In my circle of friends, the debate of whether baseball should be called a game or a sport comes up about once a month, more if it’s during baseball season itself. There’s plenty of passion on both sides of the argument, and even those that don’t watch or care for baseball have something to say. It’s this type of give and take—athletes or celebrities, obsession or boredom, career or hobby—that colors the pages of Emily Nemens’s debut The Cactus League. Multiple casts of characters come in and out of the spotlight, sharing their own take on America’s favorite pastime. You don’t have to enjoy baseball (sport, game, or what have you) to find this semi novel-in-stories a richly layered, often tender and generous, exposé of the life of players, fans, and everyone in between.
The book begins by welcoming you to the desert of Scottsdale, Arizona for spring training of the Lions, the very beginning of baseball season—a fitting starting place. It soon becomes clear that this particular narrator is a washed up reporter who has followed the Lions for quite some time, and that the scandal of the year involves all-star player Jason Goodyear. Goodyear is handsome, talented, and at the peak of his fame. So why is he going through a divorce, getting arrested, and seen sneaking in and out of the nearby casino? The narrative wastes no time in speculating what caused Jason’s decline, and what might happen to the team that season, but we’re only given enough of a taste to become curious. In a confession that feels almost a bit too prologue-y, the reporter explains, “to tell Jason Goodyear’s story will take a while, and require not just Jason but a whole web of people who are touched by him and a few who long to touch him, too.” It gives the story the same held-breath sensation of waiting for a first pitch to be thrown—you think you know what’s going to happen, but don’t get too comfortable.
The following sections (structured to follow the 9 innings of baseball) are told from multiple points of view, each of them with their own host of issues, but all with their own angle on Jason’s situation, increasingly one of my favorite forms of fiction to read due to the complicated presentation of what is true and what is not. Michael Taylor, an aging batting coach for the Lions, returns to Arizona to find his house ransacked and lived in by vagrants while he and his wife were away. As the book progresses, it becomes clear we will not circle back to the Taylors in the manner of A Visit from the Goon Squad, and so the details that we get in this telling serve only to support the micro-narrative of Michael. We get his view on the team, the changes in baseball, the late-night batting cages run-in with Jason, and then his story closes with a heated, explosive release of frustration and not much promise for improvement.
The subsequent sections repeat this structure—details fill in the characters’ lives and motivations, but each is mostly unrelated to the overarching plot involving Jason. It’s a deft decision that works well, but it takes 100 pages to come to that understanding and adjust expectations accordingly. While I was trying to find footing with the characters and their stories, hoping to follow them through their own arcs, I should have been paying attention to the larger role they play in relation to the city, the game, and the environment.
Outside of the game itself are the women who eye the players and their availability after each game as they leave the locker room. Tami is a struggling divorcee who is always on the lookout for a spring fling. With her encyclopedic knowledge of baseball—having followed it since she was a girl—and her older-woman charm, she wins over the men. Her section digs deeper into Jason’s story as they get drunk and explore a Frank Lloyd Wright building after hours, an architect whom they both admire. Jason’s sadness is vivid through Tami’s eyes, and though their night is cut short by trespassing charges, Jason and Tami’s adventure sheds some light on the stifling and three-dimensional pressures that fame can bring on and off the field.
The single women aren’t the only women in this ecosystem of the game—the chorus of baseball wives is a deeply layered creature in and of itself. Each wife, whether a veteran or a newlywed, shares her husband with the game, and therefore has her own unique relationship with it. Gossip permeates, expectations soar, and God forbid if you don’t sit in the family section with everyone. The beauty of this narrative is that, though these women could care less about what’s actually happening on the field, their tether to the game is inescapable, and we as readers are all the more sucked into their shallow concerns by proxy. At times their surface level lives feel clichéd and weak on a writing level, but the nature of their husbands’ careers supports their flighty behavior—they all know they could be upended from their routine at any moment, contract or no. This reality allows for sympathy when we might otherwise wrinkle our nose at their choices.
In the other sections we see an agent who has to cover for Jason while coming to terms with his ailing body; the sole black co-owner of the Lions must compete for the affection he craves while maintaining the power he has worked so hard to earn; and even Liana, Jason’s ex-wife, gets to share her side of the story, with all of its heartbreaks and regrets.
However, in between all of these well-rounded narratives is the pestering sports reporter we met at the beginning, belaboring metaphors of evolution and succumbing to digressive stories. The concept of this narrator having a bird’s-eye view of Scottsdale and the Lions is an interesting one that ultimately didn’t land for Nemens. Instead, halfway through the book, his interjections become clunky and sometimes unwelcome. The stories begin to flow the way a well-oiled team might flow, and these interjections feel like an untimely commercial break, reminding you there’s a “bigger picture.” In an otherwise stunning debut, these sections could have served a stronger purpose.
If you’re familiar with the rhythm of baseball, you can sense that rhythm being mirrored throughout these stories. The game is simple enough, and so is the story, but anything can happen when the pitcher steps up to the mound. “Here’s the thing about baseball, and all else: everything changes,” the sportswriter says. Foul balls, stolen bases, traded players, career-ending injuries. What is initially promoted to us as the colossal collapse of Jason Goodyear turns into an intricate character study of every cog in the machine of baseball. There is more to this book than the best sports reporting: peeling back the curtain, examining the people behind the statistics, and understanding that sometimes the most crucial plays are the ones happening off the field.
The Cactus League
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published February 4, 2020