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From farm to the majors: Author is ‘in the sticks’ with the Clinton LumberKings

Seattle Mariners rookie second baseman Nick Franklin eyes a ball in the air as he makes his major-league debut in the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres, Monday, May 27, 2013, in Seattle. The Mariners beat the Padres, 9-0. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

As the 2010 Seattle Mariners were suffering through one of their worst seasons ever, their Class A affiliate, the Clinton LumberKings, were having one of their best.

That team is now the subject of a great new book called “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere.” Its author, Lucas Mann, talked about baseball “in the sticks.”

Class A ball is the lowest level of professional baseball there is (if you don’t count rookie ball.) These “farm” teams are full of mostly college-age players who don’t make much money and play in small stadiums in small towns like Clinton, Iowa; Beloit, Wisconsin; Fort Wayne, Indiana; and Geneva, Illinois. Every single player dreams of moving up to Double A, Triple A, and ultimately the Major Leagues. Very, very few of them ever make it that far.

Lucas Mann spent an entire season with the Clinton LumberKings and writes about that experience from the players’ point-of-view, and the fans’ points of view. He even became the team’s mascot for one game to find out what baseball is like from inside the Louie the LumberKing’s costume.

“I learned the true meaning of sweat, I think. That’s the un-deep answer. And just how bad I can smell after a couple of hours.”

On a more philosophical level, he discovered that being a mascot allowed him a glimpse into what it’s like to be watched, as all players are, instead of simply watching, as all fans do.

“It’s to sort of embody this costume that wasn’t me but I still got to feel like it was me and be on the field waving my flag and change my perspective just for that instant gave this sort of weird glimpse – if I was on the field and these were my eyes looking out,” said Mann.

As for the players themselves, the reader gets to know a couple of them pretty well, one who will never even get close to putting on a Mariners’ uniform and one who just did … yesterday.

Hank Contreras is a guy at the end of his baseball rope, a 24-year-old catcher who’s still stuck in Class A ball.

“In a lot of ways Hank just represents how stacked the odds are and the difficulty of how good a teammate he was and how hard he worked and all of these things and sort of doing all of these things right that you’re told you’re supposed to do when you’re a kid and you play sports.”

Deep in the playoffs, Hank has a thrilling at-bat that’s straight out of the movie “The Natural,” a moment that’s transcendent but also heartbreaking, since it’ll never be enough to change the trajectory of his career.

Hank’s polar opposite is Nick Franklin, a budding star who’s on every true Mariners fan’s radar.

“[Franklin] had just turned 19. He had been drafted right out of high school and had gotten a signing bonus of just over million dollars and he was very much the hot commodity on the LumberKings,” said Mann. “For me as a guy who grew up loving baseball and just in awe of all these players, he was the best athlete I’d ever seen up close, by far.”

Franklin, who had been having a great year with the Triple A Tacoma Rainiers, just got called up to the big leagues. He played his first game for the Mariners on Memorial Day, at second base.

No matter how many baseball players get to strut their stuff inside the ballpark in Clinton, the most essential “players,” Mann concludes, are the LumberKings fans, many of whom are decades-long season ticket holders who root, root, root for the home team no matter what.

“For me, the heart of the whole story was there. Players are itinerant, managers are itinerant, and scouts and all these people that come through. And the people that are sort of there always – no matter what else is there – saying ‘this means something,’ making the whole thing possible, breathing significance into it are these sort of diehard fans,” explained Mann.

Finally, since I knew he was a life-long New York Yankees fan, I asked him what he thought of the greatest moment in Seattle Mariners history, that deciding Game Five playoff win against the Yankees in 1995. Mann was only 9 years old at the time, but he remembers it clearly.

“Even though I grew up a Yankees fan, when I was kid, up until then – the Yankees had been horrible. So I would hear all these stories about them being this big dominating force. And to me, it just sort of felt like it was this really sort of losing proposition. And as a kid there was nothing cooler than Ken Griffy Jr. and we all tried to copy his swing so I had this weird sort of skewed sensibility of this sort of mighty Seattle Mariners empire and then the poor little New York Yankees losing to them. It probably made it easier to root for the Yankees.”

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