Monday, March 30, 2015

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball / John Feinstein -- N.Y.: Doubleday, 2014

Beneath the tip of the iceberg of Major League Baseball lies the minor leagues.  For every major league team there are at least six professional teams in a hierarchy of minor leagues:  Triple-A, Double-A, three A-level leagues (high, low, and short season), and Rookie.  Additionally, there are leagues outside the U.S. that feed the major league teams, most significantly the Mexican League.  John Feinstein's book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, relates the experiences of a number of players (six in particular) who have spent years -- even decades -- in these leagues.  Their stories are engaging and revealing.

The pay is not good.  Only in the Triple-A could it be said to compete with what a player might get in another profession and the rigors of travel make life in the minors even less appealing.  Instead of flying from game to game, minor league players travel by bus, sometimes several hours after a night game, arriving at the town hosting their next game just after sunrise.  Clearly, the players are looking (and working) for something better -- at very least, just a shot at a short stint in the majors where the minimum pay is an order of magnitude better along with everything else: the stadiums, the locker rooms, the hotel rooms, the transportation, the medical and coaching support, and even the food; but though all of this is certainly an attraction, Feinstein's interviews with the players clearly show that their ambition is driven mostly by a desire to excel in the sport they love.

The players that Feinstein focuses on have seen both the majors and the minors, spending most of their careers in the minors, but periodically getting called up to play on a major league team, sometimes for a season or two, sometimes for a handful of days.  Nearly all of them have been traded from one team to another a dizzying number of times.  Usually too often to establish any strong connection to the team or its players.  Indeed, they appear to be playing entirely for themselves, constantly trying to prove their worth to their major league sponsor or to another major league team that might choose to buy their contract or pick them up on waivers.

Feinstein relates story after story of players being invited to a major league team's spring training, sparking hopes that they will be signed for the season.  Those who do not are of course disappointed, but often take consolation that they might be selected to join the major league team after the roster is expanded in August.  Still, the likelihood of this happening is only high for a few players -- "prospects" as they are termed.  The remainder of the players seem mostly there to fill out a roster to make games possible that will keep the prospects sharp.

Along with stories of the players, Feinstein tells us about the coaches, the managers, the umpires, and even the grounds keepers.  All of them are laboring in the purgatory of the minor leagues in hopes of "going up" to the majors.  The life of umpires is especially poignant.  Unlike the players who can play for a major league team, get sent back to the minors, and then later return to the majors, the umpire is promoted through the minor league ranks, until they are finally selected for major league games.  Their opportunities are generally limited to replacing umpires who have decided to retire, often in their sixties.  If a minor league umpire is deemed not to be major league-caliber, he is likely to be let go to make room for the umpiring equivalent of a player "prospect."  It's "up or out" for umpires.

While Feinstein's writing is indeed engaging, it is sometimes repetitious.  This in part is due to the similarity of the players' experiences, but the reader frequently encounters sentences that are all-but identical to ones read before.  The similarity in the stories makes it difficult -- dare I say impossible -- to keep the particular career of the players straight.  This is complicated by the structure of the narrative.  Six people are the subjects of the book and their stories are not told complete and in sequence.  Instead, a player's career is told in vignettes interspersed with other players' vignettes.  It's not clear if this was Feinstein's intent, but the resultant impression is of an archetypal minor leaguer, precariously living on the cusp of success.  While the stories of the nearly-successful are certainly engrossing, one is struck by what must be the great majority of minor league players who don't find even the modicum of success of Feinstein's subjects.  Surely, many of them, particularly those in Double-A leagues or less must understand that they are never destined to play in the majors.  Feinstein's book would have benefited from their stories as well.

In the end, though, one feels a great appreciation for the minor league player.  Despite laboring outside the spotlight, these players are among the very best players on the planet, working hard to prove to the world and themselves that they are such and hoping to stay in the game as long as possible.  Toward the end of the book, Feinstein describes two players, John Suomi and Scott Elarton, sitting alone in a dugout watching the rain fall.  Elarton is hoping that the game will not be cancelled because he is scheduled to pitch.  It is the last game of the season and it is that season that he will play.  He wants to end his decade-long career on a high note.  "John and I had a long talk about what your last day in baseball might feel like," Elarton said.  "We agreed we didn't want it to feel like this, but maybe this was just reality."  Reality is was: the game was called, the season was over as was Elarton's career.


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