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Books | Sports

November 5, 2007

Like Father, Like Son

Rick Wolff went from Harvard to the wilds of minor-league baseball. Thirty years later, his son John followed in his footsteps, and wrote a book about his attempt to make the big leagues.

Carl Bialik

When John Wolff watches the White Sox play, he can anticipate their signs. Those kinds of smarts can't be taught at Harvard, where John studied and played ball for three and a half years before leaving a semester shy of graduation to pursue his dream of playing in the majors. Most of his peers in White Sox spring training and the team's farm system weren't Ivy Leaguers, and he further stood out for spending hours each day on his laptop recording his impressions. John, now 24, was just as much a fish out of water when he returned to Harvard to finish up his studies. But at least one man could identify with his dual existence: His father, Rick, age 56, who also went from Harvard to the minors, 30 years earlier.

Rick Wolff and John Wolff
"Nothing is more frustrating than playing baseball in silence with no fans."—John Wolff

Rick Wolff and John Wolff

With all those laptop notes Father and son teamed up to write Harvard Boys: A Father and Son's Adventures Playing Minor League Baseball. It's not exactly Ball Four, Jim Bouton's no-holds-barred chronicle of life in the majors and minors in 1969; the Wolffs aren't seeking controversy but instead convey a feel for the daily rigors, recurring ennui, and priceless flashes of excellence that typify a Class A minor-league season.

In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, the Wolffs tell Gelf how playing pro ball changes their fandom, what it's like playing in front of empty stands, why pitchers and infielders don't hang out much, and more. (You can hear the Wolffs and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Thursday, November 8, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Josh, what are you up to now, in baseball, school and life? What was it like returning to Harvard? Did you feel like you no longer belonged, after the year in pro baseball?

Josh Wolff: I decided to retire from playing professionally after this past season. I'm currently looking for a job in the front office of a Major League team. I know these jobs are tough to get, so I'm hoping for the best.
When I returned to Harvard after my first year in pro ball, I felt a bit out of place. At first, I felt like that creepy old guy who's back on campus but shouldn't be there. A few people a day would squint their eyes and say, "Hey! Didn't you graduate?" That made things immediately awkward.
However, I did luck out in two key ways. One, my younger sister Alyssa was a junior at Harvard during my fifth year and I was able to spend time with her. Two, during my summer of playing ball the seniors on the Harvard hockey team reached out to me and asked me if I would like to live with them when I was back on campus for the fall semester. We were only acquaintances at the time, but we ended up becoming great friends and they understood my life decisions because most of them are playing professional hockey now in either the ECHL, AHL, or NHL. They followed my career and now I get to follow theirs.

GM: Did the Billy Beane, Moneyball approach to baseball carry much weight in the minors and independent leagues? What do you think of it?

JW:: The Moneyball approach plays a large role in professional baseball. Statistics are important to every organization and they provide a form of analysis to help see patterns or trends in developing players. However, it's very easy to fall into the "statistics" trap and disregard other factors that will affect a player's development and future ability.
Major League organizations focus on what kind of tools or athleticism a player demonstrates as well as the stats they put up. Coaches also keep close track of statistics that don't receive much press or airtime. Statistics like quality at-bats, moving runners, situational hitting, and many other important team-related numbers are just as important as home runs and RBIs, depending on the role of the player.
Ultimately, it's a combination of both approaches: Moneyball and tools.

GM: What did you learn about the White Sox organization from your experience in extended spring? Were there moments during the 2006 and 2007 MLB season where you felt you had added insight into the White Sox from meeting their players and coaches?

JW: I didn't have too much contact with the major leaguers outside of spring training. That being said, I did listen to a bunch of speeches from Ozzie Guillen emphasizing how important it is to him that when you play on his club, you can't play scared. He didn't care if you messed up as long as you weren't timid. He wanted aggressive mistakes. Always.
The biggest insight that I had was knowing the signs. Believe it or not, the entire White Sox system used the same signs for bunt coverages, hitting, pick-offs, and things like that. I was able to watch a ballgame with my buddies and tell them what was happening before it happened. Maybe that's only cool to dorks like me.

GM: Having played pro ball, does that make it more or less fun to watch games? Did you follow the playoffs this year?

JW: It's still fun to watch baseball after playing professionally; however, I watch the games these days for different reasons than I did years ago. I'm not really a "fan" anymore so I don't cheer for any one team. Instead, I enjoy watching my old teammates or other guys whom I played against, play in the majors, and see them do well. That's what I enjoy: when a guy whom I played with or against is succeeding and enjoying himself in the show. That's whom I cheer for.
I look forward to seeing more and more friends of mine get called up to the big leagues in the next few years. It'll be fun to see who makes it and who doesn't.

GM: Why are there no fans at extended spring? Would you attend the games if you (or your son) weren't playing? Some people blamed Red Sox fans for leaving early in Game 2 of the ALCS and hurting their team. Do fans really have so much impact on the outcome of games?

JW: There are some fans at extended spring games—just very few. The problem is that all the games are played in the late-morning hours when kids are in school or parents are working. In addition, the games are played on practice fields where there are no scoreboards, limited bleachers, no shade, hot weather, no concession stands, and just not a fan-friendly atmosphere.
I've wondered why teams don't encourage more fans to come to the games and put together a nicer atmosphere to watch a ballgame because, after all, the quality of the baseball is very high.
I think that fans do play a huge part. There is nothing more energizing and exciting than playing in front of a huge home crowd and having everyone in the ballpark cheering for you. It really motivates the players. Nothing is more frustrating than playing baseball in silence with no fans.

Rick Wolff: I couldn't agree more. Baseball is a game that is meant to be played in front of a crowd. And yes, an enthusiastic crowd can certainly pump up a team to keep a rally going. But more than anything else, it's just more fun to be playing in front of a spirited audience.

"Most people equate Harvard as being in the big leagues of academia, and not necessarily as the home of Major League ballplayers."—Rick Wolff
GM: When you were in extended spring, were you obsessively checking your stats all the time? (I know I would.)

JW: I was forced to check my stats all the time in extended because after every game our manager would post our updated stats on a huge poster-board in the clubhouse. I tried to convince myself before the season started that I wouldn't obsess over my numbers, but because I had to see my stats every day next to my locker in the clubhouse, it became a bit of an obsession.
However, it wasn't the kind of obsession that you might guess. I ended up getting off to a really good start in extended spring and that took some pressure off of me. However, when I realized that I was leading the team in hitting for a little while, I began thinking about getting moved up. That's when the true obsession began. I started checking all stats for the "higher-ranking" infielders playing in Kannapolis or Winston-Salem in the hopes that if someone was really struggling, they might make a switch.
That probably wasn't the best use of my time and ended up catching up to me over a long season. It's much healthier to focus on one's mental approach than to worry about the performance of others. Statistics don't always tell the full story.

GM: Rick, why wasn't the book published by your book company? Would it have been awkward to have a fellow editor working on it?

RW: Yes, it would have been potentially uncomfortable for both me and my colleagues. I have written numerous books over the years, and it's always a better idea to have an outside publishing house handle my book than the one I work for.

GM: Why call it Harvard Boys? Was being from Harvard a major part of your experiences in pro baseball?

RW: In a way, yes, because most people equate Harvard as being in the big leagues of academia, and not necessarily as the home of Major League ballplayers. That being said, over the years, Harvard has had numerous ballplayers leave for professional careers.
In addition, the title of the book I wrote some 30 years ago—What's a Nice Harvard Boy Like You Doing in the Bushes?—had already been used.

"I don't think it takes too much imagination to figure out that baseball players don't have to look too far to find a good time."—John Wolff
GM: Rick, how did you become a sports psychologist? What's involved? What sort of special psychological conditions afflict athletes?

RW: I actually majored in psychology in college, and also have my Master's degree in the subject, and my specialty is performance enhancement. I help athletes focus themselves to reach their full potential on a more-consistent basis. In baseball, that means getting out of batting slumps, learning how to throw strikes, and, in general, dealing with the ups-and-downs of pro baseball.
I just grew into the field, because in my 20s, there was little in the way of sports psychology in terms of courses. I combined my interest in sports along with my academic training in psychology. Harvey Dorfman, who is the top baseball psychologist in the game today, was my mentor.

GM: John, were there sensitive topics you left out or gave short shrift to, because of the audience you were writing for, including your father? I'm thinking of the sex, drugs, and alcohol that I'd think would be present in a group of young men without much to do at night.

JW: Harvard Boys is written for a PG-13-type crowd. I wanted to talk candidly about minor-league baseball, but I also knew that a lot of young ballplayers who dream of playing professionally would be reading my book. There are a few stories that I felt were not appropriate for a younger audience, and I decided to omit these tales.
I don't think it takes too much imagination to figure out that baseball players don't have to look too far to find a good time.

GM: Do you think many players in independent leagues are using steroids or HGH?

JW: Unfortunately, in recent years, steroids have been prevalent in professional baseball. I believe steroid usage has gone down in the minors as of late, but it still exists in independent ball and affiliated ball.

GM: Did you get the sense that Latin American players self-segregate?

JW: I don't think that Latin players self-segregate. I do think that the language barrier can be difficult to manage at times. I was lucky enough to study Spanish in high school and college, becoming fluent by the time I got to pro ball. I was able to speak with the younger players and frequently was a part of the Latin players' rooming groups as well as get-togethers.
However, for the players who didn't speak Spanish, or the Latin players who didn't speak English, it became very difficult to live together or hang out together because of that barrier. The same problem exists with players from Canada who only speak French.
Once the language barrier is crossed, all the players appear to be on the same page and get along.

GM: Is there also a divide between pitchers and position players, or is position irrelevant?

JW: Position is pretty irrelevant in the long run. However, there are other factors that can create a bit of a "position divide." For example, pitchers and position players follow different workout routines, need to report to the field at different times, and spend most of the day with the guys on the team at their same position. Because of this system, players who play infield tend to become best friends with infielders—even though they are somewhat in competition with each other. It's also practical. Why would an infielder want to live with a pitcher when the pitcher needs to be at the field two hours earlier than the infielder to do his daily running? They both share a car and the infielder would rather enjoy the afternoon away from the park with the other infielders, rather than sit at the field bored. It's factors like these that create position-divides. Not the actual players themselves.

"Players who play infield tend to become best friends with infielders—even though they are somewhat in competition with each other."—John Wolff
GM: From what you write, Arizona sounds pretty miserable, especially in the warm-weather months. Is that a deliberate choice by baseball teams, to weed out the weak? Why do so many people retire there, anyway?

JW: I would hope that baseball teams wouldn't be that cruel to use the brutally hot weather to weed out people, but you never know. I know I wouldn't want to do it again, so maybe it worked on me.
That being said, baseball is a sport that needs to be played in warm weather. I much preferred playing in 100-degree weather in Arizona to the 20-degree weather of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
As for retiring, I wouldn't mind retiring to Arizona. It's a beautiful place. Hopefully, I can afford a good air-conditioner by that time in my life.

GM: From both your experiences, do you think most minor leaguers truly believe they'll make the big leagues, or do most hang around after that dream is dead to them, because it's a fun way to make a living and keep close to the game they love?

JW: I don't think anyone is playing minor-league baseball without the dream that they will make it to the major leagues.
Maybe if they are independently wealthy and can afford to live on meager salaries they will continue to play; however, it's a tough way to make a living. Most players who have come to grips with reality will either retire and move on or try playing overseas to get a big payday.

RW: In addition, it's very difficult to make a decent living just playing minor-league ball. You have to keep moving up the organization's ladder or you'll be gone.

GM: Other Varsity Letters speakers have had unkind words for baseball players, as a group, compared to other pro athletes, saying many are narrow-minded and anti-intellectual, in part because many skip college. What do you think of that assessment?

JW: That sounds like a narrow-minded and anti-intellectual thing to say. Did a baseball player say that?

RW: I think it's very hard to generalize like that. Each sport has all different kinds of people playing professionally.

GM: Did your teammates know you were keeping a journal? Did you get their permission to include certain details? Have they read the book yet? If so, what do they think?

JW: Most of my teammates had no idea I was keeping a journal. However, my roommates did because of my hours spent on my laptop. Surprisingly or maybe not surprisingly, most of them begged me to put more stories of them in the book. Unfortunately, most of these stories were not appropriate or could come back to haunt them in the future, so these stories will be kept unpublished.
Only one teammate has read it so far: Ian Church. He lives with me during the off-season. He approves of the book, even though I called him "small." He says he's bigger in real life. He's small.

GM: Do ballplayers these days use much sunscreen? Do the clubs encourage it? Rick, what about in the '70s?

JW: Yes, players these days appear to be very responsible when it comes to sunscreen. To that end, the clubs have large supplies of sunscreen and it's highly encouraged to use it on a daily basis.

RW: I don't recall that, back in the '70s, there was much attention paid to any sunscreen, nutrition, weight training, or anything else. Ballplayers were pretty much left to their own instincts, for better or for worse.

Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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