Knocking on Heaven's Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream
"Marty Dobrow is a patient listener and sure-eyed observer as he sketches these portraits of a half-dozen people beguiled by baseball. The result is as lively, intimate, and engrossing a book as Hoop Dreams was a movie."
--Alexander Wolff, Senior Writer, Sports Illustrated
The intimacy of minor league baseball -- memorably captured on screen a generation ago in Bull Durham -- is brought to life in stirring fashion in Marty Dobrow’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream. Dobrow brings us compelling portraits of young men who are so close to something they have always yearned for, something they still may never get.
The "Baseball Dream" Dobrow describes is, of course, the longest of long shots. The top T-ballers might one day become Little League All-Stars. A small percentage of those talented kids go on to play high school or college ball. From that rarefied group, a tiny number will one day know the magic of being drafted by a major league team and signing a professional contract. That is, of course, the dream come true.
Except that it isn’t. No one grows up dreaming of playing minor league baseball. And even among the ultra-elite crew of minor league players, 90 percent will never play a single inning in the big leagues.
In the high minors of Double-A and Triple-A, the "anguish of almost" is even more pronounced. The line of talent separating high-level minor leaguers from low-level major leaguers is razor thin, but the difference in compensation is immense. The minimum salary in the big leagues in 2010 is $400,000 and the average is $3.4 million -- while lots of guys playing five or six years in the minors don’t even clear $20,000. The temptation to cut corners through performance-enhancing drugs is enormous. Players are constantly looking over their shoulders, trying to protect their turf, yearning to climb that final rung. In a baseball sense, they are knocking on heaven’s door.
Cast of Characters
Manny Delcarmen – When the book begins in 2005, Delcarmen is entering his fifth year as a minor leaguer in the Red Sox’ organization. The son of a minor leaguer who never advanced beyond Single-A, Manny grew up in Boston rooting for the Sox. He is a hard-headed young man who once went AWOL in the minors (storming home from Georgia before getting two flat tires in the South Bronx at 4 a.m.).
Charlie Zink – The color never stops with Zink. He grew up in California, the son of two guards at the famed Folsom State Prison. He went to a Div. 3 art school in Georgia where he was coached, improbably, by former Red Sox legend Luis Tiant. Late in his first year in the minors he became a knuckleballer overnight after a just-for-fun knuckler shattered the Oakley sunglasses of a coach. Zink even has a glamorous girlfriend named Madeline Munroe.
Doug Clark – Clark has a fascinating perspective on PED use in the minors. He has a biology degree. He comes from a family of teachers. And for the first eight years of his career he was a left fielder in the Giants’ organization -- an understudy to Barry Bonds. Clark’s odyssey includes ten years in the minors, three in Korea, lots of winter ball in Mexico, and one of the most dramatic call-ups in baseball history.
Randy Ruiz — Raised by his grandmother in a Section 8 apartment in the Bronx, Ruiz became baseball’s Gulliver. Six colleges. Nine different big league organizations. Three minor league batting titles. Two suspensions for alleged steroid use. Once "traded for no compensation." A Triple-A Rookie of the Year at age 30, a Triple-A MVP at 31. A taste of big league nectar. A year in Japan. Sometimes sleeps with his bat.
Brad Baker — Baker grew up in Leyden, Massachusetts, a rural town with no stores or streetlights, but lots of deer and bear that he loved to hunt. Red Sox scouts watched every pitch he threw his senior year, and the team selected him in the first (sandwich) round of the 1999 draft. The rigors and ruthlessness of pro ball took their toll on Baker as he climbed the ranks, carrying the hopes of his small town on his shoulders.
Matt Torra — A first-round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2005, Torra tore his labrum only ten innings into his pro career. Just the year before, baseball injury guru Will Carroll had written, "If pitchers with torn labrums were horses, they’d be destroyed." Torra has been trying to fight his way back ever since.
The players are connected both by their common dreams and by the fact that they all are (or were) represented by the same tiny agency. DiaMMond Management was formed by the husband and wife team of Jim and Lisa Masteralexis. Jim grew up outside of Boston rooting passionately for the Red Sox. Lisa grew up in western Massachusetts as a rabid Yankees fan. Their first date was a Sox-Yankees game at Fenway Park. They refer to professional baseball as a "testosterone soap opera." (Lisa is one of a tiny group of female agents). Along with their third partner, Steve McKelvey (who once had the job of whisking the World Series trophy out of the Red Sox locker room in 1986 after Mookie Wilson’s grounder went through Bill Buckner’s legs), the agents are in a parallel position to the players they represent. They have been slogging along for years in pursuit of their own baseball dream -- one that quite possibly won’t come true.
In the fog, in the April chill, on the spongy green grass of Hadlock Field, young men play catch. It is a meditative rite of spring. Back and forth. The ball snapping between them. Pop-pop-pop.
They throw in pairs, strong-armed young men who have all sipped the sweet bubbly of success on other fields in other towns. All have been stamped for greatness, been told they could truly believe. And now they are all the way up to Double-A, within range of the goal, though even among this select crew the majority will never play even one game in the bigs. Who will ultimately get the call? Talley Haines? Conor Brooks? Jonathan Papelbon? Marc Deschenes, still plugging along at age thirty-two?
Out in right center field, beneath the fence with an inflatable L.L. Bean boot and the lighthouse that rises after every Portland Sea Dogs home run, two model-handsome characters throw the ball back and forth with some animation. Charlie Zink puts the knuckle of his index finger on the ball, digs into the hide with the long nail of his middle finger, and lets fly. The ball sails without spin through the moist air. At the last second it darts down and smacks Manny Delcarmen in the shin. Hopping mad, he picks it up, and fires back at ninety-five, aiming for the grass right in front of Zink. "Don’t get your panties ruffled, you Mexican!" Zink shouts, and the two howl with laughter.
They share a loft in a green condo at the Junipers of Yarmouth apartment complex ten miles north of the ballpark, right off Interstate 295. Downstairs in separate bedrooms live their two other roommates, a couple of laid-back lefties, Kason Gabbard and Jon Lester. The apartment with four pitchers is ballplayer spare: nothing on the walls, dirty laundry piled in the corner, an Xbox with DVDs scattered around the floor, open cans of Bud Light, a few tins of Copenhagen snuff, plastic bottles of Aquafina water filled with brown pools of tobacco juice. They play poker and spend hours with MLB 2005, the one with Manny -- Ramirez -- on the cover.
After games, Manny and Charlie like to go to the bustling Old Port, hitting the bar circuit at places like Gritty McDuff’s and Liquid Blue. They usually wind up on Fore Street, snickering at the store called Condom Sense ... and making their way to their favorite joint, the Fore Play Sports Pub. There they play fierce games of pool, with pretty young ladies surrounding the table, the beer flowing, paying sporadic attention to the last inning or two of the Red Sox playing on twenty-four screens. When they dismount from Charlie’s Yukon Denali at the condo in Yarmouth, the Maine night above them is cold and quiet.