By Lauren Leary
Special to GoHolyCross.com
The Cape Cod Baseball League had 297 alumni play in the 2016 Major League Baseball season. The CCBL is arguably the most prestigious amateur baseball league in the United States. As rising collegiate athletes have become more talented, the league has only become more competitive and selective in drafting potential players.
Because of the success of the Holy Cross baseball team in recent years, four Crusaders were given the opportunity to compete on one of the most visible platforms for major league scouts. Seniors Brendan King, George Capen, Anthony Critelli and Jon Escobar took the field during the 2016 Cape League season.
While King and Capen played for the Falmouth Commodores, Critelli competed with the Harwich Mariners and Escobar took the mound for the Bourne Braves. The four Crusader teammates took new friendships, skills and a new level of competitiveness with them back to the Hill for the start of the 2017 season, which starts on Feb. 19 versus Central Connecticut in Northborough, Mass., at the New England Baseball Complex at noon.
PLAYING WITH PRESTIGE
When collegiate athletes receive the opportunity to play for the Cape Cod Baseball League, they are commonly thrilled and thankful for the esteemed opportunity. A summer playing for the Cape League can lead to opportunities that the majority of college athletes can only dream about. The four Crusader athletes' reaction to their induction into the league was no different.
“I was extremely excited, but also very honored,” said Critelli on receiving the call to play on the Cape. “Some great professional players have come out of that league, and every year they get some of the best players in the country. To have an opportunity to play there was a great feeling.”
Capen, who was brought on to pitch for the Commodores specifically for the playoffs, agreed. He recalled feeling incredibly humbled. “I started out my last summer ball experience in the NECBL, and playing in the Cape League seemed like a dream that had just surpassed,” said Capen. “But once my NECBL season was over and I got the call from Coach DiCenzo that I had a contract offer to the No. 1 seed in the Cape League for the playoffs, I was just so humbled.”
Capen's contribution to the Commodores helped lead the team into their appearance in the league's Championship Playoff Series. Heading into the final series against the Yarmouth-Dennis Red Sox, he pitched 8.1 scoreless innings over three games in the semifinal series. While Yarmouth-Dennis eventually defeated the Commodores for the championship title, Capen's self-reliance grew in each appearance he made. “Pitching against the quality of hitters that the Cape League boasts definitely helped when it comes to my confidence,” said Capen. “Knowing that I have the ability to go up against anybody and have success really helps me to be able to trust my abilities going into my final season of college ball.”
King agreed that pitching for Falmouth helped him grow as a player. “Playing for the Commodores made me a smarter player,” said King. “I had to be comfortable throwing any pitch in any count in order to be successful against this caliber of competition.”
While King and Capen competed in the final series of the season, playing with and against their Crusader teammates in the Cape League are their most memorable experiences. “My favorite memory was in Game 3 of the West Division Finals,” said Capen. “We were playing against Bourne, which is the team Jon Escobar played for, and Brendan was starting for us. He went a strong five scoreless innings, and I got the opportunity to relieve him for two scoreless of my own. Following that inning, Jon pitched a scoreless inning for Bourne. It was really special for me because it was a big game, and the fact that all three of us got to pitch made it a very memorable moment.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE
Anthony Critelli playing for the Harwich Mariners
The Cape League's overall structure is also unique, as each player lives with a host family throughout the season. Local families from Cape Cod open their doors and offer vacant bedrooms to the collegiate athletes, thus committing to a summer with an additional household member.
The relationship built between players and their host families on the Cape is particularly distinctive, as many major league athletes have maintained a relationship with their hosts and continually invite them to their games. The maintenance of the relationship between the host family and athlete keeps the Cape Cod Baseball League network strong, which adds another attractive feature to the league for prospective athletes.
“In all three of my summer ball experiences I have had the incredible fortune of being hosted by three great families,” said Escobar. “This summer on the Cape was no exception. My host parents were some of my best friends and biggest fans while I was in Bourne. Their constant support, along with that of the other host families and fans in Bourne truly gave the Cape a big-league-feel and made it a very special place to play.”
Critelli agreed with the sentiment that host families and local fans created an exceptional environment for the athletes. “I moved around a little bit in my time in Harwich, but each house I stayed at was a great experience,” he said. “The Harwich fan base and everyone that works for the team to make the program happen are incredible. Having their support at every game made coming to the field every day a lot of fun.”
As for the everyday schedule of a Cape League player, between host family meals, practices and games, the athletes spend time taking batting practice and relaxing with their host family members. Each day is different for the athletes. However, just as many players also spend their off-hours working at their team's youth clinics or mentally and physically preparing for their upcoming games. Though facing demanding schedules, the four Crusader teammates found time to support one another, with Critelli and Escobar specifically making a trek to cheer King on in his All-Star Game appearance.
PREPARING FOR THE 2017 SEASON
Anthony Critelli at Fenway Park
As the four Crusaders prepare for the 2017 season, they carry memories of competitive play and a summer in one of the country's most coveted vacation destinations. Though they competed for different teams on the Cape, all four student-athletes are excited for the 2017 season to put their new skills to use in the quest for a championship.
“With so many Holy Cross baseball players sharing such tremendous success in the Cape League this summer, I think it is really a great confidence boost for our program and especially for our freshmen,” said Escobar. “To know that Holy Cross baseball annually produces elite-level talent and develops student-athletes who can compete at the highest levels of collegiate and professional baseball is truly special.”
Critelli agreed, citing his summer experience as motivation to work toward a successful senior season. “There are many things from this summer that were extremely memorable,” said Critelli. “I made some great friends with teammates and built relationships with coaches, staff and fans. I am really looking forward to the start of the season, as I know we have a very talented team and have a chance to have a great year.”
Holy Cross head coach Greg DiCenzo, who was an assistant coach for the Commodores from 2002-2005, understands how being part of the Cape League can lead to success. "Playing in the Cape Cod league shows that you can compete with anyone in the country," said DiCenzo. "For our players that play on the Cape it proves to them that they can compete with the best players from all around the nation. They return to Holy Cross with the confidence that they belong, which shows our team that we can compete and be successful versus any team in the nation."
The Crusaders were just recently picked first in the Patriot League Preseason Poll, while Critelli and King were named the league's preseason Player of the Year and Pitcher of the Year, respectively. Senior Bill Schlich and Escobar also earned spots on this year's Preseason All-Patriot League team. Last year, the Crusaders went 30-27 (14-6 Patriot League) and qualified for the Patriot League championship series.
Lauren Leary is a 2012 graduate of Holy Cross and spent two summers writing for the Cape Cod Baseball League.