Eric Zmuda has the kind of sonorous voice meant for a broadcast booth high above home plate. But despite his Vin Scully-esque diction, the Army veteran and father of two never considered a career in play-by-play, he tells me over beers and popcorn at the 99 Restaurant in Mashpee, Massachusetts. He’s more of a front-office guy.
And, nowadays, a free AirBnB host to a future Cy Young or two.
The Cape Cod Baseball League seems to attract people like Zmuda: Cape lifers with big hearts and bigger homes to put up baseball’s stars of tomorrow. The 10-team collegiate league is staffed entirely by volunteers, and its players—many of whom have never before experienced the preppy, traffic-choked peninsula—must bunk with a host family for the summer.
“I essentially recall coming home from work one day and my wife said, 'Hey, guess what we're doing this summer,’” says Zmuda, now entering his sixth year as general manager of the Falmouth Commodores, and ninth as a host family. “We were warned, and everybody is warned—every host family that starts, or even has been around for a couple years—you will become attached to the player, and you will miss them when they're gone.”
Each 44-game regular-season runs every summer on the Cape. There are no tickets—games are free to attend, but donations are encouraged. Not every team has a state-of-the-art ballpark either—the Zmuda’s Commodores share a field with the Falmouth High School football team.
The nonprofit league, whose roots trace back to when whaling ships still crisscrossed the Cape Cod Bay, counts among its alumni a surprising number of hall of famers. Craig Biggio played for Yarmouth-Dennis in the summer of 1986, Jeff Bagwell for Chatham in ’87, and Frank Thomas for Orleans in ’88. Before he famously waved his ball fair in the 1975 World Series, Red Sox legend Carlton Fisk homered in his first at-bat for Orleans in the summer of ’66. Even Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Lou Lamoriello, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, garnered all-star honors as player and managed the Sagamore squad to a championship in 1965.
One in six current major-leaguers started in the Cape League, including former NL MVP Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, current Cy Young favorite Chris Sale and Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury of the New York Yankees, and Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins, who shattered the record for the fastest player to 10 home runs in MLB history this August.
Each summer brings a fresh crop of young men aged 19-21 turned loose on the beloved vacation spot, and all the fresh hell that comes with that. League commissioner Paul Galop, who hosted former MLB Home Run Derby winner Todd Frazier during his ’05 stint with Chatham, assures me it’s only “harmless hijinks.”
“You get stories from every year,” Galop says. “I remember they came home one night, they were out fishing all night, and they were serenading me from the deck outside my bedroom. My wife said, ‘I think they're looking for you.’ So I went, ‘What is wrong with you guys?’ And they said, ‘We want you to come out and play with us.’ It was about quarter-to-five in the morning. Birds were chirping.”
Zmuda recalls arriving home late from work three seasons ago and stumbling into Nerf gun ambush orchestrated by his wife, kids, and two players. According to Galop, a favorite prank among his players is affixing a rubber band to the kitchen sink sprayer, drenching whoever tries to use it next.
“One of our players had forgotten his key, and instead of waking us up, he decided to scale the side of our house and climb in through the upper balcony,” longtime Falmouth host Deb Brocklebank tells me. “As it turned out, he ended up getting drafted in the first round and played for the Red Sox.”
This brief pitstop on Cape Cod en route to The Show creates a unique phenomenon. No matter how many accolades a player may amass in their career, to a family in Brewster or Cotuit, they’re still the guy who ran up the water bill taking three or four showers a day.
“Anybody who's doing it for the money is going to find out that it was a bad financial decision,” Galop laughs.
Before the endorsement deals, the ticker-tape parades, the plaque at Cooperstown, there was mini-golf on Route 28 in Mashpee. There were adoring fans back then too, but they were often your ride home.
“He’s an MVP candidate and he was eating pancakes at my table not too long ago,” Brocklebank says of one of her players. “Stuff like that, you kind of scratch your head.”
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Founded in 1885, the Cape Cod Baseball League occupies a special place in baseball history. Following the first and second world wars, teams were comprised of returning GIs. The league gained NCAA recognition in 1963, and 12 years later, became the first collegiate summer league to use wooden bats, attracting the attention of major league scouts. There remains an anachronistic charm to the games—three teams’ ballparks still don’t have lights.
The Cape League and its Chatham team were featured in the 2001 rom-com Summer Catch, starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jessica Biel, though it was shot in North Carolina. Until just recently, the league’s hall of fame resided in the basement of the John F. Kennedy Museum in Hyannis.
Ask anyone affiliated with the Cape League, and they’ll tell you how instrumental host families are to its continued success. They receive no compensation, and are instead given a handbook with guidelines for welcoming a future No. 1 overall draft pick with a bottomless appetite into your home. There’s a sense of camaraderie borne of these strange circumstances, Zmuda says.
“To have someone who has the same experience and let them know, ‘No, you're not crazy that you didn't want to cook for them at 11:30 at night.’ No one really wants to do that all the time,” he says. “Sometimes you just want to put a cereal box out and say, 'I'm tired.' But so's the player.”
After she and her husband would go to bed, Brocklebank says her two players—one a major-league pitcher, the other in triple-A—would make elaborately choreographed music videos with props found around the house.
“We would wake up, and there's this video that they've produced at 3 in the morning,” she says. “We actually threatened one of them that the next time you pitch at Fenway, we're going to have our friend plaster that video all over the Jumbotron.”
Even in championship years, every host family dreads the end of the season, when players abruptly leave the Cape and return to their respective schools. “Oh, it's the worst day of the summer, after you win the championship,” Galop says. “For two minutes you're hootin' and hollerin', you got a championship trophy, and 20 minutes later you're crying because you're saying goodbye.”
Of course, it isn’t really goodbye. Galop says he still receives wedding invitations and birth announcements from his old players. A catcher from Miami who only stayed with Zmuda for a week still bought him a Father’s Day gift.
“It was neat to see the emotions of the families when they were being introduced alongside the players before the final home game,” says Joe Weil, a former play-by-play announcer for the Commodores. “You could tell that they really built a strong relationship with the players, and there was definitely tears for some, knowing that they would be gone after the season ended.”
The Commodores haven’t won the Cape League championship in 37 years—a sore subject for Zmuda—but as cliché as it sounds, that isn’t what it’s all about.
“Not one of my boys has told me anything other than, ‘This is the best summer of my life,’” Brocklebank says. “It’s kind of a break, in a way, but it’s really an opportunity for them to rejuvenate their love for the game.”