An unforgettable chronicle of a year of minor-league baseball in a small Iowa town that follows not only the travails of the players of the Clinton LumberKings but also the lives of their dedicated fans and of the town itself.
Award-winning essayist Lucas Mann delivers a powerful debut in his telling of the story of the 2010 season of the Clinton LumberKings. Along the Mississippi River, in a Depression-era stadium, young prospects from all over the world compete for a chance to move up through the baseball ranks to the major leagues. Their coaches, some of whom have spent nearly half a century in the game, watch from the dugout. In the bleachers, local fans call out from the same seats they’ve occupied year after year. And in the distance, smoke rises from the largest remaining factory in a town that once had more millionaires per capita than any other in America.
Mann turns his eye on the players, the coaches, the fans, the radio announcer, the town, and finally on himself, a young man raised on baseball, driven to know what still draws him to the stadium. His voice is as fresh and funny as it is poignant, illuminating both the small triumphs and the harsh realities of minor-league ball. Part sports story, part cultural exploration, part memoir, Class A is a moving and unique study of why we play, why we watch, and why we remember.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Lucas Mann was born in New York City and received his MFA from the University of Iowa, where he was the Provost’s Visiting Writer in Nonfiction. His essays and stories have appeared in or are forthcoming from Wigleaf, Barrelhouse, New South, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, and The Kenyon Review. He teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and lives in Providence, Rhode Island.
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.
Table of Contents
Author's Note ix
1 The Mascot 3
2 Origins 18
3 Things 43
4 The Fantasy 58
5 The Pzazz! 79
6 The Collector 98
7 How They Go 115
8 The Middle 134
9 Of Monkeys and Dreams 156
10 Voices 174
11 The Night 190
12 The Numbers 213
13 The Winning Streak 236
14 What Is Left Behind 251
15 Something Climactic 274
16 Ride Home 297
What People are Saying About This
“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
“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
A Conversation with Lucas Mann, Author of Class A
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 wan 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?!"
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Mr. Mann takes you on a wonderful journey into the life of small town America. His love of baseball and its history enable him to imbue a nobility to the fans, the players and the town of Clinton that I found to be heartwarming. We also get a glimpse at the psyche of the author as he tells the story of these people but also tells us a lot about his own story as well. A terrific first novel from someone i hope to read more from in the future.
I got an early review copy of this from a friend, and I loved it. The writing is incredible, and I love the author's approach. So much memoir, particularly dealing with sports, just feels like journalism, but Mann is very present in this story. It made it so much more personal and compelling because I cared about what happened to him and the parralels he draws between the town, the players and himself. I will say this isn't as baseball focused as I'd thought it be, which is great for me! I mean, it's all about this team and baseball, but you don't have to be a fan at all. Also, if you're looking for this to be like a sports illustrated thing, you're looking in the wrong place. I'd call this honest literary fiction, straight-up. Wonderful!