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Minor league baseball is quintessentially American: small towns, small stadiums, $5 tickets, $2 hot dogs, the never-ending possibility of making it big. But looming above it all is always the real deal: Major League Baseball. John Feinstein takes the reader behind the curtain into the guarded world of the minor leagues, like no other writer can. Where Nobody Knows Your Name explores the trials and travails of the inhabitants of Triple-A, focusing on nine men, including players, managers and umpires, among many colorful characters, living on the cusp of the dream. The book tells the stories of former World Series hero Scott Podsednik, giving it one more shot; Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoya, shepherding generations across the line; and designated hitter Jon Lindsey, a lifelong minor leaguer, waiting for his day to come. From Raleigh to Pawtucket, from Lehigh Valley to Indianapolis and beyond, this is an intimate and exciting look at life in the minor leagues, where you’re either waiting for the call or just passing through.
About the Author
JOHN FEINSTEIN is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the classics sports books A Season on the Brink and A Good Walk Spoiled, along with many other bestsellers. His first YA mystery, Last Shot, won The Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing. He is a member of Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and The National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame. He is also a columnist for The Washington Post, Golf World, and Golf Digest. He is a contributor to the Golf Channel, and is an essayist for CBS Sports Television.
Read an Excerpt
There is no aspect of baseball that has changed more in recent years than spring training. Or, more specifically, spring training facilities.
Once, the winter homes of most baseball teams were old, dank, and cramped—minor-league facilities that served for six weeks each year as the headquarters for an entire baseball organization. The ballparks were older too, havens for fans who wanted to get close to players, but often creaking from age with outfield fences that looked as if they had been constructed shortly after Abner Doubleday invented the game.
Even in Vero Beach, where in 1947 the Brooklyn Dodgers set up what was then the model for a spring training facility—Holman Stadium and the facilities around it became known as Dodgertown—there was the feeling of being in a time warp. The dugouts never even had roofs. They were just open-air cutouts along the baselines where players either sunbathed or baked—depending on one’s point of view—during games.
Through the years, almost all the older facilities have disappeared. Dodgertown sits empty now during the spring, used on occasion by local high school teams while the Dodgers train in a brand-new multimillion-dollar headquarters built for them in Arizona. Because spring training has become a big business, local governments in both Florida and Arizona have lined up to build modern baseball palaces for teams, complete with every possible amenity players could ask for—from massive weight-training areas to sparkling training fields to sun-drenched stadiums that look like miniature versions of the big-league parks the teams play in once the season begins.
There is no better example of the modern spring training facility than Bright House Field, which has been the spring home of the Philadelphia Phillies since 2004, when it was built for $28 million to replace Jack Russell Memorial Stadium, which had been the Phillies winter home since 1955. Jack Russell, as it was known in the Clearwater area, was the classic old spring training spot: the stadium was made of wood, and the paint was peeling in every corner of the old place when the Phillies moved out.
The old spring training clubhouses—in baseball no one talks about locker rooms, they are clubhouses—were cramped and crowded with players practically on top of one another, especially at the start of camp, when between fifty and sixty players might be in a room designed to hold no more than thirty to thirty-five lockers.
Jack Russell was one of those dingy old clubhouses. The Phillies’ clubhouse at Bright House Field could not be more different. It is spread out and spacious with room—easily—for fifty lockers. There are several rooms off the main area that are strictly off-limits to anyone but Phillies personnel, meaning players can rest or eat their post-workout or postgame meals in complete privacy without tripping over unwanted media members or anyone else who might have access to the main clubhouse area.
Even though he had been out of baseball for most of four years, Scott Elarton felt completely comfortable walking into the Phillies’ clubhouse in February 2012. Many of the players had no idea who he was because professional athletes’ memories rarely extend back more than about fifteen minutes. In baseball world 2012, Cal Ripken Jr.—who retired in 2001—was an old-timer who played in a lot of games, Willie Mays is a distant memory, and Babe Ruth is the name of a league for teenage players.
Elarton had won fifty-six games as a major-league pitcher in spite of numerous injuries, including seventeen for a bad Houston Astros team in 2000. But he hadn’t been in a major-league baseball clubhouse since 2008 and even though he stood out at six feet seven, a lot of players had no idea who he was.
“It’s not like anybody looked at me and thought I was some hotshot prospect,” he said with a laugh. “I probably look every bit of thirty-six.”
Seven months earlier, even Rubén Amaro Jr., the Phillies’ general manager, hadn’t recognized Elarton. That was in August, when Elarton had called to him while standing on the field during batting practice prior to a game between the Phillies and the Colorado Rockies. Elarton was watching BP with his seven-year-old son when he noticed Amaro standing a few yards away and, on a complete whim, decided to try to talk to him.
“I had taken my son to the game because I was friends with several guys on the Phillies: Raúl Ibañez, Roy Oswalt, Cliff Lee,” Elarton said. “They set us up with tickets. The town we live in is about an hour from Denver, so we drove over. They’d also arranged for us to have field passes, which I knew would be cool for Jake. We went onto the field, and we were standing with all the other people with field passes behind this barrier they set up so that you don’t get too close to the players or bother them while they’re hitting.
“I’d seen that barrier a couple thousand times in ballparks—but always from the other side. I had never even thought about what it might be like to be on the field like that in street clothes and not be a player. I felt completely humiliated. I just hated being there.
“Then I saw Rubén standing nearby. I’d never met him, but I certainly knew him. So I called his name. He looked over at me, and I could tell right away that he had no idea who I was. But he’s a polite guy, so he walked over to where we were standing.”
Elarton was right; Amaro hadn’t recognized him. “I knew who Scott Elarton was,” Amaro said. “He’d pitched too long for me not to know who he was. But he had lost some weight since I’d last seen him pitch, and it had been a few years. But when he said, ‘Rubén, I’m Scott Elarton,’ it came right back to me.”
Elarton had lost weight—a lot of weight. After he had stopped playing in 2008, he had ballooned from 260 pounds to just under 300 pounds after having surgery on his foot. “I didn’t exercise at all for a while after the surgery,” he said. “I wasn’t doing anything at all to stay in shape. On the day I got on the scale and weighed 299, I knew I had to stop. I didn’t want to see 300. So I started working out. I started throwing batting practice to the high school team in my hometown. By the time we went to Denver that day, I was probably down to 225.”
After Elarton had introduced himself and introduced his son, he said something to Amaro that surprised him—even as he spoke. To this day, he isn’t quite certain why the words came out of his mouth.
“Rubén, do you think there’s any chance I could make a comeback in baseball?” he said. “Do you think I could pitch again?”
Amaro was, to say the least, surprised by Elarton’s question. Perhaps the only person more surprised was Elarton. “I’m still not honestly sure what possessed me,” he said, shaking his head. “The thought never crossed my mind until the question came out of my mouth. Maybe it was standing behind the barrier that way. Something clicked in my brain that said, ‘I don’t like the view from here.’ Or the feeling I had standing there.”
To Elarton’s further surprise, Amaro didn’t answer him with a response along the lines of “Are you insane?” or even a polite blow-off. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “If you’d like, I’ll send someone to watch you throw once the season’s over.”
Elarton couldn’t ask for more than that. “Great,” he said. “How should I get in touch with you?”
Amaro gave him his card, and they shook hands again, leaving Elarton standing there wondering what in the world he had just gotten himself into.
As it turned out, Amaro was as good as his word—better than that, in fact.
Elarton had gone home to Lamar, the town of just under eight thousand where he had grown up, and had begun throwing on a regular basis with Josh Bard, a former major-league catcher who lived nearby. He wasn’t counting on a call from Amaro—or even 100 percent certain he wanted one—but he wanted to be ready just in case. He could feel the adrenaline each time he threw to Bard, and as the season wound down, he began to believe—“maybe just a little bit”—that he wasn’t entirely crazy.
Shortly after the World Series ended, Amaro called. He was going to be in Denver for a banquet in which Shane Victorino, then with the Phillies, was scheduled to receive an award. If Elarton was still interested and could make the drive to Denver, he would watch him throw the morning after the banquet.
Elarton and Bard made the drive early on a November morning, and Amaro met them at a local school. Amaro stood and watched as Elarton began to throw. After about five minutes he asked him to stop.
“I remember thinking, ‘Am I really that bad?’ ” Elarton said. “I had kind of talked myself into believing I was throwing pretty well, and when Rubén told me to stop after five minutes, my heart sank. I thought I had wasted my time, his time, and Josh’s time.”
“I don’t know what you’ve been doing, but you look completely different than I remember from the last time you were pitching,” Amaro said. “You look comfortable, your ball has movement—I really like what you’re doing. If it’s okay with you, I’d like to shoot some video while you keep throwing.”
It was more than okay with Elarton. Amaro had him throw about fifty pitches in all. Encouraged by what Amaro had said early on, Elarton thought Amaro would tell him that he’d be in touch. That would leave him with some hope.
Amaro didn’t do that. “I’d like to sign you,” he said. “If you give me your agent’s information, I’ll get in touch and we’ll work out a deal.”
Elarton was almost dazed. If nothing else, he had gotten himself out from behind the barrier.
Four months after that meeting, Elarton walked into the spacious clubhouse at Bright House Field and found a crisp, clean uniform with the number 59 on it hanging in a locker that had his name on it. A number of veteran players, guys he had pitched against in his first baseball incarnation, came by to say hello and welcome him.
“If you’ve been a player, a baseball clubhouse is a very comfortable place to be if you’re in uniform,” he said. “Even if you haven’t been around for a while, if you’re in uniform, then you feel like you belong. If you’re not in uniform, then you don’t. It really doesn’t matter who you are or who you’ve been, that’s the way it is.”
Players talk often about the fear of someday not having a uniform or a locker anymore. Elarton had taken that a step further when he had shown up in Denver as a “civilian,” as players call anyone not in uniform. Putting on a uniform again, even surrounded by so many unfamiliar faces, was comforting.
His negotiations with the Phillies after Amaro’s visit had gone smoothly except for one small glitch: performance incentives. Elarton didn’t want any. The Phillies were offering a fairly typical two-way contract: If he was on the major-league roster, he would be paid $600,000—which was $120,000 over the major-league minimum because it included bonuses for making the team. If he was in the minors, he would be paid a very high Triple-A rate: $15,000 a month.
“Take the incentives for making the major-league team out,” Elarton told Ron Shapiro, his longtime agent—once the agent for both Cal Ripken and Kirby Puckett, among others.
“You want them out?” Shapiro said, stunned for obvious reasons.
“Out,” Elarton answered. “I don’t want money getting in the way of me making it back to the majors. If it’s a close call and it’s me or another guy and they have to pay me extra if I make it up, they may call the other guy up. I don’t want to take a chance on that happening.”
Shapiro called Amaro back to tell him he had an unusual request. Amaro had never in his life had a player ask for less money potentially, but he laughed when he heard what Elarton was thinking.
“Tell Scott that, being honest, the amount of money we’re talking here will have no influence on whether he gets called up or not,” he said. “If he pitches well enough to earn the bonuses, he should get them. But if we need him in Philadelphia, this money isn’t going to get in the way. I promise.”
Elarton was still a tad doubtful when Shapiro told him what Amaro had said but finally agreed.
He arrived in Clearwater with a simple goal: pitch so well during spring training that it would be impossible for the Phillies to send him down.
“Realistically, there weren’t any spots open—especially for a starter,” he said. “All you had to do was look at the rotation and you knew there wasn’t any chance. They had stars and veterans. I hadn’t pitched, except for three starts in Charlotte in 2010, since 2008. Intellectually, I knew the deal. But as a competitor I was going there to show them I was still a major-league pitcher. If I didn’t think I was good enough, there wasn’t much point in my being there.”
The first three times Elarton got into games, he showed them. When he was on the mound facing real hitters, it all came back like riding a bike. His unorthodox delivery, all arms and legs coming at the batter from his six-foot-seven-inch frame, had hitters who hadn’t seen him before way off balance.
“First three times I pitched I didn’t have to pitch from the stretch once,” he said, smiling at the memory. “It almost felt like I was back in Houston and it was 2000 again.”
That was the year Elarton won seventeen games pitching for the Astros before injuries and a taste for the nightlife sent his promising career off the rails. Twelve years later, back in the March heat of Florida’s west coast, he was twenty-five again. He could tell by the looks he was getting from his teammates in the clubhouse that they were noticing.
And then, not surprisingly, he came back to earth. It wasn’t as if he crashed; he descended more slowly than that, pitching reasonably well but not lights out the way it had been at the start of camp. As March came to a close, he knew the numbers he had been concerned about in February were clearly stacked against him. Nevertheless, with a week left before the team broke camp, he was still on the roster.
Table of Contents
Cast of Characters xi
1 Scott Elarton: Starting Over 17
2 Podsednik and Montoyo: The Walk-Off Hero and the .400 Hitter 27
3 Lindsey, Schwinden, and Lollo: The Mayor, the Traveler, and the Ump 35
4 Slice of Life: Rolling with the Punches in… Allentown… Pawtucket… Norfolk 44
5 Johnson and Montoyo: Managing Expectations 53
6 Slice of Life: Sent Down… Called Up… 66
7 Schwinden and Podsednik: Life on the Roller Coaster 76
8 Slice of Life: Wally Backman: Second Chances 88
9 Slice of Life: All Roads Lead to Norfolk 93
10 Nate McLouth: Comeback Kid 103
11 Elarton: Still One Step Away 109
12 Slice of Life: On the Road in Pinstripes 116
13 Slice of Life: Managing… Indianapolis 127
14 Schwinden and Lindsey: Home Sweet Home 137
15 Slice of Life: Jamie Farr Would Be Proud 143
16 Slice of Life: Weekend in Toledo 147
17 Brert Tomko: More Than Nine Lives 160
18 Mark Lollo: Traveling the Umpiring Road 167
19 Slice of Life: Managing the Highs and Lows 175
20 Slice of Life: 1-75 183
21 Elarton: Pigs (Not) in the Bigs …and the Ever-Present Revolving Door 187
22 Slice of Life: Columbus 201
23 From Montoyo to Longoria: Hot Summer Nights in Durham 210
24 Slice of Life: Charlotte 227
25 Podsednik: Hot Streak 236
26 Ron Johnson: Real Life Gets Serious 240
27 Maine and Schwinden: Comebacks 252
28 One At-Bat in Eight Years 263
29 Elarton: Fighting Father Time 272
30 Voices of the Minors 276
31 The Endless Month 281
32 Slice of Life: Syracuse… Washington… Columbus… 290
33 Tomko and Lindsey: It's Never Over Till… 295
34 Slice of Life: Syracuse 300
35 Lollo: A Bad Call 306
36 March to September 310
37 Lollo and Tomko: Ending 322
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Rating: 5 of 5 stars (outstanding) Review: Triple-A baseball, one step below the major leagues, has its own unique culture and lifestyle. John Feinstein’s book “Where Nobody Knows Your Name” describes this through the eyes and stories of nine men: three position players (Scott Posednik, Nate McClouth, John Lindsey), three pitchers (Scott Elarton, Brett Tomko, Chris Schwinden), two managers (Charlie Montoyo, Ron Johnson) and one umpire (Mark Lollo). Their experience ranges from a young man hoping for that shot at the majors (Schwinden, Lollo) to a former World Series hero trying to get back to the big time (Posednik, who hit a walk-off homer in game 2 of the 2005 World Series while playing for the Chicago White Sox). All nine men featured share what they have liked best and least about Triple-A baseball. For the managers, they agree that the best moments are telling players that they are being called up. For a good emotional story, nothing beats that of the time an eleven-year veteran was crying when he was finally promoted during September call-ups. There are humorous stories about the ballparks and travel adventures. There are human drama stories, especially for some of the older players such as Tomko who wonder at the end of the season if it is time to call it a career or try “one more time.” These types of stories, ones that make famous athletes seem at least a little more like “ordinary people” is a strength of Feinstein’s writing. He does that in most of his books on any sport, and this is another one of those books that is a winner because of that human element. Between extensive interviews with each of the men featured (and hundreds of others as well) and the research into each man’s career and achievements, the reader will feel like he or she is sitting in the stands at Lehigh Valley, Norfolk or Durham. That moment when the player receives his good news of needing to report to Tampa or Boston to join the big club will make the reader cheer. If you are a baseball fan, like human interest stories or just want to see what it is like to be on the cusp of celebrity status, read this book. Feinstein has made these types of books a joy to read and this is another outstanding book in a long line of them. Did I skim? No. Pace of the book: Excellent. The book took the reader through the 2012 Triple A baseball season through all of the stories chronologically and at a very good pace. The stories in each were long enough to be meaningful but short enough that the reader could follow them easily. Do I recommend? This is a great book for all baseball fans, no matter what level of the game they enjoy. Feinstein brings the experience of the game from the clubhouse to the manager’s office to the field onto these pages that anyone who loves this game will enjoy.
Great book for baseball fans who want to learn about the struggles of players and an umpire who want to return or go for the first time to the "big show". As with all Feinstein books wonderfully written.
Feinstein being Feinstein! And anyone reading this will be glad he is! A neat twisted story = you might think its about baseball but ends up being about the people in baseball. A terrific story telling us outsiders what it is like to be on the inside. As is often the case the people in celeb. status are not what we think they are. A good baseball read and a great human interest story! Feinstein is brillant at this stuff!
Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein. The minors of baseball are for local fans a pleasant diversion, for those that follow the big league club, a source of hope and future stars. This book is about the human characters of one season in AAA baseball. Focusing on nine individuals at different stages of their career, including two managers and an umpire, the book follows one whole season, from spring training to the end of the season, with its hopes of a call-up or realization of an end of the career. Baseball is a repetitive game, over its months of games. And in the minors, the repetition includes its bus rides to medium-sized towns and moderately priced hotels, and at times edgy boredom. The nine men whose stories make up this book represent well the hopes, frustrations, and cares of their profession. Most have played or coached the game for decades, and love it, but at this level, the question is always how do you love it, and will the love be returned with the ultimate reward with a call up to the major league team. There are occasional insights into the human condition, as these nine are constantly coming to grips with who they are and what they want. Unlike the rest of us, they do within constant competition with those in front of them in the major and behind them at lower levels, and in front of a paying crowd who doesn't understand what they do or who they are very well. This is generally a well-written book that helps the reader understand the humanity of the men who labor under the summer lights a bit better.
Was a different read for me and I enjoyed the book. As you start to read you understand its not all happy ending just like real life.
My 13 year old son loved this book! He was completely absorbed in the story and information and only put the book down when he had to go to school or baseball practice! We had just come back from Vasalia, California, where we saw minor leagues play. It was perfect timing. If you love the game of baseball, you'll love this book for sure!
If you at all like baseball or have gone to a minor league game, you will love this book. A true look at life in the minors by players going up and going down the ladder. Feinstein has written many great books and this is another one of his best efforts. You really see what it's like to go up and down the minor-league ladder and then finally reach the majors, only to be sent back to clear a roster spot. Excellent sports book.
Like every Feinstein book I've read, this one was just as excellent. As a baseball fan, you know there's a glaring difference between Major League and Minor League Baseball, but seeing it directly through the experiences of those living it (players, coaches, umpires) really gives readers a clear idea of the ups and downs, literally and figuratively. I recognized many of the players mentioned throughout the book, and so, I found it to be a really interesting to see where they ended up once they were no longer big league commodities.
If you are here, wrong place. What i meant waa like, arrowbres 1 for arrow. Sorry for the confusion.
No i didnt it could have been an imposter
I bought the autographed edition and my book binding was torn - very disappointed - won't do that again!