A Major League Baseball stadium, when populated with well-matched teams on the field and a capacity crowd in the stands, can be the height of America expressing itself. There's the tradition, the rivalry, the bloated paychecks, the sheer human achievement of the physically ideal players enjoying the fulfillment of their boyhood dreams. But depart this big-league scene and travel down through the minor-league farm system, down through AAA ball, past AA, wave to the “World’s Biggest Truck Stop” on I-80 and arrive finally at the stadium of the single-A Clinton LumberKings in rural Iowa, and the metaphors change drastically from ones of public triumph to private travail.
In Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, first-time author Lucas Mann recounts the season he spent with the LumberKings at the lowest level of baseball’s massive talent-fostering infrastructure. The team is affiliated with the Seattle Mariners, and exists at the mercy of its major-league benefactor. Times are hard and the LumberKings struggle to fill the stands, even though Clinton is near the actual Field of Dreams that Universal Pictures built—so that they might come ... to see the movie. Down here, the big-league dreams of the players are still just far-off lights on the horizon. Sure, there are the ones who will quickly acclimate to professional pitching and be moved up on schedule, like 19-year-old Nick Franklin, for whom the author, a man only slightly older, reserves the same mix of awe, fascination, and almost sexually tinged jealousy that Sal Paradise had for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. But for many of the players, their careers will end here before they begin, with a manfully resolute handshake in the coach’s office and a few minutes to clean out their locker. And down here at the bottom, there is nowhere else to go. For single-A players, being cut can mean a job at Staples or a one-way ticket back to Venezuela. This is what Mann is here to record: not the valor of legends, but rather the feeling that led one commenter to describe the minor leagues as “a series of acts of desperation.”
Although the LumberKings are far from world-beaters, Clinton is still a baseball town, and Mann sensitively documents the lives of a group of fans called the Baseball Family, whose members have dedicated themselves, in varying capacities, to the team. Take for example the female super-fan in her 50s who lives alone in a house lined with autographed baseballs that are essentially worthless, except to her. Or the man in his 20s who serves as the LumberKings’ sole radio announcer at every game, even though there is no way to tell how many people are tuning in. (“Maybe nobody” he says, and then later, trying to convince himself, “No, that’s not true. People listen. Thousands of people.”) And then there is the team’s manager, a gruff man from the old guard of not only baseball but also masculinity itself, who drinks two double Johnny Walker Blacks on the tab of the unwealthy author and recounts for him his journeyman career in the bigs: “You’re good enough to get there, and then you look around and notice that you ain’t near good enough to stay ... The point is you gotta realize what you are.”
The reason that this is such an affecting baseball book, one that would be fast-tracked into the canon of gritty-yet-sensitive American sportswriting if such a thing still existed, is that, really, it’s barely about baseball at all. (And thank God, given the current glut of baseball hagiography on the market.) There are beautifully described games on the book’s periphery, of course, and batting practice and pitching mechanics and weight rooms, but what the book is really about is the stories (or, sometimes, lies) that we tell ourselves in order to reach some kind of acceptance of our lives. If you build it, they will come is a quintessentially American idea, a koanlike expression of confidence in hard work and faith in providence. But what happens when they leave? Can baseball continue to define an America that’s fending off decline rather than rocketing to the top?
“You gotta realize what you are,” the manager of the LumberKings says. But to be a player on a single-A baseball team, or to be a citizen in a shrinking town where the only remaining industry busts the unions and blights the air quality, is to everyday construct for yourself new ramparts of hope to stand against creeping realities: that your fastball might be done developing, that your ACL might not have healed properly, that the call from AA will never come, that it might be time to hang up your cleats, to sell your house for $40,000 and move on. When the stories fail, life intrudes.
In the end, the Mariners extend the team’s contract for another three years. The LumberKings might be a minor team, but its mere survival counts as a major triumph. In chronicling this saga, Mann, currently in his 20s, is a warrior-poet from another age. “There is value in melancholy and uncertainty,” he writes, “in desperate, exaggerated memory.” Seeing what he can do, I feel something like a bewildered scout, watching a not-quite-developed prospect get around on another fastball and send it into the empty parking lot, jotting down in my notebook “Mann—who is this kid?”