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Knocking on Heaven’s Door

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

Marty Dobrow
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 368
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt5vk84p
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  • Book Info
    Knocking on Heaven’s Door
    Book Description:

    The rich slice of Americana found in minor league baseball presents a contradictory culture. On the one hand, the minors are filled with wholesome, familyfriendly entertainmentfluffy mascots, kitschy promotions, and earnest young men signing autographs for wideeyed Little Leaguers. On the other, they comprise a world of cutthroat competition in which a teammate's failure or injury can be the cause of quiet celebration and 90 percent of all players never play a single inning in the major leagues. In Knocking on Heaven's Door, awardwinning sportswriter Marty Dobrow examines this doubleedged culture by chronicling the lives of six minor leaguersBrad Baker, Doug Clark, Manny Delcarmen, Randy Ruiz, Matt Torra, and Charlie Zinkall struggling to make their way to "The Show." What links them together, aside from their common goal, is that they are all represented by the same team of agentsJim and Lisa Masteralexis and their partner Steve McKelveywhose own aspirations parallel those of the players they represent. The story begins during spring training in 2005 and ends in the fall of 2008, followed by a brief epilogue that updates each player's fortunes through the 2009 season. Along the way Dobrow offers a revealing, intimate look at life in minor league baseball: the relentless tedium of its itinerant routines and daily rituals; the lure of performanceenhancing drugs as a means of gaining a competitive edge; the role of agents in negotiating each player's failures as well as his successes; and the influence of wives, girlfriends, and family members who have invested in the dream.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-018-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vii])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [viii]-[xi])
  3. Prologue. “If They Make It, We Make It” West Brookfield, Massachusetts
    (pp. 1-8)

    When the cell phone rings, Jim and Lisa Masteralexis shake their heads. It is late on a summer night, and their three young children have finally fallen asleep. Toys and puzzle pieces and picture books are strewn around the living room. Dinner dishes still sit on the kitchen table, macaroni and cheese on the floor.

    Looking at the caller ID, Jim sees it is one of their newer clients, Randy Ruiz: high maintenance, big bat. A first baseman/DH for the Reading Phillies, he is tearing up the competition. He is leading the Eastern League in batting and is second in...

  4. 1 Crash Davis Territory Scottsdale, Arizona
    (pp. 11-18)

    A few weeks in the Southwest have awakened Doug Clark’s freckles from hibernation. They have blossomed on his powerful forearms. They have started to create sheet music on his slightly lined forehead. And they have cropped up on the temples flanking his hazel eyes—alert, penetrating eyes that are now focused on a television screen in his room at the Days Inn.

    As the cameras settle in on Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, Doug cannot help flashing back to 1998. That was the year when these two larger-than-life stars carried the sport on their broad shoulders. Together the ebullient Sosa,...

  5. 2 Can’t Miss Peoria, Arizona
    (pp. 19-35)

    This is the part he hates.

    The pressure on the mound? That comes with the job description. Going after the three toughest outs in the game as a closer? Brad Baker can deal with that. Hadn’t he proved it? He was recently named the 2004 Southern League (Double-A) Pitcher of the Year, going 2–1 with thirty saves and a 1.57 ERA; then he absolutely blew away hitters in the last month during his first ever call-up to Triple-A. That is why he is here in spring training in Peoria, Arizona, on a major league forty-man roster for the first...

  6. 3 Fluttering Away Fort Myers, Florida
    (pp. 36-50)

    For three long, unforgiving days, Charlie Zink points his blue Yukon Denali down Highway 10, leaving his native northern California, heading south, then east, mile after mile of cruise control, lots of time to reflect. He thinks long and hard about the rocket ship season of 2003, the crash to earth of 2004. By the time he pulls in at the Ramada Inn, the Red Sox minor league hotel in Fort Myers, he has absolutely no idea what to expect.

    He doesn’tlooktroubled, but then again, he never does. There is a certain serenity about Zink, a California cool,...

  7. 4 Manny Being Manny Fort Myers, Florida
    (pp. 51-65)

    In the grand scheme, eighty-six years is a heartbeat, but in New England the period of time from September 1918 until October 2004 had been a historical epoch along the lines of the Pleistocene Era or, more accurately, the Dark Ages. Had ever a people suffered so much? Always the sweetest of fruit had been dangled, always it had been snatched away. It wasn’t just losing. It wasn’t just not winning. It was the anguish of almost.

    Now the Curse of the Bambino had lifted. After their back-from-the-crypt comeback against the Yankees, the Red Sox had made quick work of...

  8. 5 A Dream Deferred Clearwater, Florida; Reading, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 66-80)

    There was always one question; it was always the same. When Luz Ruiz would confront her grandson in the Section 8 apartment they shared on East 136th Street in the South Bronx, she would fold her arms, look him in the eye, and say, “Are you going to go this way, or that way?”

    Life as Luz saw it was a series of decisions. Nothing was more important than making the right ones. God knows there were plenty of wrong ones being made out there on the streets. The sidewalks were strewn with bloodstains and vials of crack and the...

  9. 6 “It’s the Life—the One Everyone Wants to Live” Portland, Oregon
    (pp. 83-92)

    The 2005 Portland Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, provide a few strands of the rich tapestry of minor league baseball.

    Veteran catcher Michel Hernandez is still chasing the American pot of gold he had decided to seek long ago. Back in 1996 at age eighteen, he bolted out of a stadium in Mexico with four Havana Industriales teammates, leaving behind his island nation, family and friends, and the only life he had ever known. His long haul in the minors has been punctuated by a single September call-up, in 2003, and precisely one, deeply treasured major...

  10. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  11. 7 Opposites Attract Portland, Maine
    (pp. 93-103)

    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...

  12. 8 Baseballtown Reading, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 104-118)

    In the first summer of the first year of major league baseball, George Bradley was a superstar. Just eleven days after the nation’s centennial celebration, on July 15, 1876, Bradley turned in an American classic, pitching the sport’s first no-hitter. Hurling for the St. Louis Brown Stockings, one of the charter members of the National League, Bradley dominated the Hartford Dark Blues, 2–0, one of sixteen shutouts he would toss that season, en route to a 45–19 record. An affable fellow with the nickname “Grin,” Bradley hailed from the southeastern Pennsylvania city of Reading.

    At the time of...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  14. 9 “They Got Him!” Pittsfield, Massachusetts
    (pp. 119-140)

    Outside Fenway Park at 5:30 on Sunday afternoon, June 5, business is booming. The highest ticket prices in the major leagues do little to dissuade the fans, who have filled the old ball yard for the 171st straight time, and now stream out wearing their souvenir T-shirts paying homage to Big Papi or Manny or Johnny Damon. They pour into the Cask’N Flagon, or hang out at Remdawg’s, belting out “Sweet Caroline.” Munching overpriced Cuban sandwiches from El Tiante, or sitting under green umbrellas and throwing back the beers, they toast the good times (another late win, 6–3, over...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. 10 Waiting (on Deck) for Godot Portland, Oregon; Selah, Washington
    (pp. 141-156)

    On the first full day of summer, Wednesday, June 22, 2005, there is still a cascade of sparkling sunlight as the 7:05 game time approaches at PGE Park in Portland, Oregon. The Beavers, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, are hosting the Fresno Grizzlies, top farm team of the San Francisco Giants. While the Grizzlies stretch in right field, taking sidestep leads on the foul line, crossing over, then running three-quarter sprints into the emerald outfield, the PA system pumps in an anthem from the Summer of Love: “If You’re Going to San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear...

  17. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  18. 11 Suspended Disbelief Reading, Pennsylvania
    (pp. 159-167)

    The full-page ad on the back of the sports section ofUSA Todayon Monday, July 18, 2005, looks slick. The ad consists of three images. On top is a picture of a handsome man with a dark mustache, designer sunglasses atop the brim of his Baltimore Orioles cap, his expression calm and focused. On the bottom, the same man is captured completing his graceful swing, the top hand coming off the bat, the ball heading deep in a hurry. The photographs are separated by the middle image, two seams of a baseball. On the pristine white surface are printed...

  19. 12 The Three Hardest Outs in the Game Portland, Oregon; Leyden, Massachusetts
    (pp. 168-173)

    Broadcasting on the evening of July 13, Dave Barnett tells his audience: “Tonight, fans will be treated to the best in minor league baseball. It’s the 2005 Triple-A All-Star Game presented in stunning high definition on ESPN2. . . . It is one level below, one phone call away from The Show. There are prospects and journeymen, phenoms and veterans, all with one goal in mind. Most future stars make their last minor league stop in Triple-A, one final plateau before they can call themselves major leaguers. The Triple-A All-Star Game has played host to many of baseball’s brightest stars...

  20. 13 Goose Bumps Pawtucket, Rhode Island
    (pp. 174-186)

    The MBTA’s number 23 bus is Javy Colon’s usual route. Back and forth he goes, driving between Ashmont Station in Dorchester and Ruggles Station on the site of the old South End Grounds, home a century ago of the Boston Braves. This is one of the three busiest routes in Boston, carrying over twelve thousand passengers a day. It is also one of the most dangerous, passing through areas of Dorchester and Roxbury with boarded- up buildings and plenty of drug dealing. Once in awhile, that spills onto the bus, but Javy rarely has problems. He has been at this...

  21. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  22. 14 “If You Make It, We Will Come” Portland, Maine
    (pp. 187-198)

    On a sparkling Saturday, July 16, 2005, Charlie Zink stands in the home dugout at Hadlock Field, “Sea Dogs” across the front of his jersey, a familiar logo and the words “Boston Red Sox” on his left sleeve. He stares long and hard at the pitching mound. It is a place where he has known some dazzling success. The mound can be, he knows, the most treasured terrain in sports, literally elevated over the playing surface. When things are going well as a pitcher, you are the king of the mountain.

    He also knows that the mound can be a...

  23. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  24. 15 At Heaven’s Door Springfield, Massachusetts
    (pp. 199-214)

    Doug Clark steps out of a gray Ford Escort in the familiar parking lot at Springfield Central High School. It is Monday morning, September 12, and it is already steamy at 6:50 as he enters the building, his brain fuzzed with jet lag. He didn’t get home until Saturday night, and after seven months out west, his body is protesting:C’mon, man, it’s not even four o’clock.Still, he knows it’s time to go to work.

    The days when major leaguers had to work an off-season job—Pirates’ third baseman Richie Hebner used to dig graves back in the 1970s...

  25. 16 There’s Always Next Year, Sometimes
    (pp. 217-232)

    The 2005 minor league baseball season was a mixture of the puerile, the peculiar, the pure, and the poignant.

    In New Britain, Connecticut, a between-innings promotion featured a competition of “Musical Toilets,” involving four kids and three plumbing fixtures as the PA system blared out “Go Johnny Go.” The Bowie (Maryland) Baysox went one better—or worse—with their third annual attempt at an alleged record for whoopee cushion use on the Fourth of July. (“Thousands of baseball fans will create simulated flatulence as they attempt to enter theGuinness Book of World Recordsby simultaneously sitting on whoopee cushions...

  26. 17 Going Home Again Boston
    (pp. 235-238)

    Big beams of sunlight shine through the ominous purple clouds that roll into Boston in the middle of the afternoon on Tuesday, August 12, 2008. The natural spotlights touch down everywhere: on the sailboats bobbing along the Charles River, on the brownstones of Beacon Street, on the scalpers hustling tickets on Yawkey Way.

    Manny Delcarmen parks his Hummer in the players’ parking lot down the right field line. The kid who grew up leaning worshipfully over the bullpen in right center is now, if not a bona fide star, an established member of the Boston Red Sox. At the age...

  27. 18 A Giant among Legends Somewhere over the Pacific Ocean
    (pp. 239-246)

    While the Red Sox get ready to take on the Texas Rangers on the night of August 12, 2008, Doug Clark heads back to join his team, far, far away. Over eleven seasons as a professional baseball player he had known hundreds of thousands of miles of travel, much of it bad. There had been the numbing bus rides in the low minors, some of them ten hours or more. In Triple-A he had endured some galling early morning flights, shoving shirts in a duffel bag after a night game at home, getting picked up in a van a few...

  28. 19 Knockin’ after Midnight Minneapolis, Minnesota
    (pp. 247-265)

    The post on waswatching.com, a blog billed as a “laconic commentary from a Yankeeland zealot,” came from “hopbitters” on April 25, 2006. It read: “I never heard of Randy Ruiz before, but, my God, is the guy the ultimate loser.”

    Hopbitters was responding to the signing of Ruiz that week by the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees Double-A affiliate in the Eastern League. The post referred to a claim attributed to Ruiz that his positive drug test in 2005 might have stemmed from his use of Viagra. “Viagra has nothing to do with steroids,” hopbitters wrote. “Though the young man no...

  29. 20 “Just Hoping to Have It Be Over” (Torra) Colorado Springs, Colorado
    (pp. 266-268)

    Matt Torra warms up in the bullpen on August 12, 2008, trying to feel strong. He is pitching for the Tucson Sidewinders on a warm and windy night in Colorado against the Sky Sox.

    He is barely twenty-four, but at times he feels much older. The path back from shoulder surgery has been far tougher than he thought.

    At first, when that “giant knot” in his shoulder had been diagnosed as a labrum tear just weeks after he turned pro in 2005, he thought he could power through it. Sure, it was shoulder surgery, serious business, but wasn’t Matt the...

  30. 21 On the Big Screen (Baker) Greenfield, Massachusetts
    (pp. 269-274)

    The first phone call Vicki Baker received on May 14, 2006, came from her eldest son, Bradley. He was down on the field with his Richmond Braves teammates, getting ready for a game against the Toledo Mud Hens. He just wanted to wish her a happy Mother’s Day.

    All was well up on Baker Hill. Brad’s sister Jill had made a remarkable recovery from the car accident in November that had fractured vertebrae in her neck and between her shoulder blades. Uncle Jeff was doing fine, driving down to his financial planning job in Greenfield every day. Grams was in...

  31. 22 “The Path of the Knuckleballer Is Rarely Linear” Boston
    (pp. 275-291)

    “Tickets! Tickets! Who needs tickets?”

    It is late on a Tuesday afternoon outside Fenway Park. The Texas Rangers, the top-hitting team in baseball, are in town as the Red Sox, in second place with a 68–51 record, begin a critical home stand. The game is sold out for the 444th time in a row—just eleven shy of the major league record—but there are, of course, tickets available outside the ballpark to fans willing to shell out big bucks.

    Three and a half hours before the first pitch, it is already a bustling scene. There are pregame toasts...

  32. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  33. Epilogue. The Strangest Luck
    (pp. 292-302)

    A year later, almost to the day, Charlie Zink is back on the mound at Fenway Park, the words “Red Sox” splashed across his chest. But this afternoon, August 8, 2009, serves merely as a cruel piece of irony. Charlie is starting for the Pawtucket Red Sox in the annual “Futures at Fenway” showcase in the midst of a dreadful 2009 season during which such a future seems impossible. His ghostball has vanished once again.

    Today is typical of a lost season: five runs on six hits in five and one-third innings, with three walks, two hit batters, and another...

  34. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 303-306)
  35. Notes
    (pp. 307-314)
  36. Index
    (pp. 315-323)
  37. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-325)