At high school fields around the country, fans set lawn chairs around the edge of the fence and settle in for an evening of summer baseball.
In an intimate atmosphere with a few thousand spectators and perhaps some major league scouts, college players competing in summer leagues get a taste of life as a professional player, seeking to improve their skills enough to eventually play baseball on the biggest stage.
Summer teams exist by the dozens, but the Cape Cod League is widely recognized by coaches and scouts as one of the top leagues in the country. Players are recruited by teams in a process similar to recruiting by colleges. Among current MLB players, 236 out of 750 have spent a summer on the Cape.
For Washington closer Drew Storen, who played for the Cotuit Kettleers in 2008 before being drafted by the Nationals in 2009, his time in the league was invaluable to helping him improve.
"I think it was a combination of [being in the league] and playing against the really good guys that were up there," he said. "There's some guys I played against up there that are in the big leagues now. So it shows you what kind of talent was there, and it made me a lot better."
Among the adjustments Storen and his teammates faced was the challenge of playing every day as opposed to three or four days a week in college.
"You're not traveling a lot — in the Cape it's like an hour drive — but you're still playing every day, so it's as similar to pro ball as you can get," Storen said.
Hitters face an additional hurdle because they are only permitted to use wood bats. Metal bats, while used in college, are not allowed by major league rules. That challenge, on top of the elite level of pitching, allows scouts to form a better evaluation of prospects.
"You get a thorough analysis of each player, how they would do moving on," said John Garner, director of public relations and broadcasting for the Cape Cod League. "With aluminum bats, there's always that question. Is that guy going to get the extra 15 to 20 feet that an aluminum bat allows at the next level?
"If [players] can succeed here, have a winning record on the mound and an ERA under three, or if they can hit .280 here, that means they're probably a pretty good prospect."
Locally, athletes from Maryland, George Washington and George Mason are competing in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, which has nine teams throughout Maryland and Northern Virginia. While it is not as well-known — only two of its alumni have reached the majors — the players' goal is the same as in Cape Cod.
"Ultimately, I would really like to get to the point where I can be drafted and play professional baseball," George Washington pitcher Colin Milon said. "I think that's every kid's dream, and that's why we're playing in these summer leagues to continue to get better."
Players have benefited from demanding schedules that have them playing a game almost every day.
"It's definitely helping me develop right now, and throughout the summer, because you're just getting a lot of at-bats every day," Maryland outfielder Charlie White said. "You're working on your game as much as possible. Nothing beats playing every day."
A focus on individual development rather than the team's success gives athletes the flexibility to work on skills they did not have time to develop during the spring season. For Milon, who is playing for the Alexandria Aces, goals for the summer include increasing the velocity of his fastball and developing off-speed pitches he can throw in any count.
"I feel like I've improved a lot so far," Milon said. "We're only halfway through the summer season, but it really gives you a chance to work on the things that you might not have had a chance to work on in the spring because, with the competition, you're just going out and trying to win. What I do is up to me now.
"If I'm pitching in a game, I can throw whatever I want to throw, whatever I need to work on, not throwing whatever the coach wants me to throw because we need to win that game."
Ultimately, the players view their summer experiences as a step down the road toward their professional aspirations.
"I want to play major league baseball," said George Mason infielder Jordan Hill, a teammate of Milon on the Aces. "It's been my dream. That's what I want to do. It's going to take a lot of hard work. You have to start somewhere, and this is where I'm starting. I hope to just keep improving every day until I make it to the highest level."
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