In the theme song for television’s popular 1980s sitcom Cheers, the refrain was “where everybody knows your name.” It was meant to suggest a neighborhood hangout, a familiar place that gave its regulars a sense of comfort. Baseball’s Triple-A is not your local tavern. In fact, the ephemeral nature of its participants makes it exactly the opposite, which informs the title of this engrossing book.
In his earlier baseball book, 2008’s Living on the Black, Feinstein allowed us to see baseball played at the highest level by delving deep into the physical and mental sides of Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine, two standout pitchers. In the current book, he takes a different tack and looks at what happens to a group of people who don’t want to be where they are but see Triple-A as a chance to get back into the limelight. In a sense, Triple-A baseball is the upper crust of the iceberg that is just below the tip—largely submerged from public view but vital to the game.
Chris Schwinden, a much-traveled pitcher who in the 2012 season reluctantly plies his trade across the length and breadth of the country in a poignant yet almost comical journey, best sums up what it means to play at the Triple- level:
“Nobody grows up playing baseball pretending that they’re pitching or hitting in Triple-A. No one goes into his backyard and says to himself, ‘Here’s Schwinden on the mound for the Buffalo Bisons.’” In short, the players at Triple-A are essentially reluctant participants, seeing it as either only a temporary pit stop on their way to the big league or a place to get back into the groove while returning from injury. Given this adverse perception, nobody wants to stay here any longer than they should.
Feinstein traces the vicissitudes of a bunch of such actors on a reluctant stage—players such as Schwinden, Brett Tomko, and Scott Podsednik (not too far removed from World Series glory but now trying to come back from frequent injuries), as well as a manager and an umpire. It is Mark Lollo, the umpire, whose story is the most heart-wrenching. For players, the journey up various levels of the minor leagues and the major league is two-way—they can make a number of journeys both up as well as down. Not so for umpires. As Lollo progresses up the minor leagues, he knows that he has a limited time to catch the eyes of the powers that be, because once a Triple-A umpire is passed over for the major league, he loses his job in professional baseball. Lollo’s plight is made more complicated by the fact that umpire evaluation is largely subjective in that there are no statistics to track your progress. In a riveting coda, Lollo makes an egregious error in his last professional game that simply adds to the fragility of his journey.
Feinstein’s strength as a reporter is not only his ability to dig deep to get to the heart of the story but also his penchant for tracking seeming detours from the main story, most of which end up adding singular buttress to the narrative. He makes many such detours here to show how far removed is Triple-A from the major league. While at times the constantly expanding cast of characters holds back the pace of the narrative, the book is one that engagingly reinforces the belief that baseball is not too far removed from regular life.