CLU’s Coach Turns Tide on Cape Cod : Baseball: Hill guides Chatham to 24-19-1 record and its first divisional championship since 1982.
Rich Hill has gone to a place where the word “summer” is a verb, and he is “summering” better than anybody.
Hill, who will be entering his fourth season as Cal Lutheran baseball coach, is spending his summer coaching the Chatham baseball team in the Cape Cod League, and he has led the A’s to a 24-19-1 record and their first divisional title since 1982.
Chatham will open the four-team playoffs today against Orleans.
The Cape Cod League, which boasts strictly college players, is one of the top amateur leagues in the nation and is located in one of the most desirable vacation areas on the East Coast.
“I feel extremely blessed every day,” Hill said. “I wake up and it’s like Christmas Day.”
Hill is paid for coaching the A’s, and he and his wife Lori, who teaches fourth grade in Thousand Oaks, also receive the use of a cottage near a Chatham pond.
“It’s just a great break from your everyday work,” Hill said.
Hill learned about an opening on the Cape from Gary Kondratek, the pitching coach at San Diego State. He began his Cape Cod League career in 1989 as an assistant for the Brewster Whitecaps and was 17-24-2 last year in his first season as Chatham’s coach.
“Everybody (in baseball) knows the Cape Cod League,” Hill said. “To say that you’re the manager at Chatham, one of the most successful franchises, helps a lot.”
For a Sunday night game against Orleans, about 1,500 fans trickle in and out of Veteran’s Field (admission is free) and cars line the hill behind the right-field fence.
“In my opinion, Chatham is the best town on the Cape,” Hill said. “It’s like a mini-Carmel. It’s like a Norman Rockwell painting.”
Chatham, population 6,500 in the winter and 25,000 in the summer, is not just a slice of Americana; it’s a double helping.
On a typical day in Chatham, Hill has breakfast and talks baseball with the fans at a local eatery, hits the beach, has a big lunch and heads to the ballpark.
Then his work begins, and although it is summer baseball, it is intense. The players are hoping to impress the abundant scouts, and the coaches are trying to make a name for themselves.
“Sometimes I struggle with the idea of summer baseball versus school ball,” Hill said. “I have a certain belief that the game is played the same whether it’s summer ball or school ball.”
Hill coaches a squad that could probably make the NCAA Division I College World Series and is the equivalent of a major conference all-star team. His players come from such powers as Stanford, Arizona State, Cal State Long Beach and Ohio State.
He does not have any Cal Lutheran players. Division III rules prohibit players from competing for their college coaches on the Cape.
“It’s not a whole lot different from working with the guys from Cal Lutheran,” said Hill, 29. “The main difference is working with the pitchers. We’ve got guys who can throw 85 (m.p.h.) or better and we go six deep on that.”
These players have reached a stage in their careers where scouts watch them closely and every move counts. The players are in a great resort atmosphere, but by far their No. 1 priority and interest is baseball.
“Here the main goal of these players is to make it to the big leagues,” Hill said. “They’re looking to get better.”
After Chatham finished last in 1990, Hill also was looking to do better. Because he got the Chatham job late in the recruiting season his first year, Hill was forced to coach many of his predecessor’s recruits. Then he lost several players to Team USA and the amateur baseball draft.
“Quite obviously, the team he fielded last year was not his team,” Chatham General Manager Jack Hammond said. “Talk about someone who should be manager of the year. I can’t believe he wouldn’t.”
Despite losing four starting position players and two starting pitchers to injuries and other problems, Chatham won the Eastern Division title early this week.
The town has caught the excitement as well. “People we haven’t talked to in years are suddenly dropping by to say hello,” Hammond said. A recent game against Orleans drew 4,000 people.
Chatham had been oriented toward players from New England and the Southeastern Conference, but with Hill and assistant coach Kip Fagg, the pitching coach at Cal State Long Beach, on the staff, Chatham has more Californians (10) on its roster than any of the other nine teams in the league.
“We do think this is a California team,” Hammond said. “It’s made a big difference in Chatham. We’ve got speed. We never had speed before.”
Players often have difficulty adjusting to the wooden bats used in the Cape Cod League so Hill concentrated on pitching, speed and defense instead of hitting.
It has paid off. Chatham is fourth in the league in earned-run average and stolen bases.
The team also honors its “Chat-dogs,” a takeoff on the “Lu-dog” and teamwork awards that Hill presents at Cal Lutheran.
“I think he’s a great psychologist,” Hammond said.
While Hill is away during the summer, assistant Marty Slimak takes care of the Cal Lutheran program. Hill believes his absence does not hurt his team. “It’s a great experience,” Hill said. “The more I can manage the better manager I’ll be. . . . The things I gain are experience in game-management situations and in motivating and trying to get the best out of the best players in the country.”
Hill is a typically young Cape Cod coach. More experienced Division I coaches cannot afford to leave their programs in the summer. Cape Cod experience is seen as a feather in one’s managerial cap and the average tenure is two to three years.
Hill has signed a contract to return for a third season at Chatham.
“It’s been a fantastic summer,” Hill said. “Chatham looks a lot different this summer than last summer.”