When we think of baseball, we tend to think of the players and the managers - the big-money, high-profile guys. We don't give much thought to or realize the whole cast of supporting characters that it takes to run the show.
George Gmelch and J.J. Weiner bring these other jobs to life in their "In the Ballpark." Based on a collection of oral histories, the book shares inner thoughts and candid opinions on the game from those who work behind the scenes: everyone from beer vendors and ushers to general managers and owners in both the major and minor leagues.Mostly what we learn from the 21 interviews included here is that in baseball, the hours are long, the pay is low and the season grueling, especially in the minor leagues.
There is ample evidence to support the cliche of our times: baseball is a business. But in the lives and work of these supporting players, there is also reason why it is more than just a business. It is a game, an icon, a passion. And for most who work in it, that abiding love gets them through the tough times.
"Baseball is a very humbling game," says New York Yankee outfielder Bernie Williams. "Just when you think you are on top and feel like you are big and nobody can get you out, you go into a slump and everybody gets you out. You are always dealing with failure, it seems . . . What gives me the biggest high is being a determining factor in the outcome of the game. It means a lot when the fans like what you do, but it means a whole lot more when your teammates congratulate you and realize that you were a factor."
Bernie's wife, Waleska, has a bit different view of the game: "People on the outside don't realize how much of a ballplayer's life revolves around baseball. . . . I went into marriage thinking it was a fifty-fifty thing, but now I find myself doing lots of things that I thought we would share. With road trips and all, Bernie is not always around to help."
Paul Zwaska, head grounds-keeper for the Baltimore Orioles, sees the game mostly in terms of grass and dirt and weather. "Whenever I go upstairs to the front office, where you can look out the windows, I always stop and look down at the field to see what it looks like from above. I like baseball, but even more I like how a baseball field looks - especially when it's in its prime. And when I watch a game on TV, I'm always looking at the other guy's field."
Billy Johnson, assistant general manager for the Kingston Indians, began his career as the mascot for the Louisville Redbirds during college and has worked in the minor leagues ever since. As assistant general manager, a lot of his time is spent selling ads and promotions. "I love selling. I wouldn't sell encyclopedias or cars. But baseball I can sell because I believe in baseball. I believe it brings people together. That's corny, but it's true. Thousands of people come to the park, and everybody is enjoying the same thing. For those few hours, there is nothing else in the world going on. . . . The issues that divide people aren't raised in a ballpark. I believe in that."
Those same feelings for the game are revealed in narratives from announcers, broadcasters, managers, scouts, trainers, umpires and all the others whose lives are caught up in the game. Grouped in sections, the book takes us into the stands, onto the field, into the press box and the front office. The accounts have been skillfully edited to provide continuity, but for the most part these workers speak for themselves - eloquently and interestingly. And their feelings for the game come through clearly.
"Time after time we were told that job turnover in the front offices of baseball was very low because baseball people rarely quit their jobs - `once you're in baseball, you stay in,' " write the authors. "Perhaps nowhere is the allure of baseball better seen than in the narratives of those who left the game and later yearned to return."
Baseball has long held a unique spot in the hearts of sports fans. "In the Ballpark" helps us to understand why. It adds a new dimension to the game. And those who read it will probably never watch the game in quite the same way again.