Tag Archives: major league 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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Ebony and Ivory

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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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The Pitcher

The Pitcher: A Novel by William Hazelgrove (Koehlerbooks, $15.95, 241 pages)

The Pitcher (nook book)

“I had a friend who was a big baseball player back in high school/ He could through that speedball by you/ Make you look like a fool, boy…/ Glory days, they’ll pass you by….” Bruce Springsteen, “Glory Days”

The Pitcher is Jack Langford, a 25-year major league baseball veteran, whose existence consists of watching games on television in his garage and drinking Good Times beer. Ricky, who lives across the street from Jack, is an aspiring pitcher on the cusp of high school with much more arm than control. Ricky’s mother is a noble soul, trying to raise her son and advance his future in the midst of racism, poverty, and violence.

The writing flows smoothly, the characters are interesting, and the story itself is intriguing. The Pitcher is clearly an enjoyable read, particularly well suited for young adult males. Its only detractors are those baseball purists who like everything in their baseball literature to 100% accurately reflect the game down to the smallest minutiae. From strictly a baseball standpoint, there are some technical inaccuracies (e.g., when Jack finally agrees to give lessons to Ricky and help him make the team, they are nothing like what pitching lessons would actually consist of). There are some others as well, such as description of the interactions between umpires and coaches, coaches and players, etc. However, this is fiction, and in all fiction one must be willing to suspend disbelief. If the baseball fanatic can get past some of that, there is much for them to enjoy here. The story will bring back feelings like hope or joy or disappointment for those who once played the game.

The premise of The Pitcher is strong. This reviewer cannot help but speculate how the major issues dealt with in the book (racism, immigration reform, how to live when one’s dreams seem to be over, domestic violence, access to health care, etc.) would have translated to a larger audience if not confined to a first-person telling by Ricky, whose 8th grade maturity level and vocabulary do not always do them justice.

All of that being said, The Pitcher is a worthy rendering of the age old theme of a boy, a ball, and a dream.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author. Dave Moyer is an education administrator and a former college baseball player. He is also the author of Life and Life Only, a novel about baseball and Bob Dylan.

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Shine On

The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky (Riverhead Trade, $16.00, 352 pages)

The Eastern Stars, subtitled How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris, by Mark Kurlansky, chronicles the evolution of baseball in this town, the island in general, and – in some cases – the surrounding Caribbean islands.

At its conclusion, the book has a listing of the first 79 players from San Pedro de Macoris that made it into the U.S./Canadian major leagues.   Many readers will likely assume this book has more baseball content and less history, and from the middle toward the end, baseball plays a more prominent role in the story.   The beginning of the book is a long history lesson, which may prove to be quite frustrating for some readers.

The most interesting parts of the book are the tales of how the local men who did succeed in playing major league baseball viewed their hometown.   The decisions they made during and after their careers relating to how they supported the needs of their families and brethren had outcomes ranging from remarkable generosity to outright dismissal.

Extreme poverty is the one common denominator affecting all.   The subjects of steroids, scouts, and how MLB organizations handled their affairs in Latin America also permeate throughout.

The book dances between trying to satisfy the history buffs and the baseball fans and, thus, falls short in both areas.   However, it does add up to a satisfying story, especially after it manages to leave the ground.   Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Mark Kurlansky is also the author of the nonfiction books Cod and Salt. 

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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Coming Up Next…

A review of The Eastern Stars: How Baseball Changed the Dominican Town of San Pedro de Macoris by Mark Kurlansky.

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The Card

The Card: A Van Stone Novel by Jim Devitt (CreateSpace; $10.99; 248 pages)

When reading Jim Devitt’s self-published novel The Card: A Van Stone Novel, one can’t help but think of the classic cartoon Scooby Doo.   In it, three high school students become entangled in a web of intrigue for which one must be willing to suspend belief to a large degree to buy into.

The story starts innocently enough, as 18-year-old Van Stone wins an essay contest to become a clubhouse go-fer for the Seattle Mariners major league baseball organization.   This would be a summer dream for many young men, but it is not far into the novel that the connection to baseball is minimized and instead shifts to the mystery surrounding the Moe Berg baseball card given to Van by his father.   (For additional information on why this is significant, see The Catcher Was a Spy: The Mysterious Life of Moe Berg by Nicholas Dawidoff.   To give away more would be to compromise the ending of this book.)

Van’s father worked for a company called Biotrust, which is involved in high level, top-secret scientific research, before he left to become an independent businessman.   Van’s precious possession, his father’s gift, is associated with a vicious plot to uncover a highly classified secret, sucking Van and his two best friends onto both a quest to solve the mystery and a fight for survival.

The book loses steam about a third of the way through despite some unexpected twists in the final 20 or so pages.   The fact that Van and his friends never go to the police until a Mariners employee brokers a meeting is hard to fathom, and the reason given for this at the end of the story is nearly untenable.   The dialogue between the three best friends is flat in most instances, and the closeness of the relationships of the main characters does not come through to the extent it could.

This reviewer could not find any information indicating that the book is specifically intended for Young Adult audiences.   However, taken as such, it has more merit.   The simplicity of the storytelling and character development would not be as much of a drawback in that case, and a young, male reader – in particular – might find this an enjoyable book to pick up as professional baseball heads into its playoff season.

Recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the author.   Dave Moyer is the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel, which deals with a young man, the game of baseball and the musician known as Bob Dylan.

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Number 9

The book Roger Maris: Baseball’s Reluctant Hero was released on March 16, 2010.   Here is an excerpt from this book written by Tom Clavin and Danny Peary (Touchstone, $26.99, 432 pages).

October 1, 1961

The savviest photographers got the two money shots.   The first, taken from behind and near the Yankee dugout, was of Roger Maris making solid contact over the plate on a 2-0 fastball by Tracy Stallard.   The left-handed pull hitter is exhibiting his much praised swing with extended bat and arms parallel to the ground, his left hand turning over, his right leg straight and left leg flexed, his right foot pointing toward third base and his left one perpendicular to the ground, his muscles in his face, neck, and upper arms tense, and his hips rotating.

The second picture, taken from the front, was of Maris, one breath later.   With, surprisingly, still-seated fans behind him, he is completing his pivot, releasing the bat with his left hand, and watching with hopeful eyes the flight of his historic home run into Yankee Stadium’s parked right-field stands.   But even the award winners among them missed something quite extraordinary that took place seconds later.   Fortunately, one of the greatest, if most neglected, visual metaphors in sports history would be preserved on celluloid.

Having completed what his bedridden Yankee teammate Mickey Mantle always called the “greatest sports feat I ever saw,” the new single-season home run champion dropped his bat and ran down the baseline.   He rounded first at the same time nineteen-year-old Sal Durante held up the 61st home run ball in his right hand; another ecstatic young male fan leaped into the field; and the clearly dejected Red Sox pitcher concocted an upbeat postgame response to the media (“I’ll now make some money on the banquet circuit!”).

As he neared second base, Maris suddenly escaped dark shadows and moved into the bright, warm sunlight.   Just like that, he had finally found a slice of heaven after a long season he’d sum up as “sheer hell.”   In Roger Maris’s version of hell, he was the prey in a daily media feeding frenzy, lost his privacy, shed some hair, received hate mail by the bundle, experienced vicious heckling from even home fans, and having arrived in New York from Kansas City only twenty-two months before, was treated by the Yankees organization like an outsider, an ugly duckling in a pond of swans.   His blow on the last day of the season was a telling response to all that nonsense.

Maris ran as he always did after a home run – head down and at a measured pace, exhibiting nothing offensively ostentatious or celebratory, nothing to indicate he was circling the bases one time more in a season than anyone else in history.   He was pounded on the back by joyous third-base coach Frank Crosetti as he came down the homestretch.   Crossing home plate, he was greeted by on-deck batter Yogi Berra, then bat boy Frank Prudenti, and, finally, the anonymous Zelig-like fan.   Then he made his way into the dugout – at least he tried to.   Several Yankees formed a barricade and turned Maris around and pushed him upward so he could acknowledge the standing ovation.

He reluctantly inched back up the steps, stretching his neck as if he were a turtle warily emerging from its shell.   He dutifully waved his cap and gave his teammates a pleading look, hoping they would agree that he had been out there too long already.   They urged him to stay put and allow the fans to shower him with the adulation that had been missing all year.   So he waved his hat some more and smiled sheepishly.

The television camera zoomed in, and everyone could see that during his sunlit jaunt around the bases, he had, amazingly, been transformed.   With the burden of unreasonable expectations suddenly lifted and the knowledge that not one more dopey reporter would ask, “Are you going to break Babe Ruth’s record, Rog?”  the strain in his face and haunted look in his eyes had vanished.   He no longer looked double his twenty-seven years and on the verge of a meltdown.

Baseball fans would, in their mind’s eye, freeze-frame forever this image of the young, cheery innocent with the trademark blond crew cut who had just claimed sports’ most revered record.   For that one moment Maris believed all the bad stuff was behind him.   For that one brief moment, he felt free.   In reality, it was the calm before an even more vicious storm…

 

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