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