CHATHAM, Mass. — Lou Distasio trotted to the Veterans Field mound just ahead of the slowly creeping fog. It was the eighth inning, and his Chatham Anglers were trailing the Wareham Gatemen 2-1.
As if the scene wasn’t dramatic enough, Distasio, a Yarmouth native, quickly surrendered a double, a bunt single and a stolen base. Runners on second and third, nobody out, the A’s infield drawn in, 1,500 fans leaning in to catch a better view.
This was precisely why Distasio, a junior-to-be at the University of Rhode Island, came to compete in the prestigious Cape Cod League this summer. It’s a chance to test himself against some of the finest college baseball players in America, in front of a nightly assortment of pro scouts, and to hone an off-speed pitch to complement his fastball.
In a sticky spot on a recent evening, Distasio reared back and delivered … a change-up. He got an out on a grounder to third, conferred with his pitching coach and then promptly struck out the next two batters to get out of the inning.
“I was just thinking, put a zero up on the board,” Distasio said afterward. “Both strikeouts were on change-ups. That’s what I’ve been working on, so that feels good, definitely.”
Distasio is joined on the Anglers by fellow right-handed relief pitcher Jeff Gelinas of Saco. They are the only two Mainers in the 10-team league this summer, and they ended up on the same team by pure coincidence.
Gelinas was recruited to Chatham in the winter, when a scout was impressed by his performances while pitching for the University of Maine during a long trip in Florida. He was considering an offer to rejoin the Old Orchard Beach Raging Tide in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, where he played last summer, when the Anglers gave him a better opportunity.
A premier league
The Cape Cod League is the premier venue for college baseball players. The league has been around for decades, but in the past 20 years has become a destination for college baseball’s elite. Distasio and Gelinas are playing alongside and against athletes from USC, Mississippi State, Louisville and a host of other big-time programs.
That’s one advantage. The other is that, with 10 teams located in such close proximity – the longest trip is 70 minutes – and staggered start times, scouts can easily see four rosters full of players in a single evening.
Gelinas had heard about it throughout his childhood, when his grandmother used to bring back team programs after her summertime sojourns to the Cape. To actually get to play there?
“If you get this offer, you take it. There’s no second-guessing,” Gelinas said. “It’s awesome.”
Distasio was a latecomer to the Cape Cod League. He got a temporary position with the Anglers as they waited for the rest of the roster to arrive once their college playoff games were completed. To survive, he had to beat out a couple of other pitchers.
And he did.
Distasio and Gelinas competed against each other in high school while at Cheverus and Thornton Academy. To unexpectedly find themselves on the same team in Cape Cod, of all places, has been surreal, they said.
“It’s good to know someone,” Gelinas said.
“We hang out. We’re good buddies,” added Distasio.
As you would expect on Cape Cod, the settings are quaint. Veterans Field occupies a valley below Depot Street in Chatham, across from the fire station. Minivans line the street and families disembark with blankets and folding chairs to watch from beyond the outfield fence. Next to the stadium is a playground bustling with children. Admission to the games is free and things are so informal that regular patrons just leave their camping chairs lined up alongside the fence ringing the infield, with their names etched on the back. As game time nears, people show up to tip the chairs upright and settle in for a ballgame.
The players serve as their own grounds crew, with Distasio and Gelinas helping prepare the infield dirt for that night’s game before retreating to the bullpen down the left-field line.
There’s one more aspect that makes it feel like old-time baseball, and this is the most exciting thing for the pitchers: the distinctive sound of wooden bats. Unlike during their college seasons, Distasio and Gelinas don’t have to contend with batters wielding metal bats.
“The pitcher gets back a little bit of home plate with this league,” said John Schiffner, in his 22nd year of managing the Anglers. “We can pitch to contact in this league, where in college baseball you cannot. The pitchers can pitch now instead of just trying to miss bats.
“They can learn how to pitch inside. Because you’ve got to take the plate away.”
For Gelinas, it also means a simpler pleasure.
“If I can get it inside on the hands and break a couple of bats, that’s what I’ve been doing here a lot. And that might be a bloop single with a metal bat at school. It does change how you approach each hitter. I definitely prefer throwing to wood,” he said. “It’s awesome, you hear the bat cracking when you’re on the mound.”
The players stay with host families for the summer. Distasio said the hosts are generous about taking the guys out on their boats and letting them explore the vacation paradise of Cape Cod. Gelinas said his host family has two young children, and he’s enjoying being the honorary big brother. Plus, the athletes become celebrities of a sort when they’re seen around town.
Distasio and Gelinas have also been able to welcome their Maine families at the ballpark, since it’s a trip of less than four hours by car.
But the goal for each is to work on their pitching repertoire before heading back to college. Distasio is gaining command of his change-up.
Gelinas has been toying with a cut fastball in bullpen sessions, and his Chatham coaches have been impressed.
He went 3 for 4 with a 3.86 ERA and .244 opponents’ batting average as a freshman at Maine. He figures to be one of the team’s top two starters next season.
“Maine is in a good college conference, but this is an all-star team every night you get to face,” Gelinas said. “It’s great to be young and getting this experience so early.”
Distasio and Gelinas both have pro aspirations. They certainly notice the number of radar guns that pop up behind home plate every time they prepare to deliver a pitch. But they claim not to be thinking that far ahead.
Schiffner, though, has little doubt that the Mainers will get their shot.
“I see them both playing pro baseball,” he said. “How far? I don’t know. But their velocity and their makeup and their body types, I think they’ll both be in pro baseball in the next three or four years.”
Mark Emmert can be contacted at 791-6424 or