BY BRIAN C. GARDNER
The drive from Whitaker Bank ballpark, home of The Lexington Legends, to Yankee Stadium is 714 miles. But to a player toiling in Baseball’s minor leagues the distance is much greater. In her book, Bluegrass Baseball, former Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Katya Cengel chronicles the trials and tribulations of minor leaguers struggling to make it to Major League Baseball’s big stage. Cengel spent a year following the four minor league teams in Kentucky and provides a compelling account of life in baseball’s netherworld.
The Louisville Bats, Bowling Green Hot Rods, the independent Florence Freedom and the Legends are the four Kentucky teams Cengel follows to study life in the minor leagues. But these teams could have been anywhere as the stories of struggle and sacrifice are universal. She writes in the introduction, “In many ways, the story of independent and Minor League
Baseball in Kentucky is the story of baseball. It is a tale of dreams,
history, and heartache.”
A native of California, Cengel spent eight years as a staff reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal. It was there she wrote about the Louisville Bat players and realized that there “were stories that needed to be told.” The author explores the human condition and the effort required as athletically gifted young men are humbled by a game and a system seemingly designed to create failure.
Cengel wanted to “tell the story of the unpredictable and unglamorous life” of a minor leaguer. Any day a player might get a call from the team that they are being promoted to the next level up the minor league ladder or being let go. Empathizing with these athletes the author follows two players from each team and explores their day to day struggles. Many players, especially those from impoverished Latin countries don’t have cars and thus struggle even getting to the ball park on a daily basis. Most don’t know the first thing about cooking for themselves and spend more time at local fast food chains that the grocery store.
The author recalls one group of nine Latin players crammed into a two bedroom townhouse. Air mattresses served as beds and sheets as curtains. Cengel had to get team permission to make her visit and explore the living conditions. Even with notice of her arrival and time to prepare, the place looked more like “a college dorm room during finals” than the residence of aspiring Major League ballplayers.
When drafted, a handful of players get signing bonuses of a million dollars or more. Most however get far less, depending on their skill level, likelihood to sign with the team and Major League potential. Once with the Legends a player earns $1100 a month and from that must pay for their own room and board. Yankees star shortstop Derek Jeter earns more than that for an innings worth of work. But for every big contract there are dozens of aspiring Jeters hoping to take his place and willing to sleep on floors and subsist on ramen noodles to fulfill their dreams.
For $80, a family of four can get front row seats to a Legends game complete with hot dogs, peanuts and cracker jacks. That same $80 can buy one mid level ticket in Section 232 in Yankee stadium. Recently the Bronx Bombers hosted a three game series with the Boston Red Sox. These two baseball Goliaths have a combined payroll in excess of $400 Million – for one baseball season. It’s natural for fans to focus on these exorbitant salaries for playing a child’s game. But what is overlooked are the struggles and obstacles that must be overcome to advance to even make a Major League roster.
Katya Cengel tells the story of baseball’s working class. Far from the bright lights and big contracts these players and their families sacrifice greatly while chasing an elusive dream. The author provides a rare glimpse into what it takes to become a big leaguer and the cruelty and hardship endured along the way. Its reality TV without cameras or staging. This excellent book is not merely for the baseball fan but for anyone who appreciates effort, hard work and the beauty of struggling for a greater goal.
Katya Cengel will be in Lexington signing her book on Thursday August 30th at 5:30 at the Morris Book Shop and August 31 at Whitaker Bank Ballpark.
The book was written prior to Stein’s retirement in 2011.
Excerpted From Bluegrass Baseball, with permission of Katya Cengel and University of Nebraska Press:
I needed one man. But he wasn’t sure he needed me. Convincing Kentucky’s other Minor League Baseball teams to let me follow them for the season was easy: The team’s public relations representative told the manager they needed to cooperate. And they did. That wasn’t how it worked with the Lexington Legends.
Only Alan Stein could grant me access to the team, and so far it didn’t look like I would make it past his office. Alan sat behind his desk, a classic southern old-boy type, or so I thought, with a mustache, several large shiny rings, suspenders, and a big belly. His schedule is kept by a secretary, and his oldest son is named Wade, after the Confederate Civil War soldier Wade Hampton. But his youngest son is named Scooter, after the late Hall of Fame Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto, nicknamed the Scooter. As I quickly figured out, although Alan wasn’t impressed by the idea of being in a book—he had already been in one—he was impressed that I knew something about
Minor League Baseball.
Later I would discover just how far he was willing to go for the sport, but right then all I needed to know was that I was in with Alan, the Legends’ president. Alan wasn’t always the man in charge. Growing up Jewish in the South in the mid-twentieth century meant the only way he could play golf at the local country club was by sneaking in through a hole in the fence. No blacks. No Jews. When Alan’s dad was invited to be the first Jewish member, he turned them down. He didn’t want to be a token. His eldest child has no such qualms about being referred to as the face of the Legends. Alan is now chief operating officer of a management company that owns multiple Minor League Baseball teams in addition to the Legends, but in a way the Legends are still his, and he is still the Legends. He is obsessed. He had to be to do what he did. But I wouldn’t realize that until later….
Alan Stein is the Legends, from the burly mascot with the handlebar mustache, not unlike Alan’s own mustache, to the design of the stadium and the preseason gimmicks. It all comes out of Alan’s head. And now, ten years after it all began, he is still the guy behind professional baseball in Lexington. “The guy everybody said couldn’t have baseball in town, couldn’t do it without public money” is how the announcer introduces Alan at the auditions.
Whether you like him or not, and most like him, pretty much everyone agrees Alan is the reason the Legends are in Lexington. And he isn’t shy about telling you the story of how he got them here. It is a story as entertaining as the sport he promotes, because if Alan understands one thing, it is that Minor League Baseball is about entertainment.
But before the story of the Legends is the story of Alan. He takes his time telling it, speaking slowly so you don’t miss a word. He starts with his paternal grandparents, who hail from Lithuania. From there he moves to his father, a World War II veteran with an entrepreneur spirit that led him to the restaurant, barbecue wholesale, and construction businesses, among others.