For seven years, Bay Area baseball circles have become quite familiar with the PUF Caps.
Even for those in the know, the travel baseball team based in Palo Alto and Saratoga, run by San Carlos native Mike Zirelli, holds something of an enigmatic charm, even for the team’s most faithful Twitter followers.
The PUF Caps — short for the Pacific Union Financial Capitalists, named after the team’s sponsor, the mortgage lender of the same name — are in their seventh season. Based in Santa Clara County, the collegiate summer team features exclusively recent high school graduates going into their first year of college.
And Zirelli’s squad has turned into quite the purveyor of next-level talent, having 58 players drafted by Major League Baseball teams since 2013, with an array of other collegiate prospects who project as surefire picks when they become eligible in the future.
“It’s taken a long time,” Zirelli said. “The number of players we’ve had drafted out of our program is astronomical … but it’s taken a long time because we’re tough to identify.”
The PUF Caps split their home games between West Valley College-Saratoga and Palo Alto High School. The draw of talent, though, is players from around the nation. This year’s roster includes just one player from San Mateo County in recent Woodside graduate Joseph King.
The reason the travel team is so tough to identify is because it is entirely unaffiliated. This isn’t unique for travel teams. The difference is the PUF Caps have just the one 18U team.
“It’s been awesome,” King said. “The competition, it varies depending on what team we play … but just playing with this team, on this team, has made every single player better because if you want to play you have to compete. And every single guy on this team is a competitor.”
King’s joining the PUF Caps had an immediate impact on his collegiate path. A standout pitcher-catcher, who earned Peninsula Athletic League Ocean Division Player of the Year honors in the spring, King was originally committed to play on scholarship at Washington State.
There was a shakeup at Washington State in the administration that recruited him when head coach Marty Lees was fired in May and King decommitted from the university in Pullman, Washington. In the days to follow, he committed to another Pac-12 program, this one much closer to home, at Cal.
Cal head coach Mike Neu has a connection to the PUF Caps in that he and Zirelli used to be teammates for the now-defunct summer baseball team, the Lafayette Generals. It was during the summer the two were just out of high school and readying for their freshman years of college, the same age range as the PUF Caps.
“Baseball being a small world is a real thing,” Zirelli said.
And the Generals, it turns out, were part of the genesis of Zirelli conceiving of the PUF Caps.
“The Lafayette Generals is definitely an influence,” Zirelli said. “So, I always tell the kids on the PUF Caps I played travel baseball before there was travel baseball.”
As for this year’s squad, King is one of six players headed to Cal next season, which helped him make a quick decision.
“I just think, more the guys that are committed to Cal who are on this team, they’re just good dudes,” King said. “I’d like to be a part of their team for the next three or four years.”
Zirelli has been one busy coach this summer. In addition to running the PUF Caps, he also served as manager for the San Carlos Little League Majors All-Stars, who finished runner-up in the District 52 tournament.
Zirelli’s older son, Zack — who played for that Majors All-Stars team — currently plays for the West Coast Federals Baseball Club based in San Mateo. His younger son, Rocco, plays for the Lamorinda Baseball Club with the 9U Titans squad.
In a true sign of the times in the era of the travel-baseball boom, Zirelli said Rocco, despite being eligible for the San Carlos Little League All-Stars next season, may opt not to play in the prestigious District 52 tournament.
“Next year he has to make a choice,” Zirelli said. “And I think Lamorinda will probably win out.”
Heading into August, the PUF Caps’ season is nearing a close. The team has four more games remaining on its 2019 schedule. And that’s it. As an unaffiliated collegiate summer team, they are not eligible for the 18U Perfect Game rankings, and as a result have no playoff format.
Still, with a current record of 26-7, the PUF Caps are still making a push, albeit not one for the playoffs but for history.
Two years ago, the 2017 PUF Caps — led by current Stanford pitcher Brendon Beck and Rice outfielder Trei Cruz — finished with a 28-9 record, the most wins in the history of the program.
The wins total is one of Zirelli’s big three in terms of the team’s mission. No. 1, he said, is to make sure players are healthy at the end of the summer; No. 2, player development; and No. 3, “win as many games as we can.”
If there were a No. 4, perhaps it would be being on the cutting edge of self-promotion as well. The PUF Caps have one of the busiest Twitter feeds in the business, updating during every game with photos of starting lineup cards, constant in-game highlights and a variety of colorful memes providing real-time color commentary.
Zirelli also made a significant addition to the PUF Caps’ coaching staff this season. Along with current assistant coaches Alex Weeks (associate head coach at College of San Mateo) and Scott Masik (assistant coach at West Valley College) the PUF Caps’ first-year pitching coach is Orlando Razo, who graduated from Serra in 2013 and went on to play two seasons in the Seattle Mariners organization as a 2017 draftee out of UC Davis.
“Great addition,” Zirelli said. “Awesome.”