Halfway through “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere,” Lucas Mann’s memoir of the time he spent hanging around the Lumber-Kings, a Clinton, Iowa, team in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system, you start wondering if the author sees the obvious parallel his book is drawing between himself and the players he’s observing.
Mann, who is roughly the same age as most of the LumberKings, lurks in their clubhouse and helps out during batting practice; he boozes with coaches and managers; he chats up the PA and play-by-play announcers; he commiserates in the stands with longtime fans as they follow the lives of guys in their teens and 20s all desperately trying to get out of this once-prosperous lumber town and make it to the big leagues, yet knowing that few of them ever will. Meanwhile, here is Mann, a doughy and morose onetime Division III college ballplayer who is part of the creative writing program at the University of Iowa — in its own way, an elite farm team for writers aspiring to stardom.
As the author speculates about the futures of Clinton’s players, he seems to envy their potential: Nick Franklin, the hotshot bonus-baby infielder who wears white loafers for a night on the town; Danny Carroll, a devout Christian who was drafted high but whose promise has already begun to wane; the charming, gentlemanly, Dominican-born Wellington Dotel, who has served a suspension for allegedly violating his parent club’s substance-abuse policy; hot-headed Matt Cerione, who curses a fan for questioning his hustle. Watching Clinton’s star pitcher, Erasmo Ramirez, strike out 12 on the road in Quad Cities, Mann wryly notes that the performance 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 reader may not share Mann’s fondness for all the baseball professionals he encounters. I, for one, wanted to smack Franklin, first for cockily threatening to drop Mann to the ground and later for letting his agent from the Boras Corporation give Mann the brush-off once Franklin’s made it out of Single-A ball. Former Red Sox slugger, now roving hitting coach Phil Plantier, who swears at Mann for having the effrontery to ask him a question in Burlington, Iowa’s Boogaloo Café, doesn’t come off much better. But the respect with which Mann treats these characters and all the rest of them shows remarkable maturity and restraint.
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 is the author of a memoir and five novels, including “Crossing California” and “The Thieves of Manhattan.” His next novel, “The Salinger Contract,” will be published in the fall.