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The pay is low, the bus rides are long and no one wants to spend his whole career there. But hundreds of players return year after year to baseball’s minor leagues in hopes of one day being called up to the majors. Amid an effort to unionize college athletes and an ongoing debate over grooming players for the pros, Kojo explores life in the farm team system that feeds the nation’s favorite pastime.
- John Feinstein author, One on One: Behind the Scenes with the Greats in the Game (Little Brown & Co)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe bus rides are long, the pay is low and few players dream of spending their whole career there, but year after year players return to baseball's minor league teams out of love for the game and out of hopes for eventual stardom in the majors. A new book by author and sports writer John Feinstein goes behind the scenes for a season of Triple-A ball. It's one level below the majors where big leaguers go to recuperate from injuries and up and comers who work hard can earn a major league debut.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAs the 131st consecutive season of Triple-A baseball gets underway, it marks yet another chance for fans to see the game close up and players to keep their dreams alive. John Feinstein joins us in studio. He is the author of more than two dozen books. He's the host of the John Feinstein Show on CBS Sports Radio and a Washington Post columnist. His new book is called "Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball." And John Feinstein, as always, wonderful stories in this book.
MR. JOHN FEINSTEINThank you, Kojo. It's good to be back with you.
NNAMDIThis is a book about people struggling to improve their professional lot in life. Some succeed, some don't. What appealed to you about spending a season following Triple-A baseball?
FEINSTEINKojo, I've always thought -- because you and I have talked many times over the years so you know this -- that the most compelling stories, not just in sports but in any form of writing or journalism or reporting, are about those who struggle, those who deal with adversity, those for whom it's hard. They -- there's usually more of a back story to their lives when you come across them. And it's ongoing in many ways.
FEINSTEINAnd I've written a number of books about guys who are not rich and famous. I did a civil war on the army navy football rivalry. None of those kids have ever been close to the NFL. I did a book on patriot league basketball.
MR. MARC FISHERNo NBA players there.
NNAMDIAnd you still go to patriot league games.
FEINSTEINI do very often, yes. I love them. I love that level of ball. And I wrote a book a few years ago on PGA tour qualifying school, which you and I spoke about at the time. And again, when I did that book there were a lot of players who had been major champions, had won on the tour, had been successful. Then there were guys who'd been to Q-school ten, twelve, fourteen times -- qualifying school, to get onto the tour without ever getting there.
FEINSTEINAnd I loved doing the book. It was great fun for me as a reporter. And baseball's always been my first love.
NNAMDII didn't know that.
FEINSTEINYeah, I've written...
NNAMDIThis one was special for you because when you were in high school, you saw yourself playing for the Mets.
FEINSTEINWell, by the time I got to high school I knew that it was unlikely. But, yes, as a kid I -- you know, as a little kid my dream was to play center field for the Mets or point guard for the Nix. I would've settled for either one. But -- and I did play high school baseball. I was a reasonably good player but to this day, Kojo, if I have like -- if it wasn't raining in Washington tonight, my wife and children are going out somewhere tonight -- I'd be in Baltimore at the ballgame. And I'd be sitting in the press box probably off in a corner by myself keeping score.
FEINSTEINOr I'd go to the Bowie Baysox or I'd go --I love being in a ballpark. I have to keep score. It's a compulsion. And I love talking to baseball players because they're guys who have achieved on a level, whether they made the major leagues or not, far beyond what I was able to achieve as a baseball player.
NNAMDII love the Bowie Baysox also. And you point out in this book that even though for the players themselves, the food is mediocre, the hotdog at the Bowie Baysox game for me is the same as the hotdog at basketball game...
FEINSTEINA lot cheaper.
NNAMDI...and it costs a whole lot...
FEINSTEINA lot cheaper, yeah.
NNAMDI...costs a whole lot less. If you'd like to join this conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. Do you like going to minor league baseball games? What's your favorite thing about minor league baseball, 800-433-8850? John, being good but not quite good enough is a big theme in this book. How do players keep their hopes alive without succumbing to frustration? How do they get through the daily rigors of the minor leagues when they're so close to their dreams, yet so far away?
FEINSTEINIt's a really good question and when I started the research on this book, the first three people I went to talk to were Tony La Russa, Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland, hugely successful major league managers but never successful as players. Buck Showalter and Jim Leyland never got to the majors. La Russa did briefly. He was up and down throughout his career.
FEINSTEINAnd Buck Showalter said to me that being a Triple-A manager, which he did for four years before he became the Yankees manager, is the hardest job in baseball. And I said, why? And he said, because nobody wants to be there. And that's not just the players or the managers or the coaches. It's the broadcasters, it's the umpires.
FEINSTEINI think one of the more compelling stories in this book is about an umpire, because even I, as much as I think I know about baseball, didn't understand that when you're an umpire, when you get Triple-A, if they don't believe you're going to be a longtime major league umpire, they just fire you. Players have the option to go back and play Triple-A if they're not good enough for the majors. Umpires don't.
FEINSTEINBut when I got down there what was interesting, I understood what Buck was talking about because they all wanted to be in the major leagues. The minimum salary at the major league level is $500,000 a year. The maximum salary if you have a minor league contract is probably $100,000 a year, and that's for a guy who's been around ten or twelve years. The younger guys are making far less than that.
FEINSTEINSo you understand that sentiment but what I found, more than frustration, was hope, which fascinated me because all these -- these guys were the guys when I played in high school who hit 600 or who had ERAs of 1.1 or lower than that pitching high school ball. And they kept moving up and up and up. Just to get drafted you have to be a tremendous baseball player.
FEINSTEINTo get to Triple-A you are an elite baseball player. You're one of the best baseball players in the world but you're not where you want to be. Yet they believe they can get their guys who have been stars -- Dontrelle Willis was pitching a Triple-A. He was a rooky of the year, pitched for the Marlins when they won the World Series in 2003. Was a 22-game winner one year. Jamie Moyer, who won 270 games in the major leagues, was back in Triple-A thinking he could get back one more time and maybe get closer to 300 wins.
FEINSTEINMark Prior is where the title of the book comes from. He was going to be -- he was Stephen Strasburg ten years ago.
NNAMDIYep, sure was.
FEINSTEINHe was the second pick in the draft. And the only reason he was number two was because he told the Minnesota Twins he wouldn't sign with them. The Cubs drafted him. He won 18 games as a 22-year-old. He was on the mound for that famous Bartman game in the playoffs leading three nothing when that play occurred. And he was third in the Cy Young voting that year.
FEINSTEINThen he got hurt and he went back to the minors. And he got hurt again and he's in the minors. And when I encountered him, he was pitching for the Pawtucket Red Sox. He was 31 years old and he came trotting out of the bullpen in the fourth inning of a game in Allentown, Pa. on a Saturday night. The place was packed, 10,000 people in the stadium and not one person noticed him. They introduced him, you know, now pitching for the Red Sox, Mark Prior. No reaction, except from me.
FEINSTEINAnd I said, wow this really is where nobody knows your name and that's where the title came from.
NNAMDIWhat's it like for players who get called up on a moment's notice, have to hop on a plane to catch up with their new team? You talk about Chris Schwinden, a then 25-year-old pitcher for the Buffalo Bisons who's called up to the Mets while his team is waiting in line at Mickey D's.
NNAMDIThe Mets needed him to pitch in Colorado the next night.
FEINSTEINHe was thrilled to get -- they were on their way back from Allentown to Buffalo. They were, of course, on a bus because in Triple-A you travel on charter buses, not charter planes. And his manager Wally Backman, who if you're a baseball fan he's a very familiar name, tapped him on the shoulder and said, the Mets needs you. As soon as we get to Buffalo we're getting you to the airport.
FEINSTEINHe flew out to Colorado and was thrilled to be there. Didn't pitch horribly but what was fascinating about Chris Schinden was during the course of the 2012 season, he was mentioned in the agate, you know, where they put transactions. And every time you read that agate somebody's life changed. And we all tend to gloss over it. Chris Schwinden appeared in the agate -- I'm not making this up -- 22 times during the season. And he had a five-week period, 35 days during which he pitched in New York for the Mets, in Buffalo for the Mets farm team the Bisons. He was released.
FEINSTEINHe was then signed by the Toronto Blue Jays. He was sent to Las Vegas. He pitched there once. He was released. He was signed by the Columbus Clippers, Indians farm team. Went there -- excuse me -- yes, Indians farm team. Went there, pitched there three times, was released. Picked up by the Yankees, sent to Scranton/Wilkes Barre, pitched one time, released again. And finally the Mets signed him and sent him back to Buffalo and he kissed the ground when he got back to Buffalo because he felt like he was back home.
NNAMDIOne of the things I read in the book that I didn't realize about the agate, you said that, you know, a lot of people like you read it and it's not very consequential. But I don't remember who it was in the book said, but for the guys whose names you see there, it's life changing.
FEINSTEINIt was Jeff Torborg. It's a great line and it goes back years. I was at the major league winter meetings and Jeff Torborg was then managing the Mets. And there was a rumor the Mets were about to make a big trade. So sure enough they announced 2:00 press conference for the Mets. And I saw Torborg and I said, is this the big trade? And he said, for the guys getting traded it is. And it involved several minor leaguers, but for them their life changes.
FEINSTEINOne of the guys I encountered was a guy named Danny Worth who was up and down to the Tigers -- between the Tigers and Toledo Mud Hens 12 times in a period of less than two years, which each time means packing up your apartment, getting you -- he didn't have children but he and his wife traveled together back and forth each time it happened.
NNAMDIWe're talking with John Feinstein. His latest book is called "When Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball." John Feinstein is the author of more than two dozen books. He's host of the John Feinstein Show on CBS Sports Radio and he's a Washington Post columnist. If you'd like to talk with him, have questions or comments, give us a call at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Don your headphones, John, because Carol in Durham, N.C. -- there's a clue right there -- Carol in Durham, N.C. would like to speak with you. Carol, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
CAROLThank you. Well, you asked for comments and I just wanted to tell you that I've been to see Chicago play. I've been to see Boston play. But when you go to the Durham Bulls and you sit in the left field three rows up from the grass and you have them play, that is baseball. That is baseball.
FEINSTEINAnd it's a great ballpark down there, isn't it, Carol, Durham Bull's athletic park?
FEINSTEINIt seats about 10,000 people. And, Kojo, you may remember of course the Durham Bulls are probably the most famous team in Triple-A baseball because of the movie, Bull Durham.
FEINSTEINAnd the old stadium's what, Carol, about a mile down the road. It's still there. And the great thing is over the left field fence, you remember in the movie where it says, hit bull win steak.
FEINSTEINBut because it's the 21st Century, underneath it, it says hit grass win salad.
CAROLThat is so, so good. And the new one too, I mean, we take -- when people come to town we take them to the Durham Bulls to watch the game. That's great, too.
FEINSTEINIt's a great place to see a game. And Charlie Montoya, their manager, is one of the great guys in baseball.
CAROLHe is. He is. His family, it is great. It is a ball park. It is a ball park and it is a game. We love it.
FEINSTEINYep, and you don't have to pay $45 to park either, Carol. That's the other nice thing.
CAROLYou can park up above the Chevrolet dealership and walk down if you'd like.
FEINSTEINExactly, exactly. Most minor league ball parks you would -- the most expensive parking I found, Kojo, in a minor league ball park was $3. Yankee Stadium is $45, just for comparison purposes.
NNAMDICarol, thank you so much for your call. You too can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to email@example.com. How often do players -- how many major leaguers end up riding out their playing days in the minors?
FEINSTEINIt's not a high percentage but I would say maybe one in three will end up back in the minor leagues at some point. Very few guys are Derek Jeter where the minute they go up their done, or Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg, guys who will only come back to the minor leagues if they're on a rehab assignment from injury, which has happened with both Strasburg and Harper. But most guys are closer to Danny Worth where you might be up and down, not maybe 12 times in two years, but it might happen two or three times.
FEINSTEINThere's a level they refer to as a AAAA player. Triple-A, of course is the league right before -- right under the major leagues. There are guys who are referred to as AAAA players in that they're really good in Triple-A but they're not quite good enough to stay in the major leagues consistently. And I encountered a lot of guys like that. Guys who had spent time in the major leagues but had had middling success and ended up back in Triple A.
FEINSTEINAnd that, in many ways, is the most frustrating because as La Russa said, it takes about ten days for a guy to develop what they call a major league attitude as in expecting someone to pick up your bag and carry it to the plane. And you don't see it again until you get to the next hotel, and then expecting to stay in the Four Seasons or the Ritz Carlton as opposed to the Hampden Inn. Why wouldn’t you get used to that lifestyle? I certainly would.
NNAMDIYeah, and the minor leagues are riding a bus. Minor league players often -- most often get their big chance when a major leaguer is injured and can't play. It's a strange place to be waiting and secretly hoping someone above you gets hurt. Somebody in the book says, well you really don't hope and wish that somebody gets hurt but it happens.
NNAMDIHow does that shape the atmosphere in the clubhouse?
FEINSTEINIt's a very good point. The phrase is actually, you're an accident away, and that sounds cold but it's true because it does happen. And one of the scenes I witnessed in researching this book is I was in the Pawtucket Red Sox clubhouse on a Saturday afternoon. And they always, in any minor league clubhouse, if the major league team is playing, that game is on the television set in the clubhouse. They all have the major league baseball package so they can see those games.
FEINSTEINSo the Red Sox are playing a Saturday afternoon game and their shortstop Mike Aviles gets hit on the wrist by a ground ball that bounces funny. And I was standing with the manager Arnie Beyeler. And he just looked at me and said, watch this. Sure enough, ten guys -- you know, they're all sitting around with headphones or looking at their cell phones, whatever, they jump up and go right up to the television because they want to find out how badly Mike Aviles is hurt. Because if he's seriously injured and has to go on the disable list...
NNAMDI...one of them is going up.
FEINSTEIN...somebody's going up. And as Arnie Beyeler said, the good news is, I get to say to one guy, you're going up. The bad news is, four guys will be right behind him saying, why wasn't it me, because they all want that moment. And the funniest story about a guy going up though was Doug Bernier, who to me in many ways personifies this book. He wasn't drafted coming out of college. He signed for $850 a month with the Colorado Rockies, college graduate. Seven years later he's made his way to Triple A and now he's up to $2100 a month.
FEINSTEINAnd he gets called up because Yorvit Torrealba, who is a catcher with the Rockies, got suspended for three days for getting into a fight. So they told him, you're going up for three days. And he was thrilled. He's going to the major leagues.
FEINSTEINAnd so he goes up and he's there for three days. He gets to start one game, doesn't get a hit. But when he got back -- during those three days he was paid at the major league minimum prorated $2400 a day. And he said the coolest thing was when he got back home and got his next paycheck, his next two-week paycheck, it was the first one he'd ever gotten that had a comma in it.
FEINSTEINAnd that sort of defines the difference between the majors and the minors.
NNAMDIAnd when you say the coolest thing that happened, there's so many stories in this book I'm trying to remember the one, a person fought for a long time to get back to the major leagues. And then he finally stood there and he surveyed the scene around there. He said, this is cool.
FEINSTEINYeah. Yeah, that's Bret Tomko who -- actually, Nate McLouth is the one you're talking about. Nate McLouth, who's now with the Nationals, was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates in May of 2012. He had been an All Star. He was hitting 140. He got released, thought his career might be over. He was 30 years old. Nick Markakis got hurt for the Orioles. They had to call somebody up from Norfolk. They needed an outfielder in Norfolk.
FEINSTEINHe got a call, "Would you like to go to Norfolk?" "Sure. I want to play baseball." Goes to Norfolk, gets on a hot streak, gets called up to the Orioles in August. Then Markakis gets hurt again in September. He ended up as the starting leftfielder for the Orioles that October in the playoffs. And as he said, as he jogged out in Camden Yards for Game 1 of that series, he looked around and said, "Wow, this is cool. This is a long way from sitting at home in Knoxville, hoping the phone will ring."
NNAMDIHere is Susan, in Reston, Va. Susan, you're on the air with John Feinstein. Go ahead, please. Hi, Susan. Are you there? I hear you, Susan. Can you hear me? Susan, we're going to take a short break. Our call screener will talk to you in the interim and hopefully when we come back you'll be there.
NNAMDIIf you have called stay on the line. We will get to your calls. The number is 800-433-8850. John Feinstein's latest book is called, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball." I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is John Feinstein. He is the author of more than two dozen books. He is host of "The John Feinstein Show," on CBS Sports Radio, and a Washington Post columnist. We're talking about his latest book. It's called, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball."
NNAMDIJohn, the minor leagues seem like an especially tough place for pitchers who seem to go back and forth a lot. But they're also in competition with one another in a way the other players are not.
FEINSTEINYou're right. One of the things that is unique about Triple-A baseball is -- two things. One, your teammates can also be your competition. Scott Elarton, who's one of the guys I wrote about who is fascinating. He was out of baseball for three years. And basically came back on a whim. He took his seven-year-old son to a game in Denver, was standing behind the barrier, where they put fans who are allowed on the field during batting practice, with his son. And said, "What am I doing here? I'm a baseball player."
FEINSTEINAnd spotted Ruben Amaro, the general manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, and basically said, "Hey, Ruben, do you think I could come back and play baseball again?" And Amaro said, "Well, if you want me to send somebody to watch you throw, I will." And he ended up coming back the next year, pitched in Lehigh Valley in Triple-A.
FEINSTEINAnd he made the point that if one of the other guys -- one of the other pitchers goes out and pitches a four-hit shutout, well, you're happy because you won the game, but on the other hand he might have just jumped ahead of you in the pecking order when somebody gets called up to Philadelphia. And what's interesting about Triple-A is a manger's primary job is not to win games.
NNAMDII was about to get to that.
FEINSTEINIt's the only place in sports I know where that's the case, because your job is to develop young players.
FEINSTEINIt's to make sure that when the major league team needs a call-up, that you know who the right guy is and have them ready. Sometimes you have to sit out pitchers because, you know, the team's played a 14-inning game the night before and they might need a relief pitcher the next day if they have another long game. So if you win, it's a bonus.
NNAMDIBecause it helps your players look good.
FEINSTEINRight. And the fans are happy and you'd rather win than lose at anything.
FEINSTEINBut it's not the primary job. If somebody comes down to the minor leagues on a rehab assignment, like Evan Longoria was in Durham on rehab while I was researching this book. And basically, Charlie Montoya, the manager, had no -- it was not his decision where he batted in the lineup. It wasn't his decision how much he played or when he played. And he knew because Longoria was coming back from a hamstring injury.
FEINSTEINThere was a -- one of the games I was at, Longoria hit a ball deep to center field, off the fence, and just stopped at first base because there was no way anybody wanted him trying for second base and pulling that hamstring again. He was there to get his batting eye in shape, not to run out doubles. And so does that help your team to have a guy who's only going one base at a time? No. But that's not the primary objective.
FEINSTEINAnd, as you said, the other thing is these guys aren't just trying to get the attention of their team, the Durham Bulls are a Tampa Bay farm team. They're trying to get somebody from one of the other 29 teams to notice them and maybe make a trade and bring them to the major leagues. They're playing for 30 teams in fact.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Mark Lollo earlier. This is not only about players and…
NNAMDI…managers, umpires are called up, too. What is life like for a Mark Lollo? What kept him going from game to game, city to city, for so many years?
FEINSTEINThis -- and Mark Lollo was an umpire for 11 years and worked his way up from the low minor leagues to Triple-A and was considered the best umpire by the people running the international league.
NNAMDI$3,200 a month.
FEINSTEINYeah, and worked during the offseason as a substitute teacher and on a snow plow because he wasn't making enough money to support his wife and now two children. But what keeps him going is the same thing that keeps the players going, is the dream of the big leagues. The dream of being a major league umpire again.
FEINSTEIN$3,200 a month, you get to the majors, minimum salary $90,000. If you're there long enough you can make as much as $500,000 a year, plus the per diem is sky high, versus almost nothing in Triple-A. And Mark Lollo, in 2011, got to what is known as the call-up list, which means every year umpires get vacation, sometimes they get hurt, sometimes they have a family crisis. And there's a list of Triple-A umpires who are called up to take their place in those situations.
FEINSTEINAnd Mark Lollo reached that list and worked six major league games, including a couple here in Washington in 2011. And he thought, "Okay. I'm close. I'm right there. I'm right on the cusp. I've been in the major leagues." Next year, 2012, he only gets two games. And he's wondering what's going on. And to make a long story much shorter, he gets a call from his supervisor -- and, again, umpiring's very subjective. It's not like being a player where you can see your batting average, your RBIs, see if you can make plays defensibly.
FEINSTEINIt's very subjective. You might see one guy, umpire working and think he's the best umpire you ever saw. I might think he's the worst the umpire you ever saw. He gets a call from his new supervisor --probably not a coincidence -- basically saying, "You're probably going to be released at the end of the season."
FEINSTEINBecause the decision had been made up above the he wasn't going to be a longtime big league ump. And if you're not going to be a big league ump longtime, they send you home. He had to go start his life over again, find a new job in the fall of 2012.
NNAMDIOn to the phones again. Here's Alex, in Washington, D.C. Alex, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ALEXHow you doing?
ALEXGood, good. When I was a sophomore in high school one my best friends had a baby brother born and he ended up going into baseball. And making his way up through the minors. And there was just a ton of us that just followed him every step along the way. You know, when he got drafted, Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A, had a cup of coffee in the majors, came back down, went back up to the majors, was there for a few years.
ALEXAnd I just imagine, like, behind every single one of those guys, there's this entourage of people that are just behind them. You know, when he first got called up, we all flew to that town to watch him play. And, you know, and then flew home, you know. And then he was there for two or three games and then he went back. And it's got to be there for everybody.
FEINSTEINNo, you're absolutely right, Alex. That's a very good point. One of the guys who I wrote about in this book is named J.C. Boscan, who was drafted -- not drafted. He was signed out of Venezuela as a teenager. And was in the minors for 14 years. Never made it to the big leagues. And, you know, on September 1st they expand the rosters, major league rosters. You can go to as many as 40, usually four or five are called up above the normal 25-man limit.
FEINSTEINAnd on August 31st of 2010 -- he'd had his best year in the minors. He was 30 years old. And he thought, "If I don't get called up now, I'm never going up. This is my last best chance." Sure enough the game ends, four different guys get called into the manager's office. They're going up to the Atlanta Braves. He's playing in Gwinnett. And one of them was Freddy Freeman, who just hit a homerun off the Nationals on Sunday, is a star now.
FEINSTEINAnd he thought, "Well, that's it. My dream is dead. I'm never going up." And at that point the hitting coach, Jamie Dukes, comes over and says, "Skip wants to see you." He goes in -- and he's kind of grim. So he goes into the manager's office, Dave Brundage. And Brundage says, "J.C., how long have you played baseball?" And he thinks, "Oh, God, he's give me the speech about how lucky I was to play this long." He says, "Fourteen years." And he says, "I was going to mess with you, but I just can't do it. You're going up."
FEINSTEINAnd those are three magic words, you're going up. Well, the kicker to the story -- he burst into tears. But the kicker to the story was everybody in the clubhouse was in on it. The only person who didn't know Boscan was going up was Boscan. So when he walked out of the manager's office they were all waiting for him.
FEINSTEINIt was like the last scene of "The Rookie," where the whole town is waiting for him when he comes out after pitching for Tampa. And there was champagne and hugs and kisses. And Alex is right, when he up to Atlanta, his entire family flew in to see him make his major league debut.
NNAMDIAnd I know, speaking of tears, there's a story in the book about the pitcher who finally gets called up again. And after he makes his three outs he goes into the washroom…
FEINSTEINYeah, bathroom, yeah.
NNAMDIGoes into the…
NNAMDIAnd he's just crying. That was Tomko. He's just crying.
FEINSTEINYeah, yeah, yeah. That's it…
NNAMDIBut the manager knows what's going on.
FEINSTEINRon Washington, the manager of the Rangers. And the cool thing about Brett Tomko is he has one of the great lines. He said, "You know, the food in a minor league clubhouse probably isn't that different than the food in a major league clubhouse, but it tastes different." And he's a guy who's pitched in 28 cities. He's in Omaha right now, in Triple-A, 41 years old. Trying to come back one more time.
FEINSTEINAnd what happened was he won 100th game in the major leagues. He's a very accomplished pitcher. But he tore up his shoulder in 9th inning of that 100th win. Managed to finish, had shoulder surgery, went all the way back to rookie ball, where he couldn't get anybody out, but he made it back to the majors. And after he got those three outs, he went in the bathroom and cried because it meant so much.
NNAMDITalk about family in their lives and especially in his life, it's his wife who encouraged him to go back and try one more time. How does a minor league career affect a player's family?
FEINSTEINHugely, hugely, because you never know what's coming next. And so he said with those transactions, you know, you could be pitching one day in Durham or playing one day in Durham, and then for whatever reason you get traded and you're in Allentown, Pa. or Pawtucket or out on the West Coast in the Pacific Coast League, which is the other Triple-A league. Or you could be sent down to Double-A.
FEINSTEINWe talk about guys going up, they go down, too. They go in both directions. And you're right about Brett Tomko. Because right after he hurt his shoulder, he and his wife had twin boys, four days later. And he was -- felt guilty. "I'm going to leave my wife behind with twin boys so I can try and pitch in the minor leagues." And she said, "You've got to go do this because you're going to have a lot more time to be an ex-baseball player, than you're going to have to be a baseball player. You have to see this through to the end." And that's why Brett's still pitching today.
NNAMDISpeaking of family and relatives, here is Pete, in Rockville, Md. Pete, your turn. Hi, Pete. Are you there? Pete, are you there? Pete wanted to talk about his nephew who is in the minor leagues. And he said that they don't tell him anything about whether he's going home or moving up, but he was approached by an agent and he wanted to know would talking to the agent affect his nephew's chances of moving up.
FEINSTEINWell, you mean, if Pete would talk to the agent?
NNAMDINo. If the nephew, I guess.
FEINSTEINWell, agents try to play a role. They try to influence teams to move their players up or to trade their players. Of course, to try to sign them, you know, when they're major league players to try to get them more money as free agents. But I find frequently, Kojo, talking to general managers, that the less an agent's involved, the better it is for the player. Because if they think the agent's a pain in the neck, if you're -- especially if you're not a star…
FEINSTEIN…they're apt to trade you just to get the agent out of their lives.
NNAMDIHere is John, in Washington, D.C. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOHNHi, Kojo. Thoroughly enjoying this discussion. Mr. Feinstein, I wanted to get your thoughts on the distinction between the Triple-A and Double-A scene. You had referred to…
JOHN…the Triple-A environment is one where no one wants to be. Whereas, Double-A often get the players, the hot prospects, the (unintelligible) in rookie ball…
JOHN…made their way up to Single-A and then Double-A and never even see a Triple-A field.
FEINSTEINYou're right, you know. That's a good point, John. A lot of teams nowadays are having players skip from Double-A to the majors. The young, the hotshot prospects. Because the Triple-A clubhouses are older. They have guys who've been in the major leagues. They have guys who have dealt with some frustration. And they're afraid that if they "expose them to some of that," they might develop negative attitudes.
FEINSTEINNow, Bryce Harper, for example, at the start of the 2012 season did go down to Triple-A. He'd been in Double-A the year before. He went down to Triple-A Syracuse, but the Nationals specifically assigned two veteran players, who they thought had good attitudes, to kind of mentor him and keep an eye on him and make sure he didn't sort of fall in with guys who had negative attitudes.
FEINSTEINI don't think that was going to be a problem for Harper because he's an amazingly upbeat young man. I like him a lot. People think he comes off as cocky. It's not cockiness if you back it up. And I -- and he's really not that cocky. He's actually very soft spoken. But a lot of times the star players, these days -- it's a fairly new trend -- will skip Triple-A and go straight to the majors. But most of them, like a Harper or Strasburg, will spend some time in Triple-A.
NNAMDIThank you very much for you call. A group of football players at Northwestern University is in the news, as they try to form a union to represent them in negotiations over NCAA rules and long-term health coverage. And there's all this debate about how best to prepare athletes for pro sports. Would the baseball farm team system work in other sports?
FEINSTEINI think it could, of course there's -- it would require spending money. And I think baseball has the best system, in terms of developing young athletes. Because when you graduate from high school in baseball, you can go into the draft. You find out where you're drafted. You find out how much money someone will pay you. If someone wants to pay Bryce Harper $10 million to turn pro coming out of -- after one year of junior college, well, why wouldn't he turn pro? That's what he's training to do, is play baseball.
FEINSTEINBut if you're drafted in the 37th round…
NNAMDIWhat was the case with Ryan Zimmerman? Because I know he went to the University of Virginia, yeah.
FEINSTEINRyan Zimmerman went to college for three years. He went to Virginia for three years. And when he was drafted he was almost major league ready because of his three years of playing college baseball. And the way it works is, if you're drafted in a late round or if you're not offered enough money, in your opinion, to make it worthwhile to go to the minor leagues at the age of 18, you then have the option to go to college.
FEINSTEINAnd if you go to a four-year college, like Virginia, you can't go back in the draft for three years. And what that does is it means that they are actually college students, unlike in basketball where we had the one-and-done rule.
FEINSTEINAnd so that when they leave after three years, because they had to stay eligible, which means they have to go to class, they're not that far from a degree. They're a little more mature. They're 20, 21 years old. And they have a better chance -- whether they make -- are successful in baseball or not successful in baseball.
NNAMDINext time I go to the Bowie Baysox I'm going to watch it differently, after reading this book, wondering what the back stories are of all of these players and umpires that I'm watching. What should fans be looking for or paying special attention to at a minor league game?
NNAMDIWell, I think that, first of all, the fact that they can get as close as they can. They can see more. They can also -- for kids, they can get more autographs because minor leaguers are far more willing to stop and sign autographs most of the time than major leaguers. But you can tell a special talent when you see it. I mean if you see somebody in the program and they're in their 30s, that means they're probably on the downside. They're hoping to get one more shot at the big leagues.
FEINSTEINBut when you see a kid who's 19, 20, 22, there's a decent chance he's someone you're going to see in a major league ballpark at some point. And he's somebody you definitely want to keep an eye on. And if you're sitting behind the plate -- which you can do in a minor league ballpark for less $1,000 -- there's a special pop when a pitcher is special. And you can hear it.
NNAMDIIn a minor league ballpark, we got a tweet from someone saying, "Would you recommend, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name," to 10-year-old avid reader and baseball player? I say, yes. It's John Feinstein's latest book, "Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball." John is host of "The John Feinstein Show," on CBS Sports Radio and a Washington Post columnist. John Feinstein, always a pleasure.
FEINSTEINKojo, thanks for having me. I enjoyed it.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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