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The Charm Of Life In Baseball’s Bush Leagues

The national pastime is in its annual October glory, with every strikeout, home run and defensive gem magnified under the bright klieg lights of national television.

The Charm Of Life In Baseball's Bush Leagues

Special Event With Author Katya Cengel

Katya Cengel will be sharing stories like these this Friday, Oct. 19 at Players Sports Bar, 7061 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Kearny Mesa with a reading from her book at 7 p.m. She will be joined by author John Billheimer, who will read from his mystery “Field of Schemes” set in the minor leagues. The event is sponsored by Mysterious Galaxy bookstore.

But every star on baseball’s biggest stage this month once knew a baseball world far from the grand spectacle of postseason baseball.

They took overnight bus trips, slept in rented beds, gorged on fast food and put personal lives on hold in order to chase their dreams of earning a place in The Show.

Even megamillionaires like Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrerra and Giants All-Star Buster Posey had to fight their way up through baseball’s minor leagues – the “bushes” – where the odds of making it to The Majors are longer than a two-lane mountain road from Louisville to Chattanooga.

It’s this pure, distilled and wholly accessible brand of ball captured in “Bluegrass Baseball: A Year In The Minor League Life,” by Katya Cengel (University of Nebraska Press; $19.95).

Cengel, a graduate of UC San Diego, turned an assignment from her editor at The Louisville Courier Journal into a book about young men from across the U.S. and Latin America chasing every little boy’s dream.

“I was intrigued by the players themselves,” said Cengel, now a freelance writer based in the Bay Area. “Baseball has a great tradition of books and stories with broad appeal that capture the hearts of readers who aren’t even baseball fans.

“The minor leagues are all about dreams, all about Americana.”

And what could be more American than trying to lure fans with promotions like the chance to win a free casket? Or the opportunity to get your photo taken in a giant toilet bowl?

“Charmin, the toilet-paper company, had a promotion where they had this huge plastic toilet bowl that people lined up 20 deep to have their photos taken,” said Cengel. They also had a carnival game where fans who threw four out of five toilet-paper rolls into a basket got a T-shirt reading, “Enjoy The Go.”

“Free stuff; people love it!”

Most of the erstwhile players Cengel encountered will never make it to a big-league clubhouse. But some she writes about during her 2010 tour of Kentucky’s minor leagues are livin’ the dream.

One, 5-foot-5-inch Jose Altuve, arrived in a big way, earning a spot in this year’s All-Star Game as a rookie 2nd baseman for the Houston Astros.

It was just two seasons ago that Altuve was chuckling as Jiovanni Mier, his Louisville Legends teammate, would buy a big-screen TV at WalMart on the 30-day return plan, return it and buy another at a different WalMart the next month.

That’s one way that players get by on a couple thousand a month in the summer playing minor-league baseball.

Fans are often tough to come by for minor-league owners, Cengel said. But even bush-league teams have their hard-core followers.

“I followed one independent team, the Florence Freedom; it’s a step below the low minors,” she said. “But they had a group of diehard fans who called themselves the Wall Rats. They had a banner and T-Shirts made up with that name and they never missed a game.

“I asked them what they planned to do when the baseball season ended. They said they’d be cheering on the local roller-derby team.”

Katya Cengel will be sharing stories like these this Friday, Oct. 19 at Players Sports Bar, 7061 Clairemont Mesa Blvd. in Kearny Mesa with a reading from her book at 7 p.m. She will be joined by author John Billheimer, who will read from his mystery “Field of Schemes” set in the minor leagues. The event is sponsored by Mysterious Galaxy bookstore.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | October 18, 2012 at 5:03 p.m. ― 2 years, 2 months ago

Some of my best baseball memories come from watching the St. Paul Saints, in Minnesota. They were owned by Mike Veeck, the son of major league team owner Bill Veeck, and he had a host of gimmicks, including having a pig bring balls out to the umpire. The Saints played in a small field next to the Minnesota state fair grounds. Sitting in the stands you'd see freight trains pull by about four times a game. Co-owner and comic Bill Murray once showed up to coach first base. The Saints games were a little be of baseball heaven, especially in a city where the major league Twins played on artificial turf in a domed stadium.

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