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Soren journeys from MTV to 'Moneyball' art

Reporter-turned-photographer captures A's 2002 Draft class in new book
March 28, 2017

Here's a fun little story: When Michael Lewis first asked out Tabitha Soren, he assured her that he did not watch sports on television. Sports? Ha. Who has time for sports?This was important to Soren at that moment. She was a political reporter for MTV. Soren was, in her own

Here's a fun little story: When Michael Lewis first asked out Tabitha Soren, he assured her that he did not watch sports on television. Sports? Ha. Who has time for sports?
This was important to Soren at that moment. She was a political reporter for MTV. Soren was, in her own way, a touchstone for my generation. She had appeared in a Beastie Boys video when she was still in college. Then Soren became a new sort of reporter, a young and hip woman who covered politics for Generation X's network. There she was, between Madonna and Tupac Shakur videos, telling young people to vote, interviewing some of the biggest newsmakers of the day, giving us the news when we were susceptible to listening.
Anyway, at that time in her life, Soren had no use whatsoever for sports.
"I was breaking up with somebody, who, well, here's him in a nutshell," Soren says. "On a beautiful fall day, he would want to watch college basketball on TV. I thought that was terrible."
Lewis was a young writer then, someone who'd had success with his first book, "Liar's Poker." When he asked Soren out, one of the first questions she asked was: "How big a sports fan are you, anyway?" Lewis, as you might expect, gave the sensible answer.
Soren: "He literally said, 'Oh, I never watch sports on TV.' I thought 'Oh, that's so good.'"

Well, here we are, more than 20 years later, the two are married with three children, Lewis has spent much of that time thinking about, writing about and watching sports -- headlined, of course, by his runaway bestseller "Moneyball." And Soren, to her everlasting surprise, became an art photographer and has spent the past 15 years photographing the baseball players drafted by the Oakland A's in 2002, a project that has led to her wonderful new book, "Fantasy Life."
"Fantasy Life" is subtitled "Baseball and the American Dream," and the idea behind it is striking ... and ambitious. In 2002, the A's used a counterintuitive strategy, the now-famous Moneyball philosophy, to draft players. They didn't concern themselves much with all those subjective things that had motivated scouts through the years -- tools, body type, potential, etc. -- and instead focused more on production and statistical analysis. Their most famous pick was Jeremy Brown, an All-America catcher at Alabama, who many scouts thought was too fat to play in the Major Leagues.
"We're not selling jeans here," A's general manager Billy Beane famously said about Brown's rather unathletic body.
"That's good," one scout replied. "Because if you put him in corduroys, he'd start a fire."
While Lewis' writing instincts led him to Beane and the A's baseball philosophy, Soren's photographer eye followed Brown and the other players. She knew -- they all knew -- that some of the players might make it, but most wouldn't. And all of them would reach that crossroads in life when the dream was over, when they could no longer play the game that had marked their entire lives. Soren's lack of sentimentality about the game -- "I would say I didn't have any strong feelings about baseball," she says -- led her to follow their story.
"The pictures were great at the beginning," she says. "They all look so happy-go-lucky, they were full of purpose and hopefulness.
"At first, I thought I would take a lot of portraits. I thought their bodies would change radically. I thought that you would be able to see in their eyes when they became a commodity. I thought that. But the photos weren't very different from year to year. I was scratching my head a lot of the time. But I think that's an artist's job, to kind of uncover what everyone's looking at but show it in a different light."
So she explored different ways to get inside baseball and the players' journey, mixing numerous different techniques, shooting black and white, color and various shades between, taking shots on the field and away from it, from very close in and from a distance, often using baseball's own equipment -- chain-link fences and screens that protect the pitcher and batting cages and dugouts -- as background and foreground.
One of my favorite photos in the book is a simple close-up of a check from the Topps Co. It's addressed to Chris Shank, who never made it to the Major Leagues. It is for "Exactly Five Dollars."
It's wonderful stuff ... and it's very different from any other sort of baseball book. Soren did not write anything in it. Best-selling writer Dave Eggers wrote five interconnected fictional stories. The 10 featured players (including Nationals reliever Joe Blanton and former Major Leaguers Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen) wrote short essays about their baseball lives. But the flow and feel of the book comes from those photographs, from a photo of a team sitting in a sparse Minor League dugout with a mascot standing overhead and another of Swisher getting doused with ice water. This is the story of baseball dreamers, the sweet moments and the harsh ones.
"I think Americans walk around thinking, 'Of course you want to strive for the thing,'" Soren says. "You want to to strive for being perfect. But there's a dark side to it. You give up a lot, families separate, wives move on, you get injured, and what happens then? Who are you?
"One of my guys was a coal miner. One was homeless. One's an insurance salesman. And then, Joe Blanton, he started playing catch with the guy down the street, and because it was just pitching for fun, he decided, 'Oh, my God, this is actually fun again.' And he came back and pitched, and he was great. He went to the World Series."
Soren began this project 15 years ago without any real idea where it would lead. She has watched all of these young men grow up. Soren has seen some of them achieve the heights and others wash out before it even began. But now they are all in their late 30s and trying to find their place in the world without baseball.
"These people have lost the one thing that gave their life meaning," Soren says. "But it doesn't have to be a tragedy."

Joe Posnanski is a best-selling author, an Emmy Award-winning writer and has been awarded National Sportswriter of the Year.