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Katya Cengel's "Bluegrass Baseball" is nothing if not accurately named. The book chronicles life in and around four Kentucky-based Minor League franchises: Lexington Legends, Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hot Rods and independent Florence Freedom.
But the title, accurate and pleasingly alliterative as it may be, perhaps does the book a disservice. For while "Bluegrass Baseball" might have a narrow scope geographically, the story it tells is far more expansive and should have interest to readers located well beyond Kentucky's borders. The story of these four franchises is, in effect, the story of Minor League Baseball.
"Bluegrass Baseball" profiles players, their wives and families, front-office executives and oft-overlooked peripheral characters such as clubhouse managers, and perhaps the primary takeaway is this: Life in the Minor Leagues is harder than you think it is.
It certainly was more difficult than Cengel initially thought. "Bluegrass Baseball" grew out of a series of Louisville Bats profiles she wrote for the Louisville-Courier Journal, in which she followed the fates and fortunes of four players throughout the course of a season. She wrote that she was "initially skeptical" of the assignment but soon realized that there was far more depth, complexity and, yes, hardship to the Minor League lifestyle than meets the eye.
"I knew the players were paid little, but I did not understand quite how hard they worked or how transitory an existence they led. I was exhausted trying to keep up," Cengel wrote in an email. "They had one day off a month on average and spent close to 12 hours a day at the ballpark. They were on the road all the time and never knew when they might be called up, sent down, traded or released. Theirs was an uncertain world completely different from the one most of us know. Their apartments were like crash pads."
One such "crash pad" that Cengel visited was a two-bedroom condo housing nine Latin players, including current Houston Astros second baseman Jose Altuve (whom Cengel profiles as a member of the Legends). "Air mattresses occupy every free space, sometimes with players still sleeping on them," she wrote in the third chapter. "Three days' worth of trash is stuffed in several large trash bags in the kitchen, sheets hang from the windows and furniture is limited to egg crates and a folding table. In the morning, the line for the shower stretches down the hall."
Such access to the players' lives can be hard to come by in the insular world of the Minors, so Cengel had to take a patient approach.
"Often, the best way to get a sense of a person and understand them is to observe instead of interview, so I would spend time with the players on the road, in the dugout and in their apartments," she said via email. "As a woman, I found the wives and girlfriends to be a great source of information. Most of the women were eager to share their stories, and their insights offered a different take on the situation. I developed a great respect for them. Parents were another invaluable source of insight. To have gotten as far as they had, most of the players had received serious support from their families."
Thus, "Bluegrass Baseball" includes the perspective of individuals such as Kalee Maloney, wife of Bats pitcher Matt Maloney (who spent 2012 in the Minnesota Twins organization). Kalee details the seemingly endless gauntlet of logistical hurdles that must be overcome throughout the season and recounts how, a month prior to the wedding, she and Matt were living in a almost entirely empty condo because they had had to return the furniture to the rental store.
While the story it tells is still largely unknown in American culture at large, "Bluegrass Baseball" is trodding familiar ground in that there has been no shortage of titles in recent years that also have attempted to illustrate the difficulty of chasing the Major League dream. (Examples include Dirk Hayhurst's "Bullpen Gospels," Marty Dobrow's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" and self-published efforts such as Eric Pettis' "Just a Minor Perspective"). Nonetheless, "Bluegrass Baseball" distinguishes itself through Cengel's detailed reporting as well as her willingness to extend the book's reach beyond the players themselves.
Alan Stein, the Legends' ebullient and seemingly indefatigable president, is the subject of the first chapter ("The Legend Behind the Legends"), and the section on the Hot Rods provides ample detail on inner workings of the club's fledgling front office. And, finally, the portion of the book dealing with the Freedom provides insight into independent leagues -- an even more fiscally fraught and unglamorous world than that of the affiliated leagues.
So, yes, "Bluegrass Baseball" is as exhaustive an overview of modern-day Kentucky professional baseball as one could hope to find. And the book is worth reading because its four cases illuminate not just Kentucky but the entirety of the industry. To paraphrase an old political cliché: As goes Kentucky, so goes Minor League Baseball.