Peanuts and Cracker Jack

So the World Series kicks off tonight. I know, that’s the wrong metaphor. Sorry. I used to be a huge baseball fan, and I still find the game itself utterly beautiful to watch unfold, a game of moments where things happen one thing at a time. Baseball may be the last major sport that isn’t a constant flow of motion. As for rooting interests, as the League Championship Series started in each league, I noticed that of those four teams, none were a team I dislike in any major way. Generally, my approach in such cases is this: when there are no teams left for whom I have a rooting interest (be it rooting for a team to win or for a hated team to lose), I root for the remaining teams in order of how long it’s been since they won. In the AL you had the Orioles versus the Royals, whose last World Series wins were in 1983 and 1985, respectively. The Royals haven’t even made the postseason since then. (The Orioles have, but have not won any pennants.) As for the NL, it was the Cardinals and Giants, two teams who have each won it at least twice in the last few years. So no matter who won the AL pennant, I would root for the AL champion in the World Series. Hence, go Royals!

The remainder of this post is a book review. My sports fandom is nowhere near what it once was, and I see little reason to expect it to rebound in any significant way in the future. That said, I do still enjoy good sports writing, and John Feinstein is one of the betters sportswriters out there. He has a new book about baseball, called Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball, and it’s definitely worth a look.

Minor-league baseball is sometimes seen as the more “pure” version of the baseball experience these days, where you can still go to the ballpark and take in a game for a few bucks, where goofball promotions are often used as enticements, where ads for local businesses still cover the outfield walls, where players still endure long bus rides from town to town, and where brushes with true baseball celebrity come mainly from young phenom players or Major Leaguers sent down to the minors to work their way back into the game after an injury.

Feinstein’s portrait of the minors has all that, but he also captures something that a lot of fans may not come to realize: that the minors are, in addition to being a training ground for guys not yet ready for the Majors, a place of frustration. The fact is, especially at the AAA level, nobody wants to be there. This is a fact that everyone must acknowledge, and some managers come right out and say it. Nobody wants to be in AAA baseball, because AAA is the cusp of the Majors. When you’re in AAA, your dream is almost there, constantly tantalizing you and torturing you with every single injury with the big club, with every time the manager’s phone rings, with every invitation to spring training. Triple-A baseball is a land of players who are this close. For some, it’s just a brief spot, while for others, it’s a place to spend years without ever getting to “the show”.

Feinstein focuses his book mostly on just nine men: six players, two managers, and one umpire. Some have made it and will make it back; others haven’t made it yet; some have made it and will never make it back. The central fact of this book is that while dreams do come true, they don’t always stay true. It’s a hard lesson for some of these players, and it’s very easy to understand why they keep signing up for one more year, why they keep trying to catch on someplace, even as they pass their 30th birthdays and start approaching their 40th.

It’s interesting to me, as well, that Feinstein includes an umpire in his journey through AAA baseball. Fans don’t think too much about umpires, really, and the only time their names really come up is when they screw up. If a baseball fan knows Don Denkinger’s name, it’s almost certainly because he blew a call in a World Series game; and even then, it’s not like umpire’s names stay in the memory for long. I couldn’t tell you the name of the umpire who screwed up a call a couple years back that cost a pitcher a perfect game on what should have been the final out. (For the record, I still think that MLB should have reversed the call and credited that guy with the perfect game. The idea that umpire’s calls are sacred and must never be changed, ever ever ever, is deeply bizarre to me.) Umpires work their way through the minors just like players do, hoping for that call to become an umpire at the Major League level. What I didn’t know is that umpires’ time is limited even more than players. A player can stay in the minors as long as some organization is willing to have him, but not so an umpire: you only get so many years, and if by that time the people who choose the Major League umpires don’t think you have it, that’s it: you’re done. There are no career minor league umpires.

I was likewise surprised at the degree to which winning isn’t much of a concern in the minors. They like to win, but winning is mainly seen as a function of playing well, and playing well is seen as the means to the end of reaching the Majors. Feinstein depicts the feel of a championship-winning minor league clubhouse as a pretty surreal place. It’s an accomplishment that nobody much gives a shit about. This reminds me of the great movie Bull Durham, which spans an entire season and yet except for one brief segment in the middle of the movie, you get almost no sense for how the team’s doing in the standings. No one cares. All that matters is who gets the call to go up, and who gets the call to go home.

Minor leaguers, it turns out, put up with a lot of crap. They’ll fly with their team in the morning to a new city for a day game, only to be told as soon as they plane lands that the big club needs an arm for that night’s game, so they’re to turn around and get on another plane entirely. Mets pitcher Chris Schwinden, for example, got a call up to join the Mets in Toronto. After sitting in the bullpen, he flies with the team to Pittsburgh, where he’s told that he’s been sent back down already, so he has to turn around and get to Buffalo. At this point in the night, a direct flight from Pittsburgh to Buffalo isn’t available, so they fly him to JFK, where he’s supposed to catch a flight to Buffalo. That plane is delayed for two hours, so the team sends a car to drive him from NYC to Buffalo. After a series of mechanical mishaps with the car, Schwinden finally gets back to Buffalo eighteen hours after leaving Pittsburgh. This whole passage had me laughing, because you can drive from Pittsburgh to Buffalo in less than four hours.

Feinstein is an honest sportwriter, which means that he can’t just depict baseball’s poetic and pastoral beauty. Baseball keeps going, and as big as some players get, there is no player so big that the game can’t keep being played once they hang up their cleats. Throughout the book, Feinstein makes clear that each and every person is aware that they are just minor cogs in the game’s history and that the game will go on without them when they’re done, almost as if they were never a part of it at all. At times this aspect of baseball can be bluntly heartless: near the end, when the umpire is finally told that he simply isn’t good enough and that his career is over, one reason given is the time he has missed from umpiring. How much time did he miss? Two weeks once, for the birth of his own child, and two days one other time, so he could attend an uncle’s funeral. That’s pretty brutal.

The emotions go the other way, though, and Feinstein shows this as well in many passages. Why do these players work so hard to chase a dream that few will ever get, for whom the odds get smaller with each year? This passage, from the introduction, explains it perfectly.

Every player knows how much the first call-up means. Which is why there is almost always a celebration of some kind in a Triple-A clubhouse when someone gets the call for the first time. Everyone understands what an extraordinary moment it is in a player’s life. Those who have been called up remember what it meant to them; those who have not know how much they want it to happen.

J.C. Boscan’s story isn’t quite the same as Jimmy Morris’s, because he never stopped playing. He signed with the Atlanta Braves in the summer of 1996 at the age of sixteen and spent the next fourteen seasons bouncing around the minor leagues. He first reached Triple-A in 2002 but couldn’t take the next step, because, even though he was a solid catcher, he just couldn’t hit well enough to be regarded as a serious big-league prospect.

He left the Braves for a couple of years to play Double-A and Triple-A for the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds. He signed back with the Braves in 2008, because the people running the organization had so much respect for him as a clubhouse leader and someone who would set a good example for younger players that they were willing to bring him back – knowing he was unlikely to ever play in Atlanta.

Two years later, playing in Gwinnett, he had his best offensive season. Nothing spectacular, but a career-high five home runs and a batting average of .250 – higher than his lifetime average of .222. Late in August, Boscan began to hear that he might be on the September call-up list.

Every year on September 1, major-league teams can expand their rosters to as many as forty players (the regular roster size is twenty-five). Rarely do they bring up more than five or six players. Those who are brought up usually provide depth in the bullpen or on the bench of are young players being given a taste of the major leagues. Every once in a while, a team will give a player a “good guy promotion” – bring him up so he can make major-league pay for a month as a reward for being a good guy and not complaining about being stuck in the minor leagues.

Boscan had been in the minors for fourteen years and had never seen the inside of a big-league clubhouse except during spring training. At thirty, he was a long way from being the bright-eyed teenage prospect the Braves had brought to the United States from Venezuela in 1997.

On August 31, the word in the Gwinnett clubhouse was that the Braves were going to make their call-ups after the game. Boscan remembers being more nervous that night than at any other time in his career.

“I walked on the field that night, and all I could think was, ‘If I don’t get the call tonight, it’s never going to come,'” he remembered. “I honestly thought this was my last shot and my best shot to ever get to the majors. I could barely keep my mind on the game. All I could think about was what was going to happen after it was over. I was praying to God to let this be my time.”

When the game ended, Boscan sat in front of his locker and picked at the postgame meal. Hitting coach Jamie Dismuke had been designated by manager Dave Brundage to bring players into his office so they could be told they were going to make the thirty-seven-mile trip down I-85 to Turner Field. As Dismuke worked his way around the clubhouse, that thirty-seven miles felt more like a million to Boscan.

The first player called in was Freddie Freeman, the twenty-year-old phenom, who was hitting .319 and was considered a lock call-up. He came out of Brundage’s office with a huge smile on his face and was engulfed in congratulations.

Dismuke continued his rounds. One player after another walked around the corner to Brundage’s office and came out wearing the giveaway grin. The congratulations continued. No one had made a move to leave because this was a happy night – for those going up.

Six players had gone in to see Brundage – entering as Gwinnett Braves and coming out as Atlanta Braves – and there was no sign of Dismuke for a couple of minutes. Boscan’s heart sank. That was it – six guys. His dream had died.

Dismuke appeared again, this time walking directly toward Boscan.

“Skip wants to see you, J.C.,” he said. He wasn’t smiling. Boscan panicked. Maybe Brundage had gotten the good news out of the way first, and now he was going to let Boscan know that the team needed him in Double-A to work with a young catcher. Or, maybe he was being released.

Brundage was, in fact, preparing that kind of speech for Boscan. “I was going to look very sad and tell him that sometimes things don’t turn out the way you want them to in baseball,” he said. “But when he walked in here, he was shaking. I couldn’t go through with it.”

The entire Gwinnett staff was in the room when Boscan walked in.

“Have a seat, JC,” Brundage said, trying to look grim.

Boscan sat on the couch across from Brundage’s desk.

“You ever been to the big leagues?” he asked – knowing the answer.

“No,” Boscan said, shaking his head.

Brundage couldn’t keep up the charade.

“I was going to mess with you, JC, but I can’t do it,” he said, feeling himself start to choke up. “This is your day. You’re going up.”

Boscan burst into tears. Everyone else in the room was fighting to hold tears back.

“I’ve been a minor-league manager a long time,” Brundage said. “I can honestly say that was the best moment I’ve ever had.”

After Boscan had thanked everyone and shaken everyone’s hand and been hugged all around, he walked out of the office. Brundage’s office is in a hallway that leads to the clubhouse area where the players’ lockers are located. When Boscan turned the corner to reenter the locker area, the entire team was waiting for him.

Feinstein doesn’t reveal what became of JC Boscan after he finally reached the Major Leagues after fourteen years of minor-league toil, because that’s really not the point of his book at all. But I couldn’t help wondering, so I looked it up. That’s the thing about baseball: you can always look it up. He only had one plate appearance with the Braves that fall, in which he drew a walk to load the bases; he would then score a run when a subsequent hitter doubled. Over the next two seasons with the Braves and then one season with the Cubs, he appeared in a total of 17 Major-League games, collecting 7 hits in 28 at-bats, for a .250 average. He has 2 career RBIs, and zero home runs. After the 2013 season he signed with the Dodgers organization, and he’s still there, playing Double-A ball with the Chattanooga Lookouts.

Baseball abides, man.

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1 Response to Peanuts and Cracker Jack

  1. Roger Owen Green says:

    Go, Royals! They've been my team this year since the Pirates were eliminated by the Giants.

    I LOVE this blogpost.

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