By Bill Delorey

 

Hometown comfort or strangers on the sand: Which did Tyler Thornburg choose?

The Sandy Springs native who grew up playing baseball at Morgan Falls Park made the choice that took him on an 1,100-mile trip to Massachusetts’ Cape Cod to spend the summer pursuing his big-league dreams.

In the Cape Cod Baseball League, a summer college league known for its use of wooden bats and small-town warmth, Thornburg tested his baseball skills against some of the best college baseball talent in the country.

A relief pitcher for the Brewster Whitecaps, Thornburg ended the season with a 2.79 earned run average and led the team with six saves.

“I came here to be seen and to learn,” said Thornburg, 20, a 2007 graduate of Riverwood High School who is a pitcher and outfielder for Charleston Southern University. “Unfortunately, some coaches think about winning more than teaching, so some players get less time than others. But we all came here to be seen by the scouts.”

The Cape Cod League, which has teams in 10 towns, offers young ball players a showcase for major-league scouts. They’re not disappointed, and neither are the fans. It’s baseball on the beach for two bucks.

Among the regular spectators at Whitecaps games were Thornburg’s parents, Mike and Dottye, who drove their RV to Cape Cod to watch their son. Mike stays in contact with his trucking business via phone and computer, and Dottye, retired from Delta Air Lines, had their Sandy Springs phone forwarded to her cellphone so she wouldn’t miss calls.

“Technology is wonderful,” she said. “It allows us to follow him around.”

The Thornburgs have been there to support Tyler’s baseball efforts since he began playing T-ball at the age of 4½ at Morgan Falls. They bought an RV three years ago when Riverwood played near Savannah in the state high school baseball playoffs; it became their preferred way of traveling to see their son play.

The RV has been parked all summer at a campground near Brewster in Eastham, while the parents have flown back and forth from Georgia to Massachusetts.

“It’s a lot of effort, but it’s worth it,” Dottye Thornburg said. “We have never been drop-off parents. We didn’t miss a practice until high school.”

Tyler’s girlfriend, Brittany York, flew up July 20 to spend time with the family until the end of the baseball season Aug. 5.

The Cape Cod League also helps players like Thornburg feel at home. They are matched with host families who offer cheap room and board and the comforts of home.

“Host families,” Brewster townie Nancy Whitehurst said, “take in the players … feed and house them for a whopping $50 a week. If anyone knows a teenage boy that eats less than that, I want to meet him.” Whitehurst has hosted Brewster players for 16 years and has run the host family program for 10.

The NCAA requires host families to charge for room and board because a “gift of housing” would jeopardize players’ amateur status.

“One of the best things about this experience is meeting the locals and the other players,” Tyler Thornburg said. The teammates “are great. It’s a really fun summer. And the hosting is good because we can be comfortable and meet people.”

Even with the comforts of home, baseball is serious business for Thornburg. “I get up around 10 a.m., eat, then eat and eat some more,” he said. “Then I go work out at the gym.”

After that, it was practice and baseball nearly every night for 44 games — a grueling schedule that ended just in time for his junior year in college.

A nonprofit NCAA-sanctioned organization, the Cape Cod League has been a proving ground for big-leaguers. In the 2008 season, 207 active major-league players had at one time played on Cape Cod.

His playing time on the Cape disappointed Thornburg, who said he plays every game in college. He thought he would pitch and play outfield this summer, but he was limited to pitching one inning every few games in relief as the closer.

“I pinch-ran once,” he said with a chuckle.

He played in the Winchester League in Virginia last summer and was told he could play every day if he returned there.

“But the Cape league is it, the best place to play and be seen,” Thornburg said. Given the choice between more playing time and the Cape league, “I’d come here anyway. It’s the best.”

 

 

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