Seven years ago I sat down at a Cape League game with author Jim Collins for a recorded CodBall Conversation about his book, The Last Best League. Just recently I learned Jim had moved to my neck of the woods, Seattle, and has come out with a 10th Anniversary edition of his fine story about the league and its players. Will everyone writing about the Cape League eventually live in Seattle? Anyway, I immediately asked Jim to write an update for CodBall about his new edition. And I hope to take him to visit my West Coast League teams -- the Walla Walla Sweets and the Yakima Valley Pippins -- next season. Who knows, maybe there's another summer league book in him?
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By Jim Collins
Fans of the Cape Cod League may be familiar with the book I wrote about a season in the league as experienced by the players on the 2002 Chatham A’s. As a writer and a former college player, I was curious about what it took to reach that high level — arguably the single best amateur baseball league in the world. Even more, I wanted to know what it might take to make it all the way to the major leagues. A big part of the Cape League’s appeal is the chance to spend summer evenings looking out on those simple ball fields, knowing you’re looking at future big league players, wondering which ones they’ll be, and why those and not the others.
Essentially, The Last Best League was about a brutal winnowing process, and about predicting the future, not just in Chatham but across the whole league: about young men dedicating themselves to a dream that only a fraction of them would end up accomplishing. The book ended with the following year’s amateur baseball draft, which marked the end of the story for some of the players I wrote about. For 20 of them, though, the results of the draft hinted at how much further their baseball dreams might go. The book, when it came out, shed light on the question, but in the end still left you left you wondering. It was kind of a tease that way.
Ten years later, I was given a gift that few writers get: a chance to go back and finish a story I’d begun to tell. The publisher of the book, Da Capo Press, invited me to track down all the players I’d written about back in that summer of 2002, and find out how their dreams had played out. As I’d later write in what turned out to be a new 12,000-word final chapter for the book’s 10th anniversary edition, I explored questions that no baseball player at age nineteen or twenty has the perspective to answer, questions I’d rarely seen asked in baseball literature: What does it mean for a young adult to have devoted his life to an almost-impossible goal, and to have made it? Or, more interestingly, to almost but not quite have made it? What were the choices and the costs? What does a dream look like in retrospect? How does the game itself look different?
Five of the players on that team made it all the way. (Two of them — pitcher Tim Stauffer in San Diego and catcher Chris Iannetta with the Angels — are still playing today.) Every one of the Chatham players had a story. Some were surprising to me. A couple were heartbreaking. Many were inspiring. They represent a fair sample of what happens to the college players who come to the Cape League each summer.
The next chapters of their lives have now started. But the book, I’m happy to say, is now complete.