By Mojo Hill
Behind every dynasty is a coaching staff that works tirelessly to prepare, train and motivate its players. Not only do coaches need to bring the best out of their players, but they need to operate with a common goal in mind. They need to be on the same page.
It’s safe to say the Bourne Braves’ coaches fit that bill.
Not only did the Braves win their second consecutive championship Sunday night, but they did so with a staff comprised entirely of second-year coaches. Manager Scott Landers and his four assistant coaches have taken over the helm in Bourne and come together to win a ring in both seasons with the club.
“I don’t play or coach to lose,” MLB veteran and Braves assistant coach Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. “So when I came out here, I told Scott, ‘I want to win.’ That’s what it’s about. We want to get these kids better, but we want to win. It’s great competition out here.”
The Braves took a windy road to arrive at back-to-back championships, coming in fourth place in the West but catching fire at the right time. They eliminated Cotuit in two, then won tight clinchers over Hyannis and Orleans to come out on top of it all in 2023.
“Last year was pretty sweet because as the No. 1 seed, you’re expected to go win it,” assistant coach John Topoleski said. “Being the four seed, coming from behind, going three games two series in a row, it’s pretty awesome. It’s pretty special being the four seed and coming all the way back to get this one.”
Landers took over as Braves manager last summer, after helping Brewster to a championship in 2021 while serving as the Whitecaps’ pitching coach. In a relatively short time, he’s made Bourne his home. He doesn’t have the resume of, say, Falmouth manager Jeff Trundy, who won his 500th career Cape League game this season, or Orleans manager Kelly Nicholson, who won the championship with the Firebirds all the way back in 2005. But after taking down Nicholson’s most recent club in the championship series, Landers already has more trophies than the Firebirds’ skipper.
“I was extremely unsure coming into Bourne two years ago,” Landers said. “I can say now that it’s a very homey atmosphere for me and my family. I have a lot of respect for the board and everybody that helps me out with the community, and the players that come here. And the host families. You can’t forget about them.”
Also contributing to that homey feeling is the young children of both Landers and Saltalamacchia, who regularly spent time in the dugout and helped out as bat kids. Landers’s son Cal would often take pregame batting practice among the final group of players. The kids were a part of the team, in many ways.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Landers said with a laugh back in July. “They’re awesome. It’s great for them to be around. They can be a little annoying at times. But no, it’s great when they’re here, and they’re enjoying the guys. The guys are great with them, which makes it that much more special.”
Although his title is the head man now, Landers still works with the pitchers as a pitching-minded coach and a former college pitcher himself. He helped numerous pitchers throughout the summer, whether they made just one start or stayed the whole season. He helped pitchers like Ryan Fischer flourish, helping to refine his slider and be the most effective version of himself.
Outfielder Pete Ciuffreda recently joked that the team gives Landers flack for not knowing as much about hitting, but he still brings a well-rounded baseball knowledge in that respect as well. One of his most notable fixes in 2023 was making approach adjustments with Garrett Michel, who struggled with strikeouts for much of the season but caught fire heading into the playoffs. Michel led the team in both regular season and postseason home runs.
And just look at Josh-Kuroda Grauer, who struggled mightily near the end of the season. But Landers kept playing him, and kept putting him in the two-hole, and it eventually paid off. Kuroda-Grauer had a massive go-ahead double in a late-season game against Harwich, then completely caught fire in the postseason. He hit over .500 and took home playoff MVP honors.
“The best coaches in the world. I wouldn’t want to play for any other coaches,” Kuroda-Grauer said after receiving his award. “I thank all of them for sticking with me and believing in me when I wasn’t doing too hot in the regular season. Landers especially – he never gave up on me. So those are coaches you really want to play for, and there’s a reason we came out on top.”
Landers doesn’t take the credit all to himself. He stressed many times, especially at the end of the season, how much it helps to have his staff of assistants. Saltalamacchia and John Topoleski help out on the hitting, fielding and baserunning side of things, while Kevin Curtin helps with pitchers and managing the bullpen during games. Lukas Olsson, who played for Landers at SUNY Oswego as recently as three years ago, rounds out the coaching staff.
“Scott’s great. There’s nobody out here that I’ve seen that’s better at recruiting and getting players out here,” Saltalamacchia said. “And he lets the kids play. He doesn’t over-manage them. He gets good culture kids that come out here and play. So he should take most of the credit. We’re just trying to be in the right place at the right time.”
Saltalamacchia is a hot commodity with fans on the Cape, coming to Bourne after a 12-season MLB playing career that included a World Series championship with the Boston Red Sox in 2013. Now, he’s beginning a new chapter as a coach. During the regular season, he coaches high school kids at The King’s Academy in West Palm Beach, Florida.
“It’s a lot different. That’s why I come out here,” Saltalamacchia said. “High school ball, especially my area and a private school, we don’t have the athletes you do at the college level with D1 kids. We just do the fundamentals. We work on approach. We work on catching the ball, throwing the ball. Not trying to be too flashy. Not trying to hit home runs. Definitely a different style of game, but same mindset of winning.”
It only seems fitting, in a way, that the Cape League team with an MLB player for a coach has won the championship in both years with him on the staff. While these players still have to prove their own worth and aren’t going to get anything handed to them just because of Saltalamacchia’s track record, having him around to point things out during batting practice or during games gives them an undeniably valuable asset.
“A lot of this game is mental. It’s a lot about approach. It’s about focus,” Saltalamacchia said. “There’s a lot of mistakes being made on the field as far as the pitches, so hitters gotta be ready. But it’s really just the mindset of going out there and being prepared every day to play. These kids had a choice. They could have been at home right now, a week away with their girlfriends and family, getting ready for school, than be out here and win. I thank every single one of those guys for staying.”
Topoleski, meanwhile, coaches college athletes at the NAIA level with Georgia Gwinnett College during the regular season. The Cape has given him an opportunity to help players in pursuit of MLB dreams.
“Coming from NAIA, you get a lot of guys, a lot of D1 players that are bouncebacks, that didn’t end up in the right situation or whatever,” Topoleski said. “Coming up here, everyone’s looking for the same goal of winning, but also, they want to better their future or better their career. When you get them all on the same page and build a championship, it makes it that much more special.”
Saltalamacchia has hopes of coaching college ball too, still being at the start of his coaching journey. Both Saltalamacchia and Topoleski credited all the other coaches for the lessons they’ve learned from them, and how it’s given them the experience of working for a tight-knit, winning-minded organization.
“I’d love to coach college baseball. I want to get into college baseball real bad,” Saltalamacchia said. “I don’t even want to be the head coach right now. I want to learn the whole aspect of it. I want to try and get better at it. Understanding what the recruiting process is, understanding the playing and all that stuff, the portal. I just want to learn as much as possible. But I want to win. I want to go to an organization that wants me to come in, teach the same mindset we’ve taught out here. These kids are already good. They’re not at a D1 level because they stink. They’ve got all the tools. It’s just a matter of fine-tuning it, and just go and focus on what they gotta do.”
One of the most prime examples of what Saltalamacchia is describing — not just on Bourne, but across the entire Cape — was Derek Bender. The Coastal Carolina slugger placed second in the league with a .374 average, along with a 1.003 OPS and postseason dramatics to boot. Bender brought one of the biggest personalities to Bourne and said he “grew up a lot of this summer” both on and off the field under these coaches’ leadership.
“They know how to get this thing done. Props to them,” Bender said. “There’s a lot of different moves; there’s a lot of different roster transactions that you look at — you’re like, ‘Really?’ But you put your trust in those guys. They make the lineup. We don’t have any control over that. We just have to go out there and play. It’s their job to take care of everything else. So all we have to focus on is us vs. the ball. And I couldn’t really thank them enough. I couldn’t thank everybody in the Bourne organization, top to bottom, coaches to the interns, to the volunteers, to Jenabeth [Ferguson] and Nicole [Norkevicius] — they are a class act organization.”
Bourne has something special going, and it’s obvious to anyone who pays attention to the Cape League. In a two-year span, Landers and co. have turned this town into a place to win — no longer the team that hasn’t won since 2009, but the team that’s taken home the trophy two years in a row.
And perhaps they’ll make a bid for a third one next summer.
“I take a lot of pride in it,” Landers said. “You always want to win, and what we’ve put together over the last couple years from the teams that we’ve had over the last two summers — the assistant coaches, I can’t do anything without them.”