Baseball America

Book Review: Knocking On Heaven’s Door

Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream by Marty Dobrow

University of Massachusetts Press, 2010

List Price: $24.95

It’s so easy to generalize when talking about baseball players in an era where the average salary has surpassed $3 million and even the minimum wage is 10 times the annual draw of the guy in the cheap seats. They’re spoiled prima donnas who care only about themselves. Their top concern is how much money they can make. They don’t care about the game like their predecessors from previous generations.

Of course, baseball players, like the rest of us, are complex beings, with aspirations and frustrations, dreams and disappointments. Some are gracious, some are inconsiderate, and some are both at different times. And in the minor leagues, most of them are probably a lot more insecure about their futures than the folks watching from the stands.

In 2005, Marty Dobrow began shadowing half a dozen players, from first-round picks who garnered lofty bonuses, to afterthoughts who signed for nothing more than the chance to chase a dream. Over the course of the ensuing seasons he followed their progress as they moved through the minor leagues, weaving their stories into “Knocking on Heaven’s Door.”

The subjects of the book will be familiar to most Baseball America readers: pitchers Brad Baker, Manny Delcarmen, Matt Torra, and Charlie Zink; first baseman Randy Ruiz; and outfielder Doug Clark. Baker and Torra were supplemental first-round picks of the Red Sox and Diamondbacks, respectively. Ironically, they are the only two of the six to not reach the big leagues (at least not yet; Torra is still plugging away).

It’s clear that none of these young men took advancing to the majors as a given. Dobrow captures their euphoria, and that of their family and friends, when the call finally came for the fortunate ones. There’s Ruiz’s grandmother running through the halls of her apartment building in her nightgown, banging on neighbors’ doors and screaming “Randy made it! Randy made it!” Clark’s father bustling into the school where his son is substitute teaching to make ends meet after the minor league season to tell him the Giants called. And David Ortiz inviting Delcarmen’s family and friends over to dinner at his house after the local boy was summoned by his hometown Red Sox.

Dobrow expended a lot of effort incorporating the players’ families, because in every case they were so vital to their success. “From the very start, I conceived of these as family stories,” he writes in the Acknowledgements section. “I wasn’t interested so much in what the managers and general managers had to say about these players. I wanted to know what it was like for the wives and girlfriends and family and friends, the village that it takes to raise a ballplayer.”

So we meet Zink’s network of friends from his days at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where he was coached by former Red Sox great Luis Tiant. There’s Baker’s tight-knit family, minus his grandfather, who passes away en route, and his girlfriend turned wife turned ex by the end of the ride. And Ruiz’s grandmother, who raised him in the South Bronx because his parents weren’t up to the task.

Luz Ruiz kept her grandson on the right path, making him do his homework, come home on time, and stay away from bad influences. She steered him through a neighborhood rife with drugs, but one lesson that was missed was saying no to steroids. The slugger succumbed at least once, earning a suspension to kick off the 2005 campaign. His second positive test, which he vehemently protested, came later that summer, interrupting what was otherwise a magical year at Double-A Reading. That taint followed him for several seasons, though he finally escaped it, reaching the majors with the Twins three years later.

Steroids are a recurring theme throughout the book, with Ruiz’s indiscretion (or indiscretions if you don’t buy his denials of the second offense) contrasted by Doug Clark’s refusal to pursue the illegal, yet widely available, aid that could help erase the one knock against his game: a lack of power. There are plenty of references to Barry Bonds, who blocked Clark’s path in the Giants system for so long, as well as numerous mentions of Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire, who are paying the price for their usage after their careers, instead of before breaking in like Ruiz.

So what binds these dreamers, aside from their goal? All six were represented by DiaMMond Management, operated by Jim and Lisa Masteralexis and Steve McKelvey. The agents, especially the husband and wife Masteralexis team, play as large a role in the story as any of the players, giving the reader a feel for life running a boutique agency, competing against the Scott Borases of the world for clients. Why and how do they run a business in which most of their players don’t bring them any revenue? (Agents only earn a cut of salary above and beyond the major league minimum, which most players won’t surpass until after putting in three big league seasons.)

There’s a lot of great information here on a side of the business most of us don’t know much about. At times, however, one wonders whose story this really is. There are several passages that could almost double as a marketing campaign for DiaMMond Management. While they, like the players they represent, have invested years of effort trying to “make it,” their tale might best be broken out into another book.

That aside, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” is an insightful journey through the minors, providing access most of us will never have to future big leaguers. Dobrow humanizes their struggles, rescuing them from the roster of the self-absorbed that we typically see from our vantage point in the stands or on TV. It’s not an original concept, to be sure. I’ve got books on my shelf dating back a couple of decades, from Bill Ballew’s “Brave Dreams” to Paul Hemphill’s “Heart of the Game.” We even had a documentary this past fall, “Time in the Minors,” which followed a pair of aspiring players.

But as Dobrow writes in the prologue, “There are almost seven thousand minor leaguers under contract with a Major League Baseball team. Each of them has a unique story.” Here are six of them, well told.

James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at jamesbailey@baseballamerica.com.

Majors | #2011 #Book Guide

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