The Cactus League: A Novel

Image of The Cactus League: A Novel
Release Date: 
February 4, 2020
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by: 

“Nemens is a skilled writer who captures the many dramas and nuances of spring training.”

Of all the American Sports it is baseball that has received the most attention from writers of literary fiction. From Mark Harris to Robert Coover and Philip Roth, the genre is rich, large, and growing. With The Cactus League: A Novel, Emily Nemens has produced the latest addition to the genre, and it may be placed near the top of the many lists of “The Ten Best Baseball Novels.”

As the title suggests, the setting is spring training in Arizona, which now means essentially Phoenix and its gaggle of newly minted suburbs and spring training sites. More specifically, Nemens has placed the Los Angeles Lions on Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, part of the Pima-Maricopa Indian lands near Scottsdale, and a state of the art facility with adjoining hotel and casino.

If you have been to spring training the setting will be familiar. If you have been to Talking Stick you will fully appreciate Nemens’ descriptive powers. If you have never been to spring training, The Cactus League offers total emersion into the physical and geographical setting of the desert with its intense heat of the afternoon sun and chill of the desert after sunset.

Beyond the physical realities are the psychological and emotional rigors of spring training that play on the athletes, rookie or veteran, marginal player or superstar. They are all human and all suffer from that simple fact.

At the center of this novel is Jason Goodyear, the Los Angeles Lions superstar, who is in the early stages of his career and his life as a millionaire. Outwardly, a soft-spoken and modest young man, he is everyone’s idea of what the superstar should be. Inwardly, Jason struggles with his demons who threaten to crush him personally and rip away the carefully crafted image developed and honed by his agent.

This then, at the heart of it, is Jason Goodyear’s story, buy it is also much more than that. The Cactus League examines the lives of many others both in and on the fringe of baseball. There are the rookies who can be paranoid about their future or oblivious to who and where they are, barely able to sense the new realities of their lives as teenage millionaires. Veteran players and ex-players, now coaches, offer whatever wisdom they can for navigating the world of spring training. Each has their own history, full of the joys and disappointments of baseball and life.

Nemens captures the culture of the team both within the clubhouse and beyond, particularly the world of baseball wives, sweethearts, and groupies. Here again she unfurls the ambition, the disappointments, and the interactions of those actors in the spring training drama. How they relate to the players and to one another is rich territory for an exploration of human relationships and their complications.  

Early on in The Cactus League, there is also a glimpse of part of the world beyond baseball. Many of the problems of modern existence, such as homelessness and drugs make an appearance in the form of characters who occupy the margins of society.

There are times along the way that it is possible to wonder whatever happened to Jason Goodyear and what any of the many tangents has to do with him, spring training, or baseball. What is clear throughout is that the world of Jason Goodyear is not what it seems to be, and that his world is moving in slow motion to an inevitable implosion, along with the world of many other characters as they too move across the desert.

When the implosion arrives at the intersection of Jason’s crisis with that of others in this tale, the narrative feels a bit strained and manipulated. This is not a fatal flaw, but is a bit disconcerting and detracts from the overall quality of The Cactus League.

Nemens is a skilled writer who captures the many dramas and nuances of spring training. She moves this story with a command of both prose and plot. Her eye for detail is sharp, and her ability to pass on what she sees is excellent. This is a book worth reading, and then reading again. It is a perfect antidote for those who recently watched as spring training abruptly ended and Opening Day slipped away.

Certainly when writing The Cactus League, Emily Nemens did not see what was coming, but the last lines of the novel seem prescient:

“’Hang on,’ he says again. Jason Goodyear means it as some sort of hope for that wilted, red-faced kid in his arms, but goddamn it if his words couldn’t have been meant for himself, if they couldn’t have been meant for us all.”