The Cactus League by Emily Nemens. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. $27.00, 288 Pages.
I am in love with baseball. Classic Americana baseball movies, The Sandlot, and Field of Dreams were staples of my childhood. I go to as many minor league games in my hometown as I can every summer (though sadly not this year), and whenever I’m visiting a city with a major league team during the season, I’m pretty much guaranteed to buy tickets. But I never knew how woefully lacking my understanding of the underbelly of baseball was until I read Emily Nemen’s The Cactus League.
“Cactus League,” referencing the annual ritual of spring training in Arizona, is a fitting title for a work focused on American aspirations, both realized and failed. Spring training is a place of desperation, where baseball players, coaches, and fans alike go to experience the very beginning of the season. While some players impress and make a major league roster, most fail, and the cycle continues all over again next year under the unforgiving desert sun. The title serves as a quick reminder of what’s to come in the narrative, as we follow the story of famed baseball star Jason Goodyear through the perspectives of various characters in each chapter, or inning, as the novel calls them.
We hear from people like Michael Taylor, an aging minor league coach who used to coach Jason. Like any classical baseball sage he has a storied-but-failed major league baseball career of his own. Themes that compound on the idea of the Cactus League and Spring Training are quickly established. There’s always something ticking, and in the case of Michael, and by extension Jason, that thing is time: “Whether it’s the slow creep of glaciers dripping toward the sea, or the steady piling up of cut stones… nothing is still.” Michael’s life remains fairly stagnant. He has a dedicated wife, he travels around the country visiting his children through the year, and returns to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he bought a home at the beginning of his career in an effort to show his dedication to the sport, another reminder of the painful material sacrifices many must make to succeed in something so inherently associated with American culture. Regardless of his stasis, the passing of time forces change upon him. A nasty break-in, which renders his house unlivable, is an intriguing catalyst that helps him realize how inevitable change really is in the face of dreams, a reality that everyone must grapple at one point or another, even famous baseball players like Jason Goodyear, and a theme that threads itself through the rest of book.
Nemens’ unique narrative structure is driven by details that reveal how the next perspective connects to the previous, even if such connections are not always clear. It is a clever device, and helps to remind us of one of the story’s central concepts: the American dream. While we explore characters who are both directly connected to Jason Goodyear, Nemens also tackles issues of class through characters that can hardly be associated with the main character. Inning eight deviates from most of the novel’s other characters, following a little boy named Alex, whose mother works the concession stand at the baseball stadium. Alex’s mother bounces her children from home to home, squatting until it’s time to leave; Michael Taylor’s house, which we discovered was completely trashed in the beginning, is one of the houses they squat in. This is only one instance in which characters that have never interacted before are connected, and the juxtaposition between Michael and this nameless mother is jarring. Michael, wealthy and comfortable if not rich, has the luxury of bouncing around the country all year round, while finding a safe haven in Scottsdale. In many ways Michael’s material wealth is centered on the success of his baseball aspirations. Alex’s mother however is a squatter, bouncing from home to home, struggling for money under the same system that grants Michael safety. While Micheal has the resources to mentor and coach, Alex’s mother is neglecting her children: “Walking to the bus the other day Michelle told Alex they were homeless, but he didn’t think that’s right, either, because first they lived with Randy and then in the [Michael Taylor] House and now they live here. That’s three homes, not no homes.” It’s a theme that circles back again to what the Cactus League ultimately represents: an American Dream, but one that only comes to fruition for a select some at an enormous cost to others. While many classic Americana works commemorate baseball as a game for the working class, America’s favorite pastime, Nemens doesn’t let us forget what parts of the sport have become in this modern age: a commodified game, rooted in business, wealth, and capitalistic goals.
The Cactus League reveals the way people can be so singularly focused, a trait so ubiquitous with the American identity that its value is too often assumed. If Nemens’ backdoor examination of American sport and dream has a moral message, it is that passions and wealth do not always equate to satisfaction; you can be the most successful person in your field, like Jason Goodyear is perceived to be, and still be a struggling person with detrimental vices. Such dedication usually masks those vices until they become too accepted to be undone. A common message, perhaps, but one that Nemens delivers beautifully. I’ll be returning to this novel again and again, a perfect replacement for a baseball-less summer, my own seventh inning stretch.
Britton Hansen is a recent graduate from Loyola University New Orleans. She is a writer and political organizer from Albuquerque, New Mexico.