I watch a lot of baseball, I write a lot about baseball and I read a lot about baseball. These days, most of my baseball reading consists of newspaper and web articles, much of it provided via links on Twitter. Occasionally, though, you can find me reading a book about my favorite sport, especially when it’s one given to me by my stupendous spouse of 16 years.
“Class A in the Middle of Everywhere” by Lucas Mann was a Father’s Day gift. In it, Mann describes his year of 2010, when he embedded himself with the Class A Clinton LumberKings of the Midwest League. This worked for me as a Rangers fan, since Clinton was home to the Rangers in lower Class A through 2008 (they have since made Hickory, NC their home). Early on in the book, Mann speaks with some of the Clinton fans and Derek Holland‘s name pops up. Later there’s a Mitch Moreland reference as well. Beginning in 2009, Clinton became the home for the Seattle Mariners system.
Mann is a gifted writer. He held my interest from beginning to end. Throughout the course of the book, he introduces us to some of the regular game attendees. Mann serves a one night stint as the LumberKings mascot. He gets to know some of the players, including the Mariners newest rookie phenom Nick Franklin. Mann goes out on the town with the players one night, spends a lot of time with the then LumberKings manager, John Tamargo, and discusses Clinton and its history a lot. He gives a peek into the work of the LumberKings play-by-play voice. We visit the baseball shrine in one fan’s home. The nearby casino is a popular hangout. It is both a riveting read and an unsettling one.
Why Clinton? Mann says in Chapter 2 it’s because Clinton represents the stereotype he was looking for: as close to the traditional minor league team we once dreamed of. As gripping a read as it is, this is also the book’s downfall. Mann had a picture in mind, then proceeds through 16 chapters to reinforce his own picture. This isn’t to say there is no truth found in it, just that it seems to reflect Mann’s own life perspective. When Mann looks around Clinton, he decides it’s a dying community and spends much of the book seeking out examples to reinforce his perception rather than also looking for areas that might give the picture more balance. There’s no denying what Mann’s politics are. During the course of the book, there is lengthy discourse about a failed union strike in 1979, how it “destroyed” Clinton and how the city is now dominated by agricultural behemoth Archer Daniels Midland. There is very little of ADM painted in a positive light. In fact, there is very little of any business in Clinton presented positively.
Even the playing of baseball, in the end, has very little positive going for it. In Mann’s worldview, it almost seems the players should be pitied for striving for the prize of getting to the big leagues. The players are exploited, they’re overworked and underpaid, especially the Latinos. Many of the Central and South American players face a language barrier and Mann wonders in print what happens to them once they’re released and have to find another line of work while speaking little or no English. Dave, the play-by-play guy is presented more as a guy who likely will never realize his major league announcing dream. There’s even a thin veil of pity for the traveling entertainer who puts on a pre-game show at the ballpark one night. Overall, there’s a “What’s the point of all this?” vibe to the book that’s a bit on the depressing side.
When the book is right on, though, it is both thought-provoking and intimate. Mann’s description in Chapter 7 of the dream ending for Wellington Dotel and how his former teammates react to it is poignant. I was also rapt with his take on how difficult it is for the longtime fans of minor league baseball because, unlike the major league clubs, the lower minor leagues will seldom see a player in one place two years in a row. It’s a constantly changing mosaic, one which makes it difficult to attach yourself to specific players. Living in a place where Independent League baseball is played, I could never put my finger on why I don’t go to the games available to me very often, but that’s why. With a consistently shifting cast of characters, there’s little continuity for me. I would find it hard to cheer for a team, year in and year out, bearing little resemblance to the team that preceded it by just a year. The good folks of Clinton, though, have done it longer than any other Midwest League city.
It’s true, making the big leagues is hard work and in any given season, only one or two of the 25 players on a Clinton LumberKings roster are likely to ever be lucky enough to perform their craft in a major league ballpark. But isn’t that true in all walks of life? I spent 20+ years in the radio game and never made it to one of the top 10 markets in the country. How many office workers ever get above middle management in their careers? Most teachers will remain teachers and not become principals or superintendents. There is no denying Lucas Mann’s talent for writing. He is wonderfully descriptive and that allows me to recommend “Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere” as a good read. Just because I admire the writing, though, doesn’t mean I agree with his conclusions. Personally, I don’t think he gives the city of Clinton, the fans, the players and their families enough credit. Hardship is certainly a part of their lives, but I don’t think they’re as bleak as Mann makes them out to be, either.
Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann was published in 2013 by Pantheon Books.