Book Review: ‘Bluegrass Baseball’

Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life
By Katya Cengel
University of Nebraska Press, 2012
List Price: $19.95

The minor leagues mean different things to different people. To the players, they are a long ladder, each stop a rung on the climb to the big leagues. To the operators of the teams in the hundreds of cities that support both Organized and Independent baseball, they provide affordable family entertainment. To the fans in their communities, they are an opportunity to claim a hero on the way up, to say we knew him when.

To Katya Cengel, they presented a unique study in cultural anthropology. As a features writer with the Louisville Courier-Journal, she was immersed in the environment when following four Louisville Bats players for a series in her paper in 2009. That experience only served to whet her appetite to learn more about the game and its hold on everyone it touches. So she expanded upon her original focus in 2010 with the idea of turning the project into a book.

Cengel reached out to the Bowling Green Hot Rods and Lexington Legends, of the low Class A Midwest and South Atlantic leagues, respectively, as well as the Florence Freedom of the independent Frontier League. All were willing to let her into their operations, though it took a bit of salesmanship on her part.

“Lexington was reluctant,” says Cengel, whose account of the 2010 season is available now as “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life.” “I had to make it clear I did know what I was talking about.”

In the end, Legends president Alan Stein became one of Cengel’s favorite subjects. After all, how can anyone not like a guy willing to eat cat food to promote his product, which he did after the team failed to back up his boast and lost its first-ever game to the Charleston Alley Cats.

She also grew fond of then Legends Jose Altuve and Jiovanni Mier, who shared a love for the game despite entering it under very different circumstances. A pint-sized infielder with a correspondingly tiny signing bonus, Altuve hit .308 in 94 games for Lexington that summer, his first in a full-season league. Mier, who was selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, struggled that season, batting .235, but displayed alley power a feel for the strike zone.

“They were really nice kids you wanted to root for,” Cengel says. “Neither was really guarded. They were open and easy to talk with.”

That came in contrast to most of the players at Louisville, who had learned to play things a little closer to the vest by the time they’d reached Triple-A. The Bats’ hottest commodity, Cuban lefthander Aroldis Chapman, was actually placed off limits by the team, relegating Cengel to what she could learn of his experiences second hand.

Most forthcoming were the Florence players and staff, particularly skipper Toby Rumfield, who played 12 years in the affiliated minors before making the transition to indy ball in 2003. With the Freedom he was responsible for not just managing the talent, but also assembling it, culling the able from the merely ready and willing in spring training, which was conveniently held right there in Florence. The roster shuffling hardly stopped when the season opened, however. Dozens of young men, hoping to catch the eye of an affiliated organization in need, rotated through town, some lasting only a couple of weeks before moving on. Only a hardy few made it all the way through the summer.

The players are just part of the story in “Bluegrass Baseball,” though. Cengel shadowed everyone associated with minor league ball, from broadcasters and trainers to manual scoreboard operators and host families. In many cases their lives are just as consumed by the sport as the young men whose names appear in the box scores.

She spent a fair bit of time following Lexington’s head groundskeeper Chris Pearl, who worked his way up the food chain by working his way down the minor league ladder. Pearl accumulated the experience to lead the grounds crew while filling smaller roles at stops in Louisville and with the big league Astros. From infield dirt to outfield grass, no detail was too small to warrant his attention. His drive to make his field perfect—rooted in a desire to never have it impact a game’s outcome with a bad hop, or worse cause an injury—made a distinct impression on Cengel.

The living standards of the players also caught her attention. In stark contrast to the visions many fans have of players living the high life, most at the A-ball level need a number of roommates just to make ends meet. Even then they fumble with the basics like cooking dinner and washing clothes—challenges that trip up most young men away from home for the first time.

The obstacles are multiplied for the Latin players, who struggle with the language barrier and other cultural differences in a world very different from where they grew up back in Venezuela or the Dominican Republic. At least in Lexington they had each other, with nine players sharing one condo, most sleeping on inflatable air mattresses.

“It amazed me how hard it was for them,” Cengel says. “How isolated they are. Most of them don’t have family here. None of them had cars. They’re under more pressure than even the American players. If they don’t make it, they go home.”

Without transportation of their own, the Latin players were typically forced to rely upon teammates for rides to the ballpark. Some afternoons they would wait in the parking lot with no one appearing, growing suspicious that their occasionally resentful teammates had slipped out an alternate exit.

In following four teams for the season, Cengel saw a number of dreams die as players were released. She kept in touch with a couple as they transitioned into life after baseball, a reality that most of the independent Freedom players found unavoidable by the tail end of the season. Their early optimism of being signed vanished long before her last trip to Florence.

“I could see they just wanted to get it over by that point,” says Cengel, who found it more difficult to engage them in conversation late in the year. “Players could see they weren’t going back into affiliated ball. There was very little hope left, not much to talk about anymore.”

The end of the season means something different to the front-office employees and others who work for the team. After months of 15-hour days they finally see a chance to rest and catch their breath as they prepare for next season, or look around for an opening at a higher level.

“They kind of have this dream, too, but they don’t get any of the attention,” says Cengel, who marveled at the number of hours they spent at the park. “They might as well live there. Even the press people, they’re always there.”

And now readers can be there with them. While “Bluegrass Baseball” is centered in Kentucky, the experiences of the players and employees are universal. It provides excellent insight into just what the minor leagues mean to just about anyone involved in the game.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. His novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, is now available. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2012 #Book Guide

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