Cactus League pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in Scottsdale, AZ in a mere 12 days on February 12. The spring air is slowly, slowly trying to gain momentum. And I can almost hear the crack of the bat. I can almost smell the hot dogs and peanuts. The Cactus League, a debut from writer Emily Nemens, is the hold-over that every baseball fan needs to get through the next couple of weeks until Spring Ball starts.
This novel isn't a quick, three-up, three-down kind of read. It's layered, nuanced, and full of curves, floaters, and change-ups. Like the innings of America's favorite pastime, Nemens keeps her readers riveted, but it's not as simple as cheering for who's on the home team; the characters circle around each other, and it's only at the novel's conclusion that we really see who's won and who's lost.
Interstitial chapters - written by an omnipresent reporter - reveal background - not only of the characters but also of the setting. Arizona's desert - its grit, mountains, inhabitants - is as much a character in The Cactus League as the managers and players on the Lions's spring lineup. In the same way that the water sluicing down the mountainside made its way into the Pima Valley, the days on the road, the struggle of staying fit in the winter, and the wear and tear of the game have eroded players, managers, reporters, gate workers, and even the wizened organ player at Salt River Fields. Through the erosion, the story emerges.
Jason Goodyear, Goody to his fans, is the All Star, but his luminescence is all but ready to fizzle and flicker out. He's an addict, a man with a passion for reckless behavior, and when he's not fighting for a win on the field, he's seeking the next big score, a win against the odds. The up-and-coming #1 draft pick Goslin can't catch a break - or a ball for that matter. The aged hitting coach feels the strain of so many seasons start to wear on him and his home life. Tami, a cleat chaser, has reached her lowest point, but is trying to hang on, to find her next meal. And a young boy, Alex P., who's the homeless son of a drug-addled, hot dog-slinging mother, wants simply to belong.
But the beauty of Nemens's novel - the beauty of baseball - is that you can't simply count someone out; there's always a chance for redemption. And that's what works so well in The Cactus League: there are ups, there are downs, there are shutouts and grand slams, but there are also moments of sheer writing genius. Nemens gets the game - she writes like a seasoned, road reporter - but she also understands the intricacies of human relationships, and that's what keeps this novel firing on all cylinders.
For people who enjoy movies like Bull Durham, Money Ball, and The Sandlot, as well as books like Evie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes.