Good Show, Mr. Bailey
Back in the good old disco ’70s, I had the thrill of working a New England amusement park roller coaster for three consecutive summers. It was me and four other impressionable, party-loving young guys and the pay was crap, but we had so many vivid, unforgettable moments I can still feel the sensation of stopping a flying two-seat metal car with the jerk of a hand brake.
The pull of these memories came back frequently while reading James Bailey’s rich first novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt. Bailey toiled for the minor league Durham Bulls for three years in the early 90s, at a similar time in his college life, and it’s clear that the job became the same kind of coming-of-age experience for him. There are non-stop after-work parties, gossip and pains about various women, all framing the backdrop of a basically menial job maintaining the field, selling programs, and keeping the boss from biting his head off. Though set in the old Durham Athletic Park, home of the team made famous in the movie Bull Durham, it probably isn’t fair to call this only a baseball novel, because if Lane Hamilton’s summer job was at a local NASCAR track, it would have had the exact same feel.
Lane’s saga kicks off when he’s fired from the First Carolina Bank for hangover-sleeping through an important meeting. His friend Rich had gotten a job on the Bulls’ ground crew earlier, and hooks Lane up right away with Don Sanders, Durham’s general manager. Lane realizes the pay is far lower than anything he can land in the corporate world, but how could there be anything bad about working in a baseball park?
Sure enough, nothing is. Lane juggles a rocky relationship with his girlfriend Trina but meets new possibilities, follows his college friend Paul’s up-and-coming career after signing a minor league contract with the Atlanta Braves, gets to travel on the road to rival parks, even investigates a series of robberies in the players’ clubhouse— all this between exhausting bouts of physical ballpark labor.
What’s truly refreshing about Bailey’s book is that it lovingly plummets us into a minor league world we don’t see enough of. Sure, it would be beyond cool to work in the “show,” to be dusting off deep grandstand seats when Prince Fielder is stepping to the dish behind you. But Bailey, who maintains his own excellent baseball book review site and also writes them on occasion for Baseball America, is happy with the arena he “grew up” in. Whether you’re in PNC Park or the DAP, the crack of bat meeting ball is still loud, the greasy and popcorny smells are a match, the games can still be exciting, and you probably can’t tell the infield dirt apart. The Greatest Show on Dirt may be set in the minor leagues, but it has a major league heart.