Bergeron takes first step towards majors with spot in Cape League

Ask your average Boston Red Sox fan if he would don a New York Yankees jersey if it meant a ticket to the major leagues, and chances are he’d say something bad about Roger Clemens, remind himself that 1918 wasn’t that long ago, and say some word ending with ‘er’ or ‘ar’ in that really cool accent immortalized by Good Will Hunting.

Your average Boston Red Sox fan will never play in the major leagues, but Jabe Bergeron ’04 is not your average Boston Red Sox fan. On June 4, Bergeron will report to camp for Buddy Custer’s Harwich Mariners of the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League (Cape League).

The Cape League’s website proudly boasts that the baseball diamonds on Cape Cod see the “stars of tomorrow shine tonight.”

Indeed, figures indicate that as many as one out of four players in the Cape League go on to play Major League ball; Todd Helton, Jason Varitek, Nomar – all played Cape League ball in college, and this summer Bergeron will have his shot.

“The percentage of people who go pro out of the Cape League is pretty high,” said Bergeron. “It’s just going to be a great experience, something I really have to gear up for – the competition’s going to be real tough.”

“I think the greatest difference between the Cape League and the leagues I’ve played in so far will be the pitching,” he said. “The pitching out there is amazing – they’ll be by far the best arms I’ll ever have faced.”

Bergeron burst onto the collegiate baseball scene last year with a season that garnered him NESCAC Rookie of the Year honors. Bergeron led the Ephs in every offensive category last year except runs and doubles among players who made at least 35 trips to the plate: he hit for a .462 average, drove in 53 runs, clubbed seven home runs and three triples and amassed 110 total bases. (May the record show that Bergeron bested NESCAC Player of the Year Dan Callahan’s stats in nearly every category.)

So what do you do for an encore? To a normal hitter, losing .024 points off your batting average and 16 RBIs off your total might indicate something of a slow year. If you’re Jabe Bergeron and you’re hitting .438 with 37 RBIs and eight home runs and leading your team with a 1.350 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, the “it” statistic among sabermatricians who consider leaders in that department baseball’s most dangerous hitters), you probably don’t have much to worry about.

Thanks in large part to Bergeron’s contributions, the Eph baseball team had its best season in school history in 2001. The team went 33-5, won the NESCAC West for the first time, won the NESCAC Championship for the first time and was ranked 17th nationally among Div. III colleges.

To speak with Bergeron is to speak with a competitor. He can instantly give you a rap sheet of personal stats and accomplishments. Out of another person’s mouth, Bergeron’s words might sound self-absorbed or egotistical, but in conversing with Bergeron it becomes immediately apparent that though he is obsessed with his own performance, he is only that way because he realizes that what’s good for him is what’s good for the team.

“The main motivator for me is the stats; I think baseball is all about personal achievement – you help the team from there, the better you do, the better team does,” he said. “You can’t have a self-centered attitude, you have to be a team player, but the way I look at it the better every one person does the better the team does.”

After his break-out rookie collegiate season, Bergeron was asked to play in another well-known college league, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL). A native of Keene, N.H., Bergeron cites his first game out on the field for the Keene Swampbats last summer as the highlight of his young career.

“In the first game for Keene, I hit two homeruns in my first two swings,” Bergeron recalled. “It was the best feeling; I didn’t know what to expect coming out of Div. III, and to go out there and in my first two swings knock two home runs was really great – it showed off some of my power, but more importantly it earned me instant credibility in the eyes of the other players.

“I’ve played in front of the fans back home my whole life and then to go out there and hit two home runs in my first game in the NECBL, I loved it,” he said. “You wonder what you’ll do when you get there and then when you do, well, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”

After the auspicious beginning, Bergeron endured the first slump of his career, which he credits to using wood bats for the first time in a game-situation, faster pitching than he had been used to out of college ball and some good-old-fashioned bad luck.

“In the metal bat leagues, I don’t really have slumps, but in the Keene league I had some trouble at first with the wood bats, and the pitching’s much better there too – the fastest guy in college is among the slowest out there,” Bergeron explained.

“I was 6-for-40 out of the gate,” he continued. “I hit a lot of balls hard, I just didn’t have a whole lot of luck at first, but I was hitting the ball hard and I had to realize that eventually they’d start falling in for me.”

And fall in for him they did: Bergeron hit .315 after his first 15 games to end up in the top-25 in hitting (.270 avg.) and fifth in the league in homeruns (six) and RBIs (27). “There’s definitely a transition period,” Bergeron admitted. “But once you get used to the faster pitching and the wooden bat you can start timing everything better, and after a few games 90 doesn’t seem so fast anymore.”

After Bergeron settled down, he became a major reason why the Swampbats went all the way to a deciding third game in the championship series last summer.

Though he has received great coaching between his years at his high school, Northfield Mt. Herman, under Dick Peller, at Williams under Dave Barnard and in the NECBL under former major leaguer Paul Swingle, and though he admires the sheer athleticism that Ken Griffey, Jr. brings to a ball game, the man who had the greatest influence on Bergeron’s baseball career is easily his father, Junior Bergeron.

“My dad coached me until I was about 14,” Bergeron said. “My dad was really into it, he was always pushing me in every way possible, he was always there for me every step of the way.

“Definitely Coach Barnard does what he can to fix up my swing if he sees anything going wrong, but for the most part he lets me do my thing,” Bergeron said. “This game is always about the mechanics and making sure things get fundamentally sound, and my dad is really good at pointing out anything I may be doing wrong; he comes to all the games – he knows his stuff and I listen to my dad the most out of anyone.”

Whatever his father has been telling him, obviously it’s worked so far; the question remaining for Bergeron now is could it one day lead to a spot on a major league ball club?

“To be a major leaguer – that’s the g
oal,” Bergeron said. “I know the odds are slim, but I’ve put myself in the best possible situation to make it. It’s a long way off and I’ve got a lot of work to do, but with a little stroke of luck, hopefully I’ll just keep moving on up through the levels. I’m a first baseman and I feel most comfortable there, but I’m willing to do whatever I have to do to play – if they tell me I need to move I have to do what they tell me.”

So does that mean that the life-long Red Sox fan could someday be starting at first for the Bronx Bombers?

“I think I could make do with putting on the pinstripes,” he conceded. “I’d do it grudgingly, but I don’t think I’d have a problem with that. Truthfully, I wouldn’t have too much of a problem playing for anyone; preferably it would be a team with a terrible farm system that I could make my way through quickly,” he joked.

The way Bergeron is going, there’s no telling where the future could lead. And if one day you’re at Fenway Park, sitting along the first base line watching a Red Sox-Yankee game and you feel compelled to heckle that jerk in pinstripes standing on first base, just be sure it isn’t Jabe Bergeron first; and if it is, heckle him anyway – just remember that you and he will always share a little piece of Williams College with one another.