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By Jack Thomas, Globe Staff | July 19, 2004

Buy 'The Touching Game,' DVDIf you're acquainted with the Cape Cod Baseball League, which is to say, if you've taken a picnic lunch to Harwich to watch the Mariners play or if you've been to Bourne for a Braves game or if you've sat on a blanket on a summer evening at graceful Eldrege Park in Orleans to watch the Cardinals play, then you know baseball as Abner Doubleday meant it to be -- as a game, not a business.

The thing about baseball in Brewster or Chatham or Yarmouth is that you don't have to pony up extortionate prices for parking around Kenmore Square or excessive amounts for a hot dog or extravagant fees for good seats at Fenway Park to watch exceedingly well-paid millionaires stroke the ball or their ego, whichever comes first.

By contrast, the Cape Cod Baseball League -- in business since 1885 and an incubator for Major League Baseball for four decades -- is providing some of the best amateur baseball in the nation. In the majors today are 199 players who honed their skills while playing for one of the 10 teams from Cotuit to Orleans.

The story of the Cape Cod League is told in "Touching the Game," a documentary that will be shown on WLVI-TV (Channel 56) tonight through Thursday in half-hour segments at 10:30. For children who aspire to big-league careers but cannot stay up so late, the documentary will be broadcast again in its entirety on Channel 56 on Friday from 8 to 10 p.m. A DVD is available for $17.95 at Cape Cod League ballparks and for $19.95 at

Steeped in baseball lore, the documentary is also a peek into small town life in America through the eyes of hundreds of college students with dreams of making the major leagues. For the opportunity to play baseball on Cape Cod at night, they work by day at a variety of jobs on the Cape, at fish markets and funeral parlors or at supermarkets, where one player recalled hour after hour of inserting identification tags into slabs of cheese. Another said his work as a landscaper introduced him to poison ivy, and Jeff Palumbo used his time at a sandwich shop to create signature subs, one named for Ted Williams and another for himself, the Jeff Palumbo Rough&Tumble. Palumbo has since been drafted by the San Francisco Giants.

Among Cape Cod alumni familiar to Red Sox fans are Nomar Garciaparra (Orleans '93), Jeremy Giambi (Bourne, '94), Dave McCarty (Cotuit '89), Lou Merloni (Bourne '91 and Cotuit '92), Kevin Millar (Harwich '92), Doug Mirabelli (Hyannis '90), Bill Mueller (Bourne '92), Jason Varitek (Hyannis '91-'93), Todd Walker (Brewster '92), Mo Vaughn (Wareham '87, '88), Matt White (Chatham '97), and Scott Williamson (Chatham '96).

As depicted in the film, some of the players are on the verge of crucial decisions about their baseball careers. While he worked for an hourly wage at CVS, Dan Purcey, 21, anticipated having to decide whether to accept a major-league contract in the high six figures or return to the University of Oklahoma. As he said, "I don't care because either way, I'll be playing baseball." Purcey has since been drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays.

The documentary was edited down from 80 hours of footage, most of it taken throughout the summer of 2003. There are interviews with past and present players, coaches, league officials, team owners, fans, and Cape Cod families who provide summer housing for the players who become like sons to them. One segment is devoted to college players in the Cape Cod League who are learning, for the first time, to hit with wooden bats and what it's like, as a result, to watch their batting averages drop by 150 points.

As Vaughn says, "You have to be a better hitter with a wooden bat."

Going from star of their college team to merely one more struggling player with a dream of the big time and a hope to be noticed by a big-league scout is not an easy transition.

"The first 10 to 14 days, I let the guys fail," says Harvey Shapiro, manager of the Bourne Braves, "because if you're an all-star and you're hitting .380 and I come in and tell you you're hitting incorrectly, you'll think I'm crazy. But if you're hitting .120, you'll listen, because you don't want to fail."

"Touching the Game" is a joint effort of Fields of Vision and Eye Candy Cinema companies, and Jim Carroll is producer and director.

The loyalty of fans is captured in the story of Arnie Allen, who volunteered 46 years to the Falmouth Commodores before succumbing to cancer last year at age 53.

One segment features kids at the Cape Cod League clinics, learning to throw the ball, to hit the inside pitch, and to slide head first. The camera focuses long on one father teaching his daughter to hit.

The adulation experienced by the players is caught in an afternoon when the Orleans Cardinals are gathered aboard a float that rolls along the main street to the waves and the cheers of fans old and young in red Cardinals hats and jerseys, and as one coach notes, for some of them, this is about as famous as they'll ever be.

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