Heart of the Game:
Life, Death, and Mercy in Minor League America
by Scott L. Price, © 2009, ISBN 978-0-06-167130-2
It's easy for the world to ignore baseball's minor league system; that it's so ignorable, in fact,
is one of its enduring attractions. Baseball has always peddled treacle: The game is about fathers and sons, or clean-cheeked family fun, or an
idyllic past when small-town neighbors looked after each other. Unlike any other sport, its core appeal is sentimental. From a fan's perspective,
the minor league teams remain a tonic to the manic flood of big-city sports,
Armageddon championships! Super Bowl! NCAA Tournament! Olympics! and the know-it-all posturing of Internet blather.
Go to a ballpark in Memphis, Midland, or Asheville and no one, not even the players themselves, will expect you to know anything, much
less everything, about the teams taking the field. The crowds are tiny, the prices low, the pace languorous. You may well, as baseball
fans like to boast, see some wrinkle in the game you've never seen before. You may even see a spectacular catch you'll remember the rest of
your life. But the feeling you walk away with is usually the same, almost always the opposite of pro or big-time college games plumped
thick with the juice of clever sneaker commercials and endless analysis: blissful disregard. Peanut shells crunch under your feet. Humidity
lies on your skin like a tarp. The score doesn't matter much, and may well be forgotten by the time you roll out of the parking lot. Your kid
carries his team cup, or the wristbands they gave away, and you wonder how hot it must feel wearing the mascot's fuzzy getup. You think about
work on the way home. It was a night out, a step or two up from a carnival. Fun.
Minor league baseball also sells itself as a place where major league dreams are born, the place to see
stars before they get too big and leave, and as a marketing play it's the only one to make. You always want to flatter your audience, and it's
never bad to reinforce the collective hope that, like those ballplayers scrambling around the field, we're all just punching our tickets here;
we all can move up and out of this small town someday; we all have roots but are capable of leaving them behind. The truth wouldn't sell nearly
as well: too scary, too depressing. The fact is, from the players' perspective, there's nothing casual or forgettable about any game in the
minors. Every pitch and every play is, to at least one man there, loaded with significance. Minor league baseball is an endless winnowing process.
Cast for months into a confined space where people are promoted, demoted, traded, and released every day, where today's teammate is tomorrow's
memory, players literally live with rejection. No one can truly relax; even the most secure prospects sense the insidious thrum of fear.
The pressure to perform is crushingly heavy, the financial cushion nonexistent, the line between haves and havenots vividly pronounced. Maybe two or three of the players you saw have a chance
of playing in the major leagues. The rest, no matter how they perform, are learning— maybe even tonight— that this year or next
year or the year after, they'll be going back to their own hometowns and humdrum jobs for good.
Still, the minors is where everything about the game is taught: not just the time and place to hit the cutoff man or translate the signal
for a hit-and-run, but the secret language, the hidden codes, the way to walk, trot, run, and speak the way DiMaggio, Mays, Aaron, and Feller
learned to walk, trot, run, and speak. On the whole it's a conservative world, with hidebound mores and a near mystical regard for what is
generally called "the game"— a term that stands less for rules and scoring than for a way of looking at life. Players learn plenty in the minors,
but the biggest lesson is always the one they didn't, as onetime superstars, ever expect: how to lose, how to fail, how to get kicked
in the teeth and pretend to come up smiling; how, in the great baseball paradox, to learn to give yourself to "the game" even as you feel it
operating contrary to all you've been taught, even as it rewards those who don't "respect the game" or give themselves up for the team.
Because baseball does that, too, especially in the minors: It teaches a man how to endure being crushed and then stand up and
declare himself in love with that crusher, for life.