The Heart of the Game
By Paul Hemphill
Simon & Schuster,
284 pp., $23
With its arrogant millionaire players, greedy owners, and big business atmosphere, major league baseball today is about as far removed as you can get from the simpler game many of us remember fondly.
Author and baseball fan Paul Hemphill had grudgingly accepted this for a long time - until one incident crystallized matters and pushed him beyond endurance. The final straw came, ironically enough, during spring training - that idyllic time when the games don't count, the pace is more relaxed, and even the 1990s breed of major leaguer might be expected to lighten up a bit. Not this day, though, and not this player.
As Hemphill relates in the foreword of his entertaining and informative book, "The Heart of the Game," he is one of those dyed-in-the-wool fans who simply have to jump the gun on the regular season via an annual spring training pilgrimage. So each year for as many days as he can afford, he finds a convenient location in Florida, checks out the Grapefruit League schedule each morning - deciding "like a kid in a candy store what delights I would sample that day" - then drives around to various games.
It was at Vero Beach on the final day of his 1993 trip that Hemphill's reverie was broken. Among the home-team Dodgers ambling onto the field was Eric Davis, once a potential superstar but now pretty much a $3.6 million misunderstanding whose .228 batting average, five home runs, and collection of mysterious ailments the previous season hardly seemed to justify such a lofty salary.
To a wide-eyed boy of about 10, though, he was still larger than life, and from the front of the stands the youngster held out a ball while calling out, "Eric, Eric, over here, over here."
Davis declined: "I ain't got time, kid. I gotta get loose". A number of fans overheard the exchange and got on the player, setting up a chant of "sign the ball, sign the ball," but to no avail; Davis stuck to his guns, and a young boy and a middle-aged author/fan both went home disappointed.
If this was what big-league baseball had come to, Hemphill decided, he would look elsewhere for the game as he had known and loved it in more innocent times. "I would check out a bunch of kids chasing their dreams.... There, perhaps, I might find where baseball truly lived."
And so on an April morning he drove past Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, where the defending world champion Braves would be playing that night before 50,000 fans, and continued 90 miles down I-75 to attend the home opener of their Class A farm club in Macon. As fate would have it, the Macon second baseman, Marty Malloy, was a wiry, scrappy kid who reminded Hemphill of himself in his own brief try at pro ball some four decades earlier.
The more he saw, the more he became convinced that in young Malloy he had found "the essence of baseball."
"The Heart of the Game," then, chronicles the life of Marty Malloy from his boyhood in the boondocks of northern Florida, through high school and two years of junior-college ball, through his signing with the Atlanta organization in 1992, and through his first four years in minor-league ball as he moved gradually up the ladder toward a shot at the big show.
As the book's subtitle, "The education of a minor-league ballplayer," indicates, Hemphill shows us the incredible amount of time and effort that go into turning a raw kid with a modicum of talent into a seasoned professional over the course of a few short seasons.
Along the way we learn a lot about Malloy both on and off the field, and quite a bit about the game itself as it is still played in thousands of towns across America at the high school, college, and minor league levels.
We follow Marty through his first pro season in Idaho Falls, the 1993 campaign in Macon where Hemphill "discovered" him, and his promotion to the Durham Bulls of movie fame, where he fights his way out of the worst slump of his young career to post a solid overall performance and earn promotion to Class AA Greenville.
The book essentially ends there, but in an afterward Hemphill fills us in on Malloy's 1995 season, when he played well at Greenville but faced an uncertain future because of a logjam of middle infielders ahead of him in the system. In fact he began the '95 season in Greenville, but got a chance to play at Triple-A Richmond at least temporarily when injuries on the parent club caused a chain-reaction movement up the ladder.
Whether he eventually makes it all the way or not, of course, is anyone's guess, but after following his ups and downs through Hemphill's account, one reader, at least, is rooting for him.