bluegrass baseball

Reviewed by Jeffrey P. Beck, East Tennessee State University

27 February 2013       archive

Katya Cengel is a talented feature writer with a fresh and breezy style and a knack for capturing personalities. Bluegrass Baseball tells of minor league baseball dreams and struggles—the gritty realities and brief careers of players she met in 2010 with four Kentucky baseball teams. These tales portray all the people within and around the teams, not just the players. They are the whole casts of the Class-A Lexington Legends, the AA Bowling Green Hot Rods, the AAA Louisville Bats, and the independent league Florence Freedom. The book, which began as a series of features Cengel wrote for the Louisville-Courier Journal, still reads as a series of lively profiles mingled with cautionary tales of baseball lives, connected only by the bluegrass state, big dreams, and cash considerations.

As Cengel admits bluntly in her introduction—"I am a features writer, and I don't normally cover professional athletes" (xi)—this is not a sports writer's book or a baseball historian's book. In most places, she avoids baseball history altogether, and she often notes that her access to players is distant and mediated. No reader will mistake this for an intimate and extended account of players in their own words—readers wanting that are better off with Dirk Hayhurst's Bullpen Gospels (Citadel) or Marty Dubrow's Knocking on Heaven's Door (University of Massachusetts). But Cengel does reward readers who want to taste the rich variety of the minors, irrespective of organization or league. What unites these different teams and settings? Above all, the thread of baseball business, and the people who run it, binds the volume tightly. Cengel's direct portrayals of club presidents, general managers, ushers, and almost everyone connected with these teams, are brisk, sometimes poignant, and always pleasurable to read. She is a profile writer's profile writer—who somehow found herself with a notepad in a minor league baseball stadium.

Even with this disclaimer, baseball fans will be intrigued that Cengel covered the Louisville Bats when the most talented pitching prospect in a decade, the Cuban phenom Arnoldis Chapman, played in AAA. And Cengel is aware of Chapman's value as the Cincinnati Reds' "$30.25 million investment," devoting parts of chapters 6 and 7 to Chapman, although regretting that "individual interviews [with the player] are impossible." While the chapters contains more personal information about Bats' players Justin Lehr, Chris Burke, and Matt Maloney, Cengel does gain second-hand access to Chapman through his Venezuelan trainer and translator, Tomas Vera, and others in Louisville. And we do learn some details about Chapman's private life from Vera, such as the challenge of a young Cuban managing so much newly-minted money in a strange country, and that "Aroldis is lost without his GPS." It is not Vera or Cengal herself, but an usher who most accurately describes Chapman as a prospect in 2010—"he's a thrower, not a pitcher." But what a thrower, with a devastating 100-mph fastball! And Vera is quick to chime in that, "Aroldis doesn't frustrate. … He know [sic] there are things he can control and things he cannot control" (98). Ironically, Cengal notes that Chapman not only boosted Louisville attendance, but he also guided the future of Veras. When Chapman improved dramatically after a move to the bullpen, he was called up to the Reds on August 31. And so was Vera as his "translator/right hand."

The most engaging stories in Bluegrass Baseball are not, however, of those of the players. In fact, Cengel tells more of the ballpark executives, staff members, players' wives, and fans than she does of the players. So she begins the first chapter of the book with a delightful profile of Allen Stein, the founder, president, and marketing engine behind the Lexington Legends. "He is obsessed, "she jibes, "He had to be to do what he did" (4). Cengel's vivid profile of Stein details how his obsession led him to form a group of twenty-two investors to start up the Legends, to do very public auditions of national anthem singers, and to make some outrageous bets. The audacious bets with rival team presidents—that the Legends would beat the competition or else—were the stuff of Stein's marketing genius. In losing one bet, he commenced eating cat food in front of laughing reporters and flashing cameras. In another, he shaved his head and tinted it with sponsors' logos. And best, Stein vowed to remain in his seat at Legends stadium until the team won—and so sat there for three days and nights, while helicopters circled and news crews reported. In all, the stunt brought the team a half million dollars in free media, making Stein more of a local "Legend" than the players with short stints in Lexington.

And Alan is just one of the vivid minor league executives that energize the minors. There is Mary E. Barney, the team "Mom," who rose from receptionist to the head of baseball operations in Louisville. And there is Bowling Green General Manager Brad Owens, who helped devise "What Might Have Been Night," named the best baseball promotion of the year in 2009. And Tom Gautier, the Bowling Green announcer who also doubles as the dancing mascot, "Axel the Bear." All in the name of minor league fun and money.

If Cengel admits that America's "other pastime is making money," and that zany entertainment trumps athletic achievement in the minor leagues, she still shows keen interest in the players. She does not ride the bus with them. Nor does she talk baseball much with them. But she does join the ballplayers' girlfriends and wives in the bleachers, and learns of their off-season jobs, cramped apartments, planned weddings, pets, and their uncertain futures. And sometimes, even, a player speaks personally to her, of their injuries and rehabs, of the young son or daughter far away that they see by Skype. Or, as former Houston Astro Chris Burke did, of calling it quits for good, just before his team released him, and going back to college.

Bluegrass Baseball portrays its large cast of characters with honesty and journalistic skill. It is a fast and engaging read. Cengel's book may never make it to the big screen—as it tells uncomfortable truths and often belies the romance of minor league baseball. But it does offer some unforgettable stories of baseball business—the hustling execs, the passionate staffs, the admiring fans, and those vital young men with their bracing realities.

Cengel, Katya. Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. Paper $19.95. 253 + xvii. Illus. ISBN 978-0-8032-3538-9.

Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey P. Beck

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