- Bluegrass Baseball: A Year in the Minor League Life by Katya Cengel
In Bluegrass Baseball, freelance writer Katya Cengel sheds light on the lives of mostly little-known minor league and independent baseball players in Kentucky. Hers is an accessible, at times entertaining, account of the day-to-day experiences of players, managers, front office staff, wives and girlfriends, fans, mascots, and even a team bus driver during the 2010 season—an afterword brings the reader up to 2011. The teams that Cengel follows are the Louisville Bats, the Cincinnati Reds AAA team; the Bowling Green Hot Rods, Class A team for the Tampa Bay Rays; the Lexington Legends, then a Houston Astros Class A team (since affiliated with the Kansas City Royals); and the unaffiliated Florence Freedom.
The book is broken into four parts, one for each team, and further subdivided into chapters of varying lengths. Cengel’s interest is journalistic, and her descriptions of everyone from owners to fans are the strength and weakness of this book. On the positive side, she humanizes both the wide-eyed draftee and the veteran fending off injuries, family [End Page 335] obligations, and the nagging sense that he will never make it to the Show (the major leagues). “Baseball is a game of failure,” sums up Billy Mottram (p. 239), then an out-fielder for the Freedom—an independent team at the bottom of professional baseball’s totem pole.
On the negative side, Cengel’s book is plagued by unexceptional writing, a lack of editorial discipline, and a superficial understanding of her subject. Because she indulges so many perspectives, it is tough to keep the Chrises, Billys, Tims, and Toms straight—never mind the women in their lives, many of whose names begin with a “K” (Katie, Kathy, Kari, Kalee, Kristen, etc.). Those seeking a lucid history of minor league and independent baseball, or even a contemporary account of their inner workings, would best look elsewhere. Cengel weaves in brief descriptions but misses the nuances—for instance, how rookie league compares with Class A, or how the rhythms of short-season play differ from the 140-game variety. The book would have benefited enormously from an introductory chapter on the trellis of leagues (foreign and domestic) supporting Major League Baseball and how these four teams in particular fit into that hierarchy. Instead, other than shared geographic location, the book makes no argument for what, if anything, connects these four teams.
More problematically, Cengel is disinterested in probing the globalization of professional baseball and its consequences. In discussing the hometown heroes of these Kentucky teams, for instance, she might have considered whether having fewer U.S. and/or English-speaking ballplayers has impacted attendance and fan interest. In relating the tales of a handful of “Latin” (her term) players, moreover, she might have questioned how well the teams have integrated them into host communities. The circumstances of most of the Latin American players she describes sound precarious at best. In Lexington, for instance, several share a condominium, sleep on air mattresses, rely on English-speaking Latinos to deliver their rent and help purchase groceries, and wait for rides to the ballpark (pp. 40–41). Cengel never holds management accountable for these players’ isolation.
Racial and gender issues, on the whole, are treated with kid gloves. The absence of African Americans, in particular, speaks volumes. There were either none on these teams in 2010, Cengel did not interview them, or she did not feel it important to discuss them despite growing alarm over African Americans’ disappearance from American diamonds. And while Cengel treats wives, girlfriends, mothers, and female fans sympathetically (with the exception of the “cleat chasers” who seek players’ company after hours), she fails to challenge the underlying gender dynamics of professional baseball—where women are valued behind the scenes but rarely constitute a public presence. An interesting exception is the relationship between Toby Rumfield, Freedom manager during the 2010 season, and his wife Kari, who went from running an Outback Steakhouse...