This is a hard-hitting examination of minor league baseball and some of the major issues of life in small-town America, in this instance, Clinton, IA. At the hands of Iowan Mann (writer-in-residence, Univ. of Iowa, Iowa City), we confront the town and its team, the Lumberkings. Clinton was once home to more millionaires per capita than any other place in America, but is now a dull image of its past; its Class A team in the Seattle Mariners organization is one of around 200 U.S. minor league teams. In this compelling book Mann seeks to humanize not only the players but also the fans who comprise the family of this small-town field of dreams. Overshadowing much of the story is the decline of Clinton, a once proud, mighty union town. At bottom, this work examines honestly, seriously, and at times comically dreams dashed, dreams deferred, and perhaps dreams yet to be realized.
VERDICT Like a mixture of Bull Durham, American Gothic, a Coen brothers film, and a Springsteen song. Highly recommended for any serious lover of baseball, small-town America, contemporary American popular culture, or just plain good nonfiction. —SKS
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In the tradition of football's Friday Night Lights, a young writer spends a year (and more) following the fortunes of a baseball team: the Class A Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings. In this impressive debut, University of Iowa writer-in-residence Mann has a busy agenda. He writes frequently about his own doubts, insecurities (he was not much older than his subjects) and failures (in sports, in barrooms). Swimming just below the surface is the dark story of the death of his brother, whose presence emerges periodically to whisper messages of mortality and disappointment. Mann discovered and immersed himself in a group of loyal fans--most notably, an obsessive collector named Joyce, who has nearly 1,000 signed baseballs on display in her home. (She also deals at the local casino.) The author had an uneasy relationship with the players, who came and went (and in one case, came back) during the season. He was among them but not often with them. Mann drank with them and observed the young women flirting with them but not with him. A couple of players, however, did open up a bit--though always on their terms. One night, he dressed up in the LumberKing mascot's costume and sweat through an odd evening. He drove around the area, looking at the virtually deserted old downtown--the collapse of Middle America and the middle class clearly in his sights. Mann writes about the corn economy, the odorous presence of food-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland, the dilapidated houses and the Mississippi River, which flows nearby. The author provides few pitch-by-pitch accounts but plenty of piquant moments of success, failure, consequence and inconsequence. He tells about other trips (Venezuela, for one) to check out the back stories of some players. Mann's style is easy, fluid, self-deprecating and always engaging. A grand slam.
From the Publisher
“Mann . . . creates instead a fresh rendering of the game that makes baseball seem vital and new. This is a story you haven’t heard before. . . . Mann’s baseball writing is a revelation. At age 24, in 2010, Mann is not much older than the players he’s covering, but his baseball acumen is high from having played the game in high school and college. . . . Having spent several months with the players, Mann gets behind their seeming incoherence to real thoughts and emotions. . . . His descriptions of locker-room antics and crudities are priceless. . . . Mann is young, easily flustered and often star-struck, but he’s no fool. He is an astute observer and brutally honest when he wants to be.” —Seattle Times
“A Grand Slam . . . . Lucas writes about the Clinton fans and the players . . . with affection, passion and poignancy, in this deft portrayal of a slice of America. He knocks it out of the ballpark with ease.” —Marilyn Dahl, editor, Shelf Awareness for Readers
“Lucas Mann’s Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is turning out to be the sleeper favorite in the new baseball book season.” —Ron Kaplan’s Baseball Bookshelf
“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. . . . Mann, currently in his 20s, is a warrior-poet from another age. . . . 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?’” —The Daily Beast
“Mann . . . combines hyper-detailed journalism with a lyrical flow of prose into a book debut that transcends all of the hackneyed clichés of sports writing. Mann imbues his chronicle with the tale of a town as removed from major-league prosperity as the players whose uniforms bear the burg’s name. Meantime, his beloved late brother hovers over Mann like Marley’s ghost, while memories of going to Yankee Stadium with his father rival anything Roger Angell has written on the same topic. Mann’s narrative is a tapestry of subplots composed of the kind of unsparing detail that manages somehow to be simultaneously inspiring, despairing and hopeful. Chronicling both life’s harshest realities and the stuff dreams are made of, Mann has created some kind of classic out of the smoke and mirrors of a moribund town and the visions of young men who don’t know it’s time to wake up.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“This is a beautifully created and lyrical look at a year in the life of minor-league baseball team and the factory town in Iowa. The story of the 2010 Clinton LumberKings belongs on your sports bookshelf. It will remain on mine. NOTABLE” —Harvey Frommer, Sportsology
“Class A is a joyful book that captures the minor-league baseball spirit in a funny and poignant fashion. Yet this is far more than a baseball book. . . . Mann obviously understands and appreciates the game of baseball. He references great baseball literature for young readers, as well as the writings of John Updike and other classic works. Many are frightened of sports-themed nonfiction, but that should not deter anyone from delving into Class A. The real people of this wonderful book are more than sports figures, and learning about their lives is certainly a rewarding reading experience.” —TeenReads.com
“Is there room for another book about America’s favorite pastime? Lucas Mann's Class A earns a position in a lineup that already includes Bang the Drum Slowly, The Natural, The Boys of Summer, Moneyball and The Art of Fielding because, remarkably, it offers a fresh, unexpected angle on this well-trodden game. Chances are you'll be hearing lots of cheers proclaiming Mann’s genre-bending book a Grand slam! and In a class by itself! . . . Mann offers a different sort of analysis, at once lyrical, intellectual and personal. His meditations on ‘a game that allows ample time for reflection and appreciation’ lift Class A above the fray of more ordinary baseball books. . . . Class A captures the longing, the uncertainty and the drive for recognition, both on and off the ball field.” —Heller McAlpin, NPR
“Mann wryly notes that the [baseball game] was watched by more people than will ever watch Mann do anything. But he is being overly modest. For if there’s one surefire big-league prospect among the has-beens, might-bes, and never-will-bes who populate this memoir, it’s Mann himself who, in his first trip to the plate, knocks it out of the park. If Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding was the Field of Dreams of baseball books, replete with lyricism and Roger Angellesque poetry, then Class A could be considered literature’s answer to Bull Durham—raucous and scruffy, yet heartfelt and true. Mann clearly knows his sports. His references to John Updike’s classic essay about Ted Williams and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, for example, are apt, and his trenchant, witty observations about the uneasy relationship between ballplayers and the denizens of the town where they play suggest the influences of both Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace. But it’s Mann’s knowledge of and affection for people that truly resonates. And what elevates Class A beyond being just an entertaining and poignant work of narrative nonfiction is the book’s most winning character—Mann himself. As a writer and observer, he is patient, sympathetic to a fault, optimistic in spite of himself, and, despite his gifts, impressively unassuming. . . . The fate of most writers may ultimately be not all that different from that of most ballplayers. Decades from now, the vast majority of the names currently seen on the spines of books will probably seem as unfamiliar as those found in a pack of random 2013 baseball cards. But I’d be willing to wager that Lucas Mann is one of the names that will endure.” —Adam Langer, The Boston Globe
“Yes, there are Friday night games under the lights in minor-league baseball, too. New York native Mann spent the 2010 season following the Clinton LumberKings. His sharp and entertaining observations cover not only the players, but the fans in the club’s small Iowa factory town who’s most prosperous days may be in the rearview mirror. The author even goes so far as to get himself into the costume of Louie the LumberKing for a game—for a mascot’s-eye view.” —New York Post
“Mann could have fallen for the easy, Bull Durham–style clichés of the minor-league game—hard-bitten catcher teaching the ropes to brilliant but raw rookie pitcher; the baseball Annie with a heart of gold—but instead offers an affecting and authentic portrait of the hard times of most minor leaguers set in a shrinking town with hard times of its own. Mann focuses on two LumberKing players, infielder Nick Franklin and pitcher Erasmo Ramirez, with the most potential for catching on with the Big Club (Ramirez, in fact, appeared in 16 games last year with Seattle) and also on those bubble players whose latest bad swing or errant pitch could be their last and the fans who work even harder than the players to preserve the legacy of their beloved LumberKings. Then there’s struggling Clinton itself, rendered in sympathetic but unsparing detail. A surprising book, in the best sense.” —Booklist
“In the tradition of football’s Friday Night Lights, a young writer spends a year (and more) following the fortunes of a baseball team: the Class A Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings. In this impressive debut, University of Iowa writer-in-residence Mann has a busy agenda. He writes frequently about his own doubts, insecurities (he was not much older than his subjects) and failures (in sports, in barrooms). . . . The author provides . . . plenty of piquant moments of success, failure, consequence and inconsequence. . . . Mann’s style is easy, fluid, self-deprecating and always engaging. A grand slam.”
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“If you love baseball and care about men who struggle and yearn, you will love this gritty portrait of minor league players as they perform in a battered, polluted Iowa town that has suffered its own hope and disappointment. Lucas Mann writes with fluid introspection and disturbing honesty.”
—David Shipler, author of The Working Poor
“This is a hard-hitting examination of minor league baseball and some of the major issues of life in small-town America, in this instance, Clinton, IA. . . . In this compelling book Mann seeks to humanize not only the players but also the fans who comprise the family of this small-town field of dreams. Overshadowing much of the story is the decline of Clinton, a once proud, mighty union town. At bottom, this work examines honestly, seriously, and at time comically dreams dashed, dreams deferred, and perhaps dreams yet to be realized. Like a mixture of Bull Durham, American Gothic, a Coen brothers film, and a Springsteen song. Highly recommended for any serious lover of baseball, small-town America, contemporary popular culture, or just plain good nonfiction.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Lucas Mann’s startlingly good Class A revitalizes not just the small-town sports story but the genre of creative nonfiction itself. It’s the most original nonfiction debut I’ve read in years, much smarter than the usual ‘you-are-there’ narrative and far more vivid, witty, and emotionally rich than a book this self-aware has any right to be. Mann’s orchestration of character and moment—his insight into the nature of hope and delusion—is wonderful to behold.” —Jeff Sharlet, author of The Family and Sweet Heaven When I Die
“Like a millennial Joan Didion or Gay Talese, just as talented, just as pure, Lucas Mann comes blazing out of nowhere and makes good on this book’s grand promise of ‘everywhere’: his beautiful losers, monkey-rodeo impresario, superstars-in-training, steely-eyed Venezuelan Caseys-at-the-Bat, and—perhaps most profoundly—his own winsome self, make this tour through the Mississippi Valley minors the most intensely contemporary and truly amusing nonfiction that I have read in quite some time.” —John Beckman, author of The Winter Zoo
“Beautifully written. The best, most human, account of the minor league experience I've read. Mann's story resides beyond the chilly statistics of the game, in a lush world draped with blood, sweat, fear and longing. Where residents of a town in steep decline and a team replete with doomed prospects somehow manage to find that one product baseball manufactures more expertly than any other industry—hope.” —Mitchell Nathanson, author of A People’s History of Baseball
“Lucas Mann’s debut is a beautiful, gripping account of his immersion in the world of a Class A minor league team, the LumberKings of Clinton, Iowa. This is a book about baseball, players-in-waiting, fans and community, but it is also a pitch perfect evocation of what the author calls ‘the middle of everywhere’–that place where so many people live and work, finding grace and meaning in often challenging circumstances. Put Class A on your bookshelf alongside Friday Night Lights.” —Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter
“Class A is unapologetically intimate—a deeply compassionate, blessedly unrelenting, and sometimes uncomfortably insightful portrait of a town and a team that might have too much invested in one another. Lucas Mann beautifully blends reportage and lyricism to create a story of vibrant consequence.” —John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain
“The key to Lucas Mann’s superb Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere is that every life, properly understood, is compelling. My college writing teacher told me that the only subject worth writing about is failure. Lucas Mann seems to know this to the bottom of his toes. His book is an impressively unblinking meditation on private and public failure.” —David Shields, author of Reality Hunger and Black Planet
Read an Excerpt
I am Louie. Tonight, I am Louie. Tonight, regal and oversized, I am Louie the LumberKing.
I am not a Lumberjack. Lumberjacks are lowly, solitary creatures, and I am not that. I am industry and prosperity. I am hope.
I am nervous.
The mascot’s dressing room used to be the umpires’ dressing room, tucked under the bleachers on the first-base side of the stadium. Umps have signed the splintering cabinet where my uniform hangs. I think I can make out “Clinton forever” still scratched into the wood. And, “Remember me.” And, “A stop on the journey.” The journey to the majors. That’s what he hoped. That Clinton, Iowa, would turn into a AAA town like Columbus or Nashville and that would lead to Milwaukee or San Diego or even Yankee Stadium. But this is the Midwest League, Class A, the lowest rung of full-season professional baseball. Yankee Stadium is far off.
There’s a toilet in the corner, sprinkled with pubic hairs that I think could be both mascot and umpire in origin. There’s a tin of mint-flavored tobacco, empty. There’s a spit bottle, once a Gatorade bottle, now filled with saliva the color of tree sap.
Replicas of my image are littered everywhere, and they help me, despite the smells and the sight of this rotting cubicle, to buy into my own myth. Promotional postcards with my face saying, “Fun is always in style, come out to the ballpark!” A bobblehead of me. I tap my miniature ceramic skull, and it nods, comforting. There are cards from children addressed to me. “I love you, Louie.” “Your number one fan forever, Louie.”
I dress late, overwhelmed. I start with the socks, long black baseball socks. The kind that I first put on when I was five, schooled by my father the way I imagine young girls are when it comes time to slide on tights without causing a run. This is one of the earliest tactile memories I have, getting my toes all the way in and then rolling the polyester blend up my leg, feeling somehow armored.
The white pants come next. They’re too tight. They’re made for small, quick mascots because the ideal mascot is agile and teenage. I suck in, but you can’t suck in thighs or ass. I snap the waist closed, and my fat springs it open. I feel my hands sweating. I try again, fumbling, getting desperate. It’s Thirsty Thursday, and the house is always decently packed on days when alliteration can be made to signify fun. There’re over a thousand out there, quite a turnout in a town with a population that has dwindled to twenty-six thousand people. It’s one of the nights when the construction of this place, its self-referential glory, feels legitimate. I’m an important part of this.
The national anthem begins to play as finally, protected with a belt stretched to its last hole, my pants stay fastened and I’m halfway toward a full transformation.
Louie the LumberKing speaks of the past.
Did you know that there used to be more millionaires per capita in Clinton, Iowa, than anywhere else in the country? Did you know that? In the country.
I’ve heard that a lot since the beginning of the season because it’s true and it’s nice to say. At the turn of the twentieth century, Clinton was the center of a lumber empire. Millionaires were made here. Thirteen of them, all burly and proud in the portraits they left behind. They became barons of lumber, famous even beyond Clinton, and they built mansions that you could get lost in looming above the center of town. Though the industry and its spoils have long since disappeared, some mansions are still here. A few stand in a regal clump on Fifth Avenue, chopped up over the years into smaller and smaller apartments, odd looking from up close when you see the plastic children’s toys on the lawn. One mansion is a museum, rarely visited. One was demolished in the late 1970s, and a department store sprouted in its place. The department store is gone now.
A lot of things are gone. Things downtown closed; some collapsed. Things burned. In 1968 the sociopathic hippie son of a local businessman set fire to nine buildings because he was just so bored. He torched Clinton High School, another town landmark, and it turned to ash blocks away from the opulent homes gone empty.
The longtime fans, the ones I’ve sat with every game along the third-base line, a group that has dubbed themselves first the Roadkill Crew, then the Baseball Family, remember how high the smoke went. You must have been able to see it from everywhere, along Highway 30 and across the river in Illinois, too. The glow reflected on the water, shifting, glinting, like a puddle of oil on a tar road.
That hippie boy set the most famous fires, but not the last ones. Fans have told me that it feels as if something were always aflame now. When buildings are old, when nobody’s watching, anything can be tinder. Some of the fires are on YouTube. The dilapidated apartment with the mother and her two toddlers inside. The ancient white house without smoke detectors. The Lutheran church with flames dancing in the stained-glass windows. Old homes with no life in them, no care for them, so eventually they burn. And people like me, from anywhere, can click refresh, refresh on the videos. Three months ago, there was a string of fires on a single block, simultaneously ruled “not suspicious” and “under investigation” by local authorities. But fires don’t matter here and now in the stadium. And neither does ash.
I enter my torso.
I squeeze through the neck hole of discarded high school football shoulder pads. The XXL Lumber-Kings jersey that has been sewn onto this skeleton hangs off me, and when I tuck it into the pants, it gives my top half a superhero’s triangular shape.
Now for my head.
My head is made of mesh and wood and cardboard and felt. My head must be two feet in diameter, sturdy and square-jawed, capped with an enormous golden crown. There are fake veins running down my neck to show my intensity. I have a goatee sewn on, thick and black. I look like a suave, royal Paul Bunyan. My mouth is carved into a confident smirk, and when people look at me, they won’t know that it’s my mouth that I see through, a dual eyesight. I watch the world in front of me and at the same time the lining of my own skull, the scaffolding of my own construction. There’s a patch of dried blood inside my chin.
The door swings open, and I’m caught staring into the mirror, stroking my faux beard. It’s Mitch.
“You look fucking legit, bro,” he says.
“Really?” I say.
“Legit. Trust me. Legit.”
He tucks my neck into my shoulders. He stands back. He shoves me hard and says, “You fired up?”
I nod and almost topple forward with the weight of myself.
I am Louie.
When the anthem finishes, I grab my flag. I push through the door. I trip over a hose, only just catching myself on the dirt with the palm of my left hand, right hand still clinging to the banner. I start again. My approximation of a sprint takes me around the edge of the infield. The team limbers up for the crowd. I hold the flag in front of me and try to wave it as I run. I feel my head wobble as I pass Nick Franklin, the star shortstop. A year ago, after he graduated high school, he was given $1.28 million by the Seattle Mariners. Now he’s been sent here to Clinton, Iowa, to learn and then move up out of here on schedule. All the Lumber-Kings’ players were drafted or signed by the Mariners, and Clinton is just one of the early outposts in their development process. Seattle’s largest present investment, though, by a good amount, is young Nick Franklin, and so now he’s Clinton’s prize, a transplanted, temporary millionaire.
I stop running in front of the Baseball Family, their pocket of seats always full, even on the many Mondays when the rest of the stadium is empty. I see Betty laying out her candies, one by one, measuring the way each piece sits on the concrete wall, close enough to call out to the players, not so close that the candy falls on the field and the game is disrupted by a rogue Jolly Rancher. Next to the Jolly Ranchers are the strawberry suckers in wrappers made to look like real strawberries. And then the packets of Walmart-brand fruit snacks, first the white, then the blue, then the purple ones that taste like flat grape soda.
“When did you start?” I asked her once. “Why did you start?”
“One day, I thought they work so hard out there, they must get hungry,” she said. “That was fifteen years ago.”
The players remember, she told me. There’s a postcard at home from Derek Holland, who is famous now and pitches for the Texas Rangers in front of forty-five thousand people. It says, “Merry Christmas,” and is addressed to Grandma Betty. It says he misses the candy.
He was produced here, Derek Holland. In a way. He came here raw and nineteen, and in Clinton, with Clinton, in front of the fans, he was nurtured into something better than what had arrived.
Bill, Betty’s husband, keeps his sandaled feet hooked back like a bird’s talons, hidden under the shadow of his chair. He’s missing two toes, a memento from the years when he worked at Allied Steel, back when steel, along with paper, along with wood, along with plastic, along with corn, catalyzed the town. But Allied left with a lot of other businesses, and left behind 100,000 tons of coal tar blocks down from the riverfront stadium, not cleaned for decades. And long before that, Bill was standing on the work floor when a four-ton beam fell, smashing his foot and resulting in the steel plate that now heats his head in summer.
I realize that I like the eyes on me. I wave my flag, and I can trace gazes drifting back and forth along with my movements. It’s every overwrought fantasy I ever got lost in on Little League fields—the simple, pure importance of a body being looked at. It’s not me, really, but still, this vehicle that I operate commands attention. And I can’t say that being the temporary center of this world that I have made mine for the season, the diamond, the lights, all of it, doesn’t make me strut.