There was UCLA, Purdue, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Houston and Yale apparel scattered throughout the loud, dimly lit Mexican restaurant.
Nearly 30 college baseball players – along with an entire coaching staff, training staff and front office – were all crammed into the front room of El Mariachi, a popular restaurant in downtown Wareham, Massachusetts.
This was the team dinner for the Wareham Gatemen, the night before they faced off against the Chatham Anglers in game one of the Cape Cod Baseball League finals.
The gateway to the show
The Cape Cod Baseball League is the country’s premier invitational summer baseball league, using MLB-style wood bats, while most other summer leagues use metal bats like the NCAA’s.
There are ten teams made up entirely of NCAA DI ballplayers, nine of which are located on Cape Cod, Massachusetts’ most popular summer vacation destination. The tenth team, the Gatemen, play in Wareham, known as “the gateway to Cape Cod.”
The CCBL has sent over 1,100 players to the MLB, and the Gatemen alone have produced almost 140. While there are plenty of pro scouts at the games, some collegiate players choose to prioritize personal development over showcasing their skills.
Junior infielder Ryan Kreidler was UCLA baseball’s starting shortstop his freshman year. However, during his sophomore season, he was pushed to third base after then-freshman shortstop Kevin Kendall emerged.
Kreidler saw dips in his batting average, slugging percentage and fielding percentage last season, but he said that taking this summer to get reps and tweak his game against top-level competition was exactly what he wanted.
“A lot of guys come out for early work and trying to work on different things mechanically, whereas some guys feel good and they want to use it as just a showcase league,” Kreidler said. “I’ve used it more as a developmental league, trying to change my swing up and find myself defensively.”
One of the trademarks of the CCBL is how the players stay with host families from the area.
These local families take in a handful of players every year and show them around the quiet summer towns, showcasing their New England hospitality.
The parents who hosted redshirt junior pitcher Jack Ralston gave him more than just a place to stay, the Bruin said.
“It’s kind of like building your family, so I think it’s good getting to know other people, branching out,” Ralston said. “They’re always great people, it’s fun getting to know them.”
The families themselves aren’t the only fun part of the deal for the players. They get matched with roommates for the season, something Kreidler – who stayed with a family in Mattapoisett – said he really enjoyed.
“My roommates are from Florida, Houston and the other one’s from North Carolina,” Kreidler said. “It was super unique and a cool experience to get to know these guys on a much more personal level.”
Friends and foes
While there were four UCLA players on the Gatemen this summer, not every Bruin spent their summer in Wareham.
For the second straight year, junior first baseman Michael Toglia played for the Cotuit Kettleers. Junior pitcher Nick Scheidler played for the Gatemens’ opponent in the finals, the Anglers.
When the Gatemen and Kettleers faced off July 22, Kreidler got on base and, according to his Twitter, had a quick conversation with Toglia.
“I literally couldn’t even see the ball, I just swung dude,” Kreidler said.
“Yeah, well it doesn’t matter ‘cause I’m the better athlete anyway,” Toglia chirped back.
The Gatemen would later eliminate Toglia’s Kettleers from the playoffs in August.
The Bruins not only played against their UCLA teammates, but they also had to join forces with some Pac-12 rivals.
Cal right-hander Jared Horn, Utah infielder Oliver Dunn, Oregon outfielder Jakob Goldfarb and Cal infielder Andrew Vaughn all played for the Gatemen this summer, but UCLA junior left fielder Jeremy Ydens said there wasn’t too much bad blood in the dugout.
“I think it’s super fun, kind of getting to know some of the other guys on rival Pac-12 teams and getting to know them as people too and not just as opponents,” Ydens said.
Ryan Garcia pulled up in front of El Mariachi on Aug. 10 just after the 8:30 p.m. call time, and his UCLA teammates called “Garc” over to talk. The junior right-hander was scheduled to take the mound as the Gatemen’s starter in about 22 hours.
But he spent his final off-day doing something other than training.
“One thing we’ve really gotten into is fishing,” Garcia said. “Like today, we had an off-day and we fished for about four or five hours.”
The four Bruin Gatemen agreed fishing had become one of their go-to activities, but not every day was sunshine and blue skies. They would spend almost the entire day at the local Flagship Cinemas when their games and practices got rained out.
Their Gatemen coaches and strength coaches back in Westwood would give them weekly training regimens – some optional, some required. While the players said that some guys followed the workout guidelines a little more strictly than others, they were all given freedom in choosing where to eat all summer.
After being in the area for nearly two months, they had all scoped out go-to spots.
“Saga Fusion, (a local sushi restaurant),” Kreidler said.
“El Mariachi,” Garcia said. Ydens seconded his opinion.
“Qdoba,” Ralston said. His teammates laughed.
Bringing “home” a title
The Gatemen were relaxed and joking around with each other that Friday night at El Mariachi, on the eve of game one of the best-of-three finals.
They were raving about the guacamole instead of fretting about the Anglers.
But the Gatemen showed up to play the next day, taking game one by a score of 5-3 behind Garcia’s five scoreless innings and seven strikeouts – his second scoreless appearance of the playoffs.
Game two was the next day, but although the Gatemen were up 4-1 in the sixth inning, there was a fog delay that would push the final three innings to Monday afternoon.
On another humid afternoon in Chatham, the Gatemen clinched their eighth championship, their first since 2012. They went 6-0 in the playoffs, becoming the first team to sweep through the postseason since the playoffs expanded to include eight teams in 2010.
Garcia pitched two playoff gems, Ydens was a West Division All-Star, Kreidler scored a run in the championship-clinching game and Ralston pitched two scoreless innings of relief in three of his five appearances.
On and off the field, it was a big summer for the Bruins in Wareham.
“Being here and being with all the greatest college players here, it’s pretty special, Ydens said. “You kind of immerse yourself in the culture and the type of atmosphere. … It’s obviously such a great opportunity to be here.”