If These Walls Could Talk: Colorado Rockies
Stories from the Colorado Rockies Dugout, Locker Room, and Press Box
By Drew Goodman and Benjamin Hochman
Triumph Books. 238 pages.
Drew Goodman has been the television voice of the Colorado Rockies since 2002, and with If These Walls Could Talk: Colorado Rockies (co-authored by Benjamin Hochman, a writer at the St. Louis Post Dispatch who worked at the Denver Post until 2015) he provides a behind-the-scenes look at the team, focusing on players (past and present), managers, ownership, big games, and the broadcast booth. In addition to telling stories about the Rockies, Goodman foregrounds his own biography, effectively giving it equal weight to Rockies’ story. That may not what readers are expecting.
Because Goodman recognizes that his audience is familiar with player biographies, he tends to downplay well know biographical facts and focus on material that only someone who spends a lot of time with the team would know — the stuff fans crave. Moreover, it’s clear players are comfortable talking with him, which gives the book a sense of intimacy.
Those parts of the book are strong: Charlie Blackmon’s respect for DJ LeMahieu (Blackmon’s “baseball compass”), his approach to playing the outfield with Carlos González, and his willingness to refer to a young Arenado as having “cankles”; Todd Helton’s superstitions; CarGo (Goodman’s favorite Rockie) with his beautiful swing and attitude. Goodman’s book is a tour of well known Rockies: Ubaldo Jiménez, Troy Tulowitzki, Larry Walker, Jason Giambi, Curtis Leskanic, Dante Bichette, Ryan Spilborghs — you get the idea.
Take this passage about a very young Nolan Arenado:
But after his first month in rookie ball in this tiny Wyoming town, Arenado was hitting .228. He called his father, Fernando, after every single game. And one night: “I remember calling my dad crying and saying, ‘I think I want to go home.’” Arenado told me. “And he was like, ‘Well if you want to go home, you’ve got to get on a flight tomorrow, but I think you should stick it out.’”
Could you imagine if Arenado had gone home? Initially, he had trouble adapting to a wood bat. “In the beginning, it was kind of tough for me to adjust to that right away because guys are throwing hard. I just wasn’t ready for that,” said Arenado, now an elite slugger and perennial All-Star for the Colorado Rockies. “Being on the road for 10-hour bus rides, 12-hour bus rides, and you’re 18 years old, and everyone is 20-something, and you don’t get to hang out with any of them, and they don’t want to hang out with you because they think you’re the ‘bonus baby’ and all those little things. And I couldn’t hang out with them because they wanted to go have drinks and hang out and I couldn’t have drinks. So just little things like that, it sucked. You felt alone at times, but I guess once I started hitting and once I started having success, the confidence started building, and I started having fun, and you get to know guys. I had some veterans that really took me in. But…it was a long adjustment.”
That kind of description drew me into the book. In addition, Goodman discusses the work of some of the lesser-known but essential members of the organization, like clubhouse manager Mike “Tiny” Pontarelli, head trainer Keith Dugger, and assistant trainer Scott Gehret. This gives the reader an appreciation for the unseen side of the organization. He also describes a typical broadcast day and what it’s like to travel with the team (the bus leaves for Signature FBO one hour after the last out, though most opt to drive). This behind-the-scenes access make for compelling reading for hard-core fans.
Inserted throughout the book are Goodman’s own experiences, observations, biography, and 2018 journal excerpts. He writes about his wife and sons and reveals that when he was 14, his mother was driving him and a friend when they were hit by an impaired driver. Goodman had a broken arm; his friend was in a body cast for six months; his mother died at the scene. The story is heartbreaking.
★ ★ ★
But I also wondered why it was in a book about the Colorado Rockies. The answer is that in making these kinds of narrative choices, Goodman shows that he sees his story as part of the team’s. On television, Goodman tends to downplay his biography; as the author of a book about the Rockies, however, he places more focus on himself, which was unexpected and ultimately complicates the story.
Goodman places himself inside the organization, thus binding author and subject. This isn’t a work of journalism, and, to be fair, Goodman never claims that it is. The result, however, is that If These Walls Could Talk becomes more press release from a team spokesperson than the tell-all implied by the title.
As an example, here’s Goodman quoting General Manager Jeff Bridich:
“I think I’m personally blessed with a capacity to not really care what is said about me all that much. I don’t really buy into the whole media evaluation. The reality is—and this is going to sound petty and bad—if you just objectively look at the people who are evaluating us every day, you know they’ve never come close to doing this job and all the work that goes into it. And most of them, probably 99 percent of them, they’ve never even led anything in their lives. They’ve worked for themselves. They’ve been self-interested beat writers who have worked for themselves and they have a job to do every day. I had the good fortune of seeing that for a long time before taking this job. So I knew not to put a whole lot of time and energy into what they think about me. It’d be like if I went to a hospital every day and wrote a blog about the job done by one of the surgeons and the things he screwed up. That’s crazy. I know nothing about brain surgery, nor have I ever even worked on the path to become a brain surgeon. That’s what goes on in this industry and other sports industries.”
There’s a lot going on here, but two things stand out. First, if it is “going to sound petty and bad,” perhaps don’t say it, especially about writers who make a living using their expertise to write about your team — or even about fans who don’t make a living but spend time writing about and ultimately promoting your product. Second, it creates an insular and impossible standard: The only valuable criticism is offered by those who’ve done the job, in this case, other general managers who are, overwhelmingly, like Bridich. Goodman never pushes back on this statement that questions the integrity of journalists. Then again, when positioned as a member of the organization (Goodman works for AT&T SportsNet), Goodman’s not one of those “self-interested beat writers.”
Making this passage more problematic is that three paragraphs later, after Bridich confesses that being a general manager requires “a certain amount of fearlessness,” Goodman launches into what can only be described as a defense of the Ian Desmond signing. We can argue over the intangibles he brings to the Rockies, but the numbers and national press agree that Desmond has not been effective in Colorado. (Neither new nor old school metrics suggest Ian Desmond has been a net positive for the Rockies.) Goodman and Bridich disagree:
Though his batting average was low, he had produced a number of huge, game-changing hits that season. “There’s a small portion of validation,” Bridich said. “But I’d say a bigger portion is that there’s some pleasure and relief in that a guy is doing what we believed that he could do. Watching a guy like Ian Desmond become more comfortable at first base and his ability to hit the ball and drive in runs, that is a window into the thought process. When you make a decision and you make a commitment and a guy pays off, that gives you a window into some of the thought process that went on in wanting to go with him versus other guys who were out there… Is it nice to see it at some level that a guy still has it in him and you believed in him? Yeah.”
That’s a neat trick that coalesces with Goodman’s on-TV defense of Desmond’s play. They’re experts; the rest of us don’t know what we’re talking about.
That said, there’s no doubt that Goodman is an expert about what happens in the broadcast booth. He takes the reader through a day in the life of a broadcaster, which is fascinating, and he writes at length about Ryan Spilborghs and Jeff Huson. I wish he had spent more time discussing the work of Jenny Cavnar, who only gets four sentences and no mention of her historic broadcasts in 2018, and Taylor McGregor, who does not appear in the book though her father, Keli, earns effusive praise.
There’s a lot to like in If These Walls Could Talk: Colorado Rockies, but, like Jon Gray’s 2018 season, it’s complicated.