( Home of the New Yankees Double-A team, Trenton Thunder)
(Riverfront Stadium in Scranton, PA, Home of the New York Yankees, Triple-A franchise)
At the outset it is my obligation to inform the reader that I am a baseball junkie! In fact as I look over my bucket list one of the prominent items is a cross country trip visiting minor league baseball parks as my wife and I transverse the continent. With that being said John Feinstein’s knew book WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, a saga of the 2012 minor league baseball season is timely. I have been a Feinstein fan for many years and have enjoyed his numerous books. Whether writing about the Army-Navy game, Bobby Knight, Duke Basketball or golf, Feinstein has always delivered a very thoughtful treatment of his subjects. His new endeavor is no exception as the book reflects a prodigious amount of research that is emblematic of Feinstein’s approach. Throughout the narrative stories abound concerning baseball lore and tradition, but what is most important are the lives being described and the affect that baseball has on Feinstein’s subjects and their families. Feinstein’s discussion of Brett Tomko, a major league pitcher who after a number of successful seasons finds himself holding on to his career by a thread as he accepts life in the minors at the age of thirty-six; Mark Lollo, a thirty year old minor league umpire trying to make the grade in the majors learns that after twelve years his umpiring career is about to end; or Ron Johnson, a minor league manager, who tasted the major leagues as a coach for the Boston Red Sox, finds himself back in the minors hoping to obtain a major league managerial position are all interesting and at times, heart warming. These are just a few of the individuals that Feinstein describes, others like Scott Posednik, Scott Elarton, John Lindsey, Nate McLouth, Charlie Montoya, and Chris Schwinden all share the trials and travails of pursuing a career in the major leagues and the obstacles they face that reduces them to minor league players or managers. Despite their goal of the major leagues, they seem to accept their situations all because of their love of the game.
Using the perspective of minor league managers, players, coaches, broadcasters and even a groundskeeper Feinstein provides the reader a candid look at the people who make up the lower rungs of baseball. We all read about the Derek Jeters and “Big Papi,” David Ortiz and their illustrious careers, but not everyone can reach those heights. The sacrifices that these men and their families make in the pursuit of just one more chance at getting the call that they are “going up to the show” is heartwarming, but also disconcerting as the odds of their being successful is rather miniscule. Along the way Feinstein integrates the experiences of other players who have interesting stories to tell. Dontrelle Willis, a young phenom eight years ago, rookie of the year, and a twenty game winner, finds himself out of baseball. Jamie Farr, one of the stars of the M.A.S.H. television series is from Toledo, Ohio, and becomes a center piece of Feinstein’s discussion of the Toledo Mud Hens, next to the Durham Bulls the most famous minor league franchise in America.
One thing that all of these players have in common is that they appear numerous times in the “transaction” section of the sports pages (a listing of player movements on a daily basis). This reflects the impersonal side of baseball. As all players understand that the bottom line is that baseball is a business and that the movement of players, the uprooting of families and the ego crushing experiences happen each and every day. The constant comparison of minor and major league baseball are enlightening, where one is a fantasy like experience where you do not carry your bags, food and expensive hotel rooms are the norm, and you fly first class on a charter. This is compared to a different type of reality where you carry everything, your meal money is about $12/day, you room with others and on the road you stay in cheap motels after experiencing an eight hour bus ride. Feinstein captures the life of a minor league ball player as he writes; “No one wants to get comfortable in a Triple-A clubhouse. The air inside a Triple-A clubhouse feels different because there are different people breathing it every day. Players come and go on an almost daily basis; some get called up to the big leagues; some get traded; others get sent down to Double-A; and every once in a while players get released.” (108)
For the subjects of this narrative baseball seems to be in their blood. Tommy Lasorda, a failed minor league pitcher became a Hall of Fame manager with the Dodgers and was asked about his loyalty to his team and he responded, that “I bleed Dodger blue.” This encapsulates how these players feel about their sport and what they give up to play and try to reach the major leagues. There are many interesting parts to the narrative aside from the personal impact of the game on these individuals. Feinstein explores the decision making process and evaluation of players and the culture that baseball has created for itself. But my favorite aspect of the book was the discussion of Scott Strickland a minor league groundskeeper who sought to become a head groundskeeper for a major league franchise. In fact at North Carolina State University he majored in “turf-training!” WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME is an exceptional read for baseball fans and the general public particularly when the sound of “play ball” is echoing across America as the 2014 baseball season has just begun. If you are a Feinstein fan the book will not disappoint, if you are not, you may become one.