Imagine: From your childhood on, you are better at the work you love than almost anyone else. Before you are old enough to drink alcohol, you are offered money — sometimes a great deal of money — to pursue that work, with a good probability that the work will someday bring you wealth and fame. Then, fate intervenes — in the form of injury, illness or the slowly dawning reality that, while you are better than almost everyone else, enough people are better still that you are consigned to a role just outside, and a universe apart from, that inner circle.
This is the world that John Feinstein, one of our best-known sportswriters, explores in his new book about the 2012 season of baseball’s International League, one of the two AAA leagues, just below the majors. The book, “Where Nobody Knows Your Name,” focuses on eight men — players, managers and an umpire — each of whom, he writes, “defines the struggle of people who are extremely good at what they do — but not as good as they want to be at given moments.”
Their stories vary: Pitcher Scott Elarton was a major league star for a season or more until injuries and alcohol left him jobless. John Lindsey spent his entire working life in the minors. (Lindsey, Feinstein tells us, “played more minor-league games without a major league call-up than any player in history.”) Managers Charlie Montoyo of the Durham Bulls and Ron Johnson of the Norfolk Tides embrace their roles as mentors to once and future big leaguers, while understanding their players’ discontents. “If you don’t like it here,” Johnson says, “do a better job.”
With many of us counting down to opening day, this is a fitting time for a book whose subtitle might well be “hope springs eternal — every spring.” If you follow baseball, you’ll be struck by the players who appear in these pages, hoping — sometimes desperately — for another chance. Here is Mark Prior, the onetime Chicago Cubs ace (he was on the mound in that infamous 2003 playoff game when Cubs fan Steve Bartman reached for a foul ball and doomed the Cubs’ World Series hopes), now six years removed from the majors, pitching for Pawtucket, hoping for an unlikely return to the big time. Here is Dontrelle Willis, 2003 rookie of the year with the world champion Florida Marlins and a 2005 Cy Young contender, plagued by injuries and an anxiety disorder that sent him to seven different teams, fighting for a bullpen role with the Norfolk Tides.
More-committed fans may remember the heroics of Scott Posednik, whose home run won a World Series game for the Chicago White Sox, or Dan Johnson, whose two-out, ninth-inning home run on the last day of the 2011 season led to the Tampa Bay Rays’ astonishing capture of a playoff spot.
But the bulk of Feinstein’s book, as its title suggests, is about players all but unknown, even to the most obsessive baseball fans; players such as Rich Thompson, who got one major league at-bat for the Kansas City Royals in 2004 — and then went 2,645 days and 3,711 minor league plate appearances before getting another chance to hit in the majors. “Like every kid who dreamed of playing baseball for a living,” Feinstein writes, “he never envisioned eleven different minor-league stops and fourteen seasons riding buses from one small town to another and then one midsize town to another.”
This is one of the themes Feinstein hits repeatedly — sometimes to diminishing effect. Major leaguers fly on charters and sleep in five-star hotels, while minor leaguers travel on buses and sleep in more modest accommodations. The pay disparity is so great that even a short stay in the big leagues can boost a minor leaguer’s paycheck substantially. Minor leaguers don’t exactly root for a major leaguer to be injured, but that’s the most likely way they’ll get a shot at the bigs. The noise in a major league park makes the comparative silence at most minor league games unsettling. “You can’t make ten thousand people sound like forty thousand people,” says Danny Worth of the Toledo Mud Hens — as do several others. And there are at least half a dozen instances of the same thought, offered in almost the same words: Maybe I’d rather be playing for a major league team, but I’m being paid to do work that I love. Further, some sections of the book seem like filler: Do we really need a lengthy account of how Jamie Farr’s Klinger character In “M*A*S*H*” made the Toledo Mud Hens famous by wearing their cap onscreen?
Still, Feinstein — a Washington Post columnist and author of two dozen sports books — is too good at what he does not to offer some arresting stories. The travels and travails of Chris Schwinden, journeying late into the night, fighting plane cancellations and car breakdowns to get to yet another temporary minor league home, shows the price to be paid for following a dream. So are the stories of a broadcaster and an umpire, finally realizing that their aspirations to reach the major leagues are doomed.
Because it lacks the kind of powerful personal story that drove Michael Lewis’s “The Blind Side” (doomed young man turned pro football star thanks to a larger-than-life heroine), “Where Nobody Knows Your Name” will not appeal to a broad audience. But if you find yourself waiting for ESPN or MLB.TV to start covering the Grapefruit league, Feinstein has provided a welcome pregame companion.
WHERE NOBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME
Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball
By John Feinstein
Doubleday. 368 pp. $26.95