From Cape Cod League to West Coast League: A 'Sweet' Season

by Greg in

This 2010 season I went from baseball blogger to a baseball team co-owner. I went from writing about the Cape Cod Baseball League to worrying about attendance and our win-loss record for the Walla Walla Sweets of the West Coast League. Both experiences -- blogging and business -- have kept me close to the game I love, and taught me a lot about a game I thought I knew. This journey and transition is something I wanted to share.

What a difference a year makes.  On August 9th last year I sped over the Cape's scenic Route 124, a backroad that avoids summer traffic. Earlier that morning I had run the Falmouth Road Race and then (to my family's chagrin) bolted out the door to drive nearly 60 miles to catch Game 2 of a playoff between the Orleans Firebirds and the Bourne Braves. Bourne would of course go on to win it all that season.

After the game, as I manuevered my way home to Woods Hole through early evening sunlight, taking in breathtaking views of marshes and small family farms, I remember a sense of elation as I counted myself among the fortunate to have a front row seat these past few seasons as a CodBall writer and editor. My Codball routine for years was to rush home after a day of game-watching, and then write about that game-watching into the late hours.

Friends who know I love summer college baseball used to ask me why I follow the Cape League so closely. One of the best explanations comes not from me but from the comedian, writer and actor Steve Martin. In preparing to write his memoir, Born Standing Up, he recalls looking through old notes and photos from early in his career when he played dumps and dives around the country. He observed that the most interesting period of a successful person's life is not after they become famous, but the moments just before they take the national spotlight. For me that is true in baseball as well. Tim Lincecum, Gordon Beckham, Brett Wallace and Evan Longoria were far more interesting to me as ball players on the Cape just a few years ago when we started CodBall than they are to me now in Giants, White Sox, Astros or Rays uniforms.

Being a Cape Cod Leage fan and blogger can be a challenge if your real home is 3,000 miles away in Seattle. And, yet, as any self-respecting westerner will tell you, we always think we can do one better than the East Coast. Who cares if the Cape League has a century of experience, history and allure?

So a few years ago I wrote a business plan for starting a team of my own in the West Coast League, also a summer collegiate baseball league. I continued to follow the Cape closely, but also dreamed of creating the kind of experience I love in Falmouth and Cotuit in some new place out West.  I visited run-down old stadiums, studied per capita income of the would-be fan base, examined driving distances between teams and looked at Little League websites to see if towns embraced baseball.

After several false starts in other markets, our ownership group landed on Walla Walla -- a town so nice they named it twice. Three decades ago Walla Walla's old Borleske Stadium was home to the San Diego Padres' A-ball team. It saw the likes of Ozzie Smith and Tony Gwynn come up through the ranks. But since then it has seen only so-so American Legion and Whitman College baseball teams.

The Walla Walla Sweets Take Shape

On Sept. 28, 2009, we became part of the West Coast League. Our ownership group hired an excellent General Manager, Zachary Fraser, who led an effort to spruce up the cherished old ballpark. By our first Opening Day it took on a whole new look and vibe. Frankly it kept the charm of a summer college field like Yarmouth-Dennis, but added some flare like an intimate Single-A ballpark. Because Borleske was built for football back in the day, the press box is located above the gridiron sidelines along what is now first base. We added stadium seats behind home plate, lowered the dugouts, added club seats along first, a party deck in right field and beer and wine garden in left field.

Yes, we serve alcohol. It's part of the revenue model and it's part of the fan experience. I know the Cape has not and likely never will serve beer and wine, but we do. It is carefully managed, but fans do partake. Without it, I am not sure we could support a quality baseball team in a remote town along the Washington, Oregon and Idaho borders.

There are many other differences between our league and the Cape. The quality of play in our ballpark is good, but does not match the position-by-position excellence you see by mid-season on the Cape. Our players are good players mostly from Pac-10 (now Pac-12) teams with a few midwest and eastern schools mixed in. We don't see the number of Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, Carolina and other top southern states that the Cape sees. For every Jacoby Ellsbury or Nyjer Morgan from the WCL, there are dozens of future Big Leaguers in the Cape. The excitement among fans, however, is still there in the WCL because you just never know.

Two West Coast League teams made the PG Crosschecker rankings of top summer collegiate teams - Corvalis and Wenatchee. The Cape had five of the top 30.

My excitement peaked on our first opening night. Below are notes I kept early in the season.

Last night, opening night, was an absolute grand slam of an operations night. We opened against last season's champs, the Wenatchee Apple Sox. More than 1,700 fans in a place that hasn’t watched organized baseball in 30 years. A little Division III field was transformed into a minor league quality ballpark.  Beer, wine, decent food, restrooms that work, a beautiful program for fans, cool merchandise.  We had it all. (OK, our sound system sucked.)

We lost our first Opening Night, but I will never forget the exhuberance of seeing our team hit its first single. We won game two the next night. It was a 2-0 nail biter. Get this,the Apple Sox had bases loaded in the top half of the 9th. The would-be winning pitcher is replaced by our closer who proceeds to get nailed by a drive up the middle. He is then replaced by a guy on a 10-day contract. Wouldn’t you know it the ball is driven into the outfield to the guy who is playing his first game in our uniform since coming up from Southern Cal. He catches the ball and we win.

I wrote the first draft of the business plan for this franchise in late 2007 – three years ago. Tonight we got our first win. Tomorrow afternoon is the rubber match against the defending league champs, and then we head off to Canada to play the hottest team in the league. The Great Recession may be continuing, the war is certainly still raging, work is demanding and yet the world seems so perfect tonight.  We won a game, and for the first time ever I played a role (more than just screaming support)  in winning a professionally organized baseball game.

One of the wonderful things about following a summer college team during the Internet Age is that you can follow your guys each night thanks to broadcasts that pulse through your personal computer. Much better than old transistor radios!

One of our GM's first actions was to hire Andrew Alegretta as our play-by-play announcer. Cape Cod League insiders will remember that Andrew was part of the Falmouth Commodores broadcast team in 2009. A Syracuse grad, Andrew was named this summer as the voice of Charleston Southern University.

Road Trips

I got to listen to Andrew a lot over the summer. The boys of Walla Walla dropped their third game, and took the all night bus to Kelowna, British Columbia, just over the border into Canada. They surprised a very good Kelowna team and took 2-3 before heading home to play two exhibition games against a Portland team.

We went 1-3 against the other expansion team, the Cowlitz Black Bears, and then left on a 9-game road trip -- the first extended road trip for our team and for every college kid who joined the Sweets. The previous Saturday night we sat with a 4-4 league record -- .500 ball. But Saturday night was rained out, and the team lost a Sunday doubleheader.

That's where my season notes pickup.... 

It’s June 27th  2010 and the Sweets have lost 7 straight.  I am listening to the game over the Internet as I usually do.  I feel sick. We are headed into the 13th inning against Kitsap and the score is tied 6-6. We should have won this in the 9th.

Why do I put myself through this torture!  There is a baseball card of Curtis Dupart from the Cotuit Ketleers on my desk.  Ironically, he is now on my team. He's a good, hard-working player. As I listen over the Internet, he just got thrown out in the 10th trying to leg out a double.  In the 13th he got a double.  All for not – they lost in the 13th.  Onto Bellingham.  I am sick.

It’s June 28th and I feel a little better.  I called Zachary on the drive home.  I wanted to be encouraging and I wanted to find out where his head was at.  He admitted over the course of the call that he had gotten down but he sees the positive in a way I had missed.  He pointed out that because of our division we are still just a game out of the playoffs even though we’ve lost 8 straight.  He said the manager had wondered if his job was secure.  And one player had left the team today and flew home after he went 0-fer all season.  Some of these guys are not ready for this level of baseball.

That very night, it’s 5-1 Sweets in the 7th against Bellingham and win or lose I am fine.  We have a bunch of home games in Walla Walla and I’m headed there this weekend with the family.  My son and I will make the game in Bellingham tomorrow night. I have a team and am happy.

There would be many other highlights. I did make an evening game in Bellingham, the team owned by George Brett and his brother Bobby. My friend and co-owner Jeff Cirillo also was there to throw batting practice. After the loss that night we gathered in my hotel room with the coaches for beers and post-game analysis.

The following weekend was July 4th. My family from Oklahoma came out for the Indepedence Day festivities. I will never forget sitting in our box seats with my family enjoying the games and running around on the field before and after the games with my kids.

We finished the season in the cellar, but we set new league records for attendance. We actually were nationally ranked for attendance. 40,461 Sweets fans took in a game in 2010. We sold lots of Sweets gear, too. And many fans signed up for our Facebook and Twitter sites. ESPN wrote one of the most encouraging stories I've read in a long time about our team and experience. We didn't make any money but we also didn't lose too much money. We'll be back next season -- definitely smarter and probably better. That goes for CodBall as well as the Sweets!