by Gemma de Choisy
Baseball and religion are likened to one another plenty in film and literature, and I guess that’s got something to do with metaphor being pretty much everywhere you look for it. It’s like David Searcy says, “Once consciousness, once meaning gets a start, it keeps on going. You get literacy and metaphor and God.” You get Bull Durham and Annie Savoy worshiping in the Church of Baseball, finding meaning and purpose under jock straps and in a game where faith is requisite because the shots are so long.
“I am not good at faith,” Lucas Mann Writes in Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, his first book. The thing about a line like that is wrapped up in implication. The unspoken follow up: “…but I want to be.” And that, openly, unapologetically, is whatClass A is about: a cynic searching for a place and a reason to shed his cynicism. It is also about a long shot – the kind where faith is most needed when taking aim because the likelihood of hitting the target is so very, very small. Mann is a current Provost Fellow at the University of Iowa, and a recent graduate of the University’s MFA program in Nonfiction where he started Class A as a thesis project. It is an account of the year Mann spent following the Lumberkings, a minor league baseball team based in Clinton, Iowa. Over the course of that season we see Mann engage with the players in the batting cage, on the field, on the prowl, and in the kinds of intimate moments that might only every precipitate between two men when one is living the other’s dream and demonstrating what a nightmare it can be.
Maybe it’s that detail, the disappointment that’s so thoughtfully and sympathetically rendered in Class A, that makes me want to say Mann’s book is less about the players pitching and hitting, and the fans cheering them on, than it is about whatever seeped into their bones deep enough to keep them going back to the stadium after innumerable and expected failures on the field. And, since we see in art what we carry in ourselves…I guess it shouldn’t surprise me that I also want to say that same something-in-the-bones is what keeps a writer going back to his or her desk after innumerable and expected failures on the page.
Mann is a wild success on the page: refreshingly candid and judicious in his incorporation of childhood memories and borderline-tender interpersonal moments with the Lumberkings and their fans. Such stuff would make a book like this unbearably nostalgic in less skilled hands. It’s Mann’s cool brand of honesty that does the trick. We see him as he sees himself: skeptical, needy, sincere, at times profoundly childish, and at others simply profound, as with his astute interpretation of his own nostalgia:
I read that the term ‘nostalgia’ originated in a seventeenth-century medical student’s dissertation, when he mixed the Greek word nostos, ‘return to the native land,’ with algos, ‘suffering, grief,’ to describe the madness of mercenaries who spent all their lives moving and trying to remember. It was classified as a potentially fatal disease. Isn’t that crazy? To die from wanting to return. But I miss things that were never mine, want to return to a place, more of a feeling, that never really existed, and doesn’t baseball always promise that there was once something more?
Interspersed through the season’s narrative, we see Mann’s love of the game engendered in him by his father over long nights and baseball-themed bedtime stores. We see the failures of his older brother, vaguely rendered but keenly felt, and failures of Mann’s own, so successfully portrayed because he conveys himself with that Didionesque “source from which self-respectsprings.” Mann writes with the “courage of his mistakes” and that “willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life,” even if he has trouble accepting much else. We also see Mann with the other fans, most of them more diehard and therefore more distant than he, if only for the extreme and bizarrely bucolic focus of their ardor: the Lumberkings, and only them.
Through all of this, Mann shows us baseball as it is, not the hope of “something more,” but the embodiment of hoping. Baseball, like those Coco Puffs and Trix cereal box competitions some of us will remember from the 1990s, is a game in which “many will enter, few will win.” The vast majority of players will age out before their chance to make it to the Majors ever comes. Others will break in body or in spirit. For others, there was no chance at all really, once the stakes were raised so high that enthusiasm failed to compensate for a lack of luck and innate extraordinary talent. And even if a player does make it to The Show, there’s no guarantee he’ll stay.
Long shots and slim chances, it seems, are something minor league players know all about, all too well. It’s something MFA students know about too. The writing game – which Mann plays with bravado and talent, his voice gaining muscle and dexterity as Class A and the season it captures progresses – is also a game where “many will enter, few will win” if we’re talking about publication or notoriety or, most importantly, the chance to make a living doing something one loves. It’s probably because that’s the place I’m reading from, but I found it difficult to think about John Tamagaro, the Lumberking’s manager, making it to The Show and back as Mann describes him, with a “.242 lifetime major league average, 244 at bats that were recorded, that nobody can take away.” The adage “those who can’t do, teach” comes to mind, something every MFA student I know has considered with varying degrees of preemptive disappointment. It is difficult to read about a farm team and not think about graduate writing programs in general; small, selective, but illusory insofar as our time here (I guess I should mention that I’m a new addition to the very program Mann just left) isn’t exactly representative of the stakes in the Major Leagues. It is difficult to read about Hank and Nick and Danny and the other Lumberkings and not think about big fishes in small ponds, and how, if those fish somehow find a river leading to the ocean, they find out how regular-sized they actually are.
Here’s something an MFA program will teach you. Just about anything can be likened to anything else if the associative ties are knotted tightly. And just now, writing that big-fish-small- pond line up above, I can’t help but be reminded of something Jean Rhys likened writing to. “All of writing is a huge lake,” Rhys said:
There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The late matters. You must keep feeding the lake.
The sentiment is something close to what Mann might call “love of the game.” What it implies comes close to the question Class A begs. Is feeding the lake enough? Is playing for playing’s sake enough? Is faith – faith in something more, faith in what a thing stands for, whether its game or metaphor or God – enough to keep someone playing? What kind of someone would that be? I think the answer, though he might not say so himself, is someone like Mann. Someone who will watch even if he can’t play, someone who would keep reading if, on a bad day, he can’t write.
“We do not like to say out loud that fandom is so important,” Mann writes, early on in the book, “the most important thing, maybe, because it feels like the filling of a void too maudlin to try to define. To admit its importance is to acknowledge the absence of something else that should be there.”
I recently read that the term “maudlin” is a derivation of Magdalane, as in Mary, as in the woman who wept at the tomb of what had mattered most to her. Even if Mann is talking about baseball here – which he is, of course – he’s also talking about a kind of salvation we’re not supposed to seek outside of ourselves these days. But in Class A, Mann knows better. It’s the seeking that saves us, even if we don’t find what we’re looking for. In the meantime, there’s metaphor, waiting for us to find it, to help us get through.
Gemma de Choisy is a writer based in Iowa City, IA and Glastonbury, UK. She is a firstyear MFA student in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and co-host of The Lit Show, a literature-loving radio program on KRUI.