April 25, 2011

Book Review: Marty Dobrow's "Knocking On Heaven's Door"

For most people, the words "minor league baseball" conjure up a bucolic scene of a warm, summer evening, a small crowd gathered around a green diamond, sipping cold beer, enjoying an intimate game, with between-innings silliness from costumed mascots and various contests and promos.

None of that is inaccurate, but it is, at best, only half of the story.

Marty Dobrow's Knocking On Heaven's Door peels back the Field of Dreams veneer, and shows us the other side of life in the bushes. That world is "charming but ruthless". There are the hours-long overnight bus rides (which many teams rely on to avoid the cost of a stay at a hotel), starvation wages, and shitty food. There is tremendous pressure to succeed, but a player's career path is also completely out of his control; a trade, demotion, or an outright release could be one bad game away. Relationships with girlfriends or wives are strained and family crisises unravel thousands of miles away. Players are advised to not form friendships with teammates, as a season-ending injury to one player might be the long-awaited break someone else desperately needs to keep his own dream alive.

I first heard about this book when Dobrow took questions at SoSH last December. His answers and general comments were fascinating and I wanted to read this book immediately. I received a copy from the University of Massachusetts Press -- and it lived up to everything I expected.

Knocking On Heaven's Door is a detailed, engrossing, entertaining, and supremely illuminating look at the lives of six minor leaguers during the 2005 season. Three of the six players -- Brad Baker, Manny Delcarmen, and Charlie Zink -- were drafted by the Red Sox.

The accounts of how each player was drafted are presented in perfect detail. It's a huge moment for everyone; more than one parent says it's the best day of his or her life. It is the first step towards playing in the major leagues, but that is not quite true. It's merely the opportunity to begin the arduous journey.

There are roughly 7,000 players in the minor leagues -- every one of them a can't-miss superstar in his community -- and 90% of them will never experience even one inning in the major leagues. As Dobrow bluntly states: "No one grows up dreaming of being a minor league player." But that is the road that must be taken, and its trials must be endured to reach the Show. And so 2005 begins with the six players at various points in their careers.

Manny Delcarmen grew up in Boston and is beginning his fifth season in the Red Sox's farm system. His father signed with the Phillies as a 17-year-old shortstop, but never rose above A ball. Manny is talented, but he is also stubborn and prone to frustration, having once gone AWOL from his team.

Charlie Zink's parents work as guards at Folsom State Prison. His mother's Japanese parents had been sent to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Zink -- "unabashedly, perhaps dangerously, fond of beer and gambling and the female form" -- attended the Savannah College of Art & Design and tried out for the Red Sox on a whim in 2002. His success with the knuckleball is accompanied by nagging suspicions that he is somehow cheating his way through the minors, relying on some gimmick.

Doug Clark has a biology degree and works as a substitute teacher in the off-season. For most of his professional career, he was a left fielder in the Giants organization, an understudy of sorts to Barry Bonds. He has spent three years in Korea and many winters playing ball in Mexico.

Randy Ruiz was raised by his grandmother in a small apartment in the Bronx. Ruiz is well-travelled: he has attended six colleges, been part of nine different organizations, spent one year in Japan, and was once traded "for no compensation." Ruiz was a Rookie of the Year in AAA at age 30 and an MVP the following season. But a 31-year-old player in AAA is ancient. He often sleeps with his bat.

Brad Baker grew up in Leyden, Massachusetts, a rural town with no streetlights just south of the Vermont border. Red Sox scouts watched every pitch he threw during his senior year in high school, and selected him in the first (sandwich) round of the 1999 draft. His father dreams of his son being part of the Red Sox team that finally wins a World Series.

Matt Torra, a first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2005, is the only college player among the half-dozen in this book. His career will decidedly not go according to plan.

The players are connected both by their common dream of reaching the major leagues and by the fact that they all are (or were) represented by DiaMMond Management, which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Lisa Masteralexis. (Lisa is one of the few female agents in pro ball). Jim grew up outside of Boston rooting passionately for the Red Sox, while Lisa was raised as a Yankee fan in western Massachusetts. Their first date was a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. Along with Steve McKelvey (who once had the job of whisking the 1986 World Series trophy out of the Red Sox' clubhouse late in Game 6), the agents are in a parallel position to the players they represent. They have been working for years in pursuit of their own dream; in 2005, their management company is more part- than full-time and "marginally profitable".

Dobrow also introduces us to people on the periphery of the game, like Cynthia Keur, a 44-year-old single mother in Selah, Washington. She and her son (and various pets) are a host family for several Yakima Bears (Short-A) players. She rarely misses a game (traveling with a camper for road trips), taking hundreds of pictures each night that she then uses to create personalized photo albums for each player at the end of the season.

It's tough to talk about the players without divulging what happens to each of them during the 2005 season. To date, four of the six players have played in the major leagues. Delcarmen debuted with the Red Sox in July 2005, spent parts of six years in Boston, and helped them win the 2007 World Series. Zink had a memorable debut with the Red Sox in 2008; it remains his only big league appearance.

I enjoyed reading two other minor league baseball books last year -- Dick Hayhurt's The Bullpen Gospels and Matt McCarthy's Odd Man Out" -- but because Dobrow includes the perspectives of each player's family and friends, as well as the deliberations inside the front office of the various big league teams, Knocking on Heaven's Door tops them both.


laura k said...

This sounds like a really good book. Thanks for the review!

allan said...

Might as well remind everyone that a copy of this book is the W-L Contest prize.

SoSock said...

Nice review. Especially interesting to me on 2 fronts. First, as a resident of a "minor league town", I follow the team here and read a lot of stories about these guys and their careers in local papers. Some of them I see for several years, some are here less than a whole season.
Also, I've known a number of former minor league players, mostly through Little League. I've worked around them, coached some of their sons, and coached with and against them. Their stories are as varied as the people themselves. Some use it to stoke their own ego, and some are overly humble about it. The first time or 2 it was a tad intimidating to know my coaching efforts were being scrutinized by a "pro". But I got over that in a hurry. Had to.
I think it's a great subject for a book, and if this book is written as well as your coverage of it, it will be worth the time. I'll be looking for it.

FenFan said...

Don't know if I can wait that long ;-)

Thanks for the review, Allan!

Jere said...

Yanks have one baserunner through 6. A walk.

allan said...

Making Jere's point:

CWS - 000 100 0.. - 1 3 0
MFY - 000 000 ... - 0 0 0

Philip Humber for the Pale Hose.
BB in 4th; HBP in 5th.

allan said...

fuck you, slappy.

Jere said...

I missed that HBP. Why does Humber's Wikipedia page show a picture of "John Davidson" saying he's #41 for the Red Sox? (Which is Lackey's #.) Crazy kids.

Still has the shutout thru 7. White Sox need to add to this slim lead though.

Jere said...

Wiki page already fixed.

Jere said...

White Sox WIN. 3 back.

Amy said...

Sounds great. Coincidentally I read a review of another book about minor league teams---about the longest professional baseball game on record (33 innings) between the PawSox and the Rochester team. Have you seen that one? It also sounded worth reading. I am blanking on the title/author right now, but can look it up. It was just reviewed in the NYTimes.

Amy said...

Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry


Also, I just saw this about Manny . I have not read it yet---too tired, but thought you'd want to see it.

Jere said...

Ha, my NYT-reading friend just e-mailed me the link to the review of the Paw Sox book. It's by Dan Barry which remember because I used to live in Danbury. He was on the Red Sox pre-game with TC a few days back, and they'd been hyping it on the Paw Sox site. It's called Bottom of the 33rd.

I'm wondering, is this first book dedicated to that game? We've been hearing about the thing for all these years, it seems like there had to be another, but maybe not.

Amy said...

Be sure to read the article about Manny. I read it right after I posted the link, and it made for good pre-sleep reading---very sweet article.

allan said...

I heard about the 33 Inning book maybe a week ago and saw the Times review this weekend. Will try to read it today.

I don't think anything has been written about that game before, beyond basic anniversary recap articles.

I've wanted to write about the longest MLB game (26 innings, May 1920) for awhile, but with everyone dead and little more than a basic play by play of the game itself, it would be tough.

Dr. Jeff said...

Nice review, but I was hoping for more off-day music posts this season. Just saw the Stones at the Marquee Club 1971 video for the first time...