From Basepaths to Bookshelves

Former Harvard baseball player drafted in ’05 pens new memoir about his exploits in the minor leagues

John A. Wolff ’06-’07 loves baseball. It is his inheritance and, he hopes, his future. It is also his muse.

The most literary of sports has inspired yet another volume: Wolff—a former infielder for the Crimson who later played for minor league affiliates of the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets—and his father, Rick, are the co-authors of a baseball memoir titled “Harvard Boys: A Father and Son’s Adventures in Minor League Baseball,” out in bookstores tomorrow.

The book traces John’s experiences in the minors in the spring and summer of 2006 through the daily e-mails he sent home to his family. In between the entries are italicized reactions from the elder Wolff, originally a member of the Class of 1973 who also played baseball at Harvard and in the minor leagues. In the 1970s, he published a similarly themed work, “What’s a Nice Harvard Boy Like You Doing in the Bushes?”

“It didn’t take imagination to say, ‘Why don’t you do an electronic diary and send home dispatches from the White Sox in Tucson?’” Rick says. “The book is basically John’s dispatches home, and I had a little commentary reflecting on my own career.”

The book trades heavily on familiar tropes, though John’s passages are endearingly sincere. He is the polished Northeasterner displaced into the heartland, the late-round pick desperate to prove his mettle and move up the organizational ladder, the 22-year-old who likes beer and women. The dispatches following multi-hit games are as excited as the ones following a hitless night or a benching are disappointed.

When John is stuck in the broiling heat of extended spring training in Arizona, the boredom is palpable. And when he is cut from the roster of the Rookie-level Bristol Sox in June, the hurt is real: “I was frozen. Frozen with all of the emotions [that] were racing through my mind, body, and soul.”

Rick’s contributions, apart from several amusing anecdotes, are tired clichés—“there are a lot more valleys than peaks”—or rationalizations from a protective father.

The Harvard reference in the book’s title is supplemented by repeated ones throughout the book. John writes of missing the spring semester of his senior year and feeling nostalgic for the school he left prematurely to make his way in professional baseball. For in-the-know readers, his attempts to clue in the rest of his audience to campus mores are sure to provoke chuckles. On page 2, he writes, “There are a lot of collared shirts at Harvard. Some guys even wear pink ones,” and later, “Even kids at Harvard like to drink beer and party.”

He also writes about combating the Harvard stereotypes he encountered in his minor league clubhouses.

“I thought he was a big nerd,” former teammate Ian Church says. “He was really quiet when he showed up, just soaking it in. We took a liking to him right away.”

Church was John’s teammate on the independent league Kalamazoo Kings, where he played the latter half of 2006 after being cut from the Bristol Sox. Between the Sox and the Kings, he enjoyed a brief stint with the North Shore Spirit of the independent Can-Am League.

The diary is also surprisingly personal. It includes details of John’s breakup with his college girlfriend, musings on the fleeting nature of his friendships with teammates, and constant attention to the meagerness of prospects’ salaries and their resulting financial hardships.

The younger Wolff says he was motivated by a desire to present a complete and unflinching depiction of the minor league lifestyle.

“I wanted to give a pretty realistic portrayal of what was going on off the field versus on the field,” he says.

He does not shy away from addressing the hot-button topic of the moment in baseball: steroids.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s still fairly prevalent, steroid usage, maybe not so much the old steroids that guys were using that can be tested for,” John says. “It’s one of those things—I’ve heard stories but I haven’t witnessed anything.”

A BITTER EXIT

Wolff’s apparent frustration with the Harvard coaching staff surfaces as another of the book’s motifs. During his entire collegiate career, according to the Crimson record books, he totaled just 17 official at-bats.

“I just never really felt like I got a shot to show what I could do here with the coaching staff,” John says. “In the long run, it might have ended up helping my career because I had to work that much harder at my game to prove them wrong. It sucked to go through—it was very frustrating, a tough time mentally for me to stay positive.”

The elder Wolff is less forgiving in his assessment.

“The Harvard baseball program is not very good, and the coaching’s not very good,” Rick says. “And everybody knows it. It’s not a secret.”

Despite his limited playing time for the Crimson, John was selected by the White Sox in the 47th round of the 2005 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft following a junior season in which he went 1-for-9. Meanwhile, Zachary U. Farkes, the all-time Harvard home run leader, and Frank J. Herrmann, the ace of the pitching staff, both members of the Class of 2006, went undrafted that spring and were forced to sign free-agent contracts.

“John left the program not in a way that I felt was positive,” says Joe Walsh, the Crimson’s head coach. “A kid who goes [1-for-9] and gets drafted, there’s usually some other reasons than in [those nine at-bats] he looked pretty good, like a major leaguer.”

Walsh says he does not think the local scout for the White Sox even knew John.

“Sometimes you get drafted by people from other areas, in other ways,” he says.

Both father and son insist John did not profit from his bloodlines. Rick was a Detroit Tigers farmhand and later a psychologist in the Cleveland Indians organization. He has written a number of books on sports psychology and remains involved with baseball as a member of the front office of the Stamford Robins of the Atlantic Collegiate Baseball League, the team that John played for during the summer of 2005. Rick’s father, John’s grandfather, is the Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff, the longtime voice of the Washington Senators and the first man to do play-by-play for the championships in all four major sports.

“The name recognition is something I’ve always wondered about,” John says. “It’s something that I obviously live with and something that I’m sensitive to because it’s always been a part of who I am. I would like to think that it had nothing to do with it—I’d like to think that my talent speaks for itself.”

“You don’t get drafted or signed these days just because it’s a favor to somebody,” Rick adds.

Still, the discord between the younger Wolff and Walsh—“they didn’t always get along that well and I think that it’s kind of a touchy issue,” says Crimson center fielder Matthew T. Vance ’08—does not overwhelm John’s memories of his time at O’Donnell Field and Harvard in general.

“It’s not like, ‘Damn those Harvard years!’” he says. “I had a great time here.”

‘THE RIGHT PATH’

The book closes with an editor’s note describing John’s signing with the Mets organization in early 2007. He attended spring training with the team and registered four at-bats with its affiliate in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League.

Wolff says the team offered him a coaching position in the Dominican Republic, but instead he asked for his release.

“I don’t have the desire to be in a coaching-type role,” he says.

He rounded out his summer by spending a few weeks in uniform with the unaffiliated Lancaster Barnstormers. As he embarks now on the publicity campaign that brought him to Cambridge several weeks ago for a reading event at the Coop, John is forced to reflect on the totality of his exploits in minor league baseball.

“It certainly has an appeal to it, but it can get very tedious when you’re going from host family to host family to hotels to long bus rides, and all the stuff in between,” he says. “I think it’s one of those things where if you’re making progress, it stays fun. If you start to stagnate, it can get very stale in a hurry.”

So John is turning his attention to the future. Will he continue to pursue his dream of reaching the big leagues, or hang up his spikes? And if his playing days are done, will he seek a job in the front office of a baseball team, or in the broadcast booth, where his grandfather worked and where John called hockey games for WHRB while at Harvard?

“It’s definitely an interesting transition phase, finishing playing ball, where that’s what you knew for your whole life,” he says. “That’s what I’m struggling with right now, trying to figure out what is the right path.”

—Staff writer Jonathan Lehman can be reached at jlehman@fas.harvard.edu.