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In the early 1990s, when Canadian psychology professor Hank Davis began his journalistic odyssey through North America’s minor leagues, small-time baseball was just beginning to undergo an unprecedented revival. Fans who found themselves tired of the slickness, arrogance, and priceyness of major-league ball began flocking to small-town stadiums for quiet evenings and sunny afternoons of baseball as it was supposed to be played.
The attraction was undeniable, and Davis set out to chronicle the quirky, once apparently vanishing yet oddly resurgent life of the minors. Davis aspired to depth; he visited almost 30 minor-league cities, ranging from the recognizable (Buffalo and Toledo) to the flyspeck (Princeton, W.Va., and Welland, Ontario), and to his credit, the resulting book will prove a valuable legacy to future scholars of the game, both for its prose and for its pictures (Davis is a competent if uninspiring photographer).
Yet in seeking depth, Davis struck something of a devil’s bargain. The telling details he sought to uncover—some of them lovely—came at the expense of an exorbitant amount of time. And unfortunately for the author, time has passed him by. Since Davis began his research, several detailed portraits of the minors have emerged, from Paul Hemphill’s The Heart of the Game to Brett H. Mandel’s Minor Players, Major Dreams to a ton of magazine and television accounts, all of which, to a greater or lesser degree, have received favorable reviews. In this context, Davis’ achievements—considering his six years of travel and the thick clothbound volume they produced—are rather slight.
But this is not to say that Small Town Heroes is lacking in pleasures. A talented observer and an easy confidant, Davis communicates well the fleeting, random events that permeate minor-league life, from the general manager who pulls duty chopping onions for stadium chili dogs to the men and women who are paid to inhabit silly mascot suits. Even his mild fetishes—tracking down players who hail from Canada or from the Ivy League—are not excessively grating.
On several occasions, Davis manages to capture the minor leagues’ hard economic realities. Even as the minors become a hot ticket, a surprising number of teams he encounters have either recently relocated, are in the midst of fighting off a move, or appear doomed to financial failure. Often, the players are in even worse shape. In one scene, newly imported Latin American prospects chow down on fast food and gaze across the street toward an Anglo teammate who’s eating at an Applebee’s franchise—a restaurant that, although modest to American eyes, exists for them only as an unattainable fantasy. For many Latino prospects, one coach notes, all-you-can-eat buffet tables are “like going to heaven without having to do the dying part.”
Stylistically, Davis ventures into Roger Angell territory and occasionally manages to justify the comparison. A short discussion with Jim Lemon, a one-time Washington Senators skipper now marking time in Elizabethton, Tenn., positively crackles, as Lemon challenges Davis to do a better job explaining the minors than the movie Bull Durham did. (For reasons that remain mystically obscure, Lemon appears to hold the movie in unredeemable contempt.) Another time, Davis huddles for shelter during a rained-out game with a team of umpires who explain their lonely travails. While essential to the smooth operation of minor-league ball, the umpires are variously scorned, taken advantage of, and forgotten.
Davis saves his best insight, a striking metaphor, for the very end. He tells of a time five years earlier when he bought 13 cheap goldfish to stock his backyard pool. The first night, eight were eaten by predators, but to Davis’ surprise, the remaining five showed enough “pond smarts” to survive the next five years. Eventually a foot long, the fish spawned hundreds if not thousands of fry each year, but like clockwork only about 30 survived to make the trip inside his house for the winter. “The place,” he says, “is perfectly in balance without my help.” So too, he continues, is baseball a natural ecosystem in which the fittest survive and squeeze out the others.
Spending six years with the little-fish people—players whose first baseball-card photo shoot may also be their last, and coaches who cling nostalgically to their one line of stats in the Baseball Encyclopedia—would have been infinitely more poignant had Davis employed this metaphor earlier. As it is, his decision not to do so merely shines a spotlight on one of Davis’ biggest failures: his inability to illuminate the competing pressures of cooperation and competition that wreak havoc on minor leaguers’ psyches.
In the end, Davis’ book includes more aimless chattering than profundity, and that is, in a way, appropriate—after all, what is baseball but lazy, discursive yammerings on a summer afternoon? Still, there’s much a quicker way to discover the essence of the minor leagues: Ignore Jim Lemon’s advice and rent Bull Durham. After almost a decade, the movie that kicked off the minor-league revival remains its best distillation in any medium. Small Town Heroes will likely be remembered, if at all, as a little fish in the minor leagues’ expanding literary pond. CP