Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life In the Minor Leagues of Baseball
A classic crime series from the “golden age” of television carried the tag line, “There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.”
John Feinstein’s latest book, WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, has a similar vibe. While there obviously aren’t eight million stories, do the math: There are 30 major league ball clubs, each with at least five minor league affiliates, adding up to roughly 150 players per (although that’s a very fluid number when you factor in injuries, trades, free agent signings, etc.). So you’re talking about 4,500 players ranging in age from late teens to early 40s, each with his own story.
Turn to any decent sports section and you’ll find a page of statistics, schedules and transactions in tiny type --- agate --- cramming in as much information as possible. “On almost any given day of the year in baseball, lives change…and those changes are recorded in the agate,” Feinstein writes. Towards the end of WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, one player offers a realistic assessment: “To some extent, it’s almost as if teams do see you as agate --- just a name being moved around a board somewhere.”
Feinstein --- whose previous baseball books include LIVING ON THE BLACK: Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Season to Remember and PLAY BALL: The Life and Troubled Times of Major League Baseball, along with many other titles on golf, basketball and football --- focuses on a handful players, a couple of managers, and an umpire, who are in different stages of their careers. Some are “organizational players --- guys who have reached a point in their careers where getting to the majors or returning to the majors isn’t impossible but it isn’t likely.” These lifers can spend years in the game they love at the expense of other opportunities, hoping to get that taste. They know there’s little chance of advancing beyond a certain level. Some accept and are resigned to it, while others are bitter, wishing for more playing time to prove their talent.
The younger players are full of optimism; the older ones still love the rituals of the locker room. Dontrelle Willis, once a fireballing 20-game winner for the Florida (now Miami) Marlins and still a relatively young pitcher, expressed it well when he said, “I still loving coming to the yard everyday…. I love the camaraderie of the clubhouse, and I understand it won’t be long before I’m one of those guys sitting around telling war stories…. When the day comes that I don’t believe I can make it back and pitch in the big leagues, I’ll go home. I know it won’t be easy, but that’s what I’ll do.”
Success depends on many factors out of the athletes’ control. Promotions often come down to someone on a team at a higher level getting injured, an unfortunate fact of life in sports as many in the book report. Look at Lou Gehrig; if Wally Pipp hadn’t been injured, who knows when or even if the future Hall of Famer would have gotten his opportunity.
"...one of the most insightful looks into the realities of baseball life for most of the athletes..."
It’s certainly a joyous occasion when it does happen, not the least because of the increase in pay, pro-rating the major league minimum of almost $500,000, not to mention the hefty per diem.
But getting to the majors and staying there are two different things. The majority of players in the minors are there to serve as teammates for the high-priced prospects, as evidenced by this exchange between Tommy Lasorda, then a manager in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, and his team concerning a prized prospect who had rubbed his more veteran teammates the wrong way.
“First I want you all to go and get [his] signature,” he said. “Because someday it’ll be valuable to you when he’s a star in the majors. Then I want you to thank him. You know why? Because we need the rest of you guys around here so we can field a team for him to play on. If not for him, we wouldn’t need the rest of you.”
One of the major themes is that baseball --- all sports --- is a business. “‘We all know that,’ one player says. ‘Some days it’s a great business to be in. Other days aren’t as great.’”
Managing a minor league affiliate has its own set of issues. To paraphrase a famous football slogan, for these skippers winning isn’t everything, in fact it doesn’t matter all that much. The minors are a way station for prospects who can be called up at any time by the parent club, turning his now-former minor league team into disarray. Yet most minor league managers will tell you the best part of their job is being able to tell a kid he’s going up to “The Show.” (The other side of the coin, however, is having to release a player, telling someone his services are no longer required and his efforts might be better placed in another profession altogether.)
While this is one of the most insightful looks into the realities of baseball life for most of the athletes, it’s not a perfect product. The stories can seem repetitive after a while. In fact, two chapters on the umpire repeat a major plot point and dialogue, as if the author (and editor) forgot they had appeared earlier. Feinstein also has a tendency to end some chapters and sections with portentous lines such as “Of course, that is easier said than done,” and “All he could do was keep playing and, he hoped, keep hitting while waiting for another chance.”
The ultimate sin for me, however, was Feinstein finishing up his book by quoting the last line from Jim Bouton’s classic, BALL FOUR --- “[y]ou 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,” before putting his one coda on it with, “Truer words were never spoken.”
While this may strike some readers as minor points, they add up over the course of almost 350 pages.
For the overwhelming majority of ball players, there’s no way to put a positive spin on minor league life. The youngest ones, right out of high school, are away from home for the first time. Some come from foreign countries and have to deal with language and cultural issues. Almost all will struggle, and most will never achieve the ultimate goal. In WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME, Feinstein lifts some of them out of the agate and turns them into relatable human beings, which is worthy of praise and thanks.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on February 28, 2014