Marty Dobrow's "Knocking On Heaven's Door" tells the story of six hungry players trying to make it to the big leagues.
He gives an inside look at draft day and the tension and anxiety that each person experiences, presenting a comprehensive, fly on the wall view of the experience of minor league baseball in an almost physical sense. It is deeply intimate. At times it's magical and, many times, painful to read.
The six players in the book - Brad Baker, Doug Clark, Manny Delcarmen, Randy Ruiz, Matt Torra, and Charlie Zink - experience the heady highs and the nasty lows, and Dobrow captures each moment colorfully and thoroughly. The story of small-time agents Jim and Lisa Masteralexis and Steve McKelyey interweaves the stories, giving them greater depth. It is a joy to see what they do to try and get their players signed and their story is just as meaningful.
It's an emotional book, but also tremendously and brilliantly informative.
Here is my interview with Marty about his sure-to-be-classic look into minor league life.
Q: A scout once told me "Team's top prospects need guys to play with."
He was implying that the guys who don't register on the prospect radar
are there just to do a job and fill a spot. I thought of that comment
when you mentioned the guys not being able to get close to one another,
because the competition is so intense. Do you think it gets more difficult when
guys like Strasburg are coming into the minors with record breaking
deals? Do you think it creates even more of an imbalance?
A. One of the things that was most surprising to me about the culture of the minors was the distinction between “prospects” and “organizational players.” I have loved baseball since I was a child, but I still went into the writing of this book with a naive view that the game was essentially a meritocracy where people got what they deserved, where connections really didn’t matter, where if you were good enough, you made it—no matter what.
Perhaps that is true at the absolute highest levels—such as with Stephen Strasburg. But beneath the top level, there are lots of factors that influence a player’s advancement. Ability and desire do matter, but so do luck (injuries, playing for the “right” team with the right needs at the right time), connections within an organization, one’s draft position, etc. Top picks have a lot more room to fail than lower-level picks. The organization has invested in them financially and psychically. It is so much harder to advance when you haven’t been given that “prospect” label—as in the case of Randy Ruiz or Charlie Zink.
The difference in talent between top-level minor leaguers and lower-level big leaguers is razor thin, if it exists at all. The difference in compensation, though, is enormous. As you know, the minimum major league salary this past year was $400,000, and the average was something like $3.2 million. Lots of longtime minor leaguers are still playing for $10-$15,000. In that kind of environment there is a rather savage competition that comes with the territory. I think I describe it in the book as an “icy fact” that a teammate’s success can be bad for you and a teammate’s injury can be good for you. You’re constantly looking over your shoulders. So friendships between players playing the same position are rare. (Doug Clark told me he often roomed with people playing other positions.)
That was one of the things that so intrigued me about the friendship between Manny Delcarmen and Charlie Zink. I think they were able to navigate that relationship, in part, because they are such different types of pitchers.
As for whether the divide and tension is increased by someone like Strasburg, that’s a good question. My sense is that he is such a unique pitcher, a once-in-a-generation type of prospect, that people mostly just wanted to watch the show. Charlie Zink pitched briefly this year for Rochester (before hurting his shoulder), and he told me that he was fascinated by all of the attention surrounding Strasburg’s appearance.
Q: Were there any stories you left out of Knocking on Heaven's Door? Anything you felt you felt you
For the most part, no. I really wanted these stories to be honest and intimate accounts. I didn’t want to “god up” (to use Red Smith’s phrase) or demonize the players—I wanted to present them as real. I didn’t want to shy away from the hard parts of their stories, because I think that would dilute the authenticity I was determined to convey.
That said, there were times when I felt that it would be gratuitous to share all that I knew. For instance, at one point I describe one of the clients of DiaMMond Management as meeting a woman in a Las Vegas hotel and giving her access to his credit card. A few thousand dollars later, the player complained to Jim Masteralexis to see if there was a way of reclaiming that money. I found it to be a genuine slice of minor league life, and while I know full well who the player is, I didn’t feel the need to share that with readers because it would have had ramifications for the player in his relationship with his family.
Similarly, there is an account of a scout notifying Jim Masteralexis by phone that a representative of Scott Boras’s agency was making a play for Matt Torra one day at UMass shortly before the 2005 draft. I know who the scout is, but he really didn’t want me to name him because showing preferential treatment to one agent over another could be bad for his own reputation. I thought the story was interesting, and I didn’t think that concealing the name from readers was a big issue here. More was gained than lost in this case.
But with the big stuff, the important stuff, I genuinely think I was able to tell the story in an unvarnished way.
Q: What made you choose those players for the book?
A: There were a few things that were important to me in choosing the players. Fundamentally, I wanted to make sure that the player had a compelling human interest story. I wasn’t after statistics or clichés—I was after the journey, the heart, the joy and anguish of this life. I knew the book had some obstacles: no celebrity players, an author who is a household name only in his household, a university press. The key was going to be able to plumb poignant stories to their depth. For that, I needed players whose lives struck a deep emotional chord with me. And families, too. From the start, I wanted to write this story through the prism of players’ families. Our families always provide rich drama, and I was struck by how much family members get caught up in the quest. I was particularly taken with people like Brad Baker’s grandmother listening to webcasts of his games across the country well after midnight. I wasn’t so much interested in what Theo Epstein or Terry Francona thought about Manny Delcarmen; to me, it was far more interesting to hear about the reactions of his dad (a former minor leaguer, who, like most, never made it) or his close friend, the MBTA bus driver.
Second, I needed to have a ton of access. These are players I was going to talk to over a period of years. I was going to meet with them many times. (For instance, I interviewed Charlie Zink at length in person in six different states.) I was going to connect with their wives, their girlfriends, their parents, etc. I knew that was asking a lot, but I trusted that my extreme interest in them as people and my obvious love of the game would make it worthwhile. People like to be heard, to be “gotten” – and I felt that I could provide that. In part, this need for considerable access dictated that the story would have a strong regional flair (even though I like to think of it, perhaps selfishly, as a national story, a modern American Dream story). I live in Springfield, Massachusetts, and you will note that four of the six players are from Massachusetts, three of them from Western Mass. (as are all three agents). I wanted to be able to give a real sense of place. In someone like Brad Baker’s story, for instance, his hometown is so fundamental to his identity. I needed to be able to see it in a deep way in order to convey it authentically to readers. Fortunately, access is also much more available on the human scale in the minor leagues.
Third, I needed some good connective tissue. The book is largely a mosaic, and the common ground is the agents. They are in the parallel position of slogging away for many years at their own baseball dream which may or may not come true. I also thought the uniqueness of the husband and wife agent team would allow me to build the family perspective that I mentioned earlier.
Lastly, I didn’t want the stories to overlap too much. I understand that six players is a fairly large number when you are talking about subjects most readers won’t recognize. The challenge as a writer is to get in underneath these stories so deeply and so sensitively that readers will genuinely come to care about the players as individuals. Some people advised me to vote one or two of them off the island, but I truly believed that their stories were sufficiently unique and sufficiently important that they all needed to be told. I thought I could pull it off (although admittedly it was tiring with all those story lines and family members to follow).
Q: I covered Indy League baseball in 2008 and sometimes I see guys in
the minors that I know are going to wind up there if they want to keep
playing for a living. Do you see Indy league as increasingly more
important to baseball? Not every guy can get the shot Chris Coste did
or wind up back from the brink like Josh Hamilton, but there's a value
to Indy league. Would you agree?
A: I totally agree. I think Indy League ball is a critical part of the professional baseball puzzle. The players you mention have amazing stories of perseverance. And I think the vast majority of players who wind up playing unaffiliated ball are in the same category—even if they don’t have the happy endings of Coste and Hamilton (and most won’t). Their path is, in some respects, even harder. Additionally, there is an “out of the box” charm to Indy League baseball that I find very appealing—though it didn’t really fit much into this book (other than the account of Charlie Zink’s experience in Yuma).
Q: Another thing that I always remember about the Indy League is a
manager saying, "They have to understand good isn't good enough," to
get their shot. But the same applies to MILB. Did these stories give
you the idea that it's gotten harder or easier for minor leaguers to
get a shot? Does the structure of MLB create more or less opportunities
today, than say ten years ago?
A: It’s very hard now, and it was very hard a decade ago. The difficulty, though, is, from a writer’s perspective, the whole gist of the story. It’s that confrontation with the hard that I find so fascinating. As I try to say in the book, these are very talented and committed young men who are so close to something they want so much, something they have always wanted, but still it is something they might not get. I think it raises all sorts of fascinating questions about what constitutes success, and what shortcuts people are willing to take to try to achieve it. Doug Clark has 1 hit in 11 major league at bats, an .091 career average. To a lot of people, that does not represent a very successful legacy, but in my eyes the story behind that one hit—the journey that it required—represents an enormous triumph.
Q: As a Philadelphia native the Reading references and the way you captured the spirit of Baseballtown were most emotional for me. But it was merely the backdrop to what was, in my opinion, the most emotional and captivating story in the book, Randy Ruiz. In Trenton and Reading his name is very memorable, for many reasons, obviously. I found myself skipping ahead and crying as I read his story that I remembered unfolding, and all the connections you made, particularly with Palmeiro and the "$89 million dollar" difference. I'm of the generation covering baseball when steroid use is not in the shadows, it's no longer 'omerta.' How do you think steroids changes the way the game is actually reported? I tend to want to ignore that side of it and feel torn. Do you think reporters have been insensitive in reporting on these controversies, in either MILB or MLB?
A: This was, in many respects, the most challenging part of the book for me. It is complicated in so many ways: scientifically, ethically, etc. The use of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant in our society on many levels, but it gets magnified and debated feverishly in baseball. The vast majority of the stories fans read and see, of course, are focused on people such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, major league megastars who have made their fortunes many times over. To me it is a far more compelling moral equation to look at these choices through the lens of the minor leagues. Randy Ruiz’s case is a fascinating one, and the way it played out in Reading (and in the pages of the Reading Eagle) became a modern morality tale.
It’s hard to know what constitutes responsible coverage of these complicated issues. I think we all like to simplify the complex, to make it black and white, right and wrong. (Isn’t that, in part, the appeal of sports: the simplified universe where we have a winner and a loser?) But more deeply, I think we all recognize that shades of gray abound. Randy is a classic example.
My hope is to humanize the stories as much as possible, to contextualize the choices that players make. Randy had a very difficult upbringing: not raised by either parent (no real relationship with his mom), a Section 8 apartment, food stamps, a violent and drug-infested neighborhood. I have been in the apartment where he grew up—I remember staring at the four separate locks on the door. His bonus was $1,000. He was an excellent hitter for six seasons at Single-A without ever getting promoted to Double-A. In the offseason, he worked third shift stocking shelves in a supermarket in Nebraska to support his baseball habit. He saw other players on PEDs improving and getting promoted, getting a shot at the dream and the money. He didn’t really have much of a backup plan.
Does any of that excuse the decision to try steroids, even once? No. But I think it does help to explain such a choice.
On the other hand, I think Doug Clark’s story is pretty intriguing, too. Here is a guy who spent all those years as a left fielder in the Giants’ organization as the understudy to Barry Bonds. Was Bonds undeniably great before any possible PED use? Sure. Did he extend his career pharmaceutically? It sure seems that way. But Doug was adamant about not cutting that corner, in part because he comes from a family of teachers, in part because he has a college degree in biology. You could make an argument that he paid a price for his stand—and you could make an argument that that price was well worth it. His dilemma is, to me, equally fascinating to Randy’s.
Q: Have you heard from any of the players you wrote about? Did you feel particular closeness to any of the players or stories?
A: As stated earlier, I was absolutely determined to tell true and real stories, and not to let any particular bias (even my own) get in the way. I hope I have succeeded. But sure, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the monumental struggle that all of these players endured. It’s a hard life and a huge quest. I had to keep my mind and heart open to capture it well.
I have had a few particularly nice post-publication moments with the players. Doug Clark and his mom and her cousin Barbara Hood (“Aunt Bunny” who packs his suitcases) came to one of my first reading and signing and events; that was great fun. And I got a wonderful call one day from Charlie Zink. He told me that he had recently been on the phone with Manny Delcarmen (Charlie from California, Manny from Boston). He said they spoke for about an hour about the book, reminiscing about all these times that they had shared in the minors, times they had kind of forgotten about until the description brought them back. That’s one of the goals, I suppose, I have as a writer: to freeze time, to preserve what is precious, to hold on to the gold (even the painful stuff) before it slips away.
Q: Last question. What gave you the idea to write this book and focus on six players?
A: Baseball has always been a deep love of mine. I think it is the game that is most connected to story—and I believe that human beings have a profound need for story. (Why do our children always implore us to “Tell me a story” or “Read me a story”?) There is no such thing as an easy life, and I think we read and go to the movies in part to see how other people handle the hard things. That is probably our greatest measure.
In 1999 I had the chance to write a story for Sport magazine about the baseball draft, focusing on one kid and one family. Brad Baker was that young man. I remember going up to that house in Leyden, Mass. (a tiny town on the Vermont border with no streetlights and no stores and under 1,000 people), and being utterly transfixed by the scene. There were fishing poles on the porch, deer racks on the walls of the living room, an earnest young man with a golden right arm waiting for a phone call. When it came, the eyes of all of his family and friends were on him. When he hung up, he said only two words: “Red Sox.” The place just about exploded with joy.
That article became the genesis of the book. In truth, I didn’t conceptualize it as a book until 2005. At that point, I revisited Baker for another magazine story, reconnected with the agents, and began to see that there was a much larger story to be told. I was exceedingly fortunate in so many respects (the generosity of the agents and players, the marvelous happenstance of all that confluence of story lines on August 12, 2008, etc.). It just felt like a book that deeply mattered to me, and my most profound hope was that it would matter to others as well.