[ORLEANS — Before Firebirds baseball games at Eldredge Park, empty lawn chairs and picnic blankets crowd the hill down the first-base line. Many of them have been there since the morning of the game — or even the night before.
Games in the Cape Cod Baseball League, which celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, are free, but at Eldredge, getting a good seat demands another kind of price: putting your chair out early. And before big games, like Friday’s first of a best-of-three league championship series and the Firebirds’ first championship appearance in 10 years, that price was particularly steep.
“I came at 4:30 in the morning,” said Gillian Monatez of Eastham from her camping chair on top of the hill.
A woman standing beside her jumped in to say she had positioned her picnic tarp at 11 p.m. the night before. “And there were a lot of other people here,” she said.
Jim Possehl, from South Boston but here for the summer, reserved his spot at a more reasonable 10:30 a.m. First pitch was at 6:30 p.m.
For Game 1, a season-record 5,083 people came to watch the Firebirds face last year’s champions, the Bourne Braves.
“They love the community,” said Ian Nicholas, one of the team’s broadcasters. “The community loves them.”
Monatez, who has been coming to Firebirds games for 11 years and postponed a family trip to Yellowstone to see the championship, said she appreciates the work the team does in the area, which includes reading to children every week at the Eastham Public Library and running youth baseball clinics.
“The whole community is buzzing,” Nicholas said before Game 1. “People care.” Though the team hasn’t won a championship in 18 years, he said, “You can feel that everyone has an idea that this is the year.”
“It’s felt like every other team has gotten one. Now it’s our turn,” said George Hoskey, the team’s mascot since 1999. During games, Hoskey jumps around the crowd in a cartoon cardinal costume yelling “Go Birds!” in a deep, gravelly voice.
But not all those in attendance at Game 1 were Firebirds fans hungry for the team to win. There were also those drawn by the simple, nostalgic allure of a night out at the Cape League — complete with wooden bats, dirt infields, local ads, families playing catch, and those picnic blankets and lawn chairs.
The hill around the field is part of the magic here. “People driving by see the people sitting on the hill,” said the team’s president, Bob O’Donnell. “It’s nostalgic. So, they have to come.”
For John Mackin of West Barnstable, who set up his chair on the hill in line with the right-field foul pole, it’s “Americana.”
For Mark Labresh of Eastham, who was sitting in center field, it’s “old-school baseball” and for his wife, Patsy, a reminder of when their son used to play Little League.
“Cape League Baseball is something I’ve never seen replicated anywhere else,” former Firebirds announcer Nate Gatter told the Independent at the start of the season. “It’s still 1970 in the Cape League.”
“What’s that movie called?” Monatez asked. “Field of Dreams — we have that every night.”
Plus, seeing a Cape game means seeing the best amateur baseball there is. “Who knows? You might be seeing a future Hall-of-Famer play,” said Possehl, who has come to nearly every Firebirds home game this summer.
With Firebirds fanatics, nostalgia-seekers, and baseball connoisseurs alike converging on Eldredge Park for the championship of the league’s centennial season, the hill was getting crowded.
Mackin, whose position offered a clear sightline to home plate, said he loved that at Cape League games, “There’s not a bad seat in the house.”
This reporter soon found that to be a rather privileged opinion.
After repeatedly lugging my striped beach chair to a patch of open grass only to realize upon sitting down that I could see approximately none of the field, I went deep into the right-field corner — the area of MLB stadiums that perpetually has empty seats. From there, I could see between a couple of trees to home plate, about 400 feet away.
The hill curved around the foul pole and descended into flat grass, which meant I sat sideways on a slope, ever at risk of tipping over. I witnessed two people do exactly that, the second one a dad who knocked his young son over like a domino.
But the home crowd that was stretching the capacity of Eldredge that night left in disappointment — a back-and-forth game ended in a 6-4 Bourne victory.
Fans had one more chance to break out their lawn chairs, however, because the Firebirds won Game 2 in Bourne the next day, forcing a rubber match back at Eldredge on Sunday. This time, 7,123 people were there.
But the ending Orleans fans so earnestly sought wasn’t meant to be. In Game 3, a 4-run sixth inning for Bourne erased a 2-0 Firebirds lead and dashed the home crowd’s hopes.
With his team down to its final out in the bottom of the ninth, outfielder Matt Halbach hit a liner over the head of the Bourne centerfielder, who leapt and, with an outstretched glove, secured the catch.
The Orleans crowd stayed still for a moment, ruminating as the Braves mobbed the pitcher’s mound. But soon fans stood up to direct a raucous ovation toward the Firebirds players, who were gathered outside the dugout. They tipped their caps, returning the applause.
“The community does so much for us,” said outfielder Fenwick Trimble. “We couldn’t play if it wasn’t for them.”
“We have the best summer fans in the country,” said a teary-eyed Kelly Nicholson, who has been the Firebirds’ manager since 2005 — the team’s last championship season.
Eventually, the Bourne dogpile began to disperse and, with 100 years of Cape League baseball now over, fans turned around and folded up their chairs.