Lucas Mann had dreams of becoming a big leaguer. Captain of his high school baseball team, Lucas could throw a decent fastball, but he was never really any good. So instead of going pro, he opted to get a taste of how the boys of summer roll by embedding with the Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings, a single-A, minor league team in a once-prosperous Midwest town, for an entire season. He found community, dislocation, and unflinching ambition. He experienced the way dreams can soar and die in an instant and even dressed up as the team's mascot for a day. Lucas's book, Class A, Baseball in the Middle of Everwhere, is out Tuesday from Pantheon books. You can pre-order it here. The excerpt below finds some of the LumberKings, the name derived city's past glory as a timber hub, out for a night on the town.
The players drink at the Lyons Tap because it’s not the Main Avenue Pub, where the coaches are every night, shirts tucked into their jeans, stumbling outside to deposit green spit on the curb. And it’s not Manning’s across from the stadium, so quiet, so empty except for Brad and Dave at the bar with their whiskey and SportsCenter. The Lyons Tap is where you go if you want to dance, and hip-hop songs are played in between loud country, when girls who look angry at something take the floor to grind torn jean shorts up against big men, their backs arched, their bodies dwarfed, like kittens against a scratching post.
There is a DJ who has never adopted a DJ name and goes instead by Randy. As we open the side door, we are met with a rush of excitement as Randy hits his button that makes the siren sound, again and again, simulating a Caribbean carnival so far from the ocean.
I walk in last. Hank is in front, eyes swiveling. The rest fall in line, trailing the arc that he, a wise 24-year-old former college student, he who has lived outside baseball, creates. We look, I think, like a bobsled team, maneuvering through a foreign course in tense unison. It was easier when Sams was in Clinton. Sams used to push ahead, his height and blackness and eternally exposed pecs a beacon to girls who remembered him and a harsh warning to boys who resented their remembering.
But as of a week ago, there has been no Sams here, leaving at least one baseball groupie sullen in the bleachers, squinting toward the outfield during warm-ups. I was out of town the day he was called into the locker room and told he was being sent down. I missed that last night when he wasn’t in the mood to go out and drink shimmering concoctions and try to make girls hang on his shoulders with pleading eyes. When he sat on the couch with Hank on the chair next to him, holding cans of Coors Light while he packed, Danny there, too, drinking water and not meeting his now-former teammate’s gaze. I’m sure Sams said something like, Man, I’m quitting, and everybody else chimed in with No, you’re crazy man, don’t talk like that, keep with it. Danny probably said something referencing God’s plan, and Hank, though he never speaks such sentiments, probably nodded, keeping fidelity to a stern faith that makes even secular players devout. What an expected scene, everyone knowing which role to play, the outcome never changing.
I was sitting between Hank and Danny when the new guy, a relief pitcher, walked into the locker room and plopped a bag in the space that still smelled of Sams’s European skin cream, watched them glance at each other over him.
“That’s Sams’s locker,” Danny said.
“Where is he?” the new guy said.
“He’s gone,” Hank said. “We told him we’d keep it empty for a while in case they call him back.”
“Oh,” the new guy said.
There was a pause. I sat on a half-broken folding chair looking at a stain on the carpet, silently hoping to witness a moment of collective team remembrance, the creation of a hallowed space, once Sams’s always Sams’s, the kind of continuity that is promised in every baseball narrative I have ever devoured. A chorus of jeers erupted around the room. Why would anything stay Sams’s? Should every fuckup who couldn’t hack it be commemorated? What kind of kindergarten bullshit is that? There are, after all, only so many lockers. The logic was irrefutable. Danny and Hank gave up on the Sams defense, shrugged, and strutted toward the showers.
Sometimes, in the clubhouse, players still say, “Ah, man,” just as Sams always did when he was frustrated, his oddly high, accented voice now extrapolated into something close to a Cookie Monster impression. That’s what is left of
him in the locker room, an echo of what he never really sounded like.
We stand by the unused shuffleboard table against the back wall. Fray’s puddle eyes take in the scene around him, shaded with a light too low to be a strobe, more of an ominous flickering.Hunting rifles are mounted over his head, crossed in a modern coat of arms. There is an American flag. There are stickers demanding that patrons support the Cubs and the Bears, every branch of the armed services, a few local unions that no longer exist, but this bar is old.
“¿Qué es Lyons Tap?” Fray yells.
Núñez says, “Lyon, como león.” He pantomimes the animal, makes a mock ferocious noise. I can see Fray scanning the bar for some evidence of a jungle motif, but there is nothing, not even a safari themed arcade game next to the pool table.
“Lyons is a place,” I yell to both of them.
They turn to me. Fray blinks.
“It’s actually really interesting,” I continue. “This place, where we are right now, used to be Lyons. The town of Lyons.”
Núñez stares at me, then leaves to go to the bar, where Hank is already buying drinks for himself and Nick. I am left with Fray glancing up at theguns and the flag. I could tell Fray, without him interrupting or understanding, that Lyons was a destination. That the area of Clinton used to be so relevant, always growing, that it was made up of three separate towns. That Erin, who works at the stadium, told me once about her great-grandfather who came through Ellis Island with “Lyons, Iowa” stamped as his destination on his papers. “Can you imagine?” she asked. People in Germany, in little villages, hearing from across the ocean that where they needed to be was Lyons, Iowa? This was a fertile place. Black soil, wide river, flat land for the railroad to roll through.
It was like a heart, beating, with veins in every direction, veins sustaining a new country, pulling immigrants in, turning Americans out, pulling timber in, shipping out the lumber that would build cities that hadn’t even existed before, not one house in them.
The wood blood that flowed all over America.
The wood blood that built Denver to the west.
Bob Soesbe, still a city councilman after all these years, told me that metaphor a five-minute walk from here. Bob, whose eighty-seven years were all spent within a mile of this bar, who lives in the home where he was raised in the 1930s, who watched his childhood friend shine as the star shortstop on the field along the river where these boys now play.
There was a whirring, Bob told me, though even he is too young to have ever heard it. A constant, percolating noise to everything in the town. Saws and straining tugboats, the train, the downtown, people moving, greeting each other, doors to homes opening and closing, even noises that simple and small.
Hank and Nick walk back from the bar and set beers on the table, and we all begin to chug them down, nobody wanting to be the first one to run out of air and surrender to a burp.
“You like Coors Light?” Nick asks me, gasping, eager.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” I say.
“Yeah, it’s fine,” he says.
We keep time with our heads to a thrumming, all-encompassing rhythm courtesy of Randy. I am happy that we are equally awkward. We are all nervous, young, straight men on a dance floor, seesawing our shoulders, bending our knees on the offbeats, rigid, queasy, riding an invisible ferry on a choppy day. I think of Nick fielding a grounder backhanded and lifting easily off the ground, rotating in midair, his arm whipping as his body twists, a continuous movement that lasts a quarter of a second but that we in the stands experience in strobing slow motion as a series of poses, each perfect, worthy of individual appreciation. He is so different from how I’ve ever seen him, here in this sticky-floored cavern, on a dance floor with no platform, no individual performers. He’s been so well groomed for so many difficult tasks, yet not this one. He shuffles his shoes, trying to move them away from beer spills and peanut shells. We all look down at them. They are offensively pristine.
“I’m not a Coors Light guy,” he says to me, attempting a tired knowingness. “It’s so regular, you know? Bland.”
“What do you like?” I ask.
“I’m gonna get a vodka and Red Bull,” he says after a pause. “That’s my drink. I’m a vodka guy.”
Hank sighs and says nothing. He holds his arms in tight to his sides and clenches every muscle in his body as hard as he can clench it without looking like he’s clenching hard. He waits for people to notice, and I study the splayed, angelic shadow of a dead moth trapped in the shuffleboard light, not wanting to show myself as the only one to notice the clenching.
A blonde who could be as old or as young as any of us stumbles over and screams “¡Hola!” as she rests glitter-doused arms on his shoulders. Her hair smells like mango. She is wearing black tights that frame the curve of her ass crack and the muscles of her calves, eternally flexed because of stiletto heels that leave her helpless and, thus, embarrassingly appealing.
“Do you remember me, amigo?” she says. She leans or tips forward, and her mango hair grazes Hank’s face. She wants him to remember
“Of course I do,” he says. “How could I not?”
He lets his eyes meet hers, big and open. It was the exact right thing to say and to do.
“I was worried you forgot me,” he says, in obvious but charming false modesty, so that she has to say, “No, no way, not you.”
I want this girl whose name I don’t know and will never know to rub glitter on me, too. I want her mango-smelling hair on my cheeks like corn silk. I don’t want to want those things. I want to be above it, detached and mature, observing young, desperate lust. But I am young and maybe I am desperate. I wonder if I come back again, maybe without Hank, just me under the shuffleboard lights, if she would teeter over to acknowledge that we knew each other, had made a mutual impression.
It’s not about acting on impulse. Not for Hank; he won’t cheat. Not really for Fray, or Núñez or Nick, either. Hank sees his teammates watching this stranger, sees our eyes on ass and breasts, imagining those things bare, fake tanned and bouncing as she writhes. Up and down with him, under him. This won’t happen, but that’s not the point. We will all remember her most for wanting him. There is a woman at home who Hank loves and has for a long time, whose calls he answers always when she sneaks out the back door of a pet store in Duarte, California, to tell him that she misses him. I haven’t seen a picture of her. I haven’t been tempted to ask for a glimpse of his real life, his real love, the same way I never ask for pictures of the homes the players grew up in. Home is always quiet. Maybe it’s boring. It’s ordinary. Comforting to think of, missed after bad at bats, but otherwise forgettable.
She is in school for what Hank was in school for, but never finished: criminal justice. How to be a cop. They might be in a class together fall semester when Hank picks up some credits, depending on if he has time after doing his father’s work. This baseball life will end, but that is not something to think about now, the potential for, at best, a routine, middle-class adulthood. I don’t think I want that steady life, either, but I’m scared of not having it, and maybe that’s why I admire Hank for being here, ever clenching, a baseball player on his tax returns, wonderfully itinerant.
“You gotta come to the games,” Hank says to Mango Hair. “See us.” He can say that without complete fear now because he plays every other game, so if somebody shows up looking for a player, there is a fifty-fifty chance that he will be on display filling that role. He did nothing different in his play, there was no tipping point, but Steve Baron is still down in rookie ball, and Brandon Bantz just got moved up when someone in AA got injured. Now it’s just Hank and Ochoa, a Venezuelan guy, also 24, with a wife, kid, and as little future in this game as Hank has.
“Well, will you win?” shesays. She crinkles her nose to show that she’s being playful, not mean.
“We’re gonna make the play-offs,” Nick chimes in, giving her his best cocky nod–-wink combination.
“Play-offs,” Fray says.
The back door opens, and the Latin players, the rest of them, burst in from the street, a flash of unwhite skin under half-buttoned shirts cutting through the mob of stained denim and plaid.
I don’t recognize Erasmo at first. He is not in his usual off-the-field uniform, the one he showed up with, horizontal-striped Old Navy polo and too-long jean shorts, the exact wrong thing to wear for someone who wants to look older and taller than he is. Maybe he borrowed one of Noriega’s flashy shirts tonight because it is nearly bursting across his chest, metallic buttons in danger of flying off and blinding the petite bartender.
This is one of the first times Erasmo has gone out all season instead of lying alone on the floor of the Lafayette apartment, fan inches from his face, trying to fall asleep to the hum. He was the starting pitcher today. He gave up home runs, two in an inning, the last one so unmistakable that he grimaced at the ground and didn’t even turn his head to watch it disappear behind the center-field fence. He is attempting, now, to blow off steam. Uncomfortably, it doesn’t quite suit him, but he’s trying. Someone hands him a Budweiser, and after eyeing it for a while, he tips it back and chugs so hard that when he has to pull away to breathe, suds cascade onto the floor.
“Nice,” he yells, “nice,” his eyes scanning the room, approving of everything, the beer spilling, the women, the mystery filth sticking to his shoes. His teammates laugh and pound his back, like the little cousin who just sneaked drags off a cigarette at a family reunion, dizzy and overjoyed. He dances alone, as he does in the locker room sometimes. He rolls his hips in little circles, bucks his shoulders, glances down at someone pressed up against him who doesn’t exist. I see a couple of drunk dudes in oversized T-shirts pointing at Erasmo with recognition, and he sees it, too. He nods as if to say, Yeah, it’s me. One of the guys, blond crew cut, tattooed knuckles, sharp, smiling teeth, pantomimes a pitching motion, and Erasmo smiles back, pretends to be an umpire, and signals strike.
For all his pragmatism, his quiet, lovable strain, Erasmo has an imagination, and I imagine it now, as he is unable to hide his satisfaction at being noticed. He is the center of this room, and everyone orbits him, that’s what I think he thinks. This is the VIP section that we all stand in, the shuffleboard table a sign of status. He is Erasmo Ramírez. He is working, working, working, all the time working, and tonight is the night he finally reaps his rewards after previously reaping so little when deserving so much.
He drinks again, long and stubborn, his thick neck pulsing, and when he finishes he squints his eyes at the women on the dance floor, saying, “Hey, Mami,” too quiet for them to hear. Mario and Noriega urge him on, louder, louder, bounce your come-ons off the walls, and he dutifully calls to the next passing girl, but the sound is lost.
I hear a train outside, a screeching stop, the grumble of restarting. I feel the dance floor shake from more than rhythmic feet. The train is louder than any of us, louder than Randy, who switches gears into a country rock anthem, the kind of song that the players have learned to ignore at stadiums, engineered for baseball a generation before they were born. There is a mass dance floor exodus of those who are young and are even vaguely ethnic or want to be. They are replaced by those who have been coming to the Lyons Tap for a very long time and for whom this place and this song haven’t lost any luster.
“Oh my God, I hate country,” says Mango Hair to Hank but loud enough for all of us to hear. “It’s like, come on, just play hip-hop.”
“I’m going to the bathroom,” she says. She doesn’t say, “Follow me, follow me,” but we all hear it anyway.
Hank lets her go alone.
“She’s nothing special,” Nick says.
“Fuck you,” Hank says.
This is interrupted by a rush of cheers for Erasmo, who has somehow danced his way into the pack where others are dancing, a sea of white 40-somethings, the only person not mouthing the words to the song, staying silent and concentrated. He is in the middle of two women, careening between their breasts.
“Erasmo!” His name is howled by the whole group, a dozen familiar fingers pointing at him, highlighting him. Inspired, he dances down low to the ground, lets one woman’s ass bounce on his forehead, arms around her legs, face with a jack-o’-lantern smile. Others turn and look and yell, not words, just warbling exclamations to signify that something funny and memorable is happening, and they’re around for it. Erasmo looks overwhelmed by his dance partner in a tank top that covers almost nothing, with a tattoo of some sort of flower that looks so different now than it must have when she got it, all that time ago, on tight, unblemished skin.
She tells him things on the dance floor. I want to hear. I want to hear her tell him that she saw him on the baseball field. Tell him that she
likes his shirt; it’s classy like something a TV star would wear, or a magician. Tell him she has a car. Tell him that her kids are with her sister tonight. Tell him that they’re nice kids but he doesn’t have to meet them.
He tells her his name. I hear that.
“Erasmo,” she parrots to him as they grind, her body arched so that her ass rubs on him while she whispers, upside down, in his ear. “Erasmo. Erasmo.” Over and over until it becomes part of the beat of the song, and I watch her lips move from the edge of the dance floor, saying words, random words, just to hear them disappear.
I won’t speak to Erasmo again tonight. I will crash on a carpeted floor between two other players, speculating in too much detail about him and this stranger, their hypothetical walk to her home, their sweat and bare backs making a ripping noise against a plastic couch. How she won’t have to say, “Shh, the kids,” because it will be just her and Erasmo, this serious boy with a real future, and she’ll be able to call out his name as loud as she likes. Why is it important to me that she calls his name? He will walk home in silence, through the deserted downtown, and he will start to run, as he often does when going anywhere, the pound of his dress sneakers bouncing off century-old brick. She will come to games for the rest of the season, when she can. ThenShe will write on his Facebook wall, and I will eavesdrop on her Internet pleas all through the winter, while he lifts weights in an academy in a jungle in Venezuela and she is in this town in the snow.
U just crossed my mind. I wanted to say “hello.”
How’s the baseball? U still practicing?
I miss u so very much my friend.
R u coming back this year?
He will stop answering, because he will have learned how to be an important person, and he will never go back to Clinton, and sometimes I will feel like her, stuck, waiting, listening.