YARMOUTH, Mass. -- It is miraculous that the Cape Cod Baseball League, which held its All-Star Game last Saturday night at Red Wilson Field, is two disparate things at once.
The CCBL is an intensely competitive amateur league. Fifteen of the top 73 draft picks in the 2013 MLB Draft played in the CCBL, along with many others from subsequent rounds, and professional-level talent simply too young to be drafted. The section for major league scouts at the All-Star Game stretched across the backstop, and was filled to capacity.
"If you're coming here, you're playing on a daily basis, which already makes it more like professional baseball," Harwich manager Steve Englert said from a white table that doubled as postgame podium and earlier, had been a merchandise display after the East All-Stars defeated the West All-Stars, 9-3.
"During the school year, you don't see top-flight pitching night in and night out, the way you do here. I don't think, no matter what your statistics are down here, playing on a nightly basis against this level of competition is only going to get you better."
That's certainly been the case for Max Pentecost, catcher for the Bourne Braves, the West All-Stars, Kennesaw State University, and unless something goes terribly awry, sometime next year, a high draft pick and catching hope of the future for a major league team.
Pentecost is second in the league in batting average at .357, tied for second in home runs with five, and tied for second in the league in runs batted in with 27.
This would be impressive enough from any hitter, especially considering that no Cape League player has ever won the Triple Crown. But Pentecost is putting up those numbers while drawing high marks for his catching, and even stealing five bases without getting caught.
He'd been talented enough to get picked in the seventh round of the 2011 draft by the Texas Rangers, even having just undergone Tommy John surgery. But that was largely based on hoping he'd convert his potential talent into skills like driving the ball as he is now. And catchers who can do it all, at the highest amateur level, don't last until the seventh round.
"He's a good athlete," Pentecost's Cape League manager, Harvey Shapiro, said as we chatted by the West team's dugout following the game. "He handles pitchers, he can catch and throw, he catches the ball, he blocks, he makes contact, he's a good hitter, and he can bunt, he can run. That's unusual for a catcher."
Shapiro didn't seem surprised that Pentecost, who'd homered just three times in 403 collegiate at-bats, suddenly figured out how to drive the ball consistently, given his compact swing. But for Pentecost, the shift has come as a revelation he says coaches have been expecting of him for years.
"It just kinda kicked in, you know?," Pentecost, his face and body a series of squares with the exception of his round-cheeked smile, told me as we chatted near the white tent that served as the postgame press conference area. "I've always tried to do it, and thought I was doing it, and then I get up here, and I thought, I'm gonna have to change something, and I did, and it's working out for me!"
And that's the other thing the Cape Cod League is, along with serving as a crucible for elite amateur baseball talent: it's a big family for the summer, made up of kids just out of high school, like Pentecost, surrounded by host families as they make adjustments that will turn them into millionaires tomorrow.
"Oh, you're writing about Max? He's just the nicest kid," Julie Flanagan of Sandwich, who is hosting fellow CCBL All-Star Clint Freeman this summer, said when we first started talking during the game.
Freeman and Pentecost are regulars at Flanagan's house. Flanagan said she knows Max is with Clint, because "things are neat. He's always cleaning up after everyone." Max and Clint are close, though Flanagan said it helps that down the street from her house is one of the best places to fish in the area. Fishing is a passion of Max's.
"I'd like to say that I beat him when we played air hockey," Flanagan said, sitting in the metal bleachers along the first base line to watch Saturday's game. "I was close." Flanagan confided that her daughters didn't mind losing their Chinese leftovers, if Max or Clint had been the ones who ate them.
And that's the essential feeling I got repeatedly on Saturday, walking the grounds of Red Wilson Field and dodging an incalculable number of parents playing catch with their children, not to mention various pickup games, including one waged with a tiny novelty bat and a Dasani water bottle as the ball.
To be sure, it was a high-stakes showcase, with the attendant potential for disappointment. I watched Kyle Freeland, who'd given up a pair of runs in the fourth inning, walk slowly up the first base line to the bullpen, shaking his head in frustration over his outing.
But those moments were the exception. Sitting with Julie and several other host families in the first base bleachers, Bourne's Ryan Kellogg popped up behind us to alert his host family: he'd be pitching the sixth inning. Fans in the stands knew these players, or had multiple encounters with them. The best domestic prospects in baseball merge into the Cape Cod community, living normal lives in a way college basketball's best, or college football's elite prospects, simply don't.
Until last season, when Pentecost played in the New England Collegiate Baseball League (a fine amateur league, but generally acknowledged to be a step down in competition from the CCBL), he'd spent most of his life in Georgia.
"I had to get used to the weather, the rain and everything, the temperature," Pentecost said of New England. "But this year wasn't too bad. I came up here, I had a week before we started playing. So I was able to do some fishing, hang out, and enjoy this area. It's very comfortable. I've met some great people here."
While he was meeting those people, Pentecost was also doing things like reaching base seven times in seven tries during a July 10 game at Orleans, hitting two home runs and knocking in the tying run in the seventh, and what turned out to be the game-winning two-run homer in the twelfth.
"After each at-bat, I just tried to forget the last one," Pentecost said. "Okay, I'm 4-for-4, gotta keep a night going, you're gonna chase pitches, gonna swing at something bad. But I'd just forget about the at-bat before, and just play my game."
He plans to keep playing his game right into next season for Kennesaw State. Only a rising junior, Pentecost wasn't available to be drafted, once he turned down the Rangers in 2011, until next summer. It's hard to imagine he won't be picked, pretty early, next June. And it's equally hard to imagine the relationships fostered here won't carry on for many years to come.
Kevin Cron, named the West's Most Valuable Player, is the younger brother of current Angels' top prospect C.J. Cron, who recently played in the MLB Futures Game. Oh, and the elder Cron, of course, played in the CCBL back in 2010. Kevin said C.J. still has close friends from his time on the Cape, and he hopes to as well.
"It's nice to meet some other guys, and enjoy the game with a different bunch of people," Cron said at his postgame press conference. "It really made us feel like we were at home, with the team. It was an experience we're gonna remember for a long time together, build a better bond, another story to talk about, going forward, when we stay friends after this summer."
Pentecost said his relationship is like that with Freeman. When I asked him if they'd stay in touch, he gave me a big smile and said, "Oh, for sure. For sure."
Shortly thereafter we ended our interview, and Pentecost bounded away to chat up some fans. The players and those who came to see them mixed more like a Little League postgame than a professional world many of them will shortly inhabit. Pentecost soon went home with his host family, resting up: Sunday's schedule called for a doubleheader.
Over near the first-base dugout, while the games of catch had spread onto the field itself as families awaited a fireworks show to come, Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox pitcher James Kaprielian turned nervously to a teammate and said, "Have you seen Mrs. E? I have her car keys." Yarmouth-Dennis catcher Wayne Taylor, used to firing bullets toward second base, instead stood by second base, taking those throws from a parade of children.
Queen's "You're My Best Friend" played over the PA system. Taylor signed some autographs at second base, and then walked slowly toward the opening in the center field fence. The games of catch continued.