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The road to 400: Kelly Nicholson cemented in Cape Cod League history

By Brendan Nordstrom

Thursday, June 16, 2005.

The Orleans Cardinals defeated the Brewster Whitecaps by a score of 2-1.

Kelly Nicholson, the three-year pitching coach for Loyola Marymount University and four-year pitching coach for Orleans, had won his first game as manager.

Fast forward and you’ll find Nicholson standing on the stoop of the Orleans Firebirds dugout with two roster cards folded in his left hand and a pen in his right. With two outs and an 8-6 lead over the Hyannis Harbor Hawks, Nicholson kept his eyes locked on the play. A groundball to second base delivered the game’s final out as the Firebirds’ 19-year manager pumped his fist, getting his well-deserved flowers from players, fans and fellow coaches alike.

Kelly Nicholson had won his 400th game as a Cape Cod League manager.

“I don’t want to downplay that … but it’s a longevity thing, right?” Nicholson, the seventh manager in the Cape to reach the milestone, said. “What makes me happy is that I’ve been part of this organization for 23 summers, and I have extreme gratitude for the people that are responsible for me being in Orleans. I never take a day in the Cape Cod Baseball League for granted.”

Nicholson doesn’t remember that first win against Brewster.

Like most coaches have a tendency to do, he can recall losses better. He remembers the team’s slow start in that first season — a season where the team won its 11th title. He can also recall a dropped pop fly against Wareham in the 2002 Championship series to cost the game, as well as a mistake he made pulling a pitcher too early against Bourne in 2009.

“That’s what we do as coaches,” Nicholson said. “We remember the what ifs, and should have, would have, could haves … more so than the good ones.”

But, Nicholson is far from the average coach. Ask assistant coach and former player Cole Cook, and his name lands among the game’s elite.

“Kelly Nicholson is absolutely in the same class of baseball mind as guys like Joe Madden, Dusty Baker, Tim Corbin in terms of the effect that they’ve had on the game,” Cook said, clarifying he did not misspeak. “I do think that’s where he exists in this game, he is that important to baseball.”

Nicholson brings an old-school baseball mindset “in a wonderful way,” Cook said. And, it’s a mindset that’s fading — just as any era of coaching tends to do.

It’s brought up by almost everyone who talks about him. This means treating the game with respect, whether it be wearing your hat the right way, tucking your jersey in or staying humble at second base after a double.

“[He’s] just taught me already so much about the game and respecting everything about it,” starting right-handed pitcher Daniel Avitia said. “I like how he teaches us how to play the game the right way, not doing all the other stuff.”

“People say old school,” Nicholson said, “but I think it’s more of the right school.”

Its impact has been passed down to Firebirds alumni both past and present. Since entering Eldredge Park, Nicholson has had 116 players reach the MLB and 30 get drafted in the first round. They haven’t forgotten about their summer skipper, either.

Nicholson hosts a dinner at Arizona spring training every year, where everyone from Cy Young winners to first-rounders reunite.

“There’ll be hundreds of millions of dollars around the table, and they’re all there for Skip,” Cook said. “The reason that they’re there is because Skip insisted that they carry themselves in a certain way, and they’ve continued that through their life.”

When Cook was a starter for the Firebirds in 2009, he recalls a bullpen game where he was pulled after the third inning. Upset, he threw a “temper tantrum” in the dugout, before Nicholson invited him to the field at 9 a.m. the following morning. Nicholson told him to go home to his parent’s house for three days before returning to the team.

“His gentleness in that moment has just never been lost on me,” Cook said, admitting he should have been kicked off the team.

“Through the years and years I coached pitching, I always remembered that if that kid makes you see red, my job is to find some forgiveness, invite them to calm down and come back with a better attitude.”

And the Kelly Nicholson a player played for in 2001 is the Kelly Nicholson a player plays for in 2023. It was evident at the beginning of this summer when the Firebirds lost five games in a row. Every night he was cool-headed, preaching patience that it will eventually work out. Outfielder Eddie Micheletti Jr. credited the team’s high energy throughout the skid to Nicholson.

Since then, Orleans has gone 8-5, sitting at third place in the division. Yet, Nicholson acts the same as he did 14 games ago.

“That guy works his tail off every single day, and he's the same guy every single day,” catcher Henry Hunter said. “He’s the most consistent guy I think I've ever played for … and we love playing for him.”

Now, Nicholson is among the elite of the elite in the Cape Cod Baseball League, earning win No. 400 on July 3, 2023.

Before the season, Nicholson said he is closer to the end of his coaching career than he is the beginning. He gives all credit to his number one supporter: his wife Donna.

With the hectic schedule of the CCBL, they try to spend as much time as they can together, driving to and from games, eating lunch together and visiting fishing piers, but Donna is alone for around 60 days — something that weighs on Nicholson. After every summer, the two evaluate how it went and make a decision on the next.

“That is a ‘we’ decision,” Nicholson said. “In all sincerity, if she didn’t support this, this wouldn’t work, and she supports it 100%.”

But whether or not Nicholson reaches win No. 500, he has left a signature stamp on what it means to be an Orleans Firebird. The difference between the home dugout at Eldredge Park and every other team that sits in the visitor’s dugout is the culture Nicholson has created — a culture of accountability, punctuality, respect and developing relationships.

“It’s kind of easy to look at something like culture on a two-month season with temps as something that is innocuous or is just there for a poster, but it is the most important thing about this team,” Cook said.

“When you come and work for Kelly Nicholson, it’s like going to work for [Madden, Baker or Corbin]. It’s a serious baseball tradition.”

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