"This book is about a handful of men who run the gamut of life in Triple-A; men who have been stars and have fallen, men who have been rich and then far from rich; men who have aspired to these heights and then fallen."
So wrote John Feinstein in the introduction to his new book, Where Nobody Knows Your Name, which takes the reader on a determined if not always redemptive trip through the 2012 International League season. As the above paragraph and the book's title make clear, Triple-A isn't exactly a place where anyone wants to be. This could be said of the entirety of the Minor Leagues, of course, but at the lower levels, players often have a sense of momentum and optimism as they work their way toward "The Show." Triple-A is more commonly viewed as a grim professional baseball purgatory, where has-beens and almost-weres cling with increasing desperation to their dream of attaining (or returning to) Major League glory.
To illustrate the realities of the Triple-A life, Feinstein (a veteran sportswriter whose best-known works include A Good Walk Spoiled and A Season on the Brink) focuses on nine men who spent all or most of the 2012 campaign in the International League: pitchers Scott Elarton, Brett Tomko and Chris Schwinden; hitters Scott Podsednik, Nate McLouth and John Lindsey; managers Charlie Montoyo and Ron Johnson; and umpire Mark Lollo. The career arcs of these men run the gamut mentioned above, but in 2012, they were all dealing with the same basic trials and tribulations as they tried to reach the promised land. These men are so close and yet so far away, and correspondingly, there are many quotes along the lines of that uttered by Schwinden in the book's seventh chapter: "It's not as if you root for a guy to get hurt. But guys do get hurt, and when someone does, that can mean you get your chance."
Indeed, injury begets opportunity. Where Nobody Knows Your Name is peppered throughout with anecdotes involving the most magical of Minor League moments, the callup to the Major Leagues. Managers -- such as Montoyo and Johnson -- take an intense delight in breaking the news, especially when it involves a player who has languished in the Minors for an inordinately long time. Lindsey is a particularly striking example, as his 2010 callup to the Los Angeles Dodgers occurred at the end of what was his 16th professional season. When Lindsey got the news from his manager in Albuquerque, Tim Wallach, Feinstein writes that "a celebration ensued."
"When a player has been around baseball for as many years as [J.C.] Boscan or Lindsey without making the majors, it is, at least in part, because he is looked to by younger teammates as a mentor. If not, teams wouldn't keep him around. That's why the joy is so genuine when one of them makes it."
But in the case of Minor League lifers such as Lindsey, the callup is usually a mere cameo, offering a well-earned but all-too-brief respite from the realities of Triple-A. And those realities include financial insecurity, arduous travel schedules and the chance of being demoted, traded or released at a moment's notice. In that final regard it would be hard to top Schwinden's 2012 campaign, as at one point, the right-hander pitched for seven teams in four organizations over the span of 35 days.
Feinstein ably chronicles the ups and downs of Schwinden and his International League compatriots, telling their stories with honesty and compassion. But like the Minor League season itself, Where Nobody Knows Your Name can often feel like a slog. In addition to its nine primary subjects, the book briefly profiles dozens of other characters (including a broadcaster, a general manager and a league president) whom Feinstein encountered during the course of the 2012 season. The book shifts perspectives at a rapid pace, and over the course of its nearly 350 pages, many of these subjects fail to register as individuals, subsumed into a repetitive and monochromatic march toward a conclusion that was established from the start: Triple-A is a tough place to be. Maybe you'll get out of it, and maybe you won't.
Person after person is quoted as saying some variation of "I wish it wasn't like this, but I get it," their world-weary musings broken up by Feinstein's almost comically overused observation of "he smiled" (a wry, knowing smile, presumably). These first-person anecdotes are interesting, but the sheer number of them combined with Feinstein's unwillingness or inability to engage his subjects outside of the pre-established parameters of the locker-room interview results in what is often a surface-level read. (Recent Minor League Baseball-themed books that dive much deeper into the lives of their subjects include Marty Dobrow's Knocking on Heaven's Door and Katya Cengel's Bluegrass Baseball).
But these not-insubstantial criticisms aside, the average baseball fan will benefit from reading Where Nobody Knows Your Name. Triple-A is so close and yet so far away from the Majors, and Feinstein's work will result in a greater appreciation for what its inhabitants have gone through once they finally get (or return) to "The Show." And even if they don't, the journey will have still been worth it.
"[The] game usually gives you what you deserve, good or bad," veteran pitcher Scott Elarton is quoted as saying early in the book. "And you realize, especially when you get away from it, that you're going to live a lot of your life as an ex-ballplayer. That's why a lot of us figure out that hanging on for as long as you can possibly play the game is a good thing. It isn't really hanging on -- it's savoring what you've got."