New novel isn't your standard baseball book

February 18th, 2020
Emily Nemens photo by James Emmerman, art by Tom Forget /

“Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else: everything changes. Whether it’s the slow creep of glaciers dripping toward the sea, or the steady piling of cut stones rock upon rock until the wall reaches chest high, nothing is still. Sometimes change comes as quick and catastrophic as a line drive -- hear the crack of wood displacing a sphere of leather, yarn, rubber and cork; watch how it pushes the ball flat and then, just as quickly, forward.”

This is from the opening chapter to Emily Nemens’ debut novel, “The Cactus League,” and from reading that alone you should know: This isn’t your standard baseball book. This is no ghostwriter smoothing over the delicate parts of a star's life for an autobiography or a story about a World Series victory. Instead, the novel remains set within the seemingly bucolic charm of Arizona's Spring Training.

It's a world Nemens knows well from the semi-annual trips she would take with her father to Spring Training. Once, when she was young, the two went to Florida to watch the Yankees, only for her father to spot George Steinbrenner sitting in a nearby section. The two ambled over for a conversation and some signed Yankees memorabilia.

“I’m the youngest of two girls and my sister had no interest, so my Dad said, ‘Come with me,’” Nemens remembers with a laugh about her indoctrination into being a baseball fan -- the Mariners specifically. “The Mariners in the late-80s were really fun. That was the ascendancy of Ken Griffey Jr., and then in the ‘90s they were so good, it was hard not to be a fan.”

Just as Griffey -- whose photo occupies a space on Nemens’ desk -- helped ignite baseball passion in Seattle, Nemens is hoping her book does the same in the literary world.

“When I started this book, ‘The Art of Fielding’ was making the rounds, and I thought, ‘This is the first big literary baseball book in a while. Why has it been so long since the last one? Can I help revive this sub-genre?’”

It's fitting that Nemens is in this position to revive the lit fic baseball novel. After all, her day job is as the editor of the Paris Review -- former home of George Plimpton, who penned some of the greatest sports fiction ever written. That includes the masterful prank for Sports Illustrated: "The Curious Case of Sidd Finch."

Rather than repeat what came before, Nemens chose a setting that is usually ignored.

“I was thinking about the tradition of baseball literature,” Nemens explained, “but it’s always pegged to an important game. So much of the narrative momentum is in the bottom of the ninth or the end of the series. I thought it would be really interesting, challenging -- strange -- to try to build the narrative and the pressure elsewhere rather than relying on that ninth inning to make the story happen.”

To that end, the book follows Jason Goodyear, the star left fielder for the fictional Los Angeles Lions (named for the MGM lion logo, but which also pays homage to Plimpton’s football novel, “Paper Lions”). Goodyear is the All-Star, MVP, and Gold Glover for the Lions. He’s handsome, charming, and soft-spoken. Nemens said she based his play on Griffey -- “but he’s not nearly as graceful or exciting to watch" -- and his personality on Derek Jeter.

When the book begins, Goodyear is reporting to Arizona to gear up for the 2011 season -- just as Salt River Fields opens and the effects of the recession are still wrecking the community.

"I was excited about the new stadium,” Nemens explained. “New stadiums are exciting. Monumental architecture is monumental. The opening of a big piece of civic architecture is an occasion.

“I wanted that first season where people are all excited and skeptical and getting to know the dimensions of the place,” she said. “You'll notice there's a lot of people walking around the stadium, looking in the entrances, exploring the nooks and crannies at different moments. This also was at the bottom of the recession, and that felt important. I don't want it to be a period piece about the Great Recession, but it felt important to juxtapose this new building and renewal with the very recent housing crisis.”

This fancy 21st-century stadium filled with star athletes and wealthy developers is juxtaposed against empty McMansions lining Scottsdale’s streets. Meanwhile, famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s home, Taliesin West, sits atop the city looking down upon all its changes.

“I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to, ‘If you build it they will come,'" Nemens said. "Someone built Taliesin West and not that many generations later, someone builds a ballpark.”

While you may think that Goodyear's blessed life would mean he was immune to the problems of everyday people, you'd be wrong. His marriage is crumbling, he’s sleeping at the stadium and he’s watching as his bank account dwindles to zero.

What makes this narrative unique is that we don't see the world through the outfielder's eyes. We don't even follow Goodyear. Rather we meet nine different characters -- and a recently laid off sportswriter who operates as a kind of Greek chorus -- whose lives in some way intersect or are impacted by the Lions’ star outfielder. (While these are the people we focus on, Nemens said she actually created an entire Lions’ 40-man roster, complete with partners and spouses -- perfect in case an expanded cinematic universe may arise).

Of course, this is also a baseball book -- even if it's not necessarily centered on the on-field action -- and some of Nemens’ best passages are about baseball. When a group of wives watch the game, one of the women can’t help but compare the action on the field to ballet.

“Sara doesn’t mention all the connections she’s making between baseball and ballet. She doesn’t say that the outfielders run with huge strides like grands jetés. That the infielders are all coiled energy, ready to leap into action with another saut de basque. And that pitching is just one barrel turn after another. Then there’s the catcher: he pulls players in and pushes others back like he’s choreographing the whole troupe.”

Nemens said her favorite thing is a good swing (there’s that Griffey fandom again), and that’s clear to see from how she writes about Goodyear batting in the cage.

“The first ring of practice fields is dark, but there is a glow beyond them, and he hears something that sounds like a bat making contact. He walks toward the noise. The lights, hanging just inside the upper net, cast webbed shadows onto the paved approach, with a bigger batter-shaped shadows spilling onto the walkway. Thwunk. The next ball is spit out of the machine. The shadow batter swings, a swing Michael recognizes instantly as Jason Goodyear’s. Decisive. Graceful. Certain.”

While Spring Training is about one part hope and another part realism, Nemens knows that her favorite team faces an uphill battle if it’s going to snap its postseason drought. But she’s still excited to tune in. “I’m really excited to watch Kyle Lewis play more,” she said. “I’m getting to know the [Mariners] -- they’re so young.”

And when it comes to her talents as a writer:

“I wish I was more the star,” Nemens said. “This is my debut, but I feel more like a grizzled old catcher, just like watching everything and telling people to move around and bossing around the pitcher. But I also like being from a vantage where I can see the whole field. And so much of my work and writing this book took so many years because I went through so many drafts and sorted out so many issues -- you know, this book was about Spring Training, then it was a book about Jason Goodyear, and then it was a book about how this community came together and also really challenged their star. It was a lot of pitches, and it was a lot of innings to get it into the form it is now.”

The Cactus League is out now.