MARCH 26, 2020
IN THE AFTERMATH of the Civil War, as the country’s identity was in flux, a new game called “base ball” was rising to prominence across the land, including in the mind of a quintessential chronicler of the American spirit, Walt Whitman. “[I]t’s our game,” Whitman told a friend, “that’s the chief fact in connection with it: America’s game: has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere — belongs as much to our institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitutions, laws: is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.” Emily Nemens’s debut novel about spring baseball, The Cactus League, has all of Whitman’s so described snap, go, and fling to it, but it carries with it the elusive spirit of the game, too. Even in its early days, baseball captured an essential ethos in the American experiment, and as an institution — as Whitman aptly called it — baseball has mirrored our culture, our struggles, and our ways of life since the days of Lincoln. Perhaps it is no wonder, then, that as other American institutions have found themselves in a crisis of faith, baseball would be as well.
Nemens’s novel, however, follows the crisis of an individual: outfielder Jason Goodyear, all-star MVP for the Los Angeles Lions (named for the MGM logo), who has serious trouble waiting for him outside of the foul lines. While Goodyear is the sort of superstar who exists in the rarefied air of Tom Brady or LeBron James, the baseball equivalent of a cross between Angelenos Mike Trout and Mookie Betts, who on the surface is a “Goody Two-shoes,” his life and public persona are set to crumble all around him. Told in nine interlinked stories, or innings, surrounding the Lions, their fans, and the titular spring training of the Cactus League itself, Nemens’s novel is not so much a novel about baseball the game as much as the baseball the idea. The change eschews the onerous and cheesy conventions of scrappy underdogs or “Casey at the bat” — a pitfall the writer Keith Gessen described in an early draft of his friend Chad Harbach’s novel The Art of Fielding as “[t]he Bad News Bears go to liberal-arts college.” But the six weeks that comprise spring training in Scottsdale, Arizona (hence the cactuses), still matter, if in a different way. They form an unsettled time in the baseball universe, one where “all is in flux” as players ascend to the final roster or descend into minor league affiliates, and where the thick walls between players and possibility can disintegrate in a moment:
But these six weeks of spring can mean so much: they make the team, they get sent down, they get sent home. What happens here can shape the rest of a career in baseball, and it’s a rare man who can keep his head down and plow through that kind of uncertainty.
Set during the spring training of 2011, the novel depicts a Scottsdale still beaten down by the lingering effects of the Great Recession, and those who make their lives there are similarly clinging to the edges: a docent at Frank Lloyd Wright’s western retreat, Taliesin West; a physical-therapist-turned-sports-agent’s-assistant; an analog stadium organist hanging on against technology; and the players, who similarly grab hold to baseball as a purveyor of meaning and purpose that has proved indefinable elsewhere.
It goes unsaid that, as Whitman noted, there certainly is some meaning in baseball that exudes the “American atmosphere” and drives some of us to see in it a fuller way of being. As Michael, a minor league hitting coach at the end of his career, explains it:
There’s something cathartic about swinging a piece of wood at a hurtling knot of leather and yarn. The sting that happens in your palms when you connect, the ball bending ever so slightly at the collision. The reverberations of that rubber center that run up your arms, plugging into your shoulders with a little zing. The sound of it.
The sentiment has also drawn novelists, too, notably so: the “baseball novel,” stands apart in a way that novels about basketball and football don’t. It is easy to forget that baseball predates its fellow American sports by many decades, and along with this head start, it came of age not only with the stylings of Ring Lardner and Zane Grey, but another narrative medium: the radio. A sport so programmatic as baseball, so methodical and slow, lends itself to the radio broadcast (still a preferred way to listen for many fans). Baseball is not just easily imagined, at least compared to the messy, frenetic play of basketball, say, but also inclined toward long and discursive jaunts that fill the air between pitches and over nine innings. In short, like a novel.
As a baseball novel, The Cactus League treads deftly between the conventions, clichés, kitsch, legends, and nostalgia inherent in a sport that is over half the age of the United States itself. The hoary grandeur, too, is part of the appeal in a game packed with the earnestness of players nicknamed “The Say Hey Kid” and “Mr. Smile,” as well as the tired little axioms that fill American life: keep your eye on the ball, rain check, batting a thousand — all that inside baseball. Instead, Nemens’s stories sing with the earned knowledge of one immersed in the game — the college World Series is referred to simply as “Omaha.” The brutal elbow surgery for pitchers is noted as “Tommy John.” In the locker room, names of marginal players are written on masking tape above the lockers and the “residue of tape where names have been” serves as a reminder for those players who are still on the team, if barely. The bevy of pitchers competing for precious few spots are a “swarm of aspiring arms.” The famous Scottsdale spring training watering hole, Don & Charlie’s, has “baseball cards displayed like dead butterflies.” These, along with many other little details, make the world of baseball bloom in the full depth and honkytonk wonder of those who love it.
A Seattle native, Nemens grew up as a diehard Mariners fan during the heyday of the great slugger Ken Griffey Jr. (who is perhaps an even better mold for All-American MVP and A-list celebrity, Jason Goodyear), and she even made her own excursions to the Cactus League as a child with her father. For the past two years, as the new editor of The Paris Review, she has had to follow the Mariners from the East Coast. Nemens came to the famed New York literary magazine after six years serving as co-editor of Louisiana State University’s The Southern Review. In addition to her editorial duties, she’s worked across creative media — from painting to cartoons to jazz to, of course, fiction. The Cactus League began as part of her MFA thesis at LSU in 2011. The format of the novel, its series of nine stories surrounding the team and its stadium, belies its broader ambition. In truth, it’s a baseball novel where the outcome of the games is moot and where ballplayers make up a minority of the characters and chapters. By expanding the focus, Nemens draws in those peripherally caught up in the beauty of America’s pastime, and, poignantly, those who aren’t all men at the height of their powers. One of the most ambitious and moving is “The Outfield,” the sixth chapter (or inning), which follows the “baseball wives,” a choral contingent of spouses who live in the glamorous shadows casts by their husbands, but who also suffer from the burdens of it as well: the anxieties of boredom, obsolescence, and attraction hang about the edges of boozy dinners and lingerie parties. The baseball wives loathe the “cleat chasers,” the women who hang around the ballpark hoping for a spring fling with one of the players. But what happens when the codependence of marriage and partnership becomes pushed to the extreme? And what happens when you have to depend on these men, stirrups and all?
At the heart of this and perhaps all baseball novels, from The Natural to The Art of Fielding, are those sparkling examples of peak manhood, be they Henry Skrimshander or Roy Hobbs. But more so than most other baseball novels, The Cactus League feels in conversation with the idea of masculinity itself; there’s the batting coach who espouses the motto “What Would Joe DiMaggio Do?” as a paragon of peak masculinity. There’s the pitcher with the aching bum arm so afraid of being cut that he that he drowns himself in Vicodin and sex. There’s the fraternity between one of the team’s part owners and a player, both of them high-achieving black men, until the owner finds himself jilted and summarily has the player traded away. And above all there is Jason, whose masculine virtue is so powerful, his competitive drive so strong that it edges into a terrible vice: a vicious gambling addiction, baseball’s mortal sin and the source of the infamous Rule 21, no betting on baseball.
Of course, Nemens’s portrayal of men is not from an insider’s perspective, and the outward gaze inward on the trappings of masculinity makes the characters all the more poignant. At one moment, Jason and a coach run into each other in the stadium’s batting cages after dark, no one around for miles, and the narrator (another man, a sportswriter put out of work by his crumbling newspaper) notes how these two men would never consider the danger inherent in the situation, so secure they are in their bodies and their strength. In the end, the question lingers: what drives men who ascend to such incredible heights, like Jason, or his real-world peers and other notorious gamblers like Michael Jordan and Pete Rose, and what then causes them to crumble under the weight of their own competitive drive? Eventually, we learn Jason’s backstory in the ninth inning, and Nemens lays out the origins of his competitive verve in both baseball and in gambling, though it’s notable that, unlike Pete Rose, he’s able to keep them separate. Yet, the real heart of Jason’s zeal for victory and competition feels undefined, and the spiral of his demise is only summed up as, “Jason didn’t — still doesn’t — know what changed, but something sent him spinning.” Even by the final pages, what that “something” might be remains left behind, somewhere out between second and third base.
Comparatively, Jason’s gambling problem is relatively small to the actual problems facing Major League Baseball. The singular American sporting institution is flagging in revenue and enthusiasm compared to its chief rival, the NFL, especially when the average age of a baseball fan is 57. Baseball has a demographics problem, and in response, the sport has tried to modernize to the fast-paced world of the 21st century, forgoing pitches on an intentional walk, inching toward a “pitch clock,” experimenting with digital umpires and instant replay, and even a roundly panned plan to expand the playoffs from 10 teams to 14. But, as Nemens acutely notes, baseball is and always has been “the long game,” in its methodical play and grueling seasons. The ethos of baseball, especially compared the constantly evolving NFL and NBA, has made for poor adaptation.
Even more so, the past winter’s offseason brought with it revelations of one of the worst scandals in baseball history — the Houston Astros’ sign-stealing conspiracy. Once considered the vanguard of baseball’s tech- and analytics-based future, the competitive drive of the Astros, from the field to the front office, led to a complicated, high- (and low-) tech scheme to tip their batters to coming pitches. While sign stealing has always been a part of baseball strategy, the Astros’ efforts went well beyond the cultural pale, giving their batters (at least at home) an advantage akin to playing poker while knowing every other players’ hand. The fallout has been extraordinary, placing the Astros’ scandal in a pantheon of infamy alongside the “Black Sox” who threw the World Series 1919 and the maligned players of the “Steroid Era” during the 1990s and early 2000s. The result has threatened the Astros’ 2017 World Series championship with one of baseball’s worst admonishment, an “asterisk” in the record books.
Like other American institutions, the Astros’ scandal represented a fundamental break in the culture and norms of the game, and perhaps even worse than the unprecedented cheating scandal has been the seething opprobrium from baseball’s other 29 teams, which, before the indefinite postponement of the 2020 season from the COVID-19 pandemic, threatened to taint an entire summer of baseball. If and when baseball returns, the lingering effects of the scandal and the pandemic could be disastrous. But the fallout from weakened institutions and cheating is bigger than just the baseball diamond. As noted sportswriter-turned-podcaster Michael Lewis has described in his series Against the Rules, across the United States and the world, in sports and politics and law, there has been a noted push to break the rules and the referees — the arbiters of those rules — to one’s advantage. The idea of “fighting fair,” has crumbled, and interference, whether in stealing pitches or stealing electoral information, has turned into a cynical expectation, an avowal to win by any means necessary. Notably, in the world of The Cactus League and Scottsdale circa 2011, baseball is just the opposite. It is still the one true and eternal “long game” that all the characters rely on, whose rules and ethos and spirit never let them down, that continues to give them life and meaning and joy. It is still “America’s game.” But can baseball continue to be that thing? How does an institution rebuild itself? In a novel about spring training, the regular season, the real games, are still in the offing, with all the consequences to follow.