This past March, Johnny Doskow's long-established baseball routines were completely upended by COVID-19. This was the case for everyone, of course, but Doskow used his newfound free time in a particularly unique manner. The longtime voice of the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats penned and summarily self-published his debut book of poetry.
The book? Goodnight Em
Baseball and Life Through Haiku
By Johnny Doskow
As the book's subtitle -- and this writer's attempt in the above paragraph -- makes clear, Doskow's preferred poetic form is the haiku. "Goodnight Em" contains nearly 200 of these three-line, 17-syllable missives, along with an accompanying title for each. The result is a quick read that packs a surprising punch, functioning as a form of autobiography, a celebration of baseball, a Pacific Coast League travelogue and a meditation on the "so close, yet so far away" purgatory that is the Triple-A level of the Minor Leagues.
The title is a nod to Doskow's signature sign-off, delivered to Sacramento baseball fans over the course of thousands of spring and summer evenings. The River Cats, an Oakland affiliate from 2000 through 2014, have served as San Francisco's Triple-A team since 2015.
"My daughter, Emily, was born Christmas of 2005, so starting in 2006, I would say 'Good night, Em' at the end of every night game," said Doskow. "Of course, she wasn’t able to grasp it at first. But she’s 14-and-a-half now and I still do it every night. So I was trying to think of a name for the book, and my wife, Deb, was shaking her head, saying 'I’ve got a perfect name -- Goodnight Em!' Like, why wouldn’t you? It worked out really well. ... [Emily] loves having her name on the cover. She’s thrilled, or as much as a teenager can be thrilled with what her dad does."
Doskow, who worked for the Class A Cedar Rapids Kernels, Class A Advanced High Desert Mavericks and Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies before joining the River Cats in 2001, has long been an admirer of the haiku.
"I like the simplicity of it and having to a tell story in just 17 syllables," he said. "And I don’t know if this is normally done, but I put a title in front of every haiku. ... I like the fact that it’s so economical, so compact, that you can tell a story with so few words. I like the challenge of it. The limited syllables and the rhythm that results."
Doskow credits his older brother, Tom, for instilling in him an appreciation of haiku. He began writing these three-line dispatches in earnest after breaking into the Triple-A ranks as a broadcaster as a way to pass the time during the frequent travel that the job entails. He never kept his work, however.
"I'd write them in the Southwest [Airlines] magazine and then just leave it in the seat pocket in front of me. Or just throw them away another time. I never thought about writing a book, but then fast-forward to the quarantine," he said. "I just started writing them. I did about 100 and then started to think 'I’m gonna put a book together.' ... Mostly just life haikus at first, but my wife suggested that I write more about baseball. So I started writing down memories of all my time in baseball. Fresno, Sacramento, High Desert, more and more. Then finally I had about 450 all together. Making cuts was tough, but I narrowed it down to about 200. I had a lot of time, with no games to call for the first time since 1992. It was the perfect storm of loving haiku and loving baseball, writing it all down and putting it together."
After enlisting River Cats multimedia designer Mike Villareal to create the cover, Doskow began selling the book on his personal website, johnnydoskow.com. Thus far, he says he's been "pleasantly surprised by the response."
"A lot of ['Goodnight Em'] is representative of what life is like in Triple-A. Maybe focusing on things that the general fan doesn’t know," said Doskow. "The 4 a.m. travel, that mentality of 'You don’t like it? Play better.' Getting called up, that adrenaline. Getting released. All the ups and downs of Triple-A baseball. People think a lot about the big leagues. Triple-A is not talked about as much. I wanted to express that, just give an idea of what goes on, those things that people wouldn’t necessarily think about."
Doskow expounds upon the Triple-A mentality in haiku such as "Wear It," "Released" and "34 and Uncertain." River Cats players and coaches feature prominently, with the likes of Jack Cust, Chris Shaw and Webster Garrison getting mentions. In naming some of his favorite haiku in the book, he lists evocative titles such as "His Teammates Whisper," "Rookie Walks With Swagger," and above all, "Rogers to the Show."
"That’s an emotional haiku," said Doskow. "Tyler Rogers, he was 28 when he got called up, when he finally got the call. And when he did he called his twin brother [Taylor]. It was his first call, and he couldn’t utter a single word because he was so overwhelmed with emotion."
Doskow can relate, having been through the experience himself. In 2012, he was called up to the A's for a 34-game stint in the radio booth. In "Goodnight Em," Doskow writes about his "Brief Big League Stint" as follows:
walking from hotel
knew it was temporary
savored every game
"That was awesome, to get that opportunity," said Doskow. "In every city that I went to, all the cities, I would walk from the hotel to the ballpark. I would walk everywhere because I wanted to experience it, every moment of those 34 games that I had. Because maybe that’s all I’ll ever have. You never know. So when you get that time, you want to savor every moment."
Writing haiku gives Doskow the chance to savor the moments of life in baseball, as well as life itself. He has no plans to stop now.
"I already have 55 to 60 [haiku] for a new book," he said. "In 2021, I'll keep promoting 'Goodnight Em,' and then in 2022, I'll come out with a new one. I have some good ones already that I feel good about. I’ve become addicted. I just love writing these things, man, it’s a blast. It's infinite, what you can write about. The players we had, the coaches, the managers. There’s a lot more there, more that I want to get out there."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.