Baseball is Made for Stories: A Conversation with Lucas Mann

Dear Reader,

 

Lucas Mann was in his early 20s, working towards his MFA in narrative nonfiction at the University of Iowa when he walked into the front office of the minor league Clinton LumberKings team, and asked if it would be OK if he wrote about the players. 

 

As much a history of a Midwestern town and a character study of its residents,  Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, is a book about baseball, fandom, fathers and sons, sports mythology (He, he, he, he. Came from Nothing. Suffered. Won.), and, ultimately about America, told in a open, honest, wry voice.  (Did we mention that the author's now all of 26?)

 

Mann discusses his own history with baseball, the people he met while writing Class A, and loving literary nonfiction "because it's so full of possibilities," among many other things, with Discover Great New Writers.

 
 

How did you come to minor league baseball as a topic?

I think originally my entrance into the project felt haphazard, but now, with some distance, I'm seeing how the mystique of the game, my own history with it and the memories I have, were always pushing at the surface. I'm definitely not a sportswriter - I don't think I have any of that expertise. I love baseball in a vaguely knowledgeable way and I was a dedicated, if mediocre, player into college, but I couldn't explain why the game was still so fascinating, or important, to me. I've always been drawn to writing that tries to trace and understand its own motivations. That goes after a question that feels obscure at first. I was compelled to see the minors for some reason; I was looking for something that felt comforting, that reminded me of home in some small way. I first went to Clinton in the winter and walked around the snowy infield of the stadium and I knew I'd have to come back. The tradition of Clinton, the look and feel of it, the people that I met - it all captivated me. It felt like this hidden, complex reality behind all the nostalgic baseball books that my father read me as a kid. I wanted to know why it was so vivid for me. So I just kept showing up.

When you tell people you're writing about baseball, there's a real joy that they take, it seems, in bringing up the fact that so many other people have done that. The challenge becomes finding new territory and value in a story so often told. I grew to love the idea of mucking around in a space full of expectations and seeing what beautiful surprises, what tiny, unique moments of humanity, could pop up. The people that I met - players, coaches, fans - were so vibrant, so much more than baseball clichés, that it felt like a responsibility to express that.

How would you classify Class A? Do you think of it as any particular kind of book?

I love literary nonfiction because it's so full of possibilities. I don't have to compartmentalize. I can let the stories and ideas that that I'm seeing and thinking about, and let them inhabit the same space. The combination grew organically. At the beginning, I planned to find some compelling players and chronicle their exploits. I'm happy that it grew into a book that is harder to classify. There is something wonderfully liberating about the structure of a baseball season. You know when it begins and ends. You know the basic storylines that will develop. You know that the cycle will repeat. But that framework invites so much thought and discussion and memory to fill in all the empty spaces. Alongside the sports story, I became fascinated with the history of the town. I wanted to write about this slow sociological storyline happening right in front of me. Then I got to know the people that watched from the bleachers every day. I wanted to write about them, and the oft-ignored culture of fandom as a whole. And then I couldn't avoid the effect that the project was having on me, the jarred memories, the connections triggered in my brain. I hope that Class A is a book about all of those things. I want to write nonfiction that is hard to sum up. I want to combine reportage and memoir, personal stories and larger historical context, sports action and lyricism. I want it all in the same place.

How did it feel to immerse yourself in Clinton, Iowa, and write so intimately about a place and culture that isn't yours?

That insider/outsider dynamic is really crucial to the book. I've always been drawn to nonfiction where the writer outs himself or herself and writes from a place of acknowledging the desire feel a part of the community that he or she is documenting. I'm thinking of Michael Herr at the beginning of Dispatches, the only non-soldier in a helicopter in Vietnam trying to feel kinship with the men around him, while also just being terrified. Or David Foster Wallace making fun of himself for being this big city poseur at the Illinois State Fair. I'm a city kid,born and raised in New York. Any assumptions that I had about Iowa before moving out there were wildly and stereotypically incomplete. I was fascinated by all the things that were, to my subjects, just life. Even the drive to Clinton, the huge sky and the rolling corn, the way lightning storms looked in the distance, felt new and profound to me in a way that they never would to someone truly of this world. That dynamic — my instant, silly romanticizing of Clinton and Iowa and all of the small-town, blue collar utopia tropes that can be associated with it — is in the book. Part of the journey becomes me trying to reconcile wanting to feel at home in the place and a part of this great community of fans, while also being an outsider who can never really understand what it is to love a team or a home town with that intensity. So much of sports culture, I think, has to do with this feeling of ownership and inclusion, the way different people are allowed to feel a part of the team, and then who has to worship from afar. My own shifting role as outsider/friend/stranger/fan/reporter felt like just another part of this charged community dynamic.

What was it like for the players you met to be so far from home?

The life of a minor league ballplayer is fascinating, so full of tension and loneliness. Some of these players are so young, eighteen or nineteen years old, and living far away from home for the first time. Nobody on the team came from anywhere near Iowa, so they may as well have been sent to space. Then at the same time they were the "home team" and fans, many of whom had spent their entire lives in Clinton, adopted them instantly as "our boys." I mean, we're talking about my insider/outsider balance, these guys were navigating the ultimate insider/outsider dynamic. I found this especially compelling in the stories of the Latin American players. Erasmo Ramírez, a pitcher that plays a huge role in the book, is from Nicaragua, but left Nicaragua for a sports academy in El Salvador at 14. Then it was on to Venezuelan professional ball at 17. Finally, at 19 he got the call up to Spring training in Arizona, and then made it to Clinton. He has been singularly dedicated and entirely itinerant since puberty. I was amazed at the grace with which he handled himself, trying to understand and accept the fans' adoration, maneuvering through fast-food drive-thrus and dive bars and radio interviews, always learning. The Latin players who knew more English than the others would protect their friends, help escort them down Walmart aisles to get dinner, negotiate rent, explain what coaches, umpires and fans were yelling, all on the fly. I was blown away by the camaraderie and the resilience, every day.

What about the political overtones within the book? How does the story of a baseball season relate to talk about the corporate history of Clinton?

I didn't set out to make a political point, nor do I think the book has any agenda. But it's also impossible to look at minor league baseball in a factory town and not grow curious about all of the economic factors that dictate the lives of the players and fans. You can't miss the mile-long Archer Daniels Midland factory when driving into Clinton. The look, the smoke and the smell dominate the landscape. The factory is the town's biggest employer, all non-union, growing as smaller factories and businesses continue to close. The factory, with its promise of jobs, it's threat of potentially moving to any town at any time, has complete control. Individuals need it and are dwarfed by it. This concept, the balance between personal needs and big business interests seemed mirrored, to me, in the minor league system. The players that were stars to all of us watching in Clinton made a salary of $1150 per month. Many, especially those who never went to college, certainly those foreign born, wondered seriously about what it is they could possibly do if baseball didn't pan out. Minor league players have never unionized, the rationale being that they will be cut, easily replaced with players who will endure more than them for a slim chance at making the major leagues. My interest is less in overt politics and more about the relationship between individuals in institutions, the hardships that are absorbed because they have to be, or because it seems like there is no other option.

Why do you think that sports stories, and baseball stories in particular, remain so compelling?

I have a bit in the book where I argue that baseball is made for stories because it's so boring. I mean that in the best possible sense. If you watch a football game, in the moment that you're trying to put words to the power of a vicious hit you just saw, another one has happened. In basketball, success is reached a hundred times a game - the ball going through the hoop, the goal achieved. There's so much potential in the languid, untimed, inactive nature of baseball. We have to tell stories as we watch. Otherwise it would just be a lot of dead air and guys calling time to knock dirt off their cleats with the bat. And there's something so simple and primal about a sports narrative of any kind. There is a clear objective. Someone wins and someone loses, not just metaphorically, but in every technical sense. What is more compelling than watching people work toward a goal that is so clear and simultaneously so difficult? The desire is beautiful, and so is the sweat, and the singular devotion to a perfectly whittled down notion of success. It is a powerful, almost fugue-like feeling to root for someone else. To care deeply that they find whatever satisfaction they have set out as being all-important. Class A, I hope, invites the full intensity of that emotion.

You wrote the bulk of Class A as a graduate student at the University of Iowa. How did that experience affect the writing?

It made the whole project possible. The MFA in nonfiction was a wonderful platform for me as a writer. It gives freedom, and with that comes a challenge. You're thrown into a new place, surrounded by other writers, and in the midst of that charged environment you're forced to look at the world around you and think, What interests me? Within modern magazine culture, there aren't too many outlets anymore for long form, contemplative, literary, researched work, the stuff I grew up loving from authors like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese. I was on a fellowship stipend at Iowa. I had a little blue hatchback, enough money for gas, and the inspiration of all the smart, talented people around me. I could go watch baseball, read old history books, meet new people, and take my time until I understood where the story was for me.

You're 26 years old. What does it feel like to have this kind of opportunity so early in your career?

It feels terrifying. I think I'm remembering a specific Zadie Smith interview, but I know I've read about a million great writers say in an interview that writing is basically feeling like a fraud over and over again. I like to think that I feel extra-fraudulent (or maybe that's just the desire to be unique.). But I hope that the book draws from and is honest to that sense of who am, where I'm at. I don't want to feign some wizened wisdom as a narrator, nor do I want to claim any omniscient authority. I'm young and confused and often quite panicked and ultimately very lucky to be able to write. I hope that all of that is reflected on the page, and that what I write rings true to people.

Who have you discovered lately?

One of my greatest reading pleasures is discovering a book that has been around forever but is new to me. My brother gave me John Williams's novel Stoner as a gift a few months ago. I was stunned by it. Now I'm onto another novel of his, Butcher's Crossing. It's totally different from Stoner, yet still completely engrossing and moving in the most surprising of ways. As I read Williams, I keep glancing around excitedly, thinking, "How did I not know about this?!"

 

 

 

 


 

Miwa Messer

Miwa Messer is the Director of the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program, which was established in 1990 to highlight works of exceptional literary quality that might otherwise be overlooked in a crowded book marketplace. Titles chosen for the program are handpicked by a select group of our booksellers four times a year. Click here for submission guidelines.

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