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Batting Around The Edge Of The Bigs In 'The Cactus League'


Pitchers and catchers report for spring training next week. The Yankees, Mets, Cards and other teams to Florida for the Grapefruit League. The Dodgers, Reds, Cubs and others to Arizona for the Cactus League. Rookies try to become regulars. Fading stars try to catch fire.

Emily Nemens, editor of The Paris Review, has a novel about the tribe of strivers and dreamers, coaches, agents, groupies, ex-spouses, concessionaires and kids who find themselves - metaphor alert - on around the diamonds, sparkling under the southwest sun each spring. Her novel, "Cactus League." She joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

EMILY NEMENS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: A rich cast of characters in this spring training. But one character connects or at least brushes against all the others. Tell us about Jason Goodyear.

NEMENS: Sure. Jason Goodyear is the left fielder for the Los Angeles Lions. He is...

SIMON: You know, we have to explain on NPR, that team doesn't actually exist.

NEMENS: No. No, I don't...

SIMON: I know.

NEMENS: ...Want to get sued. I mean, the Lions - sort of imagining the MGM lion, a little black and gold pin striped uniform. And he is their star. He is an amazing fielder and a wonderful arm and has a great bat and has won all the accolades an athlete can rack up in Major League Baseball.

SIMON: And yet...

NEMENS: And yet he's having a very bad spring.

SIMON: Yeah.

NEMENS: He shows up in Arizona. There's been rumors that he and his wife have split. He's always around the stadium, working ever harder, but not performing as he should. And so a lot of the book is this whole cast of characters trying to figure out what's going on with Jason.

SIMON: Tami is among a group of women - can I put it this way? - who target ballplayers.

NEMENS: Yeah, I think that's fair. I mean, she has not just targeted but lived with and loved baseball players. She had been a Texan and married to a minor league player. When that relationship dissolved, she wanted a fresh start. And the spring is a moment of renewal and possibility and beginnings. And so she thought, I'll try Arizona.

SIMON: She has a very eloquent speech where she talks about - what? Well, what draws her to baseball players?

NEMENS: Yeah, she does. Tami is drawn to athletes and is very straightforward about wanting to be near that drive and determination that gets an athlete to the top level of the sport.

SIMON: With respect, you're not the first editor of The Paris Review to write a baseball book, are you?

NEMENS: No, I'm not. I actually - in 2012, when I was really getting serious about this book, I read a stack of sports literature about two feet high in "Paper Lions" by George Plimpton and was at the top of it.

SIMON: We'll explain. George Plimpton, the founder of The Paris Review, wrote a number of sports books. But why a baseball book?

NEMENS: I love baseball.

SIMON: No, no, no. I mean, why a novel set? Well, it's an actual real novel with compelling characters.

NEMENS: Right.

SIMON: I don't want to - I don't want to put it on the shelf that says baseball book.

NEMENS: I love baseball. I love the sport. I was interested in being in conversation with that sub genre of American books about baseball, of course, "Pafko At The Wall," the poem, "Casey At The Bat." There's been all these moments and milestones of American literature around this sport. And I thought, you know, there hasn't been one for a while and I wanted to think about it.

SIMON: What draws you to the game both as a fan and a writer?

NEMENS: I fell in love with baseball by going with my father as a little girl to watch the Mariners.

SIMON: Book's dedicated to your father.

NEMENS: Yeah. Yeah. I was growing up in Seattle in the '80s, which is - you know, Ken Griffey Jr. showed up and just sort of - I was enchanted and a Mariners fan for life. But as a novelist, I think, you know, there are a lot of pauses. There is great performance, but there's a really wonderful architecture to the game. And I was excited to use that architecture and that structure as I was writing and structuring the book.

SIMON: Do you feel better when the season starts?

NEMENS: I do. I - you know, I have a busy life, and I surely can't watch all 162 games. But it's really nice to know that there's a game on somewhere.

SIMON: How does the editor of The Paris Review, which, despite its name, is headquartered in New York, follow the Seattle Mariners?

NEMENS: Oh, there's an app for that. I...

SIMON: Hope it works better than the one in Iowa. But go ahead.

NEMENS: Yeah, it certainly does. I don't catch every single game, but I see the won-lost column.

SIMON: Emily Nemens, her novel, "The Cactus League."

Thanks so much for being with us.

NEMENS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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