Thursday, January 19, 2017

Non-Fiction Pairing

Lucas Mann spent the 2010 season living in the Iowa town of Clinton and following the fortunes of the Class A minor league Clinton LumberKings. Then he wrote a book about it, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.

Not about Clinton or the Clinton LumberKings, but about Lucas Mann spending a season with them, and therein lies the problem. I don't really know Lucas Mann and although I have no reason to believe he is anything other than a fine person, I don't really care about what the 2010 season of the LumberKings meant to him. Details about the players and the season are liberally salted with anecdotes about Mann's own high school baseball days and the personal events that he himself went through during the season.

Like the title suggests, Class A baseball can be found just about anywhere in the United States, and the connection between the smaller cities where it's played and the young men who spend one or maybe two seasons there on the way up or down can make for interesting reading. Major League baseball's acquisition of talent from different Latin American countries brings players from a completely different culture to small-town America, also an interesting subject on which Mann touches way too briefly.

In the end, Class A Baseball is less an exploration of the community and sport at its center and more of a diary exploring the author. And like most of us, he's not half as interesting to any of us as he is to himself.
In the world of high school, popularity, athleticism and "cool" rule. Studiousness, introspection and following one's own path are quick routes to Outcastville, Nerdom and Loser Central. A lot of modern media imitates this pattern; there is literally no other reason to care about what happens in the life of any Kardashian other than they are the "popular kids" in the pop culture lunchroom.

Author Alexandra Robbins thinks that's not wrong in a moral sense, but also in a real-world conditions sense. The race of life after high school doesn't usually go to the strong, swift and perfectly coiffed, but to the goofballs that get stuffed in lockers and swirlied until bald. By not following the crowd when in school, they develop the confidence to make their own choices as adults and often do so to their material as well as personal benefit. After all Bill Gates never tackled a quarterback, but he could buy every one of them today if he wanted.

Robbins' 2011 book The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth tries to make this case by exploring several students who live on the fringes of their different schools and communities. They share that status though they differ in home life, parental support and many other factors. She interviewed the students extensively and spent some time shadowing them in their daily lives. As a part of the study she's doing, she presents each student with a challenge that could help them break part of the shell that's keeping them confined to their pre-set roles and largely unhappy.

Robbins is a skillful interviewer and her thesis is probably more right than wrong. But she has in Geeks and other books developed a habit of casting everything in its most sensational light possible -- nothing like internet clickbait, but definitely shaded to grab attention as much if not more than enlighten. The case studies here tend to blend, echo one another and even repeat themselves. We learn after a little space that one of the main people Robbins followed was not a student but a teacher, and see the same Lord of the Heathers scenes enacted by adults as by students. After that, though, not a lot distinguishes one storyline from another.

I'm all for students thinking for themselves and breaking the social shackles of high school caste systems as early as possible, and I think the same strengths that prompt that help us succeed in later life. Robbins gets somewhere along that same line, but still imperfectly. A better exploration and explanation await.

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