April 25, 2011
Book Review: Marty Dobrow's "Knocking On Heaven's Door"
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.