Thursday, December 8, 2022

Review: Welcome to the Circus of Baseball (2023)

By Ryan McGee

There's something inherently charming about minor league baseball. 

It represents something of a throwback to a bygone era. For more than a hundred years, young baseball players have been working their way up a ladder in the hopes of reaching a dream of playing in the major leagues. Most of them don't make it, but a few do - enough to keep the pipeline filed. 

It's also a reminder of how some of the smaller cities and towns of America used to take enormous pride in their teams, with the population pitching in to help keep the team going. Minor-league teams often were right on the margins between success and failure, and community support was essential. The ballparks usually were a little substandard, but still quaint in their own way. 

Things have changed in the last quarter-century. The minor league teams often were bought in individuals and groups who updated business practices and tried to make it more of a money-making operations. Meanwhile, the majors have taken more control of the entire operation, mandating improvements that might have been necessary but were a little heavy-handed in the process - such as reducing the number of teams. Still, baseball fans of a certain type enjoy the atmosphere; some even plan their vacations around visiting new stadiums (although the word "park" seems so much more appropriate in this context.)

Enter Ryan McGee. He currently is an ESPN writer and radio host, but he still remembers where he came from. His first job after college was as an intern with the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists in 1994. It was such a small operation that McGee worked practically in every department. You learn a lot that way, and they even paid him for it - $100 a week. No, kids, that wasn't a great deal of money back then. The occasional $50 handshake from the boss helped make ends meet.

Now he's gone back into his past and revisited those days. The resulting book is called "Welcome to the Circus of Baseball," and it's as sweet as the memory of a first love. 

When McGee arrived, the minors hadn't quite made the transition out of mom-and-pop status yet. There was about one computer in the entire business, and not many more full-time employees. The few veterans had a ton of information in their heads, such as knowing to alter concession stand item orders by the night's promotion. The three or four interns (depending on the time of year) were sort of like utility infielders. They traded roles during the course of the season, and sometimes had to be slotted into something unfamiliar during emergencies. 

There are stories along the way, of course. McGee lost a memorable battle with an ice cream machine at one point, and the resulting damage was a little less than tasty.  The rookie employee one time was part of the grounds crew, and had to haul the tarp out on the field during a storm. McGee was thrown six feet up in the air while holding the tarp, one of the risks of that particular profession.  the league's All-Star Game, some quarreling during the official photo of all the teams' mascots resulted in punches being thrown. Ouch.

The funny part for me is that a few names were thrown about during the course of the book that were familiar. Jack Lamabe was the pitching coach; he threw for the Red Sox and Cardinals, among others, in the Sixties. I had his baseball card, of course. Fred Kendall, an opposing manager in 1994, played in Elmira, N.Y., in the late Sixties when I lived there. He reportedly dated the secretary in our junior high school guidance department. We all thought that was a really good move on his part.

The Tourists' manager was Tony Torchia. Not only do I remember him as an Eastern League player in Elmira in the 1960s, but he was an Eastern League manager in the 1980s in the Red Sox system. I still remember him telling reporters a story about how some of his players one night were walking down a hotel corridor in Buffalo when a prostitute was physically thrown out of a room in front of them. Torchia said, "The players have to get used to dealing with odd things. They'll have a lot of pressure on them if them make the majors. It's a different sort of pressure here, but they still have to learn to cope with it."

If you think Torchia's words can be applied to what McGee went through in Asheville, at least in a general way, you're thinking what I'm thinking. 

McGee had to get in touch with the old gang in Asheville in order to write "Welcome to the Circus of Baseball." It sounds like he had a great time doing so, to the point where McGee probably received more enjoyment writing the book than most people will have reading it. That's more of a comment on the unexpected pleasures of "paying your dues" when you are young and relatively stupid. 

McGee still loves minor league baseball, to the point where he keeps tracks of stadiums that he's visited. If you fit into that relatively narrow demographic, you'll probably get some enjoyment out of this quick and pleasant read.

Three stars

Learn more about this book from (As an Amazon affiliate, I earn money from qualified purchases.) 

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