Get Lit: Working at the Ballpark: The Fascinating Lives of Baseball People from Peanut Vendors and Broadcasters to Players and Managers, by Tom Jones
Tom Jones had a nice idea: delve into the lives of those living the dream, the dream of being paid to go to the ballpark everyday. There’s just one problem with the resulting book, Working At The Ballpark : it doesn’t really tell us anything about any of the 50 people with whom Jones spoke.
Jones has spent the past 30 years of his life as a legislative director in the administration of the last five California governors. He tells us in his introduction that he has loved baseball since his first trip to Candlestick Park in 1960. And he uses this book to, as he tells us, get the stories of those who work at the ballpark. He wants to know what their job is, how they got it, and what that job means to them. And he did this by traveling across the country and talking to owners and general managers and managers and coaches and players and scouts and broadcasters and writers and ushers and PR people and vendors. If a person worked at the ballpark, he spoke to them.
As someone who worked at the ballpark for nearly 15 years, I was interested in reading these stories. I wanted to know how many of the support crew shared my situation: I knew somebody who knew somebody and I fell into the job at just the right time. And I got my answer: a lot of them.
But I had real problems reading the book, and it comes in the telling of the stories. Apparently, what Jones did was take a tape recorder and interview these people. Then he transcribed the interviews – cutting out all of his conversation – and just put these transcriptions into a book divided by chapters. So in one chapter you have the owner, the GM, the CEO, the ballpark architect, etc., then the next chapter has the coaches and trainers, then the next chapter has the hitters and fielders, and so on.
There’s no context to anything. There’s no feeling of setting. Jones makes no attempt to tie any of these stories into a more central narrative. And after a while, all of the stories begin to sound the same – especially when it comes to the coaches and players.
This would’ve been a much better, more compelling book if Jones would have adopted the method used by John Feinstein or Buster Olney. They, too, do all of these interviews and observe the people working, but then they find a central narrative to tie everything together. Buster Olney’s Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty was the story of Game Seven of the 2001 World Series. And he told the story of that game, pitch-by-pitch, batter-by-batter, out-by-out. But interwoven amongst all of this was how the Yankees were built, so we get the stories of the scouts and the coaches. We get nuggets on Paul O’Neill and his father and Chuck Knoblauch and his yips. And John Feinstein’s The Punch is a story of an event that happens in a matter of seconds, but amongst these few seconds he interweaves stories of coaches and players and executives and families and doctors.
It would’ve been better if Jones had told the story of a day at the ballpark. Starting with the arrival of the office personnel and clubhouse crew. Then the coaches and trainers and players start arriving. Batting practice starts and the gates open and the ushers and vendors are working. The PA announcer gets to work and the scoreboard crew starts up the boards. And as all of this is going on, Jones would be interweaving the stories of scoreboard operator Bruce Wilson as he inputs data for use in the game. And Pete Quibell is ushering people to their seats while Chris Hanson crawls into his costume and Eric Byrnes takes batting practice.
As the game goes along Derrick Turnbow trots out to the bullpen while Mike Hargrove tries to think several batters ahead and the next move he needs to make. Pat Gillick will be on the phone trying to trade for Nick Johnson and Fieldin Culbreth will chat with Philip Merkord as Larry Frattare reminds himself to relay the score to those listening on the radio. Then with the final out, Todd Hutcheson starts working on some of his injured players while Bob Watson starts dealing with disciplinary issues and Steven Carlovksy turns in his beer bucket for cash, passing Henry Schulman who’s coming up from the clubhouse to write his game story and Joe Moeller files his scouting report while Mickey Morabito gets all of the players and equipment loaded on to the buses so they can hit the airport for the cross-country flight to New York.
Everybody’s story is linked to someone else’s. If Peter Magowan doesn’t buy the Giants, then Joe Spear doesn’t design AT&T Park and Omar Vizquel is probably out of baseball. But Jones ignores these links. He seems to be more interested in the leaves when, if he were to step back and take a good look, he would see an entire forest just waiting to be transformed into Louisville Sluggers.
Jones just transcribes the interviews and lays them out for you to read. And you will read because some of the stories are interesting. But if he would have tried linking all of these stories around a central narrative, this book could’ve been a grand slam. Instead, Jones gets a weak infield single. Sure, he gets to base, but what good is getting to base if you could’ve scored the run instead?
There’s an interesting book in this idea, but Working At The Ballpark isn’t it. This is a shame because the true stories he tells us of here are stories deserving to be heard. – John Royal
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