Tag Archives: baseball

Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein (Anchor, $16.95, 384 pages)

where nobody knows your name

AAA: Where baseball and purgatory collide…

John Feinstein, known for his many appearances on ESPN’s The Sports Reporters, has authored 24 books.  He is most noted for his debut A Season on the Brink: Bob Knight and the Indiana Hoosiers and his books on golf (most notably, A Good Walk Spoiled).  His latest, Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, is simply excellent.

Many have attempted to write about baseball, but as much as the sport lends itself to great writing, truly capturing the essence of the game is a far from easy thing to accomplish.  Roger Angell and Thomas Boswell are probably the best of the lot, and there are others that have done quite well.  Feinstein’s latest is not only a must for baseball fans, it’s well worth the time of any sports fan.

Triple A baseball is the top level of the minor leagues.  The goal for most players is to make it to AA ball because then the organization you play for thinks you have a chance to play in the big leagues.  Most of the players in AA are young up and comers.  Once a player is elevated to that level, they set their sights on the major leagues – or what is commonly referred to as “the show.”  The next level, AAA, becomes a place for additional seasoning of top prospects or a holding ground for more experienced players (who may be called up at any time).  Some players who are shuttled back and forth are labeled “4A” players; too good for AAA but not good enough for major league play.

The players at the AAA level have dreamed the dream from their early childhood on.  They’ve worked extremely hard, have often endured setbacks, and are just an eyelash away from the ultimate prize: playing in big league stadium parks.

In Where Nobody Knows Your Name, Feinstein follows the plight of several AAA characters throughout the 2012 season.  He successfully hits on all the little things — the letter inviting a player to either a big league or minor league camp for spring training; the deadlines when players learn of their fate; the tragedy of players who have been to the “bigs” but get sent back to the minors; and the dreaded or hoped for calls to the manager’s office (almost always signifying bad news, but sometimes good).  The young ballplayers are quite human, but they are often treated like objects.

While many players and managers are profiled, the major characters in this book are Scott Elarton, Ron Johnson, Jon Lindsey, Mark Lollo, Charlie Montoyo, Scott Podesdnik, Chris Schwinden, and Brett Tomko.  Along the way Feinstein tells of the endless travel, the ridiculous promotions, front office personnel, announcers, and the players’ families. He also touches on the umpires and groundskeepers, who have their own dreams of being promoted to the bigs.

As for the primary characters, Elarton went 17-7 with the Astros in 2000, but finished with a record under .500 in his 10-year major league career.  Johnson was a career minor league manager.  Lindsey was drafted by the Rockies in 1995.  Although he was a big hitter in the minors, he managed just one brief stint in the majors.  Lindsey was called up by the Dodgers at the age of 33, going one for 12 in 11 big league games.  Lollo dreamed of umpiring in the major leagues.

McLouth, an outfielder, showed promise early on in his career with the Pirates, was traded to Atlanta where he gradually lost his hitting touch, and had begun to fight his way back.  Montoyo was another career minor league manager.  Though not a power hitter, Podsednik, also an outfielder, hit a big home run in the 2005 World Series for the victorious White Sox.  A player with speed, Podsednik’s career was shortened by a rash of injuries.

Schwinden was a pitcher who fought for eight years to get to the majors.  Tomko, who won exactly 100 major league games – but had not thrown a pitch since the 2009 season, fights to throw another pitch in the bigs at the age of 39.  Elarton, Schwinden, and Tomko never make it back to the majors.  The same is true for Johnson, Lollo, and Montoyo.

Podsednik was called up by the Red Sox in 2012 and hit .302 but was released at the end of the year.  He was 36 and never played in the big leagues again.  McLouth was called up by Baltimore and played in the post-season.  His final big league season was 2014, during which he appeared in 79 games for Washington.

All of these individuals have a story, and Feinstein tells them in a masterful fashion.  What resonates is a love of the game felt by each of these individuals.  Each is grateful for what they have, while finding it hard to let go of the game that defined their existence.

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None of the characters in this account decide to voluntarily walk away from baseball.  They each fight to the end, knowing the odds of success fall between slim and none.  Why?  Feinstein answers that for readers when he concludes the book with a quote from Jim Bouton’s memoir Ball Four:  “You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time.”

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A copy of this book was provided to the reviewer.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of a story about baseball, love, and Bob Dylan: Life and Life Only: A Novel.

 

 

 

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Mandolin Wind

Retro Music Review: Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story

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Rod Stewart recently turned 72 and he’ll embark on an 18-date summer tour with Cyndi Lauper beginning in July.  Here’s a look back at Every Picture Tells a Story, which was originally released in May of 1971 on Mercury Records.

The title cut opens the festivities.  Mickey Waller’s drum work is a highlight.  The first of only three original Stewart songs on the album, “Every Picture Tells a Story” is one of two major coming-of-age stories that would become rock and roll classics.  In this song the closing mantra, “Every picture tells a story…” pulls together each of the earlier individual vignettes.

Stewart slows it down with “Seems Like a Long Time.”  His signature gravelly vocals steal the show here.  He picks it right back up with a rocking honky-tonk version of “That’s All Right Mama,” an Arthur Crudup song popularized by Elvis Presley.

Stewart elects to include his take on Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow is a Long Time” (originally released on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan).  “Amazing Grace” serves as a lead in, and a unique arrangement and Stewart’s vocal styling make this song worthy of inclusion.

The instant classic, “Maggie May,” opens side two.  Another original, “Maggie,” also a coming-of-age story, was originally released as the B-side of “(Find A) Reason to Believe.”  “Maggie” steals the show and went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic.  The guitar work is better than I recalled it.  The song is “Pure Rod” with vocals, emotion, and musicianship melding together perfectly to become an inarguable all-time classic.

The third Stewart original, “Mandolin Wind,” is another all-timer and one of the finest love songs ever written.  The pedal steel against the mandolin makes for a beautiful sound.  Many critics at the time considered this the best song on the long player.  The poignant lyrics are perfectly delivered.  “Mandolin Wind” is Stewart at  his finest.

The penultimate track is “(I Know) I’m Losing You.”  For those familiar with The Temptations’ 1967 version of this song from their album The Temptations with a Lot o’ Soul, hold on to your hat.  The Temptations classic version is funky and rocks in its own way, but Rod and the boys kick it into a higher gear, thanks in large part to the drumming of Kenney Jones.  For some reason this is the only track that long-time Faces drummer Jones plays on, and he morphs from master timekeeper to soloist during the interlude/bridge.  Jones’s work here is worthy of the great Who drummer Keith Moon, whom Jones would replace when Moon died in 1978.

The final song,  Tim Hardin’s “(Find A) Reason to Believe” – which is similar in style to “Seems Like a Long Time,” “Tomorrow is a Long Time,” and “Mandolin Wind,” reinforces the themes of love, loss, youth, angst and disappointment that permeate the album.

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Every Picture Tells a Story was Stewart’s third studio album.  The Faces play on virtually every track, with Ronnie Wood on bass and guitar.  A variety of musicians and backup singers, which are used extensively, contribute to the eight songs on the album.  Eclectic in style, Every Picture went on to become number one in both the U.S. and the United Kingdom and is ranked #173 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums.  While lists of this nature are arbitrary, Every Picture is that good.

Rod Stewart has never met a cover he didn’t like and has on occasion compromised his reputation with overt pop sentimentality, succumbing and/or pandering to the latest trends to make a buck.  But, at his finest, he is clearly among the best ever.  This album is every bit worthy of its place in rock history.

Highly recommended.  92 points out of a possible 100.

Dave Moyer

Dave Moyer is a public school district superintendent and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about Bob Dylan, baseball, love and life.

 

 

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The Arm

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The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports by Jeff Passan (Harper, $26.99, 376 pages)

One of the first things nearly all of us who picked up a baseball as a little boy – dreaming of one day playing in the major leagues, heard was, “Now remember, son, you only have one arm.” Jeff Passan has written a must read for any baseball fan called The Arm, which delves deeply into the mystery of how this limb withstands the continued trauma of throwing a baseball until it finally breaks down.

Anyone who has taken the pitcher’s mound in any relatively competitive situation from youth travel ball, to varsity high school baseball, to college, to pro ball, has said on numerous occasions, “I can throw. Gimme the ball.” That is how pitchers are wired. In the pitcher’s mind, he can’t pitch and beat you if you don’t give him the ball. But, how much is too much? What is the right number for a pitch limit? How much rest is required under what circumstances? What types of training, conditioning and preventive measures work best? What actually causes the arm to break down? According to Passan, nobody knows for sure. He faults organized baseball for not being more proactive in this regard, though he does cite some progress in this area over the past couple of years.

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In 1974 Dr. Frank Jobe made history by drilling holes into Tommy John’s elbow and weaving a new ligament into it to replace John’s torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL). This, of course, came to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” which now seems about as common for pitchers as putting their spikes on. According to Passan, instead of naming the surgery after himself – which is common when coining an innovative surgical procedure – he deferred to John, who he said is the one who had to undergo all of the pain and hard rehabilitative work.

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Two hundred and eighty-eight major league pitchers have had Tommy John surgery. Just two have had it twice: journeyman reliever Todd Coffey, and Dan Hudson of the Arizona Diamondbacks. A significant portion of the book chronicles their professional and personal highs and lows as they attempt to return to The Show.

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The book addresses how travel ball and specialization has taken over youth sports and delves into one of the preeminent organizations in the country, Perfect Game. It goes back in time to trace the evolution of arm care, from Sandy Koufax and the premature end of his career, all the way up to Kyle Boddy of DriveLine baseball in Kent, Washington, and his controversial training approach using over and underweight balls. Also included are discussions of alternatives to going under the knife.

While Passan seems intrigued at the possibilities offered by some of the new approaches to training, prevention, and treatment, the book does not conclude with an answer as to how to better protect young and old pitching arms. That’s because nobody has the answer. It may be that throwing a baseball as hard as you can, thousands and thousands of times – over decades beginning at age eight or so, is simply a destructive act.

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One final note: assuming both World Series teams carry 12 pitchers on their roster, 12.5% of the pitchers throwing in the 2016 World Series have had Tommy John surgery – John Tomlin of the Cleveland Indians and John Lackey and Hector Rondon of the Chicago Cubs. Tomlin was drafted in 2006, reached the big leagues in 2010 and had Tommy John surgery in 2012. He went 13-9 this year in 29 starts and sports a 49-39 career win-loss record. Lackey was 11-8 this year in 29 starts, and boasts a 176-135 win-loss record over 16 seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in 2011. Rondon, a reliever, had 18 saves this year and has a 14-14 career win-loss record. He missed some playing time this year with a non-arm injury and had Tommy John surgery performed in 2010.

While The Arm does not supply a solution as to how baseball can protect the arms of Little Leaguers and college pitchers and professional throwers like Tomlin, Lacky and Rondon, it performs a service in focusing attention on the ongoing issue of constitutionally fragile arms. It’s a good start.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Arm was released on April 5, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school administrator in Illinois, a member of the Sheboygan A’s Baseball Hall of Fame, and is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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At This Hour

“We got the bubble-headed beach-blonde who comes on at five/She can tell you about the plane crash with a gleam in her eye/It’s interesting when people die/Give us dirty laundry.” Don Henley

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The Newsmakers: A Novel by Lis Wiehl and Sebastian Stuart (Thomas Nelson, $26.99, 352 pages)

Erica Sparks is a recovering alcoholic who capitalizes on a fluke event to rejuvenate her career. A former televison anchor, she is cast off to nowhere land but manages to be in the right place at the right time. With a convergence of looks, talent and luck, she finds herself back on the media map.

Sparks is separated from her daughter, falls in love with her producer, lands her own TV show, and confronts evil within a matter of weeks. She could easily be the next superhero in a Marvel blockbuster.

The book is co-written by Lis Wiehl with Sebastian Stuart, although the collaboration is not explained. It is the 12th book by Wiehl, seven of which are “April Henry” stories, and three of which are “Pete Nelson” stories. For those who are drawn to Sparks, there will be another Sparks story as is made clear by the final paragraph of The Newsmakers.

The story unravels a bit deliberately and then hurries along to its neat conclusion. It is, for the most part, enjoyable. However, it’s a bit much to accept that within within two weeks our protagonist is on site at a boat crash linked to terrorism, is a witness to the murder of a political figure, is offered a Cable TV position on the Global News Network, and comes within milliseconds of being part of an on-air tragedy. It sounds like the synopsis of a Lifetime made-for-TV film.

So this is not a deep read for serious thinkers. It’s more of a quick read for the beach or a plane ride. And, yes, there is an audience for such delightful if improbable fluff.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

The Newsmakers was released on October 4, 2016.

Dave Moyer is a school district superintendent and is the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball, love and Bob Dylan.

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Ebony and Ivory

under-one-roof-by-adam-henig-front-cover

He’s taught in his school/From the start by the rule/That the laws are with him/To protect his white skin… Bob Dylan, “Only a Pawn in Their Game”

Under One Roof: The Yankees, the Cardinals, and a Doctor’s Battle to Integrate Spring Training by Adam Henig (Wise Ink, $9.95, 146 pages)

Much has been written and passed on about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in major league baseball and the history of the Negro Leagues. However, that single act was only the beginning of a long struggle for equality in major league baseball and society. Those that followed suffered significant abuse and hardship all to often. Hank Aaron was the target of vile, despicable hatred when he broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. That, too, has been chronicled in great detail. The travails of African American baseball players during spring training received far less scrutiny, as has their journey through minor league cities in the south during the 50s, 60s, and beyond.

Adam Henig shines a light on the subject in Under One Roof. It is more of a flashlight than a spotlight, as had he chosen he could have expanded his tale to include a more substantial account of the travails of these athletes and the social mores of the time. As it stands, he confined his story to the efforts of civil rights activist, Dr. Ralph Wimbish and his work to integrate the community of St. Petersburg, Florida.

In the early 60s, St. Petersburg was the spring training home of both the Cardinals and the Yankees. Pitcher Bob Gibson of the Cardinals and catcher Elston Howard of the Yankees were among the prominent black players on those teams. At that time they and their other black teammates were not allowed to stay at the same hotel as their white counterparts. Instead, separate housing arrangements were made in segregated parts of town. Special transportation and other provisions were secured to accommodate these players.

Henig seems to be interested in telling a story more than creating an historical record which, in the end, likely serves the same purpose. Although it is a good read, and while there is research, interviews, and other supporting documentation, this is a very important topic and – had he chosen to do so, he could have gone into greater depth. The actual text runs 100 pages and the book is accessible to younger readers, which is a good thing, and would make excellent reading for middle school students and/or other classes.

My former high school coach, Ron Herr, was a phenomenal pitcher who came within a sliver of making the big leagues. He later briefly served as a coach with the Atlanta Braves. He often told us stories of the inhuman treatment that Rico Carty, Aaron, and other were subject to – buses pulling over when players needed to use a restroom and the inevitable conflict to follow, as well as predictable stories involving restaurants, housing, and fan behavior.

Gladly, my children live in (and to their credit espouse) a more tolerant and accepting society than previous generations. We are certainly not there yet, as is evidenced by recent tragedies in Ferguson, MO, Charleston, SC, and daily chaos in the south and west sides of Chicago that will likely break records for shootings and fatalities. I applaud Henig for keeping these stories alive for younger generations, who were not around to know just how tumultuous a time this was in our country’s history. If there is any criticism of the book, it would be that he only scratched the surface.

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Here’s hoping for a better tomorrow.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was received from the author. Adam Henig is also the author of Alex Haley’s Roots: An Author’s Odyssey.

This book was released on April 25, 2016.

Dave Moyer is an educator, former baseball player and coach, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Sea of Madness

Baseball Dads

Baseball Dads: Sex. Drugs. Murder. Children’s Baseball. by Matthew S. Hiley (Greenleaf Book Group Press, $15.99, 320 pages)

“Holy Travel Ball, Batman”

What do you do when you live in an affluent suburb, your kid is a talented baseball player but ends up playing on a team with a “daddy ball” coach, and your wife is sleeping with half the males in the state of Texas? Why, the answer is obvious. You spend 90% of your waking hours high as a kite, orchestrating a killing spree, have sex constantly, assume you can get away with it because you are a superhero, win over the cops, and – at the same time – get the reader to root for you because every other character in the novel is even more reprehensible than you.

At least that is Dwayne Devero’s solution in Matthew S. Hiley’s masterpiece Baseball Dads.

Every page gets more absurd than the last until just when you think it can’t get any more ridiculous, it does. If you have to wear glasses to read, as I do, good luck. It is hard to imagine when you are crying your eyes out with laughter. Baseball Dads is Family Guy on steroids.

It is a farce, certainly. But it is extremely well-written. And, it is so far out there that one is forced to reflect on the moral negativity of egocentric lives without realizing that Hiley is holding the mirror up to us all – until it’s not as funny anymore when the realization comes that that is exactly what he is doing.

Baseball Dads back cover

The Real Housewives of Fort Worth, or the reality of your own suburban backyard, your attitude about your kid’s participation in organized sport, and the absolute certainty that he or she is surely on the cusp of a college Division I scholarship – before they’ve even reached puberty? Well, you will have to decide for yourself.

Priceless.

Highly recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

Dave Moyer is an education administrator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel about love, baseball, and Bob Dylan.

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The End of the Innocence

Swing (nook book)

Swing: A Novel by Philip Beard (Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, $14.95, 324 pages)

John Kosta befriends Henry Graham, even though it is more the other way around. Then, Henry’s sister, Ruthie, takes a liking to John as well. Next, Henry shows up at an awkward moment on New Year’s Eve, following the death of the Pittsburg Pirate’s great right fielder Roberto Clemente and, before you know it, you have the foundation for a novel. But, like all great novels that use baseball as a backdrop, Philip Beard’s third novel Swing is actually not about baseball.

John has no legs, and Henry is a 10-year-old boy trying to deal with his father’s need to move from one woman to the next through his love of baseball and the Pirates. Not coincidentally, both Henry’s father and John share in Henry’s passion. John serves to fill a void for Henry, establishing a relationship that takes the reader all the way to the final pages of the story.

Father-son, male-female, brother-sister, husband-wife, friend-friend, co-worker to co-worker – no relationship is without complication. This novel is as much about lost innocence and regret as it is about anything. And it is about continuing to find a way to move forward and live one’s life amid the inevitable disappointments and challenges that pop up.

Swing is reminiscent of a John Irving novel, with the obligatory oddball character(s), themes of missing fathers, and the characters’ obsessions with sex. In fact, while some Irving novels run too long, and while this reviewer prefers the condensed version in most cases, Beard could have provided us with more.

The novel shifts back and forth in time between Henry’s adult and childhood years. If somehow the author could have avoided this technique, it probably would have been an even stronger and more impactful story. That being said, it is well worth one’s time to read Swing. It is one of the better stories this reader-reviewer has encountered in a while.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. Dave Moyer is an educator, and the author of a book about baseball, love and Bob Dylan, Life and Life Only.

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