Author enters baseball's world of dreams as minor league owner
Ever since he revisited the old Brooklyn Dodgers in ``The Boys of Summer,'' Roger Kahn has been besieged by suggestions that he do similar nostalgia books about other great teams of the past. ``Not just baseball teams either,'' Kahn recalls. ``People said, `Do the old Cleveland Browns, the old Chicago Bears.' But I didn't know those teams. I hadn't traveled with those players. It just wouldn't have been the same.''
Then he got a different idea. ``The Boys of Summer'' had dealt with middle-aged men a couple of decades after their days of glory; why not a book about the other end of the spectrum?
Thus, ``Good Enough to Dream,'' Kahn's latest work, which chronicles his experiences as owner of a minor league team in Utica, N.Y., during the 1983 season.
``It's sort of a reverse,'' the author said in a recent interview. `` `The Boys of Summer' was a book about players whose dreams were behind them. This one is about kids whose dreams are still ahead.''
Kahn's original idea was to manage a minor league team, but the more he considered what a manager goes through, the less enthusiastic he became. So he opted for the front office instead -- only to discover that this wasn't any picnic either.
``The first thing to do when you own a minor league team is not go bankrupt,'' Kahn said. ``And you learn pretty quickly that a great deal of running a club has very little to do with baseball. You spend a lot of time running the office, issuing memos, balancing the accounts, even figuring out how much ice goes into a soft drink at the concession stand. It was a very educational experience.''
The new owner also found out quickly that it takes more than a baseball game to bring in fans at that level.
``I prefer the purist idea that the game itself should be enough,'' he said, ``but realistically, you can't get people into a minor league park that way. We had trivia contests, a Miss Utica beauty contest, all sorts of things.
``I'll never forget the night we had a player talent contest. One kid sang country and western, and another balanced a bike on his chin. There was even a farm boy who imitated the love call of a female turkey. He didn't know it, but we tried all over to get a male turkey for the occasion. We were gonna let it loose and see what happened. But we couldn't get one.''
Obviously Kahn had fun -- which was the main idea. It helped, of course, that his team was involved in a red-hot pennant race, eventually finishing first in the regular New York-Pennsylvania League season and winning the playoffs as well. But he doesn't want anyone to think this happened by chance.
``I didn't just buy a pig in a poke,'' he said. ``I had done my homework. I knew the Blue Sox had good players. Of course I didn't plan it out to winning the pennant on the last day! But I was pretty sure we'd be in contention.''
Back in the early '50s when he covered the Dodger team he later chronicled in ``The Boys of Summer,'' Kahn was a young writer more or less contemporary with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, Pee Wee Reese, and the other famous players he spent so much time with.
With the Blue Sox, though, there was a ``generation gap'' -- especially concerning such things as tastes in music and the updating of his vocabulary. ``I found out that a bloop hit is now a flare,'' he said. ``I learned what a `seed' is [an especially good fastball]. And I heard `totally awesome' more times than I can count.'' But basically he developed a great camaraderie with his young players and found himself almost totally immersed in their drive to win the championship.
``It was every bit as real and magical as any pennant race I ever covered in the big leagues,'' he said.
Kahn also thinks most fans would be surprised at the level of play even at this lowest rung of the professional ladder, where the parks are small, the infields are bumpy, and first-class transportation is likely to be an old school bus.
``People just don't know how good baseball can be at this level,'' he said. ``Some of my friends had the idea they could play against these kids, but they changed their minds quickly enough when they saw 90 m.p.h. fastballs; hard sliders; and all those big, strong players. This was very tough professional baseball.''
And yet, as he also points out, none of those players has made the majors -- if indeed any of them ever will. There are so many fine young prospects battling for a relatively few big league spots that the majority will always be disappointed. But just to see them try -- and dream -- can be quite an experience.