The winningest manager in the Cape Cod Baseball League returns for his 25th season.By Bill Higgins | Photography by SportsPix
John Schiffner is leaning on a railing on the top step of the dugout at Veterans Field. Long past his playing days at Providence College, he feels comfortable in a uniform he’s worn for 25 seasons, occasionally offering an encouraging clap to the batter at the plate.
With a salt-and-pepper mustache and ruddy face weathered from so many days and nights at the ballpark, “Schiff,” as he is known to all, looks like a character from central casting. If Hollywood wanted a cutout creation of a baseball manager, they could call on him.
And they did. The 61-year-old Schiffner was portrayed by the noted actor Brian Dennehy in the 2001 romantic comedy “Summer Catch,” which also starred Freddie Prinze Jr. as a pitching prospect with big league dreams playing for Chatham in the Cape Cod Baseball League. Schiffner agreed to allow the use of his name and has enjoyed the attention from Dennehy’s role. “A handsome Tom Selleck playing me would have been OK, too,” Schiff says with a smile. “But Brian Dennehy, that was cool.”
He is still asked to sign “Summer Catch” DVDs alongside Dennehy’s autograph. His real-life baseball story, however, goes far beyond a Tinseltown footnote. Schiffner returns in 2017 for his 25th season as the Chatham Anglers manager. He traces his Cape League connections to 1974, when he first crossed the Bourne Bridge to play for the Harwich Mariners. For more than 40 years spanning five decades, the Dover, New Jersey, native has spent part of every summer on the Cape as a player, assistant coach, professional scout or field manager. “I have one of the 10 best jobs in summer baseball,” says Schiff. “I’ve been blessed.”
He’s also been successful. He is the winningest manager in league history with 519 victories. He’s led his teams to 15 playoff berths, six division titles, two championships and twice been honored as the best manager. But beyond the wins, Schiffner has helped nurture the careers of more than 100 major league players and dozens of coaches now in college and pro baseball. Among the big league stars who played for him are Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, Andrew Miller of the Cleveland Indians, Matt Harvey of the New York Mets, Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays and former Boston Red Sox World Series MVP Mike Lowell.
Not bad for a guy who took over as Chatham’s manager midway through the 1993 season and thought his stay would be so short that he collected souvenir shirts from all 10 league teams. “I wanted them as mementos,” Schiffner says. “I figured that was going to be my last summer on the Cape. It sure seemed that way.”
A high school teacher and coach in Connecticut, Schiff was a Chatham assistant when manager Rich Hill departed midseason in 1993 for a college head coaching job. He left behind a struggling team. Schiffner lost his first three games, but then led Chatham on a late-season run to the division title.
Still, the stigma of being labeled “only a high school coach” followed him until he quieted critics around town and the league by winning the Cape League championship in 1996. Chatham won it all again in 1998. “That first championship was sweet,” he admits. “I knew what I could do, but winning proved to people that I could coach in this league.”
One of Schiff’s mentors was Cape League Hall of Famer Eddie Lyons, at one time the record holder for managerial victories. Lyons didn’t win his first league title until his 13th season in 1982 in Chatham when Schiffner was his assistant. “Eddie was like a second father. To share that with him was special.”
Schiffner still feels pressure to perform and still thrives on competition, but measures success not by the standings but rather his impact and influence on players. “Everyone wants to win and I hear that every game in Chatham,” says Schiffner. “That’s OK, but my promise and obligation is to help each kid be better as a player and as a young man. I want them all to say this was the best summer of their lives.”
Schiffner recently retired from his Connecticut high school teaching and coaching positions and now lives full time on the Cape with his wife, Martha, and Bailey, a 15-year-old pug. He enjoys fishing and crafting drinking glasses out of old bottles. But mostly, he enjoys baseball, and says the “Chatham experience” keeps him returning to Veterans Field.
Schiff’s legacy in Cape Cod Baseball League annals is secure. A place in the Hall of Fame awaits. When the time comes to leave, a championship season would be a fitting Hollywood ending. After all, he knows how to play the part.