This week, Writers at Grinnell featured Marty Dobrow, the author of the non-fiction books “Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream” and “Going Bigtime: The Spectacular Rise of UMass Basketball.” His books and many of his shorter pieces deal with a side of sports that we rarely see on TV. He talked to the S&B about what it means to be a sports writer, our love of storytelling, and the surprisingly cutthroat world of minor league baseball.
You could be classified as a sports writer, but clearly there’s more going on there. Is there a difference between a sports writer and a literary writer? Can the two coexist?
I guess I bet my life and my career on that they can coexist. In some circles people think about sports writing in a pejorative sense. I certainly don’t. Some of the best writing out there deals with sports; some of the worst writing deals with sports also. It’s a haven for clichés. The focus for a lot of people tends to be about statistics and money, the winning and losing. Obviously, the games are fundamental, … but for me it’s always been a way into something deeper. It’s a great forum for exploring societal issues. It’s an environment in which you can write about race and class and gender in ways that are not abstract, and because you can tap into this huge caring people have about sports. I like to tap into that vein because it’s something people care so much about. Maybe we shouldn’t step away from it and it seems absurd, people getting so emotionally invested in the Patriots or Giants winning a game. … I’ve ultimately come not to judge it so much; I think we care about what we care about, and that people who are athletes are not more heroic or more moral or less heroic or less moral than other people.
You focus on individuals, and often individuals in the minor leagues, or on something like the University of Massachusetts basketball team, for example. You don’t focus on heroes or heroic qualities—what angle does that give us that’s unique?
On some level, I like my sports served small. At the biggest level, there are problems with access, there are problems with exclusivity, there are problems with finding real and deep stories. I remember the first time I ever covered a major league baseball team at Fenway park was back when Roger Clemens was pitching for the Red Sox, and I was so excited about this prospect of showing up and going to Fenway—the press pass, going to the press box, watching this game and going down the elevator to the hear the immortal words of Roger Clemens. And I went back up to the press box and started transcribing, and it was just so striking to me what drivel it was—I’ve interviewed so many high school kids who are so much more eloquent and thoughtful. Not to denigrate Clemens, but like a lot of professionally athletes at the top level, he’s really packaged. Writing about minor league baseball, there you have the opportunity to have deep access. People are not so jaded…And just beneath it [the MLB] there’s that place of yearning that is so much connected to good storytelling…I sometimes think about it as being about the “anguish of almost.”
Do you approach your work as a sports writer or as a writer just going into the world?
I don’t know what label I would necessarily put on it, but I guess it’s human interest through sports. It’s a familiar language and vocabulary for me. I just try not to get lost in the inanity of it. A lot of this stuff is just very ephemeral. But it matters—you go into any high school gym on a winter night for a basketball game, you can’t help but be impressed by how much caring there is. That’s one of the reasons I like it so much. But the deeper stories are in the personal stories. … And sports does bring together groups within our society in a way nothing else does—it pulls together people from different races, different classes, different backgrounds.
Do you find those players experiencing the “anguish of almost” in the minor leagues, want to be mythologized like the heroes, or are they happy being who they are?
I don’t know that they’d term it that way, but they want to get to the big leagues for a few reasons. One, it’s the iconic dream. A lot of their self-esteem from a very young age has been tied into athletic ability—it’s a big measure of who they are, or they think it is. There’s no escaping the fact that the arrival at the great stage carries with it some incredible rewards. You look at the disparity in pay between the top level minor leaguers—people who have been playing five or six years there—often they’re still making under $20,000 a year, whereas the first year minimum major league baseball salary is close to $470, 000. The average is over three million. So what you have is that the disparity in talent is razor thin—if it exists at all—and yet the disparity in compensation is gargantuan. It’s unlike almost anything else in our culture. Near great doctors are doing pretty well, near great baseball players, not so much.
You also write about things that aren’t sports—do you take a different approach to that kind of writing?
I think it’s the same. Sports [writing] is a comfortable terrain for me…but I don’t find it’s really very different. I’m always just looking for the great human-interest story. I think narrative is a fundamental part of the human experience, it’s almost wired in. I don’t want to over psychologize it, but it’s just a fact—and this is not breaking any news—that life is difficult. There’s no such thing as an easy life, and the good stories are about confrontation with difficulty in some form. Sports is one place where that happens.