05 March 2014

Book Review: Where Nobody Knows Your Name

John Feinstein's Where Nobody Knows Your Name offers a glimpse onto the threshold of Major League dreams.  The book focuses on a wide collection of people who sit on the edge of the Big Leagues.  Many of them with hope that they will cross over from the land of bus rides, Supers 8s, and offseason odd jobs to getting just a taste of the life of private planes, luxury hotels, and just a few days of a big league minimum salary.  It is an anthology of organizational men ("players who let the prospects play"), players who used to be, and some brief glimpses at a few prospects that will soon be known.  For the Oriole fan, this book is also greatly centered on Norfolk and the International League during the 2012 season.  A season that saw Ron Johnson come in after the fried chicken and beer Red Sox demise, Nate McLouth rising from his ashes, and a cameo by Dontrelle Willis.

What certainly struck me first while reading this book was the hardship.  Yes, there is certainly an emotional hardship.  The never-say-die-complete-delusion perspective that is required to be a pro is alive and well in this book.  You may remember that outlook brought to life through Michael Lewis writing Billy Beane's description on what made Lenny Dykstra a good player while the thoughtful and doubting yet marvelously athletic Billy failed.  Here, you get those old familiar names like Scott Elarton and Brett Tomko.  What you also get a faint whiff of is the economic hardship.

If you are unaware of the minor league pay scale, it is not pretty.  When you sign your first contract, you are able to make at most $850 dollars per month (an aside, in 1974, $500 a month was the pay which would be $2,300 a month when taking into consideration inflation).  For the first few picks in the drafts, that money does not matter because they can live out their minor league life on a million dollar bonus if they spend it wisely (mind you most minor league players expect to be in the majors within four years).  Once you get into the third to tenth rounds, you have bonuses that probably set you up maybe for a season or two.  Most signed players are drafted after the first ten rounds and the bonuses these guys get often amount to plane fare.  Players wind up having to rely on the charity of host families as we have written about before as opposed to the billions in revenue Major League Baseball produces.

The median player ten years post draft makes about $24,000 a year compared to someone from their similar background (demographic is typically white upper middle class) who earns around $40,000 and has actually developed skills that are useful in the years to come.  Not too many jobs involve hitting things with sticks.  (Freakonomics once described some aspects of the Minor League issue in a podcast.)  Below is a basic minimum salary structure for players:
  • DSL - $1,500
  • Rookie - $4,250
  • A - $5,250
  • AA - $7,500
  • AAA - $10,750
This way of life has led to a lawsuit trying to upend the arbitrary exemptions that baseball has enjoyed.  Once a player becomes a six year minor league free agent, they can earn more.  The book mentions how desirable players can make a great deal more than that, but it differs per team.  The Tampa Bay Rays cap their highest AAA salary at $65,000 while the Philadelphia Phillies cap theirs at $82,500.  Salaries are known to reach as high as $125,000, but these decent wages are typically rare and are typically only for players who have either enjoyed success in the Majors or have highly favorable past scouting reports.  Both sides of the coin are described a bit in this book.

The money issue though really takes a back seat to the stories in the book.  Money is certainly a major part of the context, but it is more of a foundational backdrop.  The real story is the psychology of the players, managers, umpires, and announcers.  Norfolk Tides manager Ron Johnson plays a major role in the book.  His life and the struggles he has faced create a more nuanced individual than the person we think of whenever an Orioles beat writer mentions his name.  That personification is something that many a fan misses when they see a person in the uniform they cheer for fail miserably.  To a large extent, baseball is a meritocracy, but there are human elements involved and the pain and struggle they feel has far more depth than the person sitting on the couch and watching their favorite laundry in high definition.

The book also shines some light on the ruthless world of umpiring.  One of the problems with umpiring is that it is pretty much the only game in town.  An umpire works hard level by level working up to the high minors.  He is then evaluated for potential graduation to the Majors, a gig for which an umpire is basically unfireable.  At AAA, the evaluation is done in a Star Chamber fashion with the people being evaluated completely unaware of what they are being judged on and, apparently, are judged on information that is incorrect.  After a few years of consideration, umpires are released to allow the next group up to be evaluated.  In other words, after ten to twelve years of little pay and odd off season jobs, a release typically means being let go and trying to develop new life skills.

Perhaps the only quibble I have with this rather illuminating and rich book is that it sometimes feels like there are untold stories lurking about.  Many interviewed do not appear to shy away from tough and excruciating parts of their lives, but the stories stay above the table.  Below the table, nothing is mentioned.  The book accepts what appears to me to be a noble and difficult pursuit of a dream while ignoring what information could be gleaned by pressing.  This does not exactly detract much from the book because it certainly contains a wealth of knowledge about how difficult and trying this choice of profession is.  However, I think it could certainly provide more depth by challenging the rules of the profession.

This book is certainly one of those must read books as it broadens the understanding of the experiences of those in the upper minors.  That way Feinstein is able to inject some level of suspense and a certain undertone of disappointment and dread without resorting to hyperbole.  Go ahead, pick up a copy, read it, drive down to Norfolk, and get RJ to sign it.

Where Nobody Knows Your Name by John Feinstein (2014)
384 pages, Doubleday

1 comment:

Joe Reisel said...

I worked two games in the Norfolk press box when John Feinstein was there "researching" this book. I was going to read it anyway; your review has given me more motivation.