Friday, May 30, 2014
Review: Where Nobody Knows Your Name (2014)
When it comes to sports books, John Feinstein is practically a one-man factory. He cranks out a new publication every so often, and you know it's going to be well done.
Feinstein has covered a variety of areas over the years since his first such effort, the classic "Season on the Brink." (Talk about a tough act to follow.) I've read just about all of them - the exception for whatever reason is "Forever's Team" on Duke basketball way back when.
Now Feinstein is back with another book, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." It's about life in Triple-A baseball, which according to the title is the opposite of "Cheers." There's a lot of truth in that.
As Feinstein mentions several times in the course of the book, no one wants to be in Triple A - at least for very long. The quality of play is quite good; the jump from Double A is surprising large. There are people in baseball's highest minor league that are good enough to be on a major league roster in some cases, but for one reason or another aren't. The financial rewards of making that last step is huge, but it's not easy to take it.
Feinstein talks to all sorts of people in Triple A's International League, from players to managers to umpires to announcers. He concentrates on nine. The list includes Scott Elarton, who once won 17 games in a season but fell on hard times; Jon Lindsey, a professional hitter who just hasn't been quite good enough, or young enough, to reach the majors; Scott Podsedik, who you might remember for his walk-off homer in the 2005 World Series; and Chris Schwinden, who bounced all over the baseball map during the 2012 season. If you get the idea that Feinstein likes to talk to veterans who can provide a little perspective on the situation, you're right. Others get short chapters along the way.
Some of the best stories come from managers like Ron Johnson and Charlie Montoyo. They are put in an unusual position, professionally speaking. Yes, they have a better time and outlook when their teams win, but that's not their biggest task. They are there to help players get ready to contribute to the major league team. Every player loves to talk about the time that they were called into the manager's office for the first time and told they were headed to the big leagues. Managers love to see the reaction too. It sure beats telling players they have been released, and that their baseball dreams may be over. Hearing about players who find out they've reached their dream is always heart-warming.
There are plenty of stories about how Triple-A baseball works - salaries, travel, recalls, life's logistics under the circumstances, etc. It's easy to root for the players, who come across well here. I'd guess Feinstein didn't have to do much searching for subjects. Since the book was written about 2012, the book ends with what happened to them all in 2013. Sometimes that extra year can hurt a reader's enjoyment, but in this case it ties up some stories with a nice bow. One of the minor characters in the narrative even wound up with a World Series ring for his efforts.
There is one problem with the book, and Feinstein certainly knew this going in. This is a story of a season, and the season really doesn't play much of a part in the story. In other words, few remember what teams win a Triple-A championship unless you happen to live in that city. As I'm fond of saying, media members are about the only ones who pay close attention to the standings during the course of the season. The players and manager want the team to do well, but mostly because it's a sign that good players are making progress toward the goal of helping the parent team.
That means there's no dramatic arc to the story as a whole, as there is in a book about a major league season or even a golf tournament. That makes the book a collection of individual stories - still interesting, but without the punch that an overriding climax can provide.
Still, Feinstein uncovers plenty of good information here, and it's easy to root for those mentioned in "Where Nobody Knows Your Name." The author opens the door on minor league baseball's life, and many will want to take a peak inside.
Learn more about this book
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