Spring training is a time of hope and renewal in baseball, when fans of even the most inept teams allow themselves to dream that this might, at long last, be The Year. It’s no less so for the players themselves, and the other people whose lives revolve in and around the game.
Emily Nemens’ The Cactus League (2020) plays upon some classic themes of a baseball novel—the ways off-field struggles translate into on-field performance, the repercussions of high expectations and celebrity, the inevitable physical decline and its accompanying mental rollercoaster. But she shines her spotlight into corners of the game rarely explored by writers in this genre, and that makes for compelling reading beyond the usual audience of sports fans.
Tami loves this time before the game, being surrounded by the thwack of hard leather on soft, the wooden ping of a practice bat making contact. Baseball sounds, carrying across the field—not for a rapt audience, not because the game is on the line, but just because these motions are essential. Throwing and catching are like sleeping and eating for these men: natural, necessary.
The Cactus League is structured like a baseball game, in nine “innings” that are not so much chapters in a seamless chronological narrative as they are interconnected stories, told from the viewpoint of different characters. Events are sometimes recounted more than once, from different points of view, and each re-telling adds depth to our understanding of what happened.
Each chapter/inning opens with ruminations (seemingly excerpts from an unpublished memoir) by an old sportswriter who was involuntarily retired. Like a good leadoff hitter, the old sportswriter sets the table at the start of each inning. He blends the history of Arizona from before the Ice Age and human settlers with what’s happening on and off the field in today’s desert environment, where the Los Angeles Lions are working themselves into shape to make a run at the World Series. Each excerpt builds upon the previous to make it clear that Lions star outfielder Jason Goodyear is the sun around which the satellite characters in each subsequent narrative revolve.
Other characters include a former big league hitting coach whose career trajectory is on the downhill side, former wife of a professional ballplayer and current groupie, who loves the game of baseball even more than the men she collects each spring, the personal assistant to Jason Goodyear’s agent, who tasks her with the job of keeping an eye on his prime client, the black partial owner of the Lions who sees himself as a mentor to up-and-coming black players, a pitcher trying to work his way back from arm surgery, a hotshot rookie from whom too much is expected in his first spring training, the wives and girlfriends of Lions players who are expected to put their own lives on hold so their men can focus all their attention on baseball, and the aging stadium organist whose own career never got out of the minor leagues.
Can the agent save his most famous client from himself? Can the groupie find someone to save her from a lifestyle that she’s aging out of? Can the players on the edge of reaching the next level save their careers? Do some people have to be sacrificed so that others can realize their dreams?
In baseball as in life there are only winners and losers. The trick is not to get caught on the wrong side of that line.