Day 10 of 2023 baseball books: A circus catch with a minor-league degree of difficulty

“Welcome to the Circus of Baseball:
A Story of the Perfect Summer,
at the Perfect Ballpark, at the Perfect Time”

The author:
Ryan McGee

The publishing info:
Doubleday/Penguin/Random House
272 pages; $29
Released April 4, 2023

The links:
The publishers website
At TheLastBookStoreLA

The review in 90 feet or less

Roger Owens’ whereabouts inside Dodger Stadium on any given game may be as much a minor miracle as it is a logistical challenge. It remains one of our most logical pursuits whenever we get the nerve to navigate the traffic inside and out of the ballpark these days.

Why go to a game? One good reason: Check in on Roger Dodger. For love of the game.

Through any stadium entrance, get to the loge level and survey which odd-number aisles of the third-base side Owens may be traversing like some kind of garden maze. Get in his line of vision. Then sheepishly strike up a conversation, even if it causes him to pause from his duties as the iconic peanut vendor performing one of the city’s most noteworthy deeds of the day. For his satisfaction and employment, and for our entertainment experiences.

Owens has given us enough nifty insights into his career over many decades – specifically in 2008 when the Dodgers returned to the L.A. Coliseum to commemorate their 50th anniversary in the city by staging an exhibition game against the Red Sox, and then catching up prior to the Dodgers-Red Sox 2017 World Series. It finally led to local city government proclamations recognizing his impact on our lives.

He’s got his own Internet Movie Database resume — “Men In Tights” in 1993 came about because Mel Brooks knew his work and his role in a crowded gathering — he brought the joy. He’s made several appearance on “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” back in the day. We own a bobblehead — signed — created for him in his honor by a local company — and still not yet distributed at Dodger Stadium in a night that might honor him instead of some marginal relief pitcher.

Roger Owens, right, explains how life is going these days with me and my friend, Chuck, during the Dodgers’ first Sunday home game of the 2023 season.

Even Baseball Almanac recognizes his perfect pitching history in its annals, quoting from the book Owens’ late nephew once wrote about his incredible life of perseverance and family tribulation.

What’s relevant in 2023 is that Owens is, among others, unnecessarily taking the brunt of the residual effects of baseball’s attempt to improve its overall commerce.

New rules extract so-called dead time and try to wrap up nine innings in less than three hours. Great. But it’s only natural that Owens (and other vendors) have less time to sell and generate income. They have to work quicker. That isn’t fair, or easy, for someone like Owens, who just turned 80 on Valentine’s Day and has to deal with arthritic ailments that naturally come from years of going up and down stairs, being in the sunshine as it affects the skin, and also having issues with his hearing. He’s also still wearing the surgical mask because he feels safer.

On top of that: A bag of peanuts has soared to close to $8 a bag with tax.

To ring up sales, Owens needs to lug around a portable credit card scanner – which often is faulty and has to be swapped out for another one. Tips are tougher to generate that way as well. That leads to a jam up of employees trying to replenish during the game.

Owens says he can only get through two cases of peanuts, which have 36 bags each, because of limitations, slower sales and all else that factors in.

This is all on top of a backward edict, still unresolved and unaddressed, that prevents him from tossing fans their bags of peanuts as he has done since the 1950s when he was a teenager at the Coliseum. Or else he’ll get in trouble. Obviously, a bag of nuts he tosses from 20 feet away, by way of a right arm going between his legs, around his back, or over his head, could really, really hurt someone, right? Especially those whose noses are pressed to their cellphones and aren’t paying attention.

All things considered, it would hardly seem to be worth the effort. But this is Roger Owens. Resilient. Persistent. Never shell-shocked by all these distractions. The last homestand, he even had a scary moment when he stumbled over a obstacle meant to keep people in line, went face-first onto the pavement, scratched his glasses, busted up his mouth and came out of it with a bruised left eye. But he came back to pitch after spending some time in the stadium infirmary.

Owens will always defy the odds and figure out how to do his circus-type work, no matter what clowns are running the show.

Despite the fact he’s a vital part of the Dodger Stadium ethos and its atmospheric gauge — take the temperature inside the place, and if it’s sunny and with not a cloud in the sky, it’s because of Owens — he’s never been recognized as a Dodgers employee during the annual season-end recognition. All who are brought onto the field to celebrate their longevity with the organization doesn’t included him only because he is part of the company that provides the food services, and even they are not keen on relaxing rules that allow him to work in the cheerful environment he helped create.

We’ve bubblewrapped so many ballpark things now – and forced upon everyone a technology that enforces a touch-less experience with any purchase. Those over the age of 70 might just as well stay home if they can’t change their habits of the last half century. Those in the 12-and-under age range who come to a mid-week day game with their classroom groups might be handed a $20 bill from their parents to get something to eat, but they must spend time in a line at one of the few kiosks around the stadium that accept bills in exchange for a debit card from an ATM-type machine so they can pay for anything at a concession stand.

Or, to put into Owens’ machine so he is compensated.

It’s amazing that Owens doesn’t just exclaim (everyone scream it out) nuts to this circus. Yet, when he’s there, at work, grinding out another game for the enjoyment of others, we can’t help fell as if we’re inside Roger’s Big Top, and he’s the ring master, joke teller, trying to avoid the elephant in the room.

The peanut gallery has spoken. We’ll get off our crate and try to refocus on another baseball three-ring event.

Dodger Stadium has seen its share of circus acts over the years. The most recent was when Cirque du Soleil pitched a tent in the parking lot and evoke this lead from the Associated Press story in December, 2015:

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The circus is coming to Dodger Stadium.
Cirque du Soleil is raising its blue-and-yellow big top at the home of the Los Angeles Dodgers for the premiere of its latest touring production, “Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities.”

It raised some curiosities about how other ballparks could be converted into circus-friendly facilities.

Which is something that’s been going on with minor-league baseball since it was invented.

Which is why Ryan McGee’s look back at his experience in North Carolina in the early 1990s, at a time when Major League Baseball was losing its charm and forcing its business upon everyone of its loyal souring supporters, is so worthy of re-examining today.

What’s happened to the fun? When did loud sirens and flashing LED lights become the thing to do when someone for the home team hits a home run? Or the loud music with the thumping base beat become the beat of baseball?

Is this how baseball defines fun now?

Mike Veeck, son of baseball visionary Bill Veeck and owner of his own variety of minor-league baseball teams, came out with the 2005 book, “Fun Is Good: How to Create Joy & Passion in Your Workplace and Career.” It was all based on his own experiences at the ballpark, particularly running the St. Paul Saints.

And truth be known: We gave a copy of this book to one-time Dodgers owner Frank McCourt. He seemed genuinely curious about it and we feel he did read it, after thanking us with a note for getting it on his radar.

It’s a minor miracle that minor-league baseball exists to any fun extend any more today.

McGee taps into his writing abilities that finally landed him a job at ESPN (he hasn’t been laid off yet?) and he continues as co-host of “Marty & McGee” with Marty Smith on ESPN Radio. McGee’s writing has also drawn praise for his work on ESPN’s “College GameDay.”

His career trajectory out of college – and landing an internship touring with the Asheville Tourists in North Carolina – is now preserved for entertainment purposes and historical context in these pages. A perfect sized city for minor-league ball, filling a need while waiting on the porch to see if the MLB ever wants to expand into proven real estate.

McGee manages to make words like fertilizer, foam-costumed crustacean, nacho cheese sauce and “Captain Dynamite and His Exploding Coffin of Death” (not really) all dance together in the same pages. It’s poetic justice to a time when McGee can now look back at the poetry in motion he was experiencing.

The bottom line is taking a journey back in time and having distance to process it. From there, McGee shows a concern about how tradition is being canceled by those who aren’t imaginative enough to see its value when numbers are pressed into a spreadsheet.

Circle back to Roger Owens and get back to us when his credit card machine is actually working. He may want to go back to the All-American days with the double bags for $2 and kids could catch them with their baseball gloves.

Maybe he’s got to consider a new gig, at Lake Elsinore. Or Rancho Cucamonga. Or San Bernardino. Head to Vegas for the weekend. Some local minor league ball park where he would be appreciated, beloved, and tipped well.

In cash. And in proper adoration.

How it goes in the scorebook

Shelve it right there next to “Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir,” by Greg Larson (University of Nebraska Press), which we enjoyed reviewing in 2021 and still stays alive on its adjacent website.

The insight Larson gave in “Clubbie” runs parallel to McGee in “Welcome to the Circus of Baseball.”

Full of delight. The meaning of delightful. And shedding light on a subject that needs more historical perspective.

The rhythm is captivating from the start, the stories and incidents of minor league baseball are things we’ve read about in the past, but this is a relevant refresh – especially considering how it is going back in time to 1993, when Major League Baseball was teetering and the minor leagues were the idealistic way to experience the game again on a small-town basis, and how minor league baseball has been contracted for the good of no one.

It made us dream again for a redo.

You can look it up: More to ponder

== The illustration of Captain Dynamite above comes from, and artist Jason David Córdova.

== McGee updates the status of Minor League Baseball in a May 19 post here.

== A review by The Wall Street Journal’s David M. Shribman points out that over the years, other minor-league focused books have documented certain aspects of this Americana experience.

“But because Mr. McGee’s focus is the back-office grunt work and not the players’ experience, his narrative has a special allure. …. Evoking the shimmering green of Asheville’s sunny diamond, Mr. McGee’s chronicle is a celebration of baseball when it isn’t only the greenbacks that matter. The circus of baseball is still, despite all the problems, the greatest show on Earth.”

And what a nice way to be referred to after all that, as Mr. McGee.

“The contrast between big and small is the quiet subtheme,” of the book, Shribman also explains and we concur. “Minor-league operators constantly struggle to keep tradition alive and remain relevant, a challenge made even greater after the 2020 constriction of the minor leagues that called for the elimination of 42 teams.

“As Mr. McGee puts it: Minor-league clubs worry about ‘how to maintain a balance between the old ways of doing things, the very methods that had gotten them all to where they were now, and the newer, increasingly corporatized practices that might very well be their only chance of surviving in the future’.”

Kind of like the world of newspapers. And Major League Baseball stadiums.

== One more previous title to consider: “The Circus Is In Town: A Baseball Odyssey,” by Robert A. Hilliard (released in 2016, Outskirts Press). The author recounts how he became a central figure in bringing baseball back to New Jersey in the 1990s, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Single-A team.

== Does anyone else know about something called the “Major League Circus Show?” See if this jogs memories. And what is the NitroCircus that tours minor league parks, like the Dodgers’ Oklamoma City affiliate?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s