In the tradition of football’s Friday Night Lights, a young writer spends a year (and more) following the fortunes of a baseball team: the Class A Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings.
In this impressive debut, University of Iowa writer-in-residence Mann has a busy agenda. He writes frequently about his own doubts, insecurities (he was not much older than his subjects) and failures (in sports, in barrooms). Swimming just below the surface is the dark story of the death of his brother, whose presence emerges periodically to whisper messages of mortality and disappointment. Mann discovered and immersed himself in a group of loyal fans—most notably, an obsessive collector named Joyce, who has nearly 1,000 signed baseballs on display in her home. (She also deals at the local casino.) The author had an uneasy relationship with the players, who came and went (and in one case, came back) during the season. He was among them but not often with them. Mann drank with them and observed the young women flirting with them but not with him. A couple of players, however, did open up a bit—though always on their terms. One night, he dressed up in the LumberKing mascot’s costume and sweat through an odd evening. He drove around the area, looking at the virtually deserted old downtown—the collapse of Middle America and the middle class clearly in his sights. Mann writes about the corn economy, the odorous presence of food-processing giant Archer Daniels Midland, the dilapidated houses and the Mississippi River, which flows nearby. The author provides few pitch-by-pitch accounts but plenty of piquant moments of success, failure, consequence and inconsequence. He tells about other trips (Venezuela, for one) to check out the back stories of some players. Mann’s style is easy, fluid, self-deprecating and always engaging.
A grand slam.