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Baseball Like It Should Be 

Great amateurs play Cape Cod for a big league nod

Baseball, like Indiana Jones on an archaeology expedition, is forever escaping its temple of doom. Just as a strike almost felled it a decade ago, Cal Ripken Jr.'s Iron Man streak came to the rescue. When Michael Jordan and the NBA seemed to be flying past the national game, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire delivered a storybook homerun race.

And now, as a steroids scandal threatens baseball, the revived Red Sox-Yankees rivalry and the suddenly competitive Cubs help fans look past the drugs and greed and exorbitant prices. And if all that can't bring you back, perhaps The Last Best League will.

Set in the bucolic summer haven of Cape Cod, The Last Best League examines the politics and merciless Darwinian winnowing involved in finding big leaguers. Author Jim Collins spent the 2002 season on the Cape, chronicling the 10-team amateur league regarded as the best of its kind, the Cape Cod Baseball League

Every summer, the nation's best collegiate players descend on the Cape for a 44-game, 10-week summer season that attracts swarms of scouts -- and sorts prospects from also-rans. A good summer can lead to a high draft position and millions in bonus money. Or it can shatter a player's confidence and leave him wondering whether his boyhood dream can ever be revived.

For Collins, a former editor at Yankee magazine, the Cape Cod League represents a compelling baseball tale as well as a harrowing coming-of-age story. Two summers ago, he attended every game and practice with the Chatham A's, one of the Cape's most popular teams, and came away with a book reminiscent of football's Friday Night Lights. It's as much a story of the Cape as it is of baseball, but not to the detriment of either subject.

For those who abhor many aspects of Major League Baseball, the Cape Cod League offers a respite. The players sign autographs and gladly participate in kids' clinics. Ticket prices for the games are pretty reasonable, too: all games are free.

Players live with host families and work for local businesses. The small towns -- Orleans, Hyannis, Harwich and the like -- rally around their semi-celebrities, bringing blankets and lawn chairs to the fields and cheering potential future All-Stars as they struggle to outshine fellow topnotch players. It's a place where many players discover they no longer stand above their peers in talent.

On the Cape, college players must forsake the forgiving titanium pings of aluminum bats. This means a more demanding season, since wooden bats not only deliver the satisfying crack synonymous with baseball, they also require a more precise swing in order to make solid contact.

Collins focuses much of his attention on the coaches and volunteers who bring the league to life each summer. In Chatham, grizzled high school baseball coach John Schiffner, who is also the A's skipper, takes on a starring role. He's gruff, but cares for his players and networks constantly with their college coaches to ensure they get a fair shake during the summer season. Collins, it seems, follows Schiffner everywhere but the showers.

All of the author's hanging around pays off. He hears the coaches delivering brutal talent assessments, spies the more-than-occasional player hangovers and listens in as the phenoms chase girls as routinely as they chase ground balls.

He also gets inside their heads, cataloging the fears, jealousies and worries of jockeying for scouts' attention.

The baseball's not bad, either. As Collins notes, one out of every six big league ballplayers comes through the Cape Cod League. Alums include Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Zito, Mo Vaughn, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk.

The Chatham A's prove compelling, from stud third baseman Jamie D'Antona to sparkplug, longshot shortstop Blake Hanan. There's the cocky, take-it-or-leave-it lefty, Scott Hindman, as well as the singularly determined right-hander, Tim Stauffer.

Throughout The Last Best League, Collins weaves in compelling biographies of several players, including how they perform in the ultimate baseball reality of dealing with failure. Even the best hitters, as Ken Burns and so many others love to remind us, fail seven out of 10 times.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is its economy. Collins provides solid narrative, ample anecdotes and a keep-it-moving season chronicle without succumbing to notebook-dumping. He leavens the inevitable pathos of passing youth with dugout profanities and even the occasional joint on the beach.

The author, thank the baseball gods, leans more toward Bull Durham than Field of Dreams. No weepy Billy Crystal spiels here. Just a nice little baseball revival, wooden bats and all.

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