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Chat with Journalist and Author Marty Dobrow Tuesday December 21, 10 AM


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#1 CR67dream

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 07:24 PM

We are pleased to announce as part of our ongoing chat series, journalist and author Marty Dobrow will be joining us soon for Q&A, exact time and date TBD. Marty is based in western Mass and has covered a myriad of sports, is currently a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, and has a new book out entitled Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream. In the book he tells the story of six minor leaguers chasing their Major League aspirations:

Manny Delcarmen – When the book begins in 2005, Delcarmen is entering his fifth year as a minor leaguer in the Red Sox’ organization. The son of a minor leaguer who never advanced beyond Single-A, Manny grew up in Boston rooting for the Sox. He is a hard-headed young man who once went AWOL in the minors (storming home from Georgia before getting two flat tires in the South Bronx at 4 a.m.).

Charlie Zink – The color never stops with Zink. He grew up in California, the son of two guards at the famed Folsom State Prison. He went to a Div. 3 art school in Georgia where he was coached, improbably, by former Red Sox legend Luis Tiant. Late in his first year in the minors he became a knuckleballer overnight after a just-for-fun knuckler shattered the Oakley sunglasses of a coach. Zink even has a glamorous girlfriend named Madeline Munroe.

Doug Clark – Clark has a fascinating perspective on PED use in the minors. He has a biology degree. He comes from a family of teachers. And for the first eight years of his career he was a left fielder in the Giants’ organization -- an understudy to Barry Bonds. Clark’s odyssey includes ten years in the minors, three in Korea, lots of winter ball in Mexico, and one of the most dramatic call-ups in baseball history.

Randy Ruiz — Raised by his grandmother in a Section 8 apartment in the Bronx, Ruiz became baseball’s Gulliver. Six colleges. Nine different big league organizations. Three minor league batting titles. Two suspensions for alleged steroid use. Once "traded for no compensation." A Triple-A Rookie of the Year at age 30, a Triple-A MVP at 31. A taste of big league nectar. A year in Japan. Sometimes sleeps with his bat.

Brad Baker — Baker grew up in Leyden, Massachusetts, a rural town with no stores or streetlights, but lots of deer and bear that he loved to hunt. Red Sox scouts watched every pitch he threw his senior year, and the team selected him in the first (sandwich) round of the 1999 draft. The rigors and ruthlessness of pro ball took their toll on Baker as he climbed the ranks, carrying the hopes of his small town on his shoulders.

Matt Torra — A first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2005, Torra tore his labrum only ten innings into his pro career. Just the year before, baseball injury guru Will Carroll had written, "If pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they’d be destroyed." Torra has been trying to fight his way back ever since.

Here are some links to reviews:

Daily Hampshire Gazette

minorleaguebaseball.com

baseballjournal.com (Scroll down to 2nd entry)

Here is the Amazon Link for purchase, though you may want to log in through the SoSH Amazon link on the content page and search the title, in order to support this fine site as well.

The book is extremely insightful and well written as put forth in the reviews, and definitely a great read. We hope you will join in this Q&A with great questions as is the norm with these chats, and we will be firming up the time and date shortly. In the meantime, please use this thread for posting questions in order to give Marty some time to formulate his answers. I will also be posting this in the MLB forum in order to allow lurkers to pose questions, and will add those questions to this thread as they come in.

Thanks, everyone, and please don't be shy, your questions are always great, and there is a lot of insight to be had here.

Also, Marty is extremely well versed in College Hoops, specifically in relation to UMass, and has another great book Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball and would be happy to field any questions on this subject as well.

Thanks again, and have at it!

#2 CR67dream

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Posted 13 December 2010 - 11:09 PM

From Lurker PBDWake:

2 Questions I had:

Marty,

One of the things I've always been interested in with regards to the minor leagues is the locker room dynamic with regards to highly touted prospects. In your experience, are young players in the minor leagues generally aware of their status as "top prospects", and if so, does it usually reflect in their habits?

Also,

Marty,

You wrote a very good book on the subject of UMass basketball's rise to national prominence. Given the current state of college basketball, how would you attempt to handle recruiting as a state school without a power program like a UMass? With the unlikeliness of top HS players coming your way, would you prefer to perhaps narrow your recruiting and appeal to highly talented regional players, or attempt to recruit players likely to fulfill a 4 year commitment and institute a system?

#3 mabrowndog


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Posted 15 December 2010 - 11:14 AM

Hi Marty, thanks for taking the time to field our questions.

* In general, based on your interactions with the 6 ballplayers you followed and any others you encountered, which type of setback was hardest for these young kids to deal with mentally and emotionally: Sub-par on-field production, or injuries? What are some of the major differences in how the players reacted, and in how the team staffs (coaches, trainers, etc) would tend to handle each type of situation to try to maintain their confidence and get them back on track? What teams/players impressed you the most in that regard?

* Having spent a bunch of time over the years around Cape League players, I've found many of them to be good kids but nonetheless highly-touted prospects used to attention, adulation and favoritism. It's always interesting to see how some of them respond to being just another fish in a large pond. I would imagine the ego-check effect is even more pronounced once they sign pro contracts and are facing and competing with far higher-caliber talent. Is that an accurate assumption, and could you expand on your observations?

* Going back to the Cape League, parents with means to do so often travel here to watch their kids play for a week or two at a time. Some will come and stay the entire two-month season. For the most part they observe from a distance, providing encouragement while letting the coaches and GMs do their jobs. But in certain select cases, parents can be control freaks who attempt to assert their influence on how their kid is treated -- playing time, positions, how they're coached, etc. To what extent is this an issue in the minors based on what you've seen in your travels?

#4 CR67dream

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Posted 18 December 2010 - 10:51 PM

Bumping to add the date and time, and also to add some book excerpts published yesterday at ESPNBoston.com.

I received my copy of the book yesterday, and I am enjoying the hell out of it, and recommend it highly.

Bring on your questions, and lurkers, you can PM me yours, or put them in the chat threads that are in both the minor league and MLB forums.

#5 Frisbetarian


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Posted 19 December 2010 - 08:16 AM

Thanks so much for agreeing to answer our questions, Marty.

I see on your Springfield College bio that you teach a course titled, Journalist as Hero/Journalist as Villain and am intrigued. Would you please briefly describe what that course entails and give examples of sports writers you believe have defined themselves as good and bad guys?

Also, how has the internet affected the role of the sports journalist in traditional (hard copy) newspapers? Do you see any issues with getting a story out first taking a back seat to getting proper sources? Where, in your opinion, will the industry go from here?

The snippets I have found from Knocking on Heaven's Door are beautifully written, and I thank Craig for bringing this book to our attention. I asked for it for XMas, and cannot wait to dig in. Congratulations on writing such a well received book.

#6 absintheofmalaise


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Posted 20 December 2010 - 11:06 AM

Thanks for doing this Marty. I have a couple of questions.

What made you choose these particular players and how many did you interview before you chose them for the book?

What were you able to find out, if anything, about how the different organizations prepare the players for what they might expect if the do reach the majors?

#7 CR67dream

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Posted 20 December 2010 - 04:54 PM

Hi Marty, and thanks a million for agreeing to chat with us. I have started your book and am loving it. I have several questions, but I'll start with just a couple here, and add a few more later after I've read a bit more.

One thing I wanted to touch upon is your vivid portrayal of these minor leaguers as individuals, young men with unique personalities and diverese backgrounds. Do you think we as fans, and perhaps even those charged with evaluating these players, sometimes focus too much on numbers and on-field performance and not enough on the emotional make-up/personalities of these players? Do most organizations, and agents who represent these players, make a concerted attempt to look beyond the mumbers when assessing a player's chances for MLB success? If so, how much weight is put on that aspect as opposed to on-field performance?


What are some of the biggest frustrations that these players expressed to you about life in minor league baseball? Were there common themes among the players, or did you find that it varied widely depending on the individual? On the flip side, what are some of the things they enjoy most about the life, that make the daily grind worth it?

#8 templeUsox


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Posted 20 December 2010 - 05:10 PM

Marty, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

1. While covering these players, did you feel that the minor leagues humbled players as they rose through the ranks? Is there any inherent value in players raking fields, interacting with fans, riding buses, etc.? Did you observe players attitudes changing as baseball became there day-in, day-out profession and they had to embrace this minutiae?

2. One of the common trends I've noticed while reading a lot of interviews with minor leaguers and prospects is that any failure or setback can always be rationalized into a positive. How important is it for these athletes to put blinders on and be almost completely oblivious to adversity or the realization that the end is near?

#9 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 06:29 AM

Marty,

In the book you write about Brad Baker's trade to San Diego for Alan Embree. While all minor leaguers, especially highly touted prospects, are aware of their status as commoditities, how well prepared do you think most minor leaguers are when the reality of such a trade hits? From what you wrote it seems as if Baker handled it well, largely because the trade came with a promotion to AA ball, but that ultimately it was quite a difficult transition for him. Beyond the possibility of simply failing, is the fear of being sent off, and having no control over the situation, something most prospects actively stress about?



Is the Masteralexis's agency still going strong? It would seem to me that in today's climate that such a "Mom and Pop" operation would find it increasingly difficult to compete with the mega-firms both in terms of securing talent and in being taken seriously by teams. The lowballing of Baker's initial signing bonus offer seemed to indicate that the Red Sox thought they could deal with DiaMMond Management differently than they would have, say, with a Scott Boras client. Is that an accurate assessment given what you know?

#10 Foulkey Reese


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 08:51 AM

Hi Marty, thanks for taking our questions.

Manny DelCarmen always struck me as a guy with stuff that was almost too good to be wasted in middle relief. With his power fastball and sharp curve I always saw him as a future closer/8th inning guy. What do you think happened to him? Injuries? Or do you think it has anything to do with his make up and personality?

#11 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 09:50 AM

Hi Folks- just got off the phone with Marty and he's about ready to start answering questions- don't hesitate to throw your own in or to follow up on something already asked and answered. Thanks again Marty for joining us today.

#12 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 09:55 AM

Thank you SOSHers, and thank you in particular, Craig, for giving me the opportunity to participate and talk about my book. We had a full lunar eclipse in the wee hours of this morning, and those things usually bode well for Red Sox Nation—yes? So let’s play ball.



#13 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 09:56 AM

From Lurker PBDWake:

2 Questions I had:

Marty,

One of the things I've always been interested in with regards to the minor leagues is the locker room dynamic with regards to highly touted prospects. In your experience, are young players in the minor leagues generally aware of their status as "top prospects", and if so, does it usually reflect in their habits?

Also,

Marty,

You wrote a very good book on the subject of UMass basketball's rise to national prominence. Given the current state of college basketball, how would you attempt to handle recruiting as a state school without a power program like a UMass? With the unlikeliness of top HS players coming your way, would you prefer to perhaps narrow your recruiting and appeal to highly talented regional players, or attempt to recruit players likely to fulfill a 4 year commitment and institute a system?


1) There is no doubt that “prospects” and “organizational players” are well aware of their roles. It starts in rookie ball, where everyone makes the same starting salary of $1100/month. (That’s up from $850 a few years ago, but it still only runs from the first game of the season to the last—basically five months. And it doesn’t cover housing). The difference is that on top of that slave labor, top prospects receive lavish signing bonuses. First rounders routinely get 7-figure bonuses. That stays in the six figures for a few rounds, then drops off dramatically, before disappearing altogether. Top prospects get more coaching attention, more endorsement money, more opportunities to fail. As Orwell said in Animal Farm, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”



It continues as you climb the ladder. For instance, top prospects, through their agents, get far more equipment. In 2005 when Charlie Zink and Manny Delcarmen were both at Portland, they told me that Hanley Ramirez’s locker was like a sporting goods store. And promotions are not always based purely on performance—ratcheting up the resentment and jealousy.



Still, most minor leaguers know that despite a caste system that stacks the deck, things don’t always play out according to plan. A surprising percentage of first rounders—more than a third in a 30-year Baseball America study-- never make the big leagues. And once in a great while late-round picks are shockingly successful. Mike Piazza was picked in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft (back when the draft went that long). Baseball is just such a hard game to project.



2) Here, too, the playing field, er…court, is tilted. It’s exceedingly hard to break through from a smaller conference to the upper reaches of college hoops. That’s why Butler’s accomplishment last year, coming an inch or two from winning the national title, is, in my mind, one of the great achievements in the history of the sport. The Atlantic 10 has had its moments, but to be more than a blip on the national radar is rare. It’s not unlike the plight of small-market teams in baseball.



To try to beat the odds, I think UMass has to employ both the approaches you suggest—and I don’t regard them as an either/or by any means. Regional recruiting really helps in terms of creating a sense of identification that other places have with their State U: a sense of “He is one of us.” Admittedly, that kind of ownership is less likely in Massachusetts because of all the private schools in the commonwealth. Still, it is bolstered with local or semi-local kids.

That was part of the appeal of that Final Four team: Carmelo Travieso from Boston, Edgar Padilla from Springfield, Marcus Camby from Hartford. And even on the current squad, it’s great to have a young man from Boston (Anthony Gurley) having such a good year. Are the pickings too slim to build a national program? Perhaps. They won’t limit recruiting to the northeast.



Creating a “system” of guys staying for four years also helps—provided that players are really improving. Say what you want about John Calipari, but players definitely got a lot better playing for him year to year. Derek Kellogg (the player) would be a classic example. To try to do the same thing as a coach is the challenge Kellogg now faces.



#14 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:00 AM

Hi Marty, thanks for taking the time to field our questions.

* In general, based on your interactions with the 6 ballplayers you followed and any others you encountered, which type of setback was hardest for these young kids to deal with mentally and emotionally: Sub-par on-field production, or injuries? What are some of the major differences in how the players reacted, and in how the team staffs (coaches, trainers, etc) would tend to handle each type of situation to try to maintain their confidence and get them back on track? What teams/players impressed you the most in that regard?

* Having spent a bunch of time over the years around Cape League players, I've found many of them to be good kids but nonetheless highly-touted prospects used to attention, adulation and favoritism. It's always interesting to see how some of them respond to being just another fish in a large pond. I would imagine the ego-check effect is even more pronounced once they sign pro contracts and are facing and competing with far higher-caliber talent. Is that an accurate assumption, and could you expand on your observations?

* Going back to the Cape League, parents with means to do so often travel here to watch their kids play for a week or two at a time. Some will come and stay the entire two-month season. For the most part they observe from a distance, providing encouragement while letting the coaches and GMs do their jobs. But in certain select cases, parents can be control freaks who attempt to assert their influence on how their kid is treated -- playing time, positions, how they're coached, etc. To what extent is this an issue in the minors based on what you've seen in your travels?



1) Both types of setbacks are hard and common. In many ways, I think the minor leagues represent a school for dealing with setbacks, an adversity university. Of the two, I think confronting poor performance is probably the biggest challenge. Most of these guys have been huge fish in smaller ponds. They are accustomed to a high level of success and all the perks that come with it. In the minors they confront failure, and they do it in an environment that is often far less nurturing than home.



Crowds in the minors can be tough. Many players are far from family and friends. And the competition—internally—can be ruthless. Brad Baker told me that he was instructed by former Red Sox scouting director Wayne Britton not to get close to his teammates, to avoid making good friends. It’s just a lonely life, and poor performance can make it seem awful (despite the undeniably cool fact that you are playing professional baseball).



Players responded to this in a variety of ways. Once in a while you see guys buck the trend. The friendship that developed in the Sox minor league system between Manny Delcarmen and Charlie Zink was inspiring. They helped each other through some very hard times, on the field and off. One of the players I focus on, Doug Clark (who, incidentally, has the single best big-league call-up story I have ever heard) told me that he often tried to avoid rooming with fellow outfielders. A lot of players just shut off the world on their ipods, or “interact” by playing hours of video games, everything from MLB to Halo.



As for teams, I think there are some great managers and coaches in the minors who help the players navigate the labyrinth. I was particularly impressed with Stan and Stu Cliburn in the Twins’ system. There should be a book on those guys. Ron Johnson was amazing at Pawtucket (great article by the way last week by Amalie Benjamin about RJ’s family journey after that awful accident with his daughter).



That said, I don’t want to dismiss the enormity of dealing with a serious injury. I think that is particularly hard to cope with in the minors, because of the fact that players have not yet tasted the dream, and now they fear they never will. Manny Delcarmen burst into tears in front of his family when he found out he needed elbow surgery. And it’s hard not to feel for a guy like Matt Torra, a first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2005 out of Pittsfield and UMass. Ten innings into his pro career he tore his labrum. He has been trying to fight his way back ever since—one hard journey.



2) I think your assumption is right on target. I’m sure the ego-check is hard to grapple with in the Cape League (which I just love watching, incidentally). I think that was captured rather brilliantly in Jim Collins’ book, The Last Best League. Still, Cape League players tend to be reasonably well put together young men. They have already navigated their path to college and they have landed at the most elite amateur league in the country. Plus, they are living in a beautiful place, playing before very appreciative fans, not having to travel much or worry about bed bugs in a cheap hotel. Still, not being top dog is tough for people who are used to it.



In the minors the loneliness of the life—spelled out earlier—does make this tougher. Also, by and large, people in the Cape League are probably more likely than people in the minors to have a viable Plan B. For some minor leaguers all of their eggs are tucked into this one basket.


3) This one is probably harder in the Cape League. Parents of minor leaguers often can’t make it to many games, so it’s hard for them to exert much pressure. Actually, the separation from family and hometown is sometimes one of the hard and underrated adaptations minor leaguers have to make. Brad Baker went from Leyden, Mass. (under 1,000 people, no stores, no streetlights) to the Gulf Coast Sox with a roster including nine guys from the Dominican Republic, four from Venezuela, two apiece from Japan and Korea, etc. And Matt Torra’s parents had seen every game he ever pitched in high school and college. When he signed with the Diamondbacks, Torra flew out to Yakima, Washington, and had to cope with no close family contact as he navigated the early stages of a pro career—including the devastating injury. (Just befoe the injury, I flew out to Yakima and spent the night at the house where Torra was staying with a host family—a scene that reminded me of Susan Sarandon in “Bull Durham” – minus the sex.)



#15 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:02 AM

Marty-

You wrote:

It continues as you climb the ladder. For instance, top prospects, through their agents, get far more equipment. In 2005 when Charlie Zink and Manny Delcarmen were both at Portland, they told me that Hanley Ramirez’s locker was like a sporting goods store. And promotions are not always based purely on performance—ratcheting up the resentment and jealousy.


In the book you write about how Delcarmen was a "bonus baby" (my paraphrase) , but Zink had no bonus at all upon signing undrafted. Did this ever present problems in their own close friendship?

#16 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:05 AM

Thanks so much for agreeing to answer our questions, Marty.

I see on your Springfield College bio that you teach a course titled, Journalist as Hero/Journalist as Villain and am intrigued. Would you please briefly describe what that course entails and give examples of sports writers you believe have defined themselves as good and bad guys?

Also, how has the internet affected the role of the sports journalist in traditional (hard copy) newspapers? Do you see any issues with getting a story out first taking a back seat to getting proper sources? Where, in your opinion, will the industry go from here?

The snippets I have found from Knocking on Heaven's Door are beautifully written, and I thank Craig for bringing this book to our attention. I asked for it for XMas, and cannot wait to dig in. Congratulations on writing such a well received book.



1) Good sleuthing, Frisbetarian. Hero/Villain is a class about journalistic decision-making. It is my belief that the choices we make as journalists will, as much as anything else, define our path in this field. There are all these fascinating challenges journalists face, navigating for instance between the noble but often clashing ideals of “Seek the truth and report it” and “Minimize harm.” (That is being played out in real time these days with the WikiLeaks controversy.)



That said, I make it clear from day one in that class that I overwhelmingly dismiss the idea of journalists—or most other humans—being considered as pure heroes or villains. In our increasingly complicated world, we often long for the black and white judgments so common on talk radio. Isn’t that part of the appeal of sports: the simplified universe where we have a winner and a loser? My goal is to get students to embrace complexity and complication, to plunge into the shades of gray—and still to make decisions.



I suppose that betrays my world view, and I think it has come through in both of my books. Going Bigtime looked at both the pros and the cons of a rise to the top in college basketball. UMass experienced both things, a ride for the ages (and tremendous financial benefits), as well as a profound loss of innocence surrounding the Marcus Camby scandal, John Calipari’s departure, and the “vacating” of the Final Four appearance.



So, too, with Knocking on Heaven’s Door. I try to examine the contradictory culture of the minors. On one hand, few things are sweeter than minor league ball. It’s the fuzzy mascots on top of the dugout singing “Y-M-C-A,” the kitschy promotions (e.g. the plumbing company in New Britain that sponsored a game of “Musical Toilets”), the wide-eyed Little Leaguers hanging over the railing asking earnest young men for an autograph. That’s all true. But it’s also true that it’s a savage competition. It’s an icy fact that the success of a teammate playing the same position is bad for you. His injury represents good news. It’s a real world game of Survivor.



2) In one sense, the dual pressures in journalism of “get it right” and “get it first” go way back. Certainly there have been many Globe and Herald writers over the years who picked up the other paper in the morning only to breathe a sigh of relief, or to spit out a fiery ring of expletives. Problem is that speed and accuracy are often conflicting goals—witness Steve Dalkowski.



In a real sense, Internet journalism allows for greater depth. Richard Johnson of the Sports Museum recently kidded me that people who have written books after the age of Google deserve an asterisk (and in a way he’s right—it’s a performance-enhancer). The digital world can provide a multi-platform way to tell a story that can enhance the print product.



Way too often, though, I believe that Internet-“enhanced” journalism actually detracts. It encourages superficiality in many cases, rather than depth. As your question suggests, it exacerbates the deadline pressure, and over-values that “who got it first” element. I speak as a writer, not as an editor here, but I think that is mostly a kind of journalistic macho, and that most readers don’t really care that much. There are more important things than who tweeted something five seconds before someone else.



#17 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:09 AM

Marty-

You wrote:



In the book you write about how Delcarmen was a "bonus baby" (my paraphrase) , but Zink had no bonus at all upon signing undrafted. Did this ever present problems in their own close friendship?


For them, it didn't. For many others in the same situation, it would have been a big problem. Zink comes from a family with some means (his dad, known at Folsom as "Cobra," had been the associate warden), so money was not a colossal issue. But Manny was sensitive to the disparity. At one signing event after he broke through to the bigs in 2005, Manny arranged for Charlie to make some extra cash. Never told him about it, either. Zink was pretty mesmerized by the whole scene. It was at an auto show in Boston that also featured members of the "Texas Bikini Team." You can't make this stuff up.

#18 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:10 AM

Thanks for doing this Marty. I have a couple of questions.

What made you choose these particular players and how many did you interview before you chose them for the book?

What were you able to find out, if anything, about how the different organizations prepare the players for what they might expect if the do reach the majors?


1) I chose the players based on wanting to write the most poignant, emotionally rich book possible. I wanted a baseball story that went right to the heart, and I felt that the minor leagues was the place to go. That’s where I find what I call the “anguish of almost”—players who are so close to something they want so much, something they have always wanted, but something they still might not get. Cliched as it might sound, that is the place of yearning and heartbreak (and occasionally of deliverance).



Fundamentally, I wanted players with a rich human interest story and a willingness to share it. This book asked a lot of the players. (For instance, I sat down with Charlie Zink for in-depth interviews over four different years in Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Florida.)



From the beginning, I conceived of these as family stories. I wanted to write from the perspective of the players, but also from the perspectives of the wives, girlfriends, parents, and siblings who had latched onto the dream. That dictated something of a regional bias because I needed to make many visits to players and families to really get in underneath their stories, and I was not operating with a lot of spare money or time (teaching journalism is my full-time job, and I freelance a fair bit for the Globe). So we have three players from Western Mass., and Manny Delcarmen from Boston.



But we also have two other players whose stories I just found too compelling to ignore: Randy Ruiz from the South Bronx, and Charlie Zink from El Dorado Hills, California.



The other element dictating the choice of players is that they all had to be represented by the same trio of agents: Jim and Lisa Masteralexis and Steve McKelvey, who collectively comprise DiaMMond Management. They are the connective tissue in the book. They have long been on a parallel quest to the players they represent—slogging away for years at their own hard baseball dream. I was particularly interested in the husband and wife story of Jim and Lisa. It’s such a testosterone-laced world, so it is rare to see a woman as an agent, but Lisa is fascinating. Plus, she is a lifelong Yankees fan who grew up in Western Mass.; Jim is a lifelong Sox fan who grew up just outside of Boston. Their first date was a Sox-Yankees game at Fenway (won by the Sox, you will be pleased to know). On a less happy note, McKelvey long ago was working for MLB in corporate marketing and had to whisk a certain trophy away from the Sox’ locker room when Mookie Wilson hit that little groundball. But we’re all over that now—right?



2) I think the Sox are pretty good at this. That Rookie Development Program they run at Boston College each January has been successful—at least for the designated prospects. I do think part of these programs consist of helping players to “deal with the media”—a term that makes me chafe somewhat, although I do understand where they are coming from. Too often athletes at the top levels of sports become robotic and programmed in a Nomarian way. Again, I understand the perspective—there are exploitative members of the media, and sloppy ones. But when things get so controlled and sanitized, it is hard to write stories with any soul, and hard for fans to get to know their athletes as human beings. In the minors you have a legitimate chance to plunge into the real—and that is what I was determined to do.



Honestly, I didn’t spend a lot of time looking at these stories through the lens of the teams. I wasn’t so much interested in what, say, Terry Francona had to say about Manny Delcarmen (although we get some of that in the book). I was far more interested in the perspective of people like Manny’s dad, himself a former minor leaguer, who—like 90 percent of all minor leaguers—never spent one inning in the bigs. When Manny made his big league debut, I didn’t want Theo Epstein’s perspective on the event so much as I wanted to hear what it was like for his lifelong friend Javy Colon, who was driving an MBTA bus that night, listening to the game with a sense of wonder.

#19 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:17 AM

Hi Marty, and thanks a million for agreeing to chat with us. I have started your book and am loving it. I have several questions, but I'll start with just a couple here, and add a few more later after I've read a bit more.

One thing I wanted to touch upon is your vivid portrayal of these minor leaguers as individuals, young men with unique personalities and diverese backgrounds. Do you think we as fans, and perhaps even those charged with evaluating these players, sometimes focus too much on numbers and on-field performance and not enough on the emotional make-up/personalities of these players? Do most organizations, and agents who represent these players, make a concerted attempt to look beyond the mumbers when assessing a player's chances for MLB success? If so, how much weight is put on that aspect as opposed to on-field performance?


What are some of the biggest frustrations that these players expressed to you about life in minor league baseball? Were there common themes among the players, or did you find that it varied widely depending on the individual? On the flip side, what are some of the things they enjoy most about the life, that make the daily grind worth it?


1) It is, of course, a performance-based industry. That said, teams have long since concluded that there are tons of things that affect performance. Teams try to evaluate “makeup”—though I think it’s an imperfect science at best. With top prospects, I was struck by some of the extremes that would take. Scouts actually went into the guidance office at Pioneer Valley Regional High School to try to get information about Brad Baker back in 1999. And, of course, the psychological questionnaires or interviews are standard form for potential top picks.



Obviously the stakes are high. It’s not just the money that goes out to a top pick, which has become considerable in recent years. It’s also the fact that if you choose one richly talented player, you are not choosing a slew of others who will be gobbled up by your competitors.



2) Charlie Zink was particularly interesting on this front because of his intelligence and remarkable candor. One of his frustrations in a way was pitching for the Red Sox organization—because every year they would reload with a ton of off-season trades and free agent signings. That’s obviously a great thing for fans who want to have the best Major League team on the field. It’s frustrating for minor leaguers, though, who are constantly being passed over for promotions—players who are also under contractual control by a team until they get released or become six-year minor league free agents (playing actually for seven years). We don’t think much about that with big leaguers who are shy of free agent eligibility, because they are still being very well compensated, and because they are in the big leagues. But in the minors that is a battle. At the same time, Zink also expressed to me many times his gratitude in playing for the Sox’ organization because of their belief in the knuckleball, and because of their patience with him during hard times. So, like most things in the minors, it is double-edged.



Another interesting frustration he told me about concerned the unhealthy a lifestyle minor league baseball provides. There are lots of Holiday Inn Express breakfasts, and ballpark spread lunches. After night games in small towns often the only restaurant open is McDonald’s.



Players also talked a lot about the boredom inherent in the life, all of the hours on buses and in hotels. Some talked also about how minor league baseball is exceptionally hard on family life. The biggest gripe, though, is about the perceived unfairness of organizations, which I mentioned earlier in this chat. I don’t mean to convey the notion that minor leaguers are whiners—most are not—but it’s just a fact of their lives that they are not where they want to be. It might be cool to be playing baseball for a living in Portland, Maine (one of my favorite places), but no one grows up dreaming of becoming a minor leaguer.



Some minor leaguers really do enjoy the life. Doug Clark would definitely be in that category. He is a curious and charismatic person who plunges into new situations with zeal. It is an adventure, and you are granted a certain status that even some major leaguers don’t get—because often the minor league team is the only show in town.



Mostly what keeps them going, of course, is the enduringly intoxicating draw of “The Show.” In part, that is money. Professional baseball has a division of compensation that is unlike almost any other field. The minimum big league salary this past year was $400,000, the average over $3 million. Lots of five and six-year minor leaguers were still playing for under $15,000. You just don’t see that in a lot of other places in our society: near-great doctors make a great living. But much of the draw is just the reality of making it, of doing exactly the thing you yearned to do as a kid—which almost none of us can ever say. I’m sure that image sounds clichéd, and it is—but it’s still true. That scene of Kevin Costner on the bus in “Bull Durham” telling his wide-eyed teammates what it was like to be in the big leagues, even for a short time, was absolutely on target.



#20 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:23 AM

Marty, thank you for taking the time to chat with us.

1. While covering these players, did you feel that the minor leagues humbled players as they rose through the ranks? Is there any inherent value in players raking fields, interacting with fans, riding buses, etc.? Did you observe players attitudes changing as baseball became there day-in, day-out profession and they had to embrace this minutiae?

2. One of the common trends I've noticed while reading a lot of interviews with minor leaguers and prospects is that any failure or setback can always be rationalized into a positive. How important is it for these athletes to put blinders on and be almost completely oblivious to adversity or the realization that the end is near?


1) Inherent value—probably not. But I think there are lots of ways in which teams try to keep minor leaguers hungry. The economic divide I just discussed is part of that, too. They want these guys to be eager to spring from the cage. And in part, I think some of the things minor leaguers do are just ways of propping up the industry of Major League Baseball. It’s amazing how much things are done on the cheap in the minors. Even at Triple-A, when the legendary bus trips are sometimes replaced by flights, it’s not uncommon to have this scenario:



a) a home game on a Thursday night and a road game on a Friday night

b) staying at home after the Thursday night game and getting picked up at 4 a.m. on Friday to get to the airport for a morning flight

c) arriving, exhausted, in the new city—but without the team having to pay an extra night of hotel bills



2) Great point. I think the blinders are adaptive. It’s so hard to take it day to day when you want to be somewhere else, but that’s what you have to do. There are a ton of things outside of your control, and the healthiest players I think learn to take things pitch to pitch and really live in the moment.



Still, the specter of the end is always there, and I think it’s kind of a night terror—especially when players are slumping. Too often when a player gets “released” (bitterly ironic term, don’t you think?), it’s a ferociously impersonal thing. There is a tap on the shoulder, and a “Skip wants to see you.” While you are in the manager’s office, the clubbie is tearing the masking tape with your name on it off your locker, crumpling it up, and tossing it in the trash. Brutal.



But the moments of deliverance in the game are simply beautiful. Being there for Charlie Zink’s big league debut was one of the most inspiring things I have ever witnessed (if one of the most bizarre—many of you will recall that 19-17 win over the Rangers).

#21 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:29 AM

Marty,

In the book you write about Brad Baker's trade to San Diego for Alan Embree. While all minor leaguers, especially highly touted prospects, are aware of their status as commoditities, how well prepared do you think most minor leaguers are when the reality of such a trade hits? From what you wrote it seems as if Baker handled it well, largely because the trade came with a promotion to AA ball, but that ultimately it was quite a difficult transition for him. Beyond the possibility of simply failing, is the fear of being sent off, and having no control over the situation, something most prospects actively stress about?



Is the Masteralexis's agency still going strong? It would seem to me that in today's climate that such a "Mom and Pop" operation would find it increasingly difficult to compete with the mega-firms both in terms of securing talent and in being taken seriously by teams. The lowballing of Baker's initial signing bonus offer seemed to indicate that the Red Sox thought they could deal with DiaMMond Management differently than they would have, say, with a Scott Boras client. Is that an accurate assessment given what you know?


1) You have to learn to live with the lack of control, but I think it is maddening. Again, in the big leagues, we’re all pretty much willing to accept the concept of a trade because these guys are living the high life. It’s the cost of doing business. But in so many other ways that cuts across the grain of our sense of freedom in society. If Springfield College wanted to trade me to Popcorn State, would I have to go? If the Boston Globe wanted to deal me to the Daily Planet, would I have to pack my bags? That’s the world minor leaguers occupy—without a fraction of the big league paycheck or the satisfaction of achieving the grand quest.



Brad Baker did adapt to that trade, but it represented a real loss of innocence in a way for his family. They are devout Red Sox fans. The Sox game was always on television or radio on Baker Hill. When Brad was drafted by the Sox, his father told me, “This is the greatest day of my life.”



2) The agency is still fighting the hard fight, but the odds are really stacked against them. They are the general store by the covered bridge next to Boras’s sprawling Wal-Mart carving out the countryside. It’s hard to compete. I know agents are not sympathetic figures in the public imagination, and I don’t think I present these three as angels by any means, but I believe they are good-hearted people with a true love of the game. I have seen them go to bat for their clients in some huge ways.

#22 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:37 AM

Hi Marty, thanks for taking our questions.

Manny DelCarmen always struck me as a guy with stuff that was almost too good to be wasted in middle relief. With his power fastball and sharp curve I always saw him as a future closer/8th inning guy. What do you think happened to him? Injuries? Or do you think it has anything to do with his make up and personality?


In a way, Manny is a great baseball story in Boston that never fully materialized: the local kid who grew up going to Fenway dreaming of playing for the Sox—and then lived that dream.. (His buddy, Charlie Zink, is another great baseball story in Boston that never fully came to pass. Too bad. Sox fans would have absolutely loved him. Just his engagement to Madeline Munroe would be enough to make us say, “Where have you gone, Charlie Zink? Red Sox Nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”)



Sorry, back to Manny. I agree. He had closer stuff, and with another team might have been the closer. At his best, he was throwing 97 with a hammer curve and a killer changeup. The fastball is pretty flat, though, and his velocity did dip the last couple of years, as did his command; consequently, so did his performance. I know Jim Masteralexis just went down with Manny to see Dr. Andrews, hoping to get an absolutely clean bill of health (which they expect). He might resurface as a closer someday.

And feel free to fire away with any follow-up questions, SOSHers. I think we have another 20 minutes or so, and I'm ready to take some more hacks.

#23 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:39 AM

Just a follow up regarding new media/today's journalism:


Do you think the trend of athletes communicating with the public directly via social media and blogs (we sometimes call that the Schilling Method around here)will have a lasting effect on the way information is dissemenated? As frustrated as I can get when I read a hack job by a columnist, it's just as bad when the athlete/celebrity spouts off unchecked. Along the same lines, have most journalists you know come to terms with the fact that the internet has changed everything?

#24 absintheofmalaise


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:43 AM

Besides having killer talent, what would you say are the common traits, if any, that the players that moved up to the higher minor levels had in common?

I have to say, this is one of the very best chats we've ever had here. Many thanks to Craig for setting this up, and especially you, for taking the time to do this.

#25 Foulkey Reese


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:43 AM

How open are guys about rooting for players ahead of them on the depth chart to fail or get hurt? I mean if I was Lars Anderson I would be pretty thrilled if Adrian Gonzalez pulled a hammy in April.

It's obviously something that all of the players think about, but how openly is it discussed?

Edited by Foulkey Reese, 21 December 2010 - 10:44 AM.


#26 Buzzkill Pauley


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:48 AM

Thanks very much for answering these questions, Marty -- I agree it's one of the best chats we've had here!

My question involves the transition of minor leaguers in mid-season promotions, which often involve major lifestyle changes. How fast did the players you follow adjust to these things, and what, if anything, did you see as you researched the book that organizations might do to ease the transition? Also, although with each promotion the player can feel the lure of the show even more, what financial benefit is there to playing at a higher level?

Thanks again!

#27 knockingonmarty'sdoor

  • 15 posts

Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:50 AM

Just a follow up regarding new media/today's journalism:


Do you think the trend of athletes communicating with the public directly via social media and blogs (we sometimes call that the Schilling Method around here)will have a lasting effect on the way information is dissemenated? As frustrated as I can get when I read a hack job by a columnist, it's just as bad when the athlete/celebrity spouts off unchecked. Along the same lines, have most journalists you know come to terms with the fact that the internet has changed everything?


Great question. Yes, I think Curt Schilling gets a tremendous of credit and/or blame (depending on your perspective). He was determined to control the agenda, and he had the intelligence and the new technology available to that that. I sympathize to a degree. It must be infuriating to be misquoted and misrepresented. It is a leap of faith to allow others to so strongly influence the way you are perceived. That said, I think there are a number of journalists out there who are sensitive and perceptive in ways that many athletes are not, people who can draw connections and make interpretations that take us to a place of greater depth. Who among us can claim anything close to objectivity about our own lives? Most of us are blinded by ego.

We are all adapting to the internet every day. Again, there are some great things. A few years ago I wrote a front-page feature for the Globe about a young woman named Gina Gilday. She was a catcher for the Elms College softball team, and she was born without legs. I thought the story was pretty good in print form, but I must say, the accompanying video package on Boston.com (which I had nothing to do with) really added a valuable element. I like to believe that we still have a deep, fundamental human need for stories, and that readers will dig in to longform print if the writer truly takes them to a compelling place.

#28 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:52 AM

Marty, thanks so much again for your time and effort in addressing our questions, it has been thoroughly enjoyable.

I have one more question that you may or may not have any insight on, but what do you think the odds are that we will ever see minor league baseball in the Springfield area/Pioneer Valley again? I grew up watching the Holyoke Millers play, and it kills me that there is no such local outlet for me to bring my son to. We have minor league hockey and basketball teams, but for baseball it's a road trip of some duration in any diredtion we travel. Of course, when that road trip is to the Cape to catch a game with MAbrowndog, who am I to complain?

#29 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 10:56 AM

Besides having killer talent, what would you say are the common traits, if any, that the players that moved up to the higher minor levels had in common?

I have to say, this is one of the very best chats we've ever had here. Many thanks to Craig for setting this up, and especially you, for taking the time to do this.


The killer talent certainly is fundamental, but a level head is just about as important. You hear it all the time in baseball: don't get too high, don't get too low. Slumps can really eat a baseball player's soul. You just don't get that many chances in a game, maybe four at bats. When you have to endure an 0-20, you begin to wonder where it all went. Some players deny that, but I am a big fan of candor. That's one of the things I so appreciated about Zink. He had come to a place of deep doubt, and he was willing to admit it.

Sorry to brief here. I want to get to the remaining follow-ups, but you should all feel free to contact me at any time at [email protected].

#30 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:03 AM

Marty, thanks so much again for your time and effort in addressing our questions, it has been thoroughly enjoyable.

I have one more question that you may or may not have any insight on, but what do you think the odds are that we will ever see minor league baseball in the Springfield area/Pioneer Valley again? I grew up watching the Holyoke Millers play, and it kills me that there is no such local outlet for me to bring my son to. We have minor league hockey and basketball teams, but for baseball it's a road trip of some duration in any diredtion we travel. Of course, when that road trip is to the Cape to catch a game with MAbrowndog, who am I to complain?


I'm not gushing with optimism here, unfortunately. Having a Holyoke team in the NECBL has been a nice addition. New Britain is a bit of a drive, but it's a great place to take kids. I miss having affiliated ball at Wahconah Park in Pittsfield. That is a classic old stadium, with its wooden grandstand, ceramic owls (to scare off potentially pooping pigeons), and the "sun delays" from having center field due west. I became transfixed with minor league ball doing a series on the Pittsfield Mets back in the early '90s. I would love to see baseball in Springfield, but I don't think that's happening any time soon. Luckily for me, my office here at Springfield College (where I am sitting now) sits out over left field of the baseball field. And you get a sense of just how hard it is to make it. Some of these players out my window hit the ball 400 feet and throw it 90 miles an hour. But it's been since the mid-90s that anyone has been drafted from here. And 90 percent of minor leaguers, as referenced earlier, never make the bigs. By that definition, someone like Sam Horn was a phenomenal baseball player, and writing here on SOSH.net has been a phenomenal experience. Thanks!

#31 knockingonmarty'sdoor

  • 15 posts

Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:06 AM

How open are guys about rooting for players ahead of them on the depth chart to fail or get hurt? I mean if I was Lars Anderson I would be pretty thrilled if Adrian Gonzalez pulled a hammy in April.

It's obviously something that all of the players think about, but how openly is it discussed?


Not very openly, but it is there without doubt. Some of the players admitted it to me. Again, promotion is in part about talent and performance and attitude--but a lot of it is being in the right place at the right time.

#32 Foulkey Reese


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:11 AM

That was a really great chat. Thanks again.

#33 CR67dream

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:11 AM

Marty, thank you so much again. Please don't be a stranger around here, you are more than welcome any time. Your candid and well thought responses are very much appreciated.

Grab the book, folks, you won't be disappointed.

#34 knockingonmarty'sdoor

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Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:15 AM

Thanks very much for answering these questions, Marty -- I agree it's one of the best chats we've had here!

My question involves the transition of minor leaguers in mid-season promotions, which often involve major lifestyle changes. How fast did the players you follow adjust to these things, and what, if anything, did you see as you researched the book that organizations might do to ease the transition? Also, although with each promotion the player can feel the lure of the show even more, what financial benefit is there to playing at a higher level?

Thanks again!


The transition is more difficult that most people understand. And there are some amusing stories in the book about the actual mechanism of promotion--what it really entailed. I'll give you one, real quickly. You probably remember Tomo Ohka, who burst on the scene from Japan and tore his way through Portland and Pawtucket before getting called up to the Sox. There he plateaued and went back on forth on the Pawtucket shuttle for awhile. He had an apartment equidistant between McCoy and Fenway, and was playing for the PawSox in Louisville against the Bats when he was traded to the Expos. (Remember the Expos!) Jim Masteralexis met him at Logan, and helped him clean out his apartment, and made the calls to the utility companies to shut off the electricity, etc. Ohka then flew out to Houston where the Expos were playing the Astros. Jim and Lisa Masteralexis packed up the rest of his stuff and drove north, telling the folks at the border that they were relocating a Japanese-speaking pitcher who was in Houston, Texas, to French-speaking Montreal. Yikes!

The money is better at each level, but still not really enough to avoid having an offseason job until you become a six-year minor league free agent.

Okay, folks, thanks again. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail with any other questions. It's been a lot of fun. Today is the solstice. The light returns. Pitchers and catchers will be reporting soon.

#35 ScubaSteveAvery


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 11:35 AM

I hope my question isn't too late but I was curious what is like to witness minor leaguers retire from baseball after never making The Show? Are they in denial or do they take it as the brutal reality of the sport they chose to pursue? Also, what are the options for these players? Do they try to stay involved in the game or do their experiences of loss and disappointment cause them to shy away from the game?

Thanks for the chat Marty. This has been one of my favorites. Your insight and focus on the human aspect of the game is fascinating.

#36 mabrowndog


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 12:19 PM

Realy, really great stuff in here, Marty. Thanks again for all the in-depth responses.

#37 Lose Remerswaal


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 12:52 PM

In one sense, the dual pressures in journalism of “get it right” and “get it first” go way back. Certainly there have been many Globe and Herald writers over the years who picked up the other paper in the morning only to breathe a sigh of relief, or to spit out a fiery ring of expletives. Problem is that speed and accuracy are often conflicting goals—witness Steve Dalkowski.

This is just a superb use of the English Language

#38 joyofsox


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Posted 21 December 2010 - 01:55 PM

Another thumbs up from me. Excellent stuff -- the book sounds like an essential must-read.

#39 CR67dream

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Posted 22 December 2010 - 08:04 AM

Thanks to everyone who participated, I agree that this turned out to be one of our best, most informative chats yet.

If you're looking for that last minute gift, you can still have this book delivered by Friday through Amazon. Remember to use the Amazon link on the SoSH content page, and the title is: Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream. It's fantastic, and being published by a University Press, does not get nearly the exposure it deserves. I'm glad that SoSH could help to remedy that if only in a small way.

Thanks again, Marty, Happy Holidays, and don't be a stranger!

#40 chechusma


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Posted 22 December 2010 - 08:05 AM

Thanks to everyone who participated, I agree that this turned out to be one of our best, most informative chats yet.

If you're looking for that last minute gift, you can still have this book delivered by Friday through Amazon. Remember to use the Amazon link on the SoSH content page, and the title is: Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream. It's fantastic, and being published by a University Press, does not get nearly the exposure it deserves. I'm glad that SoSH could help to remedy that if only in a small way.

Thanks again, Marty, Happy Holidays, and don't be a stranger!


I'd also like to echo how excellent the chat was - I didn't post any questions, but avidly read Marty's answers. I also encourage him to keep posting here - our board would be better for it.

#41 sittingstill

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Posted 31 December 2010 - 08:16 PM

It continues as you climb the ladder. For instance, top prospects, through their agents, get far more equipment. In 2005 when Charlie Zink and Manny Delcarmen were both at Portland, they told me that Hanley Ramirez’s locker was like a sporting goods store.

I read this thread on my phone, and forgot to post a comment on this when I could type--Daniel Nava played this past year with a glove with a piece of tape with his name on it, over the name on the glove, which belonged to Ryan Kalish. Nava said, basically, he gets two every year, he gave me one. (Credit to the PawSox radio guys!)

Posted Image

Also, Marty's excellent book has some great photos in it...