Friday, May 10, 2013

Review: Class A (2013)

By Lucas Mann

Here's an idea that's different: a baseball book about a particular team and its season that barely mentions the on-field action.

The book is "Class A," which tells the tale of the Clinton LumberKings in the 2010 Midwest League. The author is Lucas Mann. This all is going to take a little explaining.

Mann is the Provost's Visiting Writer in Nonfiction at the University of Iowa. As a former college baseball player, albeit one who certainly was no candidate to turn professional, spending time with a minor league team for a half-year must have been appealing.

His choice of team is a good one, especially for someone interested in looking outside the lines. Clinton, Iowa, is one of the smallest cities in the country to have a full-season franchise. It has seen better days, and it's not easy for Clinton to compete financially with the other cities in the league. A very messy labor situation around 1980 broke the labor union of the city's biggest factory, and the workforce has changed and shrunk since then. Clinton used to be a railroad hub in the good old days and liked to say it really was in the middle of everywhere, but that status has been reduced as progress has changed the economic landscape.

Mann isn't that far removed from his playing days that he can't relate to some of the players and their struggles. Still, professional status is something of a strong line between you and them. Mann almost always is something of an outsider here - but that's not necessarily bad. He can travel between the worlds of the team and its fans easily.

Ah, the fans. Mann spends plenty of time with them, the ones who come to every game and who even make road trips once in a while. They take a great deal of pride in their LumberKings, following them after they leave Clinton and move up the ladder. A few even make it to the majors.

As for the players, they are for the most part faceless. The stars are treated differently. Nick Franklin was a first-round draft choice of the Mariners and is obviously a top prospect. He's won the lottery already, with something like a seven-figure signing bonus and a body built for baseball. Still, while the Franklins of the world will get extra chances, there are no guarantees. I found myself looking up the team on a website to see who was on it; Franklin has had some tough times since 2010 but is playing well in Triple-A as of this writing and should be in Seattle soon.

What is quite obvious from the start here is that Mann can write. He brings to life all sorts of details, and he is obviously smart and perceptive. There are a variety of literary references to writers who probably haven't been quoted in baseball books too often. He also raises some interesting issues, such as the nature of being a fan and the issues surround Latin players who come to this country as teens and thrown into the pool of minor-league play without a life preserver.

Does it all come together? That's a tough one, and certainly may depend on the reader. Certainly the reviews on amazon.com reflect that diverse opinion. It's a big, ever-changing roster, but Mann doesn't get to know any of them particularly well. Without that, the book becomes basically a series of episodes that aren't often tied to a particular time. Maybe we're all used to the concept of a baseball season adding structure to a book, and many apparently miss it here.

The book, then, often is left with Mann's own thoughts, which leaves the tale self-absorbed at times. The author also rarely misses a chance to say in two or three sentences what could be done just as well in one. That technique can be effective in certain situations, and it is here sometimes, but a little editing might have been useful.

The publicity blurbs on the back of the book are rather revealing. There's nothing from Peter Gammons or Bob Costas or Tom Verducci, people connected with baseball. The blurbs are from authors such as Jeff Sharlet and Honor Moore, who I'd bet don't read many baseball books. I'm not familiar with their work but a quick computer search shows they have good credentials to judge writing.

"Class A" certainly was a good idea for a book and has some good moments, but the way the elements are mixed just don't work together that well. I came away wishing that potential could have been turned into performance. And how many times have we heard that about someone in the minor leagues?

Three stars

Learn more about this book.

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