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Behind great team chemistry and solid depth, 1998 Chatham A's won the CCBL title

by Peter Warren, 08-11-2018

Behind great team chemistry and solid depth, 1998 Chatham A's won the CCBL title

In the middle of July in 1998, the Chatham A’s were playing the Orleans Cardinals at Veterans Field. The A’s won the game 1-0. A future first-round pick — and MLB All-Star — struck out nine batters in seven innings while holding the Cardinals scoreless. The lone RBI of the game also came from a future major leaguer.

It was a typical victory for Chatham during the 1998 season.

“I look back at that '98 season and what a joy,” 1998 A’s assistant coach Matt Fincher said. “I mean a great group, really good baseball players and still, 20 years removed, absolutely one of the highlights of my baseball life.”

Led by CCBL Hall of Fame manager John Schiffner, the 1998 Chatham A’s were one of the best teams in Chatham baseball history. With a starting lineup that regularly featured four future Major Leaguers and a pitching staff starring three pitchers who would be selected in the first two rounds of the Draft, the A’s had star power.

Yet Chatham was far from top heavy. The A’s were stacked with outstanding role players and complementary pieces that almost always seemed to come up clutch when their number was called upon.

But, above all, the 1998 Chatham A’s were outstanding in a category numbers cannot quantify — team chemistry.

“It is definitely one of the best teams, there's no question,” Schiffner said. “As far as kids go, it was one of the best teams. As far as talent goes, it was one of the best teams.”

Beginning the season

Heading into the season, Schiffner and his staff knew they had a talented roster. But, much like teams on the Cape face today, Team USA played its part in team construction. Five players on the initial Chatham roster went to tryout with Team USA.

“If they show up, the Chatham A’s are a super team,” Schiffner told The Cape Cod Chronicle in June 1998.

Not all of the players who went to tryout ended up in Chatham. The two players who did were future major leaguers Kevin Mench (Delaware) and Brian Roberts (North Carolina).

Mench and Roberts were roommates while trying out for Team USA in Tucson, Arizona. Mench — who said he has known Roberts since he was five  — played in two games during the his time with Team USA while Roberts played in four games.

Neither ended up on the roster. Roberts had decided that he did not want to play for Team USA and reported to the A’s instead.

“I had played on the USA team in the summer before and it was a great experience,” Roberts said. “But, I just felt like going to the Cape and playing with a wood bat would be very beneficial for me at that time.”

While Roberts and Mench roomed together with Team USA, the Chatham A’s were getting their season started with a matchup against the Harwich Mariners at Veterans Field on June 11. A harbinger of games to come, the A’s pulled off a late-inning comeback to start the campaign on a high note.

Down 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning and with the bottom of the order coming to the plate, the odds were not on Chatham’s side.

Jason Alcaraz (Michigan) started the inning with a single to right field and Clay Hooper (North Carolina) roped a double to right field. With runners on second and third, Matt Kata (Vanderbilt) scored Alcaraz with a ground ball. Doug Roper (Clemson) then attempted a suicide squeeze but failed to execute. Hooper was caught in no-man's land between third and home and was tagged out. 

Roper salvaged the at-bat by drawing a walk. After David Raymer (Sacramento City College) was plunked and Jon Palmieri (Wake Forest) hit an infield single, Chatham had the bases loaded for Matt Cepicky (Southwest Missouri State). Cepicky, for the first of many times that summer, left Veterans Field the hero as his single scored Roper and Raymer.

“We had depth,” Schiffner said. “We had power, we could hit, we could run, we could pitch, we could catch. I mean it was a very good team.”

1998 Chatham A's team photo
The team photo of the 1998 Chatham A’s. (Chatham Anglers Archives)

 

Elite Pitching

During a trip to play a doubleheader in Falmouth, Chatham’s Kyle Snyder (North Carolina) and Falmouth’s Jeff Weaver (Fresno State) were both slated to pitch game two of the twin bill. Snyder was one of the top prospects for the 1999 MLB Draft while Weaver was a three-time All-American and had just been selected No. 14 overall in the 1998 Draft.

“There had to be 50 scouts at the game,” Schiffner said. “They just threw absolute missiles at one another for seven innings. I remember that. I don’t even remember the outcome, but the hype was incredible.”

Snyder pitched six innings for the A’s, striking out ten and allowing just two hits in a 4-1 victory. Snyder does not remember any specifics from the game, but does recall, “pitching really well.”

After the game, Fincher remembers talking with Schiffner about Snyder’s impressive outing.

“He goes, ‘How hard do you think Snyder was throwing today?’” Fincher said. “I'm like, ‘I don't know, 90?’ He goes ‘95.’ I'm like ‘Are you kidding me?’ He made it look so easy when he was on.”

Snyder — a 6’8” right-hander — would be given the Robert A. McNeese Award at the end of the season as the league’s most outstanding pro prospect. He finished the season with a 2.25 ERA and an opponent’s batting average of .189.

But Snyder was not the only top prospect honing his craft with Schiffner, pitching coach Jon “Doc” Strauss and the A’s.

CCBL Hall of Famer Rik Currier (Southern California) arrived later than most after winning the College World Series in Omaha with USC. But once he reported, he made his mark known. In his first of two CCBL seasons, the right-hander was 5-3 in eight starts, finishing with a 2.37 ERA and 33 strikeouts in addition to being selected for the All-Star Game.

“Currier is one of my all-time favorites,” Fincher said. “I don't know why but I just really enjoyed him, maybe because he was such a good pitcher. But he was always in control and in command and was a pitcher's pitcher. He could locate, change speeds, he could do things.”

Jeremy Ward (Long Beach State) also came late to the team but immediately became one of the best pitchers in the league. Ward — who was one of the biggest jokesters on the team — made six starts on the season, finishing 5-0 with a 1.94 ERA. He was named to the East Division All-Star team and the End of the Season All-Star team.

Mike MacDougal (Wake Forest) was the fourth top pitcher in the starting rotation. A future MLB All-Star as a closer, MacDougal’s pitches had a lot of movement, including a devastating fastball.

“MacDougal had a fastball that just board in right-handers,” Strauss said. “He was probably doing 93, but the ball would just blow wooden bats out of people hands.”

The fifth starter in the rotation was Devon Nicholson (Sacramento City College). Nicholson had spent the spring at Sacramento City College and was transferring to play at Tennessee in 1999.

While surefire studs from big-name programs fronted the rotation, a pitcher from a small Division III school in New Jersey that had only one former player make the majors led the bullpen.

“Then we had the underrated guy, the guy that nobody thought was going to perform very well and he becomes our most important pitcher with Shawn Stokes (William Patterson),” Schiffner said. “He was our closer. We used him sometimes three innings to close the game out. He was a tough Jersey kid.” 

Stokes was not the only relief pitcher to carve out a role in the bullpen. Two-way player Ryan Earey (North Carolina) became an important set-up man and Todd Raithel (Louisville) made 15 appearances and saved five games for the A’s.

“I was really smart back then,” Strauss said. “When you have those kind of pitchers, it really makes you a smart pitching coach.”

Summer of Cepicky

The Fourth of July on the Lower Cape always means a few things — hot weather, crowded streets, parades, fireworks and a baseball game between Chatham and Orleans. The summer of 1998 was no different.

In front of a crowd so big Kata said he wanted to buy 50-50 tickets because the split was going to be “huge,” the two rivals put on a thrilling show that went down to the wire. The game between was knotted up in the ninth inning and Chatham had the bases loaded with Cepicky set to swing. 

Schiffner called over the power-hitting outfielder — a player he calls “arguably the strongest guy I've ever coached in my life” — to talk to him before stepping into the batter’s box. After giving him a quick pep talk, the A’s skipper knew the game was over.

Cepicky stepped in and crushed the first pitch he saw deep over the wall in center field for the game-winning grand slam.

“I'll never forget the roar when he hit that home run,” Schiffner said. “It was spectacular. The home run itself was majestic.”

Cepicky was the offensive juggernaut for the Anglers all summer. The left-handed slugger finished the season hitting .327 with team-highs in home runs with five, triples with three, hits with 53 and RBIs with 33. 

In batting practice and in games, Cepicky would hit bombs onto the hill in right field, onto Depot Road and even a few to the firehouse. Fincher remembers the lefty hitting the “most prodigious” home run — a missile that landed on Depot Road in straight away center field. 

While his moonshot on the Fourth of July sticks out, his magnum opus came on August 1 at Veterans Field during the All-Star Game.

First, Cepicky went up against five other sluggers — including feature major leaguers Bobby Kielty (Brewster) and Jason Lane (Hyannis) — in the Home Run Hitting Contest and prevailed in front of approximately 4,500 fans. Cepicky, who hit homers that short hopped the firehouse, won the derby.

Then, batting in the cleanup spot and right behind Kielty — who was named League MVP at the end of the year after hitting a league-high .384 — in the lineup, Cepicky continued to put on a clinic in the All-Star Game.

In the top of the first, he started the scoring for the East Division with a single that scored Y-D’s Corey Slavik (Wake Forest). Five innings later with the game tied at one, Cepicky provided the game-winning run when he hit a sacrifice fly to center field, scoring Slavik. The East would tack on another run as they won the game 3-1. It was the first win in the All-Star Game for the East Division since 1991.

For his efforts, the Southwest Missouri State product was named the East Division MVP, capping off a day for the ages.

“To watch Cepicky swing the weighted lead bat in the on deck circle before heading to the plate is like watching George Foreman hit the heavy bag in the documentary 'When We Were Kings,'” The Cape Cod Chronicle vividly described in an August 1998 feature on Cepicky. “Tremendous strength combined with a graceful, fundamental sound swing makes Cepicky an offensive force.”

Stacked Lineup

Cepicky was the not the only fearful bat in the lineup. Mench lined up right next to him in the order. The slugging right-hander came to the Cape after being named the Collegiate Baseball Player of the Year, hitting 33 home runs for the University of Delaware before showing off his picturesque swing at Veterans Field.

“The first time I threw batting practice to Kevin Mench, him and Matt Cepicky are the two that really stand out to me,” Fincher said. “When I'm out there doing batting practice to him and the ball is coming back by the screen much differently than what I was used to seeing. That was something that told me immediately that these guys are a little bit different. This isn't run-of-the-mill college baseball.”

It was not just Mench’s long home runs that stood out about the prodigious slugger. It was also his head.

“He had the biggest head you've ever seen,” Roberts said. “We had trouble finding a helmet to fit him.”

While Cepicky and Mench providing the pop in the middle of the order, Roberts and Kata set the table at the top and on the left side of the infield.

In his second summer with the A’s, Schiffner promised Kata he would be the starting shortstop. But when Roberts arrived in Chatham, Kata slid over to third base. It was a sacrifice Kata, who stresses the importance of being a good teammate, was willing to do and did so without making a fuss. Roberts and Kata were both smooth defenders who easily impressed others with their defensive capabilities.

Schiffner said watching Brian Roberts steal third base was fun to watch. The dugout did not know when he would break for third so Schiffner would watch with great fascination, trying to figure out when he was going take his first step and dash.

“The way he would set the pitcher up, he was ahead of his time with using the bounce back,” Schiffner said. “He would hop back and forth trying to get momentum.”

But it was not just those four leading the offense. First baseman Jon Palmieri (Wake Forest) hit .307 with 21 runs in 42 games on his way to being named the first baseman on the End of the Season All-Star team. Outfielder Jason Alcarez (Michigan) had the highest batting average on the team at .333.

Catcher Barry Gauch (Virginia Tech), Raymer, the starting center fielder, and Roper, the starting second baseman, all struggled at the dish but provided great defense and timely hitting for the team.

In one game against the rival Cardinals in mid-July, Gauch provided one of the big highlights of the regular season. The Virginia Tech product launched a grand slam over the wall in left field in the ninth inning in an eventual 14-11 victory.

As for Raymer, Mench remembers his outfield comrade being a solid outfielder.

“He was fast,” Mench said. “He could throw it one hundred miles an hour. He was really fast and had a great arm.”

07041998_1
Kevin Mench on the Fourth of July. (Courtesy of the Mench Family) 

Fun times 

Early on in the season, the A’s dealt with a lot of weather-related trouble.

“I distinctly remember we went to the field 39 straight days,” Schiffner said. “Now, we didn't play a game 39 straight days, but we ended up having to go to the field whether it was our own field or a visitors field 39 straight days.”

One stretch in early June featured two fog outs in four days in addition to a sunset delay in Bourne a week later. During these fog delays, usually someone would pick up two baseballs and group of players would begin to play two-ball.

Two-ball is a common pregame baseball activity involving a group of players. After the players circle up, one player will toss two baseballs in the air towards another, who has to catch both balls with one hand. That player will then toss the ball towards another. If a player drops one of the balls, he gets an out and the game goes until there is one player remaining.

“We used to do that all the time, fog delays, before games — especially the pitchers — and just had a blast with it,” Nicholson said.

Before games, Nicholson was the team barber. The right-hander had grown up cutting hair —his friends and his own — and had grown to be skillful in the art. Visitors to his host family’s house for a trim included Mench, who got a buzz cut, and Rathel, who preferred a fade.

For Mench, his mornings consisted of working the Chatham A’s baseball camp with regular counselors Currier, Marc Desroches (Providence), Kata and MacDougal.

“Both times I was out there my job was working the camps,” Currier said. “That was fun, getting to work with the kids.”

Kata remembers excursions as elaborate as a road trip up to Provincetown on an off-day and also casual hangouts at the beach or at a house after games.

The future big league infielder said that the players on the 1998 team truly cared about each other and that the team’s excellent dynamic was crucial to its success.

“That's a huge reason why we were able to win,” Kata said. “And they again obviously were there to just play ball and play the game the right way. I think we had a lot of guys who could just were ultimately, really good teammates.”

Snyder and Roberts

After declining Team USA’s invitation, Roberts left from Chapel Hill with Snyder in a two-man caravan. Making the journey up to the Cape in his hand-me-down hunter green Jeep Cherokee, Roberts’ main source of entertainment was not the radio. In an era before cell phones were prevalent, the two Tar Heels had bought the “most powerful walkie-talkies” available to them so they could talk with each other during the long journey.

“That summer definitely solidified our friendship forever,” Roberts said. “Living together for that summer in Cape Cod and spending as much time together as we did, it definitely, I think, bonded us in a way that probably no other summer could have.”

The two Tar Heels, who lived together at UNC and had been good friends before the summer, lived in a house with first-time host mom Phyllis Shaw. Roberts said she was timid of the two ballplayers at first, but soon came to enjoy their company.

While most players had full-time jobs, Roberts and Snyder did not. However, the two had plenty to do in the mornings to keep them busy. Snyder and Roberts used to drive a few times a week to Orleans to work out at a gym. On some days, they would do yard work around the Shaw household.

“She had a riding mower and a push mower and it was a three acre piece of land in town,” Snyder said. “One of us would edge with the push mower, the other one would get on the riding mower and do the bulk of the work.”

Snyder said he and Roberts were always happy to do work around the house for Shaw because she had opened her home to them.

After the summer in Chatham, Snyder and Roberts would never be teammates again. Roberts transferred to South Carolina for his junior season, while Snyder stayed in Chapel Hill.

However, the two have remained very good friends, which made for uncomfortable situations when facing each other in the major leagues.

“Competing against Kyle was very awkward,” Roberts said. “He got me out a couple of times. I actually remember hitting a home run off him and feeling bad rounding the bases.”

Snyder agreed that it was “awkward” going up against one of his best buddies, but added that Roberts “definitely got the better of me.”

The two were not the only two guys to stay close and keep in touch after leaving the Cape. During the winters, Roberts and Kata worked out together in Arizona. Cepicky and Snyder recently reconnected in Tampa.

And it was not just with other players. Roberts and Snyder continued to keep in touch with Shaw for years and she even got see Roberts play at Fenway Park.

“One of the coolest moments with her was when I got to the big leagues, my parents actually got to bring her from Cape Cod and I got to see her on the field,” Roberts said. “There's some really awesome relationships that come from the Cape.”

Veterans Field

The A’s were the best team when playing at home in the CCBL in 1998. While taking the field in Chatham, the A’s were 16-5 in the regular season and then did not lose a playoff game at home.

“It’s always nice to play for the home crowd,” Schiffner said. “It’s generally a pretty big, energetic group.”

Even though the team was great at home, Veterans Field is not the ballfield it is today.

When the players first arrived, the field was not in great condition. A winter and spring of wear-and-tear had done some harm to Veterans Field. Kata — who said he can close his eyes and see Veterans Field “perfectly” — recalls doing some work before the season began on the infield dirt.

“The first two or three days it was here's a little bucket, walk around the infield and pick up all the rocks and stones from the dirt in the infield so we can get some better hops,” Kata said.

Fincher and Strauss spent hours working on the playing surface. Strauss said Fincher made him mow the lawn every single day, while Fincher would spend hours picking up rocks all around the infield dirt and on the outfield-warning track.

During the week, the two coaches led the baseball clinics. While one would supervise, the other coach would work on the field in preparation for that night’s game.

“By the time we got to the middle of the season I think that it was a pretty good field,” Strauss said. “But, it was a lot of work.”

For Fincher, Veterans Field is not like the playing surfaces he was used to in his native south. But, when he first set his eyes on the ballpark the summer before in 1997, he knew “right away how lucky” he was to be able to spend his time at the ballpark.

“It was instant love,” Fincher said. “The trees behind the plate, the simple bleachers that are still there right now, the hill in the outfield, the road on top in right field, the old playground and the old Little League field that were there when I first got there were next door. Everything about it was awesome to me.”

07041998_3
Chatham A’s during the Fourth of July parade. (Courtesy of the Mench Family)

 

Jokesters

The coaching staff was always the last group to leave Veterans Field after a home game. One night, the staff left the field and departed for The Deli — a restaurant located at the current spot of Sweet Tomatoes. The classic New York pizzeria and deli was an A’s go-to spot for years and was hosting that night’s post game meal.

When the coaching staff walked in, the whole team was already chowing down slices and there was a pizza set aside for the skipper.

“It was just sitting there waiting for me to attack it because I do love my pizza,” Schiffner said.

Unbeknownst to Schiffner, the pizza was not a normal pie.

The team had loaded the pie with Tabasco Sauce and Sriracha— there was more of the hot stuff than tomato sauce —in hopes of pranking their manager.

“I took two bites and said ‘Okay. I just got taken,’” Schiffner said. “And I refused to give in.”

Despite the taste, Schiffner downed one slice. Then, he ate a second and went for a third. The team was in shock. “Hey Billy, this stuff is great!” Schiffner yelled out to owner Billy Nickerson, who had a stunned look on his face.

Schiffner downed five or six slices of the pizza to the bewilderment of the team. He turned the joke on its head. By the end of his meal, players were concerned for his health.

One day, the players were talking about the playoffs and Schiffner was not about it. The team was on the outside looking in and not playing good baseball. Schiffner said if the A’s made the playoffs, he would get a tattoo.

“First thing they did is they started grabbing me and going, ‘Where you gonna put it coach.’ ‘Where's it gonna go?’ ‘Where's it gonna go?’” Schiffner said.

While the chemistry between the players on the team was excellent, so was the relationship between the players and the coaching staff.

“I thought Schiff was fantastic in his approach each day,” Snyder said. “He wanted to win. He wanted us all to have fun. He did a great job just constructing the appropriate environment for both of those things to take place. I got a ton of respect for him.”

Magic

The A’s finished well down the stretch, but still needed a win on the last day of the season to clinch their playoff spot. Tied with the Harwich Mariners for second-place with 46 points, Chatham played Orleans at Eldredge Park while Harwich played the Brewster Whitecaps at Whitehouse Field.

The A’s pulled off a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over the Cardinals, while the Whitecaps held off the Mariners, 5-3, to send the A’s to the postseason. Once again, Cepicky was the hero. With the score tied at two in the eighth, the All-Star singled home Roberts to give the A’s a 3-2 lead. On the mound, Currier threw seven innings, striking out seven and allowing only two hits.

The win set up a matchup between the Whitecaps and the A’s. Brewster finished the regular season with the best record in the league and was led by Kielty, Mike Tonis (California) and future MLB All-Star Chase Utley (UCLA).

Game 1 of the series was a 3-2 win for the A’s. After playing with two umpires for the first three and a half innings, Chatham came back from a 2-0 deficit with one run in the third and one run in the fourth. Mench broke the deadlock in the eighth inning with he beat out an RBI infield single.

“Hey, that was a good at-bat,” Schiffner said to The Cape Cod Times after the game. “He ran it out hard and it’s a good thing, because they would have been able to tag him if he didn’t.”

While Game 1 was a thrilling victory, Game 2 was even crazier. Jon Shirley (California), who was 8-1 on the season with a 2.22 ERA, pitched for the Whitecaps. He threw 7.2 scoreless innings of baseball.

For the A’s, MacDougal put in a great performance as well. He threw eight innings and struck out 12 batters. However, he did make one mistake that Brewster pounced on. In the fifth, Lars Hansen (Hawaii) smacked a two-RBI double to put the Whitecaps up 2-0.

In the ninth, Chatham managed to put together a rally. After the A’s scored one run early in the frame, Brian Peterson (Eastfield Community College) — a backup catcher who did not play a single game with the A’s all season — walked up to the plate.

Peterson played for Harwich during the regular season, hitting .200 in 21 games, but signed with Chatham for the playoffs due to injuries.

“We lost our second [catcher] and league rules said you couldn't make changes after you had four changes,” Schiffner said. “We had made four roster moves. We had to basically apply for a waiver to get an extra roster move.”

The backup catcher doubled into the right-field gap, tying the game and giving the 4,000 fans at Veterans Field a chance to watch more free baseball.

The two East Division foes traded zeros for three and a half innings until the bottom of the 13th.

Alcaraz singled and Gauch reached on an error, setting up Rayner. The center fielder hit .169 on the season with only three extra-base hits. Facing a 2-2 count, Raymer stroked a pitch deep onto the hill beyond the flagpole in center field, sending the Whitecaps players back to Brewster to begin their packing.

The walk-off victory set the stage for A’s to face the Wareham Gatemen, headlined by the pitching trifecta of Phil Devey (Southwest Louisiana), Ben Sheets (Northeast Louisiana) and Barry Zito (La Pierce Junior College), in the CCBL finals. Devey was the co-winner of the B.F.C. Whitehouse Outstanding Pitcher Award, while Sheets and Zito would be drafted No. 9 and No. 10 overall in the 1999 MLB Draft and pitch a combined 25 seasons in the majors.

“I knew something was special when we walked off Brewster,” Schiffner said. “Wareham has Sheets and Zito. We are gonna give them a run for their money. And it was one of the greatest five-games series they ever had.”

Sheets, Currier and the first four games

The championship series between the A’s and the Gatemen was not the normal best two-out-of-three format. Instead, it was a three-out-of-five series.

“We haven't had a playoff championship series ever since then go more than two out of three because, quite honestly, in the off-season when the league talked about that, we all said it's just too much for the players and the volunteers to do a five-game series,” current CCBL commissioner and former Chatham A’s executive Paul Galop said. 

Game 1 in Wareham did not go according to the A’s plan for the A’s. Snyder ran into trouble early in the game, giving up four runs in the first two innings. However, he recovered and, beginning in the fourth inning, retired 14 straight Gatemen.

“They were the ‘27 Yankees to a lot of people, that Wareham team,” Schiffner said. “They were really good.”

Chatham managed to tie the game in fifth but could not capitalize on its opportunities going forward. The A’s left 15 runners on base, including a bases loaded chance in the seventh.

Wareham broke through in the eighth, scoring two runs. Matt Riordan (Loyola Marymount) scored Shawn Stevenson (Washington State) — who was dealing with a 102-degree fever — on a sacrifice fly and Phil Hartig (Ctiadel) singled home Blair Barbier (Louisiana State). Chatham put runners on the corners in the ninth, but Kata struck out to end the game

Pitching Game 2 for the A’s was Ward. Galop, who hosted Ward that summer, remembers how confident the right-hander was heading into the matchup.

“I remember my daughter saying to him on the way out the door, ‘Hey good luck tonight Jeremy.’” Galop said. “And I'll never forget, he said ‘We don't need any luck, I'm pitching.’”

Ward helped the A’s bounce back in game two at Veterans Field. The right-handed pitcher went the full nine innings, striking out seven and retiring 17 of 18 batters at one point. Kata scored two runs while Palmieri scored a run and knocked in another as Chatham won 5-1, leveling the series.

The best game of the playoffs, and one of the most memorable pitching duels in the history of the Cape Cod Baseball League, was Game 3 of the championship series. Future first-rounder Sheets went up against the future CCBL Hall of Famer Currier.

“I didn't have my best stuff or control,” Currier said. “I just pitched. That's the one game that stands out to me in just my whole career.”

Both right-handed pitchers traded zeros for innings. By the time the ninth inning was completed, neither pitcher had left the ball game nor allowed a run. Ben Sheets returned to the mound for a tenth inning while Schiffner told Currier his night was done after nine masterful innings.

Sheets struck out 16 batters in his 11 innings, tied for the most in a CCBL playoff game. It was the second time all summer Sheets — who threw 125 pitches in the game — had punched out 16 batters in a 10-plus-inning performance.

“Overall, I never had a game like that,” Sheets told The Cape Cod Times after the game. “Tonight, everything was working. I had them off-balance.”

Even though both starters day’s were done by the middle of the eleventh, neither team was able to find a hero until the fourteenth inning, when Wareham was able to beat a throw at the plate to win the game 1-0.

Nicholson said Currier’s performance is one that is likely to be overlooked because it came in a losing effort, and recalls the newspaper doing so the next day.

“I remember the headline in the paper the next day said, I don’t know it exactly, but it was something to the extent of ‘Currier outdueled by Sheets,’” Nicholson said. “I remember thinking ‘Are you kidding me?’”

The right-handed pitcher was not the only one who was confounded by the wording of the headline.

“How can you say he was outdueled?” The Cape Cod Times reports Strauss said to a reporter before game four. “Remember, we got 14 innings of pretty good pitching, too.”

With its backs against the wall, Chatham returned home for Game 4 and, in front of over 5,000 fans, fell behind 3-2 heading into the bottom of the eighth.

Cepicky started the game-winning rally with a single to right and Mench followed that up by reaching on an error. Earey then knocked in Cepicky with a double and Gauch scored Mench on a single up to the middle to give the A’s a 4-3 lead.

Wareham had a chance to retake the lead in the ninth. With two outs and the bases loaded, Barbier faced off against Stokes. The William Patterson product won the battle, forcing Barbier to fly out and sending the championship series to a winnter-take-all fifth game.

“Everybody wants to go home,” Cepicky said to The Cape Cod Times following Game 4. “They want to go home just as much as we do. But if you’re playing for a ring, it’s worth staying around an extra couple of days. Especially for all these people who keep coming out to support us.”

Nicholson’s Night

Heading into Game 5, Chatham had used all four of its ace starters in the series, meaning it was Nicholson’s turn in the rotation, and he was going up against Zito.

Despite the game being a mismatch on paper, the coaching staff was confident in Nicholson’s ability.

“He's a guy I remember because he was at his best when it was most important and that's always a neat thing for an athlete,” Fincher said.

Even with the confidence in their right-hander, the coaching staff knew that Zito would be a tough nut to crack. Earlier in the season, the southpaw had put in a dominant performance against the A’s.

But, Strauss came up with an idea to get into the lanky left-hander’s head.

Wareham’s manager was Don Reed, a CCBL Hall of Fame manager with four Cape League titles — 1989, 1990, 1994 and 1997 — under his belt. Strauss and the Chatham staff knew that he was a smart skipper. Strauss thought he might be able to predict what Reed might call.

“[Strauss] said that guy is smart in that dugout, I'm going to call out what I think I would call against our hitters,” Schiffner said. “And he was right most of the time. It was incredible and both Don and Zito were getting frustrated.”

Calling out “turn on it” when he thought a fastball was coming and “stay back” when he thought a curveball was coming, Strauss was right “80-90%” of the time, Schiffner said. Even though Strauss was right more often than not, Schiffner told the hitters not to listen to Strauss. His educated guesses were strictly for the ears of Wareham.

Strauss said he does not remember that strategy, but said he was able to pick-up one thing from the catcher that helped the A’s running game.

“I do remember that we had something with the catcher that would indicate whether [Zito] was going to pitch or pick,” Strauss said.

So while Nicholson was tossing zeros in the bottom half of innings, Zito was getting flustered in the top half of frames. He gave up two runs early on and was bounced in the middle of the fourth inning. Reed was ejected in the seventh for arguing balls and strikes.

With Chatham holding onto a 3-1 lead heading into the bottom of the seventh, Nicholson started his jog out towards the mound. As he did so, the crowd of 3,000 — half of which The Cape Cod Chronicle reported were Chatham fans — started chanting “Devon, Devon, Devon.” As Nicholson went through warm-ups, the chanting of “Devon” morphed into a chant for “Chatham.”

“It was really, really special. They really got behind me,” Nicholson said. “I had ups and downs during the season…I just really felt supported. It was a really, really special moment.”

Nicholson threw 130 pitches in his best, and most crucial, performance for the A’s. He struck out eight while allowing only five hits and one run. Earey relieved Nicholson before handing the ball over to Stokes to close the game out.

Extra insurance runs came in the eighth via Peterson. The “waiver-wire” pickup roped his second clutch double of the playoffs, this time a two-run two-bagger off the fence in left-center to make the score 5-1. Palmieri added a sixth run with a fielder’s choice later in the frame.

As the ninth inning began and the inevitable seemed closer and closer, the players grew antsy. Less than two months before, Currier had dogpiled at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. Now, he was trying to figure out the protocol for another championship victory.

“When we got to the point in Wareham when we knew we were going to win,” Currier said, “I was asking people in the dugout ‘Are we going to go out and dogpile or what?’”

But there was one man who was not having it. Schiffner was trying to calm down the team, telling them there is still baseball to be played.

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The 1998 Chatham A’s celebrate after winning the CCBL title. (Chatham Anglers Archives)

 

After a certain point, Strauss was having none of it. Stokes was still on the mound and Strauss knew he had the game on ice.

“Schiff is kind of freaking out a little bit, saying ‘Hey calm down. This isn't over yet,’” Strauss said. “At some point, I turn to Schiff and say, ‘Schiff, we ain't losing this game!’”

Strauss was not wrong.

Currier got his dogpile. 

“It was just a special group of kids,” Schiffner said. “They gutted it out. They could have gone home. They could have packed it in. But they didn't.”

When Stokes recorded the final out, A’s players stormed the field and completed their dogpile, celebrating their championship. Schiffner received a Gatorade bucket of ice water to his back and soon lifted the trophy.

There were two notable names that did not celebrate with the team after the game — Snyder and Ward. Both pitchers had left for home after their respective starts. Snyder wishes he did not.

“It's probably one of the regrets I have about the summer is not staying to be able to celebrate with the team, especially given the fact that we went all the way,” Snyder said. “To not have the opportunity to celebrate definitely stands out as a regret of mine.”

Cepicky finished off his memorable summer by going 12-for-36 in the championship series and winning Co-MVP with Earey. Earey made starts at third base and designated hitter and also came out of the bullpen in two games for the A’s.

The celebration went well into the night. Fincher remembers eating great Italian food and Strauss recalls drinking Dom Pérignon for the first, and only, time in his life. Fincher said that the joy after the game was as happy as he has ever felt on a baseball field. But it was not just his happiness he recalls.

“I remember how happy Schiff was,” Fincher said. “That meant a lot to me. That was only my second year with him at that point. I already understood completely and totally how much the Cape League means to him. How much Chatham means to him. There were a lot of people there from Chatham, seeing them so happy. What was enjoyable to me was seeing how happy other people were. I mean that was really cool.”

Heading Home But Never Forgetting

In the dead of night, just hours removed from lifting the championship trophy in the middle of Clem Spillane Field, Kata and Alcaraz were not sleeping with their host families or celebrating the eternal glory with their teammates.

The two CCBL champions were on the side of a highway, somewhere an hour and a half away from Wareham.

“We had planned on following each other and driving through the night,” Kata said. “Like an hour and a half into it, he blew a flat.”

Both players had only a few days before school began. Because they both were driving in the same direction — Kata was returning home to Cleveland while Alcaraz was heading back to Michigan — and wanted to get back home as quickly as possible due to quick turnarounds before school started, they decided to follow each other — much to each host parent’s chagrin.

Kata waited with his teammate for a little while, but did not wait for AAA to show up. He had to return home and get ready to leave for school in a few days.

So Kata drove off in his 1998 royal blue, two-door Mitsubishi Eclipse, listening to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen on portable speakers because his radio jack was stolen at Vanderbilt earlier in the year.

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John Schiffner lifts the Arnold Mycock Trophy. (Chatham Anglers Archives)  

Some players left right from Wareham like Kata and Alcaraz. Others, like Nicholson, left in the coming days. The series-winning pitcher was on his way home the next day when he opened up a newspaper and was caught off guard by what he saw in the sports section.

“It was just unbelievable,” Nicholson said. “Our team had the headline. I got a picture in the paper and all that. It was pretty amazing. It was just a little cut out of what a big leaguer might feel all the time.”

Seven players — Cepicky, Kata, MacDougal, Mench, Roberts, Snyder and relief pitcher Ronald Flores (Southern California) — on the 1998 Chatham A's did reach the major leagues. Together, they played over 50 seasons in the big leagues. Roberts and MacDougal made All-Star teams while Snyder won a World Series ring.

Some of the players still work in baseball. Mench works in the Texas Rangers organization, Kata — whose 1998 championship ring is the only victory jewelry he owns —works with his hometown Cleveland Indians and Snyder is currently in his first season as the pitching coach for the Tampa Bay Rays.

“If I go back and think about 1998, it's the purest form of the game that I played,” Snyder said. “The business of baseball can be difficult but 1998 really reaffirmed a lot of things for me and how much I loved the game, a game that I played since I was six, seven years of age. It's just something that I take with me every day beyond that summer of ‘98.”

Schiffner — who did not get a tattoo until years after the campaign — coached 19 more seasons with the Anglers before retiring after the 2017 season as the CCBL all-time leader in wins. Fincher stayed on as an assistant coach until the 2007 season and is currently the head coach of USC-Upstate, where he has been the head coach for 21 seasons. Strauss left the A’s after the 1998 season and is currently the pitching coach at Baylor.

For Schiffner, who never won another CCBL title, it was not just the on-field performance that makes the 1998 team one of the best in team history, but the off-field success as well.   

“The most important thing was they were such a great group of kids,” Schiffner said. “They were the epitome of what I always wanted from a team — leave the Cape better, win some games and have the best summer of your life and I think they did.”