Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere by Lucas Mann

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere
Lucas MannClinton Lumberkings
Pantheon Books
First Edition: May 7, 2013
ISBN 978-0-307-90754-7

Nick Franklin, a rookie second baseman with the Seattle Mariners who was just called up on May 27 from AAA Tacoma, is off to a very good start in his first month with the club.  As of this writing, he’s hitting .283 with 4 home runs – not a bad start – and according to his manager, Eric Wedge, he shows “no fear”.

Back in 2010, Franklin was a hot young prospect playing Class A ball for the Clinton, Iowa LumberKings.  The 19 year old showed flashes of brilliance as well as stretches of youthful hubris, but everyone knew this Florida kid was one of the few who might actually make it out of Class A and possibly live the dream of taking it all the way to the Majors.  But what Nick Franklin did – is doing still – is just one fragment of a much larger story with mighty humble beginnings; one that doesn’t always have such a happy ending.

Author Lucas Mann has chronicled the year 2010 following the Clinton LumberKings in his new book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, gaining access to and joining the players in the locker rooms, the stands, the restaurants, the bars and the apartments they frequented.  While there is plenty in this book for the baseball enthusiast and the sports aficionado, it is more than a conglomeration of extended interviews, a paean to the glory of statistics, or merely a glimpse into the minutiae (both inspiring and tawdry) that marks the less glamorous introductory level of professional sports.  Instead, it makes the ball club the core of the story, but then spirals out to portray not only the players, but also the “Baseball Family” (a hardcore group of local fans), the town of Clinton with its history, landscape, industry and celebrations, and even (especially) the memories – cerebral and sensorial – of the author himself.  In fact, the writing is so layered and entwined that it’s easy to forget this is a work of nonfiction, and that every name, every event, every score is real and unfabricated.

“Casey at the Bat” takes place in Mudville, which is entirely fictional but refers to a town in Massachusetts or California or Iowa, depending on which place you ask.  Forget the character of Casey, forget the mounting rhythm of a ninth inning strikeout, the poem’s power comes from its combination of intimacy and vagueness.  It was set in a field whose crowd roar echoed up mountains, down valleys, in the dells, in the flats.  An impossible field that was in the middle of everywhere.

Mann’s book is not tightly structured;  instead, it meanders between people and places, the present and the past, of things that brought us to this point, and even what may well happen (or has happened) after the here-and-now of the narrative is complete.  This would be frustrating, were it not for the off-hand fluidity of Mann’s writing; while reading Class A, one gets the distinct impression of sitting in on a one-sided rambling conversation – perhaps over beers or a couple of orders of large fries at the local McDonalds – rather than a formal documentation of The State of Baseball’s Farm System and Its Impact on Small Town USA.  And this, actually, is a very good thing.

It doesn’t hurt, either, that Lucas Mann can, on at least a singular level, relate to these boys, these men, that roam the grass at Ashford University Field (or Alliant Energy Field or Riverview Stadium, depending on the year).  He, too, dreamed of being a professional baseball player, back when he donned a uniform in his New York high school and was encouraged by a family of lifelong Yankees fans, ever since his father used to read aloud John R. Tunis’ books to him and his brother (even after they were too old to be read aloud to), books like The Kid from Tomkinsville  and The Kid Comes Back.  Although he soon realized that he didn’t have the physique, the skills or the drive to chase after that dream, he could still understand being awed by those who did, and respect those who tried but would ultimately fail to make it out of Class A, those who may have been stopped short of their goal, but could still honestly say that at one time they had been professional baseball players.

That is the way that fathers teach baseball to their sons.  The democracy of the game.  The idea that what makes someone exceptional comes from an unquantifiable force within them.  There are no absolutes in the game beyond will, and that is the appeal that Hank Contreras draws upon, for me, certainly, as I watch him chew his burger.  The fans in Clinton can see him squatting in the bullpen every day, mask on, dirty and underappreciated the way real people are, yet still a player, his uniform that same heavy white fabric that only professional uniforms are made out of.

Yet it should not be assumed that this book is one full of hope and honor, with an uplifting ending full of bright shining faces and unabashed optimism.  It is not:  remember, this is nonfiction.  The town of Clinton is no longer in its heyday, its once vibrant history now clinging to the hem of the Archer Daniels Midland plant that keeps the town afloat even as it chokes it to its knees.  The people of the town, the LumberKings’ staunch fans, are not glamorous or even heroic; they are memorable in a freaky yet ordinary sort of way.  That Mann understands and respects them despite, or perhaps because of their limitations is a perspective that is invaluable and almost embarrassingly genuine.  The players that we kinda sorta get to know – no one really wants to open up, because Clinton is just one stop on the journey, hopefully a short one – are just as liable to be released as they are to be told they are “moving up”, and they react just as stoically to either reality.  One day they are there, the next day they are missing from the roster and someone else will be there to take their place.  No strong ties are made, for the more one becomes associated with the team, the less likely they are to be considered a success.  Everything is done with an eye on being somewhere else; it’s all about what you can do on the field, period, to not play is to lose.

He cooks for himself – half a stick of butter into a pan, then three eggs, then the tub of yellow rice he’s been saving in the fridge.  He mixes it with a fork.  His roommates haven’t come home yet, three Venezuelans, two infielders and another pitcher, who sleep in an even row with him on the floor of this twenty-by-ten-foot studio.   Erasmo eats on his mattress because there’s no furniture.  His stomach hurts because he still can’t get used to eating dinner at midnight.  He tries to fall asleep to images of himself, his laptop propped open on his bare stomach, the electric warmth on his skin.  He scrolls through pictures of his face in glorious strain, his arm in blurred movement, and it’s important to remind himself that others see him like this, too.  That men with cameras search him out and he means something bigger than where he is now.

The book does drag a bit in places.  In a wonderful, whimsical effect, the first nine chapters have 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 listed at the top, with the current chapter in black and the others a pale grey, as if they were innings in a game.  But then you reach Chapter 9 (“Of Monkeys and Dreams”) and realize that there is still half the book to go.  Why, of course, extra innings!  However, the additional chapters stretch to seven, and by the time the end comes it really has felt like an extended game: while you may have wanted to be there for every moment, you have to admit that the repetition of balls and strikes got monotonous.  Personal angst, excessive drinking of bad beer, sticky floors and musings on what might have been – for a town, a fan, a player, an author – tend to get a bit lackluster, too, when visited too often without there being at least a hit hard to the outfield.

But then, just like in baseball, with this book there’s always the promise of the hit, the out at the plate, the wild pitch, the grand slam.  And Class A:  Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere delivers, even after a lull.  It’s not always a win, no, but it’s worth taking in, because it means something.  And after reading this book, it may be that buried in the small print of the stats in some random newspaper or even on a fleeting highlight reel of some homogenous sports show you might be able to say, “hey, I read about that guy…”, and it all will again become just a little more real.

Well played, Lucas, well played.

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