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Luke Cantwell’s exuberance pumps life into the Chatham Anglers

by Zak Wolf
Saturday, July 06, 2024

Luke Cantwell’s exuberance pumps life into the Chatham Anglers
It didn’t take long for Luke Cantwell to earn a nickname among his Chatham teammates.

Prior to the season, players and host families gathered at the Chatham Orpheum Theater to watch a classic baseball movie — Moneyball.

The 2011 film is based on the true story of the 2002 Oakland Athletics. General Manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, has a plan to revolutionize baseball. Under the A’s tight budget, Beane attempts to build a team off analytics. His main philosophy is built off players who get on base, not by signing flashy or expensive players.

About an hour in, Beane tells manager Art Howe to start Scott Hatteberg — a less talented first baseman — in place of AL Rookie of the Year candidate Carlos Peña. The reasoning? For the simple fact Hatteberg had an innate ability to get on base. When Howe simply declined, Bean countered by trading Peña which forced Howe’s hand.

Chatham catcher Campbell Smithwick — who’d never seen the movie before — soon concluded that the Anglers had a Hatteberg reincarnation. It was Cantwell. Within days, calls of “Hatteberg” reigned down from the dugout whenever Cantwell was up to bat.

“(The movie) was fresh in my mind. And then we played like the next day and I was like, ‘Wow, he's literally Hatteberg,’” Smithwick said.

It didn’t take long for Cantwell to receive the label, but it fit. He embraced it. The first basemen might not put up eye-popping numbers, yet he’s the heartbeat of the Anglers. And he knows it.

Cantwell’s authenticity both on and off the field garners respect from teammates and rallies them around him. He doesn’t put on an act, though it may seem like it, while embracing the “Hatteberg” role. Through 13 games, Cantwell’s only batting .233, but gets on base at a .443 rate, truly living up to his namesake.

The nickname stems from an intrasquad scrimmage the day after Chatham watched Moneyball. Once Smithwick observed Cantwell’s patient plate approach, the resemblance was uncanny.

Once he enters the box, Cantwell shifts his hips and points his bat toward the pitcher. As he cocks it back, he squats low to the ground before springing himself back up. As the pitch arrives, Cantwell once again gets low.

If the pitch is a ball, Cantwell does a Juan Soto-esque shuffle before circling back around and repeating the same process. On the off chance Cantwell takes a called strike, he smiles as if to let everyone know he disagreed with the call.

When Cantwell gets walked, he quickly shuffles out of the batter's box and tosses his bat aside in celebration.

Cantwell developed a knack for getting on base this spring with Pittsburgh. He set the single-season program record for walks (57), reached safely in the Panthers’ final 51 games and was third in the ACC in on-base percentage (.515).

Luke Cantwell stands at third base and talks with Chatham hitting coach Ramon Orozco / Photograph by Ella Tovey

Those trends continued in Chatham’s Opening Day game against Wareham. Following a second-inning walk, calls of “Let’s go Hatteberg” and “What up Hatty” echoed from Smithwick. A hit-by-pitch a few innings later only intensified the calls as the entire dugout joined in.

For Cantwell, there was no denying the nickname. While it wasn’t his favorite label, he conceded it was the most accurate.

“It kind of just stuck with (Smithwick) and he’s a big piece of this team, so everyone kind of just followed along with that,” Cantwell said of his tag.

Though Smithwick presented an accurate assessment of Cantwell’s plate approach, his first impressions of Cantwell’s personality were not so spot on.

When Smithwick met Cantwell, his first thought was, “What in the world just rolled into Chatham?” Labeled a clown, Smithwick had low expectations for Cantwell.

His loud personality and non-stop chatter bothered Smithwick. But as time went on, Cantwell’s antics grew on Smithwick and the rest of his teammates. He figured out whenever Cantwell spoke, it was always in support of his teammates.

“Very quickly, you realize he's not a clown, that's just his personality,” Smithwick said. “He's not trying to impress anybody, he just loves to put a smile on your face. And man can he do it.”

Throughout Jeremy “Sheets” Sheetinger first season as Chatham’s manager, he’s attempted to rebuild the culture by creating a positive and energetic atmosphere. Cantwell is imperative to that.

On July 3, he came up to bat with Chatham leading 10-1 in the ninth inning. The result was already long decided, but the Chatham bullpen migrated to the dugout, creating a raucous atmosphere.

An official warning was handed to the bench for possible antics directed at opposing pitcher Luke Jackson. So the Anglers got behind Cantwell, shouting words of encouragement. Two pitches later, Cantwell rocketed a towering two-run blast over the right field fence to punctuate the wild sequence.

Following the 12-1 win, Sheetinger implored that he wants his team to “lead the league in fun.” And Cantwell has played a big role in that.

“He's really been consistently who he is every single day and that's what we're trying to unlock for all these guys,” Sheetinger said. “He’s got that figured out.”

Cantwell’s parents, Lynn and Steve, first caught a glimpse of their son's leadership qualities more than a decade ago.

Lynn and Steve met with Mrs. Poolio, Cantwell’s Kindergarten teacher at St. Joseph's/St. Roberts Elementary School. She revealed that Cantwell was a natural born leader and “he was going to do something special.” Initially taken aback by the comments, Lynn joked Cantwell could barely tie his shoes at that point. But Mrs. Poolio said Cantwell could get everybody to do the right thing at the correct time. People wanted to be near him and they listened.

It only became more clear as time went on that Mrs. Poolio was right. Cantwell attracted attention. A lot of it. Most of the time, it was “unintentional,” according to John Molyneux, Cantwell’s coach with local travel team Big Leagues Academy Dirtbags.

“He wanted to let people know that Luke Cantwell was there. Luke Cantwell was up to bat. Luke Cantwell just made that play,” Molyneux said

Once Cantwell reached high school, he earned a spot on Archbishop Wood’s varsity team as a freshman. He played sparingly, but grew into a bigger role the following season. His bravado was slightly minimized as an underclassman but at times, he offered advice to seniors, according to head coach Jim Digiuseppe.

He closely observed Cantwell’s interactions which earned him a captain role as a junior. Cantwell went on to be Digiuseppe’s first two-time captain in over two-decades of coaching. Yet the decision wasn’t hard.

If someone made an error, Cantwell instantly tried raising their spirits. Digiuseppe said Cantwell patted guys on the back and implored teammates to “get ready to roll.” Once they got back to the dugout, Cantwell instilled confidence in them by saying, “You make that play all the time,” always with a sly grin on his face.

Luke Cantwell winds up for a throw during Chatham's session at the CCBL's Fenway Day on July 1 / Photograph by Ella Tovey

“When he speaks, guys listen… He's got that presence about him, that when he talks, people pick their eyes up and they get their ears over to him,” Digiuseppe said.

The serious nature also left room for Cantwell to let loose on the field. A day didn’t go by without Cantwell producing antics in an attempt to seep into his opponents heads. He was chatty and often “introduced himself” when sliding into bases and vice versa. Sometimes, it reached a boiling point.

Facing off against rival La Salle College High School, a baserunner slid hard into Cantwell at third. Digiuseppe noticed from the dugout that a conversation emerged between the two — a not so friendly one.

When the inning ended, Cantwell returned to the dugout. Digiuseppe questioned Cantwell on what happened, to which he responded with a smile.

“Oh coach,” Cantwell said, “we were just wishing each other well for the rest of the season.”

Hardly believing the story, all Digiuseppe responded with was, “Thanks Luke. I bet you were.”

Even with the craziness, Digiuseppe knew Cantwell always remained level-headed and professional. Nothing ever boiled over into anything more. Everything was within the lines.

“The stem of it is just how I am as a person,” Cantwell said of his personality. “I just try to be who I am whether it's on the field, off the field, just try to play with energy, provide that passionate player.”

Wherever Cantwell goes, he doesn’t waste any time asserting himself. He spent two seasons at Fairleigh Dickinson, recording a .470 OBP and driving in 71 runs on 77 hits before transferring to Pittsburgh. Despite playing at a higher level, Cantwell’s stunts never dissipated.

He often motions to the bench following a big walk or pumps his fist following a big hit with his jersey covered in dirt. Lynn can’t help but smile as friends and family comment on Cantwell’s energy. Admittedly, her motherly instincts sometimes kick in, worrying her son might get himself into trouble. But she knows his outwardness is what makes him unique.

“I’d rather him be the way he is and not be a docile teammate,” Lynn said.

As much as Cantwell plays the jokester role, he’s always been a goal-oriented individual. Steve said Cantwell owns a headband that reads “follow the seams,” reminding him to stay level-headed and driven.

Cantwell took full advantage of his 2024 season with the Panthers. He ranked near the top in nearly every offensive category. Pitt head coach Mike Bell said Cantwell’s energy outweighs the statistical benefit he brings to the field. But his signature moment on May 1 against then-No. 8 Florida State involved both of those elements.

In front of a packed Charles L. Cost Field on a Friday night, the Panthers and Seminoles were deadlocked. FSU star pitcher Jamie Arnold was dealing. He’d struck out 15 batters when Cantwell stepped to the dish in the bottom of the sixth inning.

Luke Cantwell (left) celebrates with Pierce George (right) following a home run against Orleans on July 3 / Photograph by Ella Tovey.

He’d gotten a single off Arnold in the fourth inning, but faced him again with two outs. Cantwell attacked the first pitch and uncorked a rocket over the left-field fence. The solo shot was the lone run of the game as Pitt held on for a 1-0 win.

“They all feel good … but that one has a little bit of a special meaning just because of how the game turned out,” Cantwell said of his home run.

Because he’s not an imposing figure, Cantwell knows he has to even the scales with his grit and toughness. The ensuing week after the Florida State series win, Pitt traveled to scorching hot Miami. The series against the Hurricanes took a toll and by the third game, everyone was exhausted — including the normally exuberant Cantwell.

Pitt hitting coach Devin Mesoraco said Cantwell had been throwing up and “could barely see the plate.” But a win would help Pitt clinch a spot in the ACC Tournament. It didn’t matter what Cantwell was going through, he was going to keep playing. The Panthers came out with a 10-7 win.

“You’d have to carry him off the field to take him out of the game,” Bell said.

Nothing has changed for Cantwell this summer with Chatham. He remains the heartbeat of the Anglers, basking in the opportunity presented to him.

Cantwell’s well aware of the amount of scouting in the CCBL. He knows players solely come to improve their draft stock and impress those same scouts. But his main focus has never wavered. All he wants is to become a better baseball player, regardless of the results.

His persona comes with comfortability. Cantwell explained all he needs is to be on the same page with his coaches. As long as they’re transparent with him, he’s going to do whatever to win. If that means being a goofball, then he’ll do it.

It allows Cantwell to be himself, and his fingerprints are all over Chatham’s team this summer as a result. Whether it’s leading the dugout turned dog pound, or simply being a nuisance at the plate with his patient approach, everything has culminated into Cantwell reaching his true form.

“Call it confidence. Call it cockiness … He kind of has a grasp of what makes him successful,” Steve said.