevchik’s Brewster Whitecaps spent the season drowning almost ten games under .500. Pride aside, the organization told him they needed to reach postseason play just to cover expenses.
But, the team failed. Shevchik failed.
Players quit, some mentally, while others actually hung up their cleats. Once the final game teetered on a giant pile of losses, Shevchik and the team packed their bags and left empty-handed again.
On highway 84, Shevchik popped two nibs of nicotine gum – an addiction he picked up when he put down the dip can – and continued to drive.
Since the day he started his career in the third base coaching box almost 20 years ago, losing never sat right with him, and this time, each missed opportunity of the season seemed to sit in the back seat with his three girls.
To him, each loss was just another notch on the belt pulling tighter, telling him he wasn’t good enough. He was just a summer ball babysitter. Just average. Just another Division III coach.
Losing pained Shevchik more than winning excited him, and now being one of the newest head coaches in the Cape Cod league, this was his shot. So, Shevchik felt he had a lot to prove not only to the league, but to himself.
Next year has to be different, he told himself.
His career as skipper of Keystone College is unrivaled by most coaches at any level. His round face, hat pulled low over mirror Oakley sunglasses, and a chinstrap beard was a common sighting in northeast Pennsylvania. He resembled a bulldog, a powerhouse of an animal that aptly described his coaching style.
He revitalized a program that was a last-chance college baseball team, overcoming the odds and turning them into to a Division III national contender.
He took the job and received a 12×12 office with just enough floor space to house a desk and two chairs. He had almost no funding to work with and was told he could hire one slightly-paid assistant coach.
So, Shevchik got right to work.
He was looking for specifics: Pure athletic ability, talent, and as many of the five-tools as possible. But, more importantly, he looked for two attributes no one else did: A ballplayer with both a flaw and a lot to prove.
He knew he wasn’t going to be able to recruit the best in the country, or sway Division I prospects to forget their offer from Maryland, Virginia, Vanderbilt, or USC, and sign on the dotted line to attend Keystone College.
But, he could recruit the players those schools spit out.
More than 900 baseball players compete at the Division I level, and ultimately almost 20% transfer out. It’s a transfer rate that’s higher than any sport in college athletics. When the NCAA’s Divison I machine crunches mass quantities of recruits and spits out professional prospects, highly talented players are left behind and up for grabs.
They’re the ones with something to fight for. They’re the ones who were recruited and passed over, and now they’re hungry, disgruntled, and ready to erupt with any chance they get.
They were exactly who Shevchik was looking for.
The joke among the coaching staff at Keystone was telling recruits, “go Division I, then give me a call in two years.”
But they weren’t kidding, and the results were monumental. Keystone College has sent more than 30 players into professional baseball since 2010, including seven draft picks in a two-year window. They recently set a record with 13 straight conference titles, and each year they land comfortably within Baseball America’s Top 10. This, all because Shevchik took chances on the players no one else would.
Then, he got a phone call to take on a new project of revitalizing an overlooked and under-funded summer team in the NECBL, the Danbury Westerners.
But, there was a catch.
They played on a city park field, nail dragged and littered with every type of stone and pumice you can find in Connecticut until the infield looked more like a cornfield than an actual baseball diamond.
The team played thanks to volunteers who worked from sunup to sundown, and the 40-50 fans who attended games (depending on the latest happy hour specials at Pipa’s bar down the street) fit the bill for the entire season.
Bus rides were long, players did their own laundry, and games were played between the city’s scheduled Teener League season (it’s rumored that conflicting schedules rule in favor of the Teener League game).
Shevchik was told “recruit the best players who are willing to play here, give them the best summer possible, and good luck.”
But that wasn’t good enough. He had a championship on his brain. Anything less, he thought, just stay home.
He accepted the job and moved his family to Connecticut for the summer with the same philosophy he had at Keystone: Get the players who were hungry.
After building his teams, brick by brick, season after season, Shevchik got his chance in 2012 and the Danbury Westerners squared off against the Newport Gulls — the league’s heavy favorite — in the championship.
They lost in three straight.
Another packed car. Another nib of nicotine gum. And they never returned to the championship again.
Now, it’s his shot in the Cape Cod League or simply, The Cape. Top players are selected from elite college baseball programs and scouts flock to the little flexed-arm corner of Massachusetts to get a glimpse of what the future of Major League Baseball might look like.
It’s known as the premier college summer league in the nation and no other league in the country has as many draft picks or Major League ballplayers than that of the Cape.
In 2015, there had been more than 1,100 players from the Cape in the Major Leagues, and the number of alumni in professional baseball could be 10 times that high. At one point, one-in-seven MLB baseball players played in the Cape. It’s basically MLB’s version of the NFL combine.
At first, Shevchik followed the rules. He found the best players from the biggest schools, and catered to every expectation. No longer was he dealing with assistant coaches and player operation directors like he did in Danbury with the NECBL.
In the Cape, he was now answering to head coaches of SEC and ACC powerhouses, and dealing with draft advisors lobbying his every move.
The dark side of The Cape is that it’s a business trip.
For these players, the Cape Cod League is an honor, but it’s nothing more than a pit-stop at a little horned-peninsula along their way to the Big Leagues.
For the coaches, it’s a delicate game of politics.
The player does not have the final choice as to where he goes for the summer. His coach does. So, along with pampering every player that has a sniff at the draft, strict innings limits, pre-Madonna attitudes and agents breathing down your neck about draft stock every night, teams in the Cape try to ignite relationships with the most powerful college baseball programs in the country.
If a manager can rub the back of an SEC coach so he’ll trust him enough to not scratch his so-called Porsche for the summer, the manager can pave a highway of top talent to his team. If he can’t, the top players will go elsewhere; to his competition.
Shevchik was the new kid at the college lunch table and they already had their cliques. So when he tried to call the baseball office of the University of Virginia and inquire about a local Pennsylvania kid for Brewster, their response was “We only send players to Chatham or New Orleans.”
The Cape Cod League is the Ivy League of amateur baseball; it’s prestigious, revered, a true legacy packed to the gills with world-class talent. But, it’s privileged, very privileged – and Shevchik saw his chance.
Shevchik went 0-2 in playoffs in 2015, then watched his team crumble in 2016.
On their final night in the Cape, he called a meeting with his assistant coaches before he packed his car and left for Pennsylvania. His coaches told him that next year they needed to be faster, they needed additional pitching, including a solid closer, and they needed to get middle-of-the-order hitters.
Shevchik was at the pinnacle of amateur baseball, the biggest stepping-stone of his career, and all he has to show for it was an open highway, a swirling mind, and the lingering menthol of Nicorette.
He knew what he needed to do. And, he knew the answer would be found in his 12×12 office.
Next year, he told himself, things were going to be different. He got home and called his assistant coach.
“Tommy,” he said, “we’re starting over.”
Day 1, 2017
Shevchik was coming off another historic season at Keystone – breaking his own records, of course – on the way to a staggering 574-186 overall record after clinching their second College World Series appearance the year before, only to lose the National Championship game in a heartbreaking finish.
It was the furthest Keystone College had ever made it; the furthest a small, overlooked Division III school in the hills of northeastern Pennsylvania could ever possibly make it. But to Shevchik, there was no ring. No trophy. No championship.
Before he drove back up to the Cape, Keystone added another conference title, to make it 13 consecutive, only to lose in regional round.
He no longer chews nicotine gum because he’s back to Cope Straight. He needs the real stuff.
True to his word, summer started with a bunch of players who looked completely different from years prior. They were players from little-known schools; freshman, “no-names,” low-level summer ball All-Stars now in crisp new Brewster hats. They were the players other Cape Cod teams took no interest in.
The Brewster Whitecaps had a few prospects, as all Cape teams did, but as pitchers warmed up in the bullpen in preparation for Opening Day, scouts tucked their radar guns away.
“In Cape Cod, it’s your second-tier of players that separates the league,” Shevchik explained.
It’s your utility player who can handle the bat so your everyday shortstop who has already played 95 games since February can take an extra day off during the Dog Days of July.
It’s your bullpen pitchers who can eat up three innings and hold your starter’s one run lead.
It’s your catcher who can navigate a freshman pitcher to safety. It’s your fourth starter who can give you seven innings and save your bullpen for the next night.
Ultimately, it’s the guys most teams never notice that stitch together a championship team.
Shevchik looked around his dugout and said he didn’t see one first-round pick. He didn’t see the player who scouts were fighting for, or the pitcher who general managers were promising a Major League jersey to in a few years. He saw the ones they forgot.
Sitting in the dugout were a band of misfits he spent all winter assembling; an unknown side-armer from down south, small-school starters from up north, a young prospect from out west, an old non-prospect from the mid-west, and everything between.
It was a gamble. All of them were. But none with greater odds than a catcher who no one else would take.
“I wanted guys who would play harder than anyone else because they have something to prove and Mickey Gasper was that guy,” Shevchik said.
After the 2016 season, Shevchik went back to his office which, from their World Series appearance, is a full-sized banquet hall compared to the last. It looks like a CEO’s stomping ground, equipped with a square desk, a 50-inch flat screen TV mounted on the wall and six over-stuffed leather armchairs surrounding a glass coffee table. But, he began hunting players the way he did in his old cell.
No more second-hand scouting reports, or used-car salesman pitches from college coaches; he wanted the players that have proven themselves and been passed over. No opinions. No questions. Proof. To put simply, he wanted ballplayers – tough, gritty, ballplayers.
He checked the Northwoods League, the Valley League, the NECBL, the ACBL, the Hamptons League, and any league that had wooden bats and a wifi connection.
He then stumbled on the Futures League and a ballplayer who, on paper, was exactly what he was looking for. A switch-hitting catcher who won the batting title of the league, yet remained off everyone’s radar in the Cape Cod League. Shevchik was sold. This was a small-school kid who played almost every day, and proved he could hit. But, there had to be a catch, he thought. So, he picked up the phone and called a trusted voice to find out.
And of course, there was.
Michael “Mickey” Gasper was a catcher at a small division college in Rhode Island called Bryant University. He’s everything a coach could ask for: A fine ballplayer, a hard worker, a presence on the field, a born leader, a guy who could block any ball with his chest fanned and back straight and, with a lifetime batting average of .344, he was one of the best offensive catchers in the Northeast.
But after his junior year, no scout believed his name would be called on draft day. That’s right. He was passed over by all 30 teams in all 40 rounds.
When Shevchik asked why, his source said “let’s just say, his throws to second have a loop on them.”
Shevchik hung up the phone. They’ve already signed an SEC catcher that just contracted the fatal “yips” so Shevchik asked himself, “can I really afford to have two question marks behind home plate?”
For a while, the answer was “no.” Then, it turned into a “yes.” Then, “no” again.
Shev picked up the phone one more time and made the call.
When Mickey Gasper stepped on Stony Brook Field for the first practice, his mind went blank. He didn’t even think making it to the Cape was possible. He told his coach he wanted to go to the NECBL or maybe experience California for his last summer season, so when a text came in from Jamie Shevchik of the Brewster Whitecaps, he hardly believed it.
Gasper tried to take day one in stride, but his heart pounded through his chest.
He was excited, anxious, and uncomfortable with every step at his first practice, and understandably so. His entire career has been a question mark. His mission has been to prove naysayers wrong over and over again. It wasn’t just his arm or his draft status that was constantly under attack. Even his hitting fell into the crosshairs.
Gasper learned how to switch-hit from his father, who wanted him to hit right-handed even though he was a born lefty. That way he wouldn’t need to face the unfavorable lefty-on-lefty match-up.
He finished his junior season hitting .342, yet before Gasper left for the Future’s League, his coach told him, “Let’s see how this summer goes from the right side,” unsure of whether or not Gasper was a true switch-hitter.
The year before, the coaches had the same question on their minds so they made him hit lefty in regional play. Bryant was eliminated in two games.
“I had to prove myself all over again that summer,” Gasper recalled. “So, I used it as motivation.”
Three months later, he was the batting champion of the Futures League, and two months after that, he signed with the Whitecaps.
Gasper has had a chip on his shoulder since the day he put on a uniform. It’s what fuels him, but the Cape is different. This is where comparisons are made. This is where scouts can get a glimpse of the future and whether or not you are in it for the teams they are trying to build-up.
“The Cape Cod League exposes more players than it builds,” Shevchik said with brutal honesty.
Players leave for the Cape as potential prospects, yet many leave with a line through their name. With prospects from the biggest schools in the country, Gasper knew he was in deeper than he imagined.
“As being one of the oldest guys there, I felt like the youngest,” Gasper said of the initial shock of entering the Cape. “Coming from one of the smallest schools with all the big time names, I definitely felt I was in over my head the first practice.”
On Opening Day, his heart-pounded as loud as a drum. He walked into the dugout and saw the lineup card hanging on the wall: Smith, Prato, Gasper.
His pulse slowed down.
Shevchik believed in Gasper. Unlike most no-name players who get a part-time contract and an easy “goodbye” after two weeks, Shevchik signed him to a full contract, and penciled him in at top of the order.
Gasper looked wide-eyed at the lineup again.
“If Shevchik can believe in me, then so can I,” Gasper told himself.
He stepped to the plate that night and hit and hit his first home run of the season – right handed.
The Whitecaps won their first game and Shevchik took a look at his team. He eyed the players he believed in; the misfits he gambled on and now, for better or worse, the team he assembled to face the toughest league in the country.
With a straight face and steady voice, he said, almost cracking a grin, “we were loaded with talent, and nobody knew it.”
Stay tuned for Part II of the series, set to be published on Aug. 8.