"There are more people out there touring the nation . . . chasing the purity offered by minor league baseball than you'd think."
- James Bailey
In his debut novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt, James Bailey does our national pastime a genuine service by bringing to life a few random members of a Durham, North Carolina ballpark staff and its groundskeeping crew, those undervalued individuals whose gritty actions on the field and dubious antics behind the scenes are paradoxically essential to maintaining baseball's illusion of purity and beauty. The field. Isn't it the field, after all, that matters most to players and fans? The pristine ballpark inspires athletes to begin anew each day - whether they are Bulls or Lugnuts or Yankees, while spectators welcome the sight of a beloved landscape that is both familiar and brand new.
Yet seldom do we think about those who tend to baseball's stunning canvases of lawn and dirt as anything but props or one-dimensional figures, anonymous men and women in khaki and sneakers who run quickly in a sudden rain delay or appear predictably during the seventh-inning stretch.
You might stop me here, because maybe you love to arrive at the field early, as I do, just to see the grounds crew raking and tamping the ground, spraying a hose, painting the lines, readying the field, and making it new. Maybe there is something wrong with me, but the very sight of a John Deere idling in the infield or moving in gentle circles in the distant grass gets me excited.
That guy on the tractor, that woman with the rake, those four men holding a hose just right, the kid with the paint - they live real lives. Their territory is worth knowing, and James Bailey, who spent three seasons of his life with the Durham Bulls, invites us in. The Greatest Show pays tribute to the young men and women without whose efforts the show simply wouldn't happen as we know it. Cocky and talented ballplayers are present in Bailey's fictional account, but their stories become secondary to those of ordinary folk who have more modest yet equally poignant dreams of "climbing the minor league ladder."
Most true baseball fans understand that the game is anything but glamorous behind the scenes, except perhaps among the elite and chosen few. Bailey deals in the humble geography of the sport, not in its glitzy urban centers, nor in sleek stadiums that feel like corporate headquarters or a Disney set. If you've ever traveled to Frederick, Wilmington, Kinston, Savannah or Salem for the pure love of it, you know what I'm talking about.
Bailey's story gets off to a rather slow start as he seeks to define the mediocre existence of his first-person narrator, Lane Hamilton. Experiencing unsettling feelings of ambivalence in his personal life and intense frustration with his uninspiring middle-management career, Hamilton looks toward the ball field for meaning, if not material success. The plot takes a while to gather momentum, but the slow pace of Bailey's first few chapters, notwithstanding Hamilton's urgent desire to change his life, has the pleasant feel of a ballgame that begins quietly. Not too many fireworks, just an easy pace that gradually draws you in, maybe with a bit more in the way of routine defense than kinetic offense.
The score of this minor league game doesn't particularly matter, though, because the runs, hits, and errors in the yard take a back seat to its raw material. Game summaries, play by play, and live action on the field are not the novel's primary concern. Instead, these components play in counterpoint to something equally important. It is quite literally the dirt of this novel's title that provides some of the most satisfying action in Bailey's story: "See what happens when you run with it?" A fellow named Rich points to the ground: "You get those waves from the mat popping up and down." The novel's hero is learning ever so awkwardly the difficult technique of dragging the field.
Bailey adeptly dramatizes those essential actions of scene-making we often take for granted. The mesmerizing imagery of a tarp being pulled from the field, for example, becomes a matter of pride and a thing of beauty: "We'd had plenty of practice getting the cover on and off the field all week, but we'd also had at least five guys every time, which was a comfortable minimum for a dry tarp pull. Silently, we fanned out, each grabbing a portion of the edge, slowly trudging across the diamond as we folded the monstrous sheet in half . . . Back we walked to grab the crease and pull again, folding it into quarters this time. It got heavier with each pass, but the walk got shorter so it kind of evened out. When the tarp was folded in eighths, we pushed the twenty-five foot corrugated aluminum center pipe into place and began wrapping the plastic cover around it."
This may be more groundskeeping detail than the average fan ever wants to know, but such moments of competence gain importance in Bailey's narrative as a genuine labor of love. This author ventures into a territory that baseball writers seldom consider; he enters a realm of stats that most sabermetricians and ordinary fans don't usually factor into the equation:
"Frederick held on for a 14-11 victory in a contest that featured two grand slams, four hit batters, and nine stolen bases, including a swipe of home. But the most impressive statistic of the homestand was the nine tarp pulls, dating back to Wednesday. It wasn't a record, at least not according to Johnny Layne, who boasted his Gastonia crew had pulled the tarp thirteen times in a four-game series back in July of 1972."
Bailey has a fine ear for dialogue, and since much of baseball is conversation, the lively interplay of voices on and off the field is essential to the texture of his novel. Efficient game summaries move in counterpoint to amusing dialogue on the sidelines; conversations take place before, during, and after the games, and late into the night. Equally important are Lane Hamilton's private thoughts, particularly as he struggles to balance the satisfying freedom of baseball life with the increasingly unpleasant constraints of a relationship that offers little in the way of authentic love.
The plots of romance and sport inevitably converge, and the narrative takes its most appealing turn when one of Hamilton's co-workers voices a key concern about his very pretty yet distant girlfriend: "Why doesn't she come to the games?" The rhetorical question requires no answer, because an important truth has already been spoken.
The most significant relationship in Bailey's novel is not that of coach-player, pitcher-catcher, or athlete-fan. Instead, the story's energy resides in an unexpected connection between two co-workers who encounter each other in the midst of ordinary, seemingly tedious activity on the field:
"Hey, y'all," calls a female voice. "What do I do?"
"'Just 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."
Now, who cares about wrinkles in a tarp? I wondered, while reading.
Well, I do. I like a story that celebrates unsung heroes and hardworking folk. I like a story that puts a woman at the center of the field. I enjoy the symmetry and simplicity of a straightforward question and answer: What do I do? Just what I do.
The Greatest Show on Dirt came as a surprise to me. I expected more in the way of locker room jargon, raw humor, clubhouse antics, hits, errors, and food fights. These ingredients are all in place, to be sure, lending the novel its authenticity and some of its momentum. But the book surprised me, because it's not entirely what its inviting cover suggests - a gritty texture, an abandoned game ball, the amusing mascot, shabby splinters, peeling paint in colors of rust and faded blue. What I did not expect was a love story; what I did not expect was a candid account of what goes on in a man's heart during a minor league season. Deep down, beneath the dirt and grit, men can be such romantic souls.
Spoiler alert. What I did not expect was romance taking shape the old-fashioned way, affection growing slowly and sincerely over time, love becoming real even before the character realizes that's what it is, all this personal stuff happening unobtrusively amid tarps and hoses, as ordinary people groom the field for bigger egos and men with names on their shirts.
The Greatest Show on Dirt raises a question I sometimes think about in broader terms: do men really want women around to share the game with them? Yes, I think there are some who do. And if so, to what purpose, I wonder.
"Why doesn't she come to the games?" asks one of Lane's friends. Does it matter whether she is there or not? Maybe it does.
"What do I do?" she asks. "Just what I do," he says, yelling above the roar of the storm.
Does it matter? Maybe it does.
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James Bailey, The Greatest Show on Dirt