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The Cactus League


The Cactus League

I am not the first person to figure this out, you understand, but one of the wonderful things about baseball is that you can choose the amount of the sport you want to consume. You can get season tickets and go to every home game if you want (and if you can afford it). You can travel to games; my wife and I planned a whole California vacation around a Yankees road trip. You can watch baseball on television all the livelong day, or just catch the highlights on MLB Network. Or you can ditch it all for a week. Baseball will still be there when you come back.

But what happens when you get too close to baseball?

Emily Nemens has titled her debut novel THE CACTUS LEAGUE, and if you take Cactus League baseball too seriously, you just might be a bit too close to the sport. The Cactus League (and its sister league in Florida) is shorthand for spring training games in Arizona, where the big league teams get their players in shape and finalize their rosters. Cactus League games are famously non-competitive, with the stars participating in only a few innings and the rest of the game played by minor-leaguers with hopes of making it to the Show with a good performance. The primary draw for spring training baseball isn’t the players or the drama of the game but the Arizona (or Florida) sunshine. Spring training is not baseball at its best, but it is played at a different pitch --- slower, cheaper, more accessible, maybe a shade less commercial. It is the slow-moving overture to the grand symphony of the baseball season, and the crescendo of the postseason.

"What Nemens does in THE CACTUS LEAGUE --- and brilliantly so --- is to describe the quietly desperate lives of the various characters and invite the reader to find not only empathy with them, but communion as well."

Nemens, though, is not here to give the reader any metaphors linking baseball and classical music, or any metaphors whatsoever. The only time she ever waxes poetic about the game is when an outsider looks at it --- a dancer turned physical therapist who marvels at the athletic lope of the outfielders. For the author, baseball is --- well, you hate to say it --- almost a toxin in this book. I am not saying that she is anti-baseball, necessarily, but if you strip away a lot of the romance, nostalgia and grace from the great national pastime, it’s a remarkably grubby and tatty business. THE CACTUS LEAGUE is about that side of the game, about the moral compromises that the business of baseball compels.

It is hard to say that any of the loosely connected people who wander in and out of the book have had their lives improved in any significant way by their attachment to the game. Nemens largely keeps the focus off the players, instead looking at others who are involved with the game at an angle: a Triple-A batting coach who can’t crack the major league coaching staff, an agent betrayed by failing health, a twice-divorced baseball wife with delusions of being Susan Sarandon in Bull Durham, an aging two-bit piano player trying to master a new-fangled organ to play the music for the seventh-inning stretch. Any one of them might be better off if they had built their career around something sensible, like life insurance.

What Nemens does in THE CACTUS LEAGUE --- and brilliantly so --- is to describe the quietly desperate lives of the various characters and invite the reader to find not only empathy with them, but communion as well. What the characters have in common is a sort of low-frequency anguish, like background static from a far-off baseball broadcast, ever-present but insistent. Nemens takes this anguish and illuminates it, bringing a degree of grace to their struggles. And the superstar left fielder around whom all of the other characters rotate is not immune to that himself, as we learn.

Why, then, do we follow baseball, those of us who love it? We don’t gain sustenance from it, or comfort, or youth and athletic ability, even at a small remove. What we draw from the game is what we bring to it, and all too often that is nothing more than hope, however misplaced. THE CACTUS LEAGUE is not what you would call a hopeful book, but it manages to be all the better for it.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on February 21, 2020

The Cactus League
by Emily Nemens

  • Publication Date: February 2, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Picador
  • ISBN-10: 1250785766
  • ISBN-13: 9781250785763