This excerpt appears in the book Where Nobody Knows Your Name by John Feinstein. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with John and read Bill’s book review.)
Slice of Life
MANAGING . . . INDIANAPOLIS
In every baseball season, three holidays are important lines of demarcation: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.
It is often said that there is no point looking at standings until Memorial Day because there are always going to be teams that start fast and fade almost as quickly, and others who look awful in cold weather and then heat up along with the temperature.
By Memorial Day teams have played about one- third of their schedule in the major leagues and a little more than that in the minors since minor- league teams play 144 games—eighteen games fewer than major- league teams. Fourth of July marks the midway point in the majors, closer to the two-thirds pole in the minors, and Labor Day is the start of the final push in the big leagues and the end of the regular season in the minors.
The real difference isn’t so much the eighteen games as the fact that no one is paying all that much attention to the standings in Triple- A.
“You go out there every night with the intention of shaking hands in the middle of the diamond at the end of the game,” Lehigh Valley manager Ryne Sandberg said. “But it isn’t the same as the majors, where you are judged every day based strictly on wins and losses.”
Of course the local media and fans don’t look at it that way. They want to see their team win. Winning streaks are applauded; slumps are questioned. In every Triple-A ballpark there are photographs of championship teams from the past. Which makes sense. Why keep score if winning doesn’t matter?
On Memorial Day 2012, Pawtucket led the International League North with a record of 32- 20, followed closely by Buffalo, the wandering Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankee s (who had been unofficially renamed the Empire State Yankee s for marketing purposes for the duration of the season), and Lehigh Valley, which was in fourth place but only three and a half games behind Pawtucket. Gwinnett led the South at 31- 20 by two and a half games over Charlotte. Indianapolis, at 29- 21, had the largest lead—five games over Columbus—in the West. The Indians were the only team in the West with a winning record.
They also had the only manager in the league who didn’t aspire to managing in the major leagues someday. The reason for that was simple. “It’s not going to happen at my age,” Dean Treanor said. “A team looking for a manager isn’t going to hire someone who is sixty-four and has never been at the big- league level.”
He smiled. “I’m fine with it. I’m lucky. I love what I do.”
Treanor had traveled a very different road from anyone else managing in the IL, arguably from anyone else in baseball. He had pitched in college at Cal Poly– San Luis Obispo and had signed with the Reds after graduating with a degree in math in 1971. “My dad had always wanted one of his kids to be a math major, and I was the last one, so I majored in math,” he said. “What I really wanted to do was major in pre-law.”
Treanor got as high as Double- A ball, pitching in Quebec in the old Eastern League before rotator cuff surgery ended any dreams he might have had of making it to the majors someday. “I didn’t rehab well, and I was a questionable prospect to begin with,” he said. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys who was lost when the baseball dream was no longer possible. There were other things that interested me, and I decided it was time to move on.”
So he did, going back home and joining the San Luis Obispo Police Department. He soon made detective and began working undercover, often in the narcotics division. It was a job he enjoyed, but it was also one that he found extremely stressful.
“You work alone a lot when you’re undercover,” he said. “You have all sorts of adrenaline pumping all the time because you never know what may happen next. I liked doing what I did. I enjoyed the camaraderie of the police department. Some of the guys I worked with are still some of my closest friends. But I felt like the job was aging me. I was worn out by it.”
He had been a cop for thirteen years when he got a phone call in the winter of 1988 from an old friend, Mike Krukow. The two had been teammates at Cal Poly for a year, and their sons had played baseball together. Krukow, who won 124 games in the majors, was pitching for the Giants and knew that the team was looking for someone to manage its Class A team in Fresno. Wondering if Treanor might be tired of life undercover, he called him to let him know the job was open.
“When Krook called, it just hit me that maybe this was the time,” he said. “I had never stopped loving baseball, and I was definitely a burnout case doing police work. I decided it was worth taking a shot.”
Twenty – four years later, he was still working in the minor leagues. He had managed in Fresno for only one season but had gone on to work for the Padres, Expos, Dodgers, and Marlins at the minor league level, before being hired by the Pirates as the pitching coach in Indianapolis in 2010. He had done just about everything one can do at the minor- league level. He’d bee n a pitching coach, a roving instructor, and a manager. When Frank Kremblas was made a minor league coordinator for the Pirates prior to the 2011 season, Treanor was named to replace him as the manager in Indianapolis.
“I can honestly say I’ve never looked back,” he said. “I love coming to the ballpark every day. To me this is a sacred place—I really feel that way. Every day I walk in here, whether it’s home or on the road, I fee l good about what I’m doing. How many guys have a job where they fee l that way? I don’t like to lose, none of us do, but the great thing in baseball is that you get to come back and play the next day. I wouldn’t trade being here for anything.”
The Indians play their home games at Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis, a short walk from Lucas Oil Stadium, the home of the Indianapolis Colts, and a slightly longer walk from Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Indiana Pacers play.
Indianapolis has had a minor- league baseball team since 1887, and the Indians have played at the Triple- A level since they first came into existence in 1902—first in the old American Association, then in the Pacific Coast League, and now in the International League.
Victory Field opened in 1996 and seats a little more than twelve thousand with room for another two thousand people in grassy areas outside the outfield fences. The sparkling new JW Marriott hotel towers over the left-field fence, and the city’s downtown sky line backdrops the rest of the ballpark.
The Indians have been the Triple-A affiliate for eight different major- league teams. Their alumni include names like Grover Cleveland Alexander, Mordecai “Three Fingers” Brown, Luke Appling, Harmon Killebrew, Felipe Alou, Larry Walker, Dave Concepción, and many others who went on to distinguished major- league careers. Bob Uecker also played in Indianapolis and, in keeping with his self perpetuated image, hit .147 there (and in Louisville) during the 1960 season.
Since 2005, the Indians have been the Pirates’ Triple- A farm club, which means a lot of players have come through Indianapolis, made brief stops in Pittsburgh, and then, after showing potential, bee n shipped off to other teams.
In 2011, the Pirates, after eighteen straight losing seasons—a major- league record—finally showed some life. They actually led the National League Central Division briefly in July before tailing off badly to finish with a 72- 90 record. For 2012, the Pirates had T- shirts made up for everyone in the organization that had one word on the back: “Finish.” Since many of the Indians wear Pirates gear to warm up in every afternoon, the word “Finish” was on the backs of their T-shirts throughout the season.
Like the big- league club, they played very well into the summer months and found themselves in first place in the IL West by a considerable margin as the weather turned hot. Their best player, without question, was their young left fielder, Starling Marte. At twenty-three, Marte had the look of a star. He could hit, he could hit with power, and he was a superb outfielder.
“If he gets close to it, he catches it,” Treanor said. “And most of the time, he’s going to get close to it.”
It wasn’t a question of if Marte was going to get called up; it was simply when. By late July he was hitting .286 with twelve home runs, sixty-three RBIs, twenty -one doubles, thirteen triples, and twenty-one stolen bases. In short, he was doing everything possible to get the Pirates’ attention.
The Indians were cruising along in first place when the Pawtucket Red Sox came to town on July 25 for a game that started at 11:05 in the morning. Triple-A teams occasionally play games with morning starts for one of two reasons: to give teams a head start on a get-away day when they have a long trip to make and have to play the next day in another city ; or to bring schoolkids to the ballpark as part of a field trip. The early start means the kids can see the game and get back to school in time to be dismissed from there.
This was a school-field-trip morning start.
Baseball players—in fact almost all of those associated with baseball in any way—are not morning people. This is especially true when the game-time temperature at 11:00 in the morning is eighty-seven degree s and everyone knows it is only going to get hotter as the sun climbs into the noontime sky.
Whether it was the game time or the heat or the pitching of the PawSox’ Nelson Figueroa, the Indians had one of those days that are an inevitable part of every baseball season. They were sluggish the entire game, dropping behind quickly and slogging to a 4–2 loss.
During the game, Treanor got a message from Pittsburgh: Marte was being called up. He was to leave right after the game to join the team in Houston the next day. Treanor wasn’t surprised at all, even though he would miss Marte, with whom he had become very close during the season. Marte had grown up in the Dominican Republic and had been raised by his grandmother, after losing both his parents by the time he was ten. Treanor, who had managed in the Dominican on several occasions during the winter, was comfortable speaking Spanish and had recognized Marte as special from the first day he had managed him. Marte called Treanor his “American padre.”
Marte doubled in one of the Indians’ two runs on that sweltering Wednesday but, like everyone else, wasn’t quite with it during the game. When he grounded into a double play in the sixth inning—a rare occurrence for him—Treanor noticed that he wasn’t quite giving his all going down the line.
As everyone trudged up the tunnel after the game, Treanor had an idea. As soon as the team was inside the clubhouse, he told everyone to wait a moment before heading for the showers or starting to eat the postgame meal. It was time for a talk— an impromptu team meeting.
Everyone sighed. They knew what was coming. Yes, it had been a morning start, and, yes, it had been a hot day, but the PawSox had played in the same heat at the same starting time. Yes, they were still in first place by a wide margin, but Columbus was heating up, and this was no time to take anything for granted.
Treanor went through all that and mentioned that he understood this was a tense time of year. The July 31 trading deadline was coming up, and everyone in Triple-A was on pins and needles because trades meant movement— sometimes to another organization, sometimes up to the major leagues. It also sometimes meant watching others move up while you stayed put. He understood that everyone in the room was full of hope— and trepidation.
Finally, he turned to Marte.
“Starling, in the sixth inning, did you run as hard as you could to first base on that double-play ball?” he asked.
Marte shook his head. “No, sir, I didn’t,” he answered.
Treanor nodded. “You know that isn’t acceptable,” he said. “We don’t jog down to first base ever.”
He paused for effect, then added, “So, tomorrow, you aren’t going to be in our starting lineup.”
The clubhouse was completely silent. The players were clearly stunned. They all knew that Marte played hard about 99.9 percent of the time. This seemed harsh.
“I waited about thirty seconds,” Treanor said. “Looked around at all of them. Then I said, ‘Starling, the reason you aren’t going to be in the lineup is because you’re going to be in Houston. You’re going to be in the lineup there for the Pirates.”
This time the silence lasted only about a second before the news sank in with everyone. Then the clubhouse exploded. Everyone forgot how exhausted they were.
When the hugging and celebrating was over, Marte came to find Treanor.
“Thanks, Padre,” he said.
“Run everything out in Pittsburgh,” Treanor said. “And don’t come back.”
Marte led off for the Pirates the next night against Houston left-hander Dallas Keuchel. He drove the first major- league pitch he ever saw over the left-centerfield fence in Minute Maid Park for a home run. He became the first Pirate to homer on the first pitch of his major-league career since Walter Mueller did it—in 1922.
Treanor was certain that Marte would follow both his instructions: He would run every ball out. And he would not be back.