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Baseball, like Indiana Jones on an archaeology expedition, is forever escaping its temple of doom. Just as a strike almost felled it a decade ago, Cal Ripken Jr.'s Iron Man streak came to the rescue. When Michael Jordan and the NBA seemed to be flying past the national game, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire delivered a storybook home-run race.

And now, as a steroids scandal threatens baseball, the revived Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, as well as the suddenly competitive Cubs, helps fans look past the drugs and greed and exorbitant prices. If all that can't bring you back, perhaps The Last Best League will.

Set in the bucolic summer haven of Cape Cod, The Last Best League examines the politics and merciless Darwinian winnowing involved in finding big leaguers. Author Jim Collins spent the 2002 season on the Cape, chronicling the 10-team amateur league regarded as the best of its kind. Every summer, the nation's best collegiate players descend on the Cape for a 44-game, 10-week summer season that attracts swarms of scouts -- and sorts prospects from also-rans. A good summer can lead to a high draft position and millions in bonus money. Or it can shatter a player's confidence and leave him wondering whether his boyhood dream can ever be revived.

For Collins, a former editor at Yankee magazine, the Cape Cod League represents a compelling baseball tale as well as a harrowing coming-of-age story. Two summers ago, he attended every game and practice with the Chatham A's, one of the Cape's most popular teams, and came away with a book reminiscent of football's Friday Night Lights. It is as much a story of the Cape as it is of baseball, but not to the detriment of either subject.

For those who abhor many aspects of Major League Baseball, the Cape Cod League offers respite. The players sign autographs and gladly participate in kids' clinics. Ticket prices for the games are pretty reasonable, too: All games are free. Players live with host families and work for local businesses. The small towns -- Orleans, Hyannis, Harwich and the like -- rally around their semi-celebrities, bringing blankets and lawn chairs to the fields and cheering potential future all-stars as they struggle to outshine fellow top-notch players.

On the Cape, college players must forsake the forgiving titanium pings of aluminum bats so they can learn the more precise swing needed for wooden bats. As Collins notes, the college players who arrive each summer grapple with that requirement:

"College players endured something akin to boot camp in the Cape Cod League. They struggled with the newness of the old-fashioned bats together -- a collective trial -- and got a season or two of experience before starting out, on their own, in the minors. Struggle was one of the rites of passage in the fraternity of wooden bats."

Collins focuses much of his attention on the coaches and volunteers who bring the league to life each summer. In Chatham, grizzled high school baseball coach John Schiffner, who is also the A's skipper, takes on a starring role. He's gruff, but cares for his players and networks constantly with their college coaches to ensure they get a fair shake during the summer season. Collins, it seems, follows Schiffner everywhere but the showers.

All of the author's hanging around pays off. He hears the coaches delivering brutal talent assessments, spies the more-than-occasional players' hangovers and listens in as the phenoms chase girls as routinely as they chase fly balls.

He also gets inside their heads, cataloging the fears, jealousies and worries of jockeying for scouts' attention. The baseball's not bad, either. As Collins notes, one out of every six big-league ballplayers comes through the Cape Cod League. Alums include Nomar Garciaparra, Jeff Bagwell, Barry Zito, Mo Vaughn, Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk.

The Chatham A's prove compelling, from stud third baseman Jamie D'Antona to spark-plug, long-shot shortstop Blake Hanan. There is the cocky, take-it-or-leave-it lefty, Scott Hindman, as well as the singularly determined right-hander, Tim Stauffer.

Throughout The Last Best League, Collins weaves in compelling biographies of several players, such as D'Antona spending most of his high-school years working at a local batting cage, taking hours and hours of cuts just for the fun of it. Or the way Hindman, a Princeton pitcher, shrugging off low-ball offers from major league scouts, figuring he could take a corporate job for $150,000 a year instead.

Perhaps the best thing about the book is its economy. Collins provides solid narrative, ample anecdotes and a keep-it-moving season chronicle without succumbing to notebook-dumping. He leavens the inevitable pathos of passing youth with dugout profanities and the occasional joint on the beach. The author, thank the baseball gods, leans more toward Bull Durham than Field of Dreams. No weepy Billy Crystal spiels here -- just a nice little baseball revival, wooden bats and all.

click to enlarge Jim Collins chronicles the highs and lows of aspiring Major League baseball players competing in Cape Cod in The Last Best League.
  • Jim Collins chronicles the highs and lows of aspiring Major League baseball players competing in Cape Cod in The Last Best League.
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