The book: “The Greatest Show on Dirt”
The author: James Bailey, a former associate editor at Baseball America magazine whose book reviews appeared on BaseballAmerica.com.
The vital stats: CreateSpace, 242 pages, $12.95
The pitch: Bailey’s novel approach at using his experience as a jack-of-all-trades with the minor league’s Durham Bulls in the early ’90s, not long after the movie “Bull Durham” came out, creates a true-to-life backdrop as 20-something Lane Hamilton tries to get his life together. Disillusionsed with the business world, he allowed himself to take a baseball management job because his high school friend lands it for him at Durham Athletic Park (or, the DAP). Will his high-matience girl friend let it happen? Somehow, Lane learns to accept and even enjoy the life for what it is, meager pay and all. Friends, as it turns out, do come in handy in keeping things in perspective.
An excerpt: Page 125: “A couple of latecomers straggled into place as we lowered our shoulders and planted our muddy sneakers against the base of the wall.
“‘Hey y’all,’ a female voice called from my right. ‘What do I do?’
“It was Emma. God love her for picking the worst possible night for tarp initiation.
“‘Just do what I do,’ I yelled above the roar of the storm, as she lined up next to me, leaning into the roll.
“The tarp came unrolled kind of wrinkled and crooked, on account of the shitty job we’d done that morning, and you had to watch your step or you could easily trip where it was bunched up. Once the pipe was clear we spaced out, waiting for Rich and the others to get into place. I grabbed a fistfull of slippery polyethylene and on Sonny’s command we surged forward. Emma kept up with me pretty well on the first trip. The only casualty was Blake, who lost his footing near first base. We sprinted back across the slick cover for the second pass. The wind picked up and swirled through the bowl of the stadium, drowning out Sonny’s voice though he stood less than twenty yards away ….
“On the dash back for the last pull, Emma slipped and fell. When I heard her scream I turned, but my feet kept going, the soles of my shoes so caked with infield clay I might as well been on roller skates. My legs went up, my head went down, and I landed hard on the walkie-talkie in my back pocket. My first thought was I’d broken my right ass cheek. My second was I couldn’t breathe. The reain streaking through the stadium lights mesmerized me as I lay there fighting to catch my wind. I was so wet already it didn’t matter that it was pelting me in my face, falling into my open mouth. It actually felt refreshing. Had Spanky and Emma not beguin tugging on my hands I’d have been content to lay there a moment longer.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: Sheldon-esque.
The best baseball novels know how to straddle that line of realism and corny, and made it really about a human situation rather than a “baseball-themed” plot.
As Bailey digs deep into his baseball life here for the landscape, it’s not just believeable, but is easy to imagine as being the starting point for a movie script — even with “Bull Durham” already a classic. Bailey doesn’t use baseball locker-talk for shock value, but keeps the reader moving at the right pace, fully locked and loaded, trying to figure out how this crumbling old minor-league park will somehow expose the secret to life for at least one person who feels disconnected, but it willing to listen to see if if it’s speaking his language.
Aside from the tarp scene in Chapter 14, another metaphor that works in how Lane gets too anxious to drag the field between innings in his first attempt. “See what happens when you run with it?” Rich says as he points to the ground. “You get those waves from the mat popping up and down.” “Should I fix it?” The bottom of the fifth was about to start. “Just leave it. There’s no time.”
Take it slow. Do it right. Take pride in the process. As you’re grooming the field, you’re grooming your own values and goals.
Moving forward: Bailey’s blog is one of the best desinations to find out more about recent baseball book releases. His own recommendations for baseball fiction out there includes “Calico Joe” by John Grisham (Doubleday, coming out April 10, to be reviewed later this month), “Deadball: A Metaphysical Baseball Novel,” by David Stinson, and “The Might Have Been,” by Joseph Schuster (Ballantine, released March 20, which we will review tomorrow).
For context sake: One man’s Amazon.com list of the best baseball fiction ever written (linked here):
1. “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud
2. “Shoeless Joe” by W.A. Kinsella
3. “Bang The Drum Slowly” by Mark Harris
4. “The Celebrant” by Eric Rolfe Greenberg
5. “Havana Heat” by Darryl Brock
6. “You Know Me Al” by Ring Lardner
7. “Sometimes You See It Coming,” by Kevin Baker
8. “Sport” by Mick Cochrane
9. “Pafko at the Wall” by Don DeLillo
Or just find “Baseball: A Literary Anthology” by Nicholas Dawidoff