In 2003, Tabitha Soren went to the Oakland A’s spring training in Phoenix with her husband, Michael Lewis, who had just finished writing a book about the Oakland A’s front office, Moneyball, which would be published later that year. Soren brought her camera; she wasn’t a baseball fan, and she thought she would be bored. “I thought it was going to be a pretty place to shoot,” she told me when we spoke over the phone. She didn’t expect that project she began there would take her fourteen years.
Back then, Soren had only just begun her career as a fine-arts photographer. She first made her name on the other side of the camera, as the face of MTV News’s politics coverage in the 1990s, then as a reporter at ABC and NBC News. Since she left journalism to become a fine-arts photographer, her photographs have been widely collected and shown. Her latest project, Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream, chronicles the trajectories of twenty-one baseball players who began their professional careers at that spring training in 2003. Ten of them are featured in the book, which also includes a series of linked short stories by Dave Eggers; the larger show will be up at San Francisco’s City Hall from July 20 to January 6.
Did you imagine following the players over time from the beginning?
I did, but I thought the focus would be different. When I met these guys, I thought that it was rare that you met a group of people all starting out on the first day of a very precise journey, and I thought it’d be interesting to track them along the way, because they were so full of hope and purpose. I sort of assumed they were all going to make it to the Major League because they had been drafted by a professional baseball organization. I looked at the farm leagues as lots of extra practice until you got to be on the Major League team. I didn’t realize that only six percent of them would get there.
I thought that it would be portrait and body driven. I was always having them wear really tight clothes or taking off their shirts, and I was shooting them very close-up, trying to see whether I could show the moment that they became a commodity, for example. Steroids were also in the air at that time, and I thought I could show differences between the season and how they look when they show up at spring training. And none of that really panned out. The portraits were lovely, but at a certain point, I didn’t find them all that compelling. So I started going to a lot of the games and looking at the culture of baseball more generally. I thought, Eventually I’m going to fall in love with the game like all these people in the stands. And when that didn’t happen, I came out of the dugout and focused more on the people in the stands, not as portrait subjects but on what was driving them to be so interested in a game that was so slow. And why was there such an association with patriotic America? Trying to delve into those ideas and unpack the connection between baseball and the American dream is what made this project have some real teeth, I think. That kept me going until the guys were making bigger transitions with their lives. Obviously, the big transitions were interesting photographically, but, you know, they weren’t having babies or getting released every single day. It was kind of a long slog in the middle.
They might as well have been a Moroccan tribe or a group of street punks who live in the subway, I just knew nothing about their subculture. The baseball players were a tribe that, to me, ended up acting as a metaphor for our striving culture in America itself.
How did you decide to structure the book? You have four different ways of telling stories—the photographs, the scrapbook, the voices of the players, and the fiction by Dave Eggers.
The people at Aperture helped me winnow down a fifteen-year archive of pictures of twenty-one different people, and we ended up with ten in the book. The gallery shows feature some of those not included. My darkroom storage is filled with so many boxes of negatives of these guys, and it was overwhelming. But I did try, every year, to pick my top five pictures of each guy. The pictures I felt were most successful artistically, those are the ones that I thought should be the foundation of the book, because it’s a photo book and an art book. I thought of the narrative as second, but I thought it could be married in a nice way. I used the concept of a family scrapbook in my photo book as a way to see what the ten players were like as kids. I felt like it was a good way to put together the puzzle of how each individual ended up a professional athlete. What brought them to this point? What was their physical history? Aperture, my publisher, also had the bright idea of using a different kind of paper to separate the narrative parts of the book. All the scrapbook pages are on matte paper, and that paper is a different color than all the glossy pages. Those sections are also always introduced by Eggers’s short story. All this helps you change gears as a reader as you’re moving through the book.
I wanted to include some text about each of the players. At first I thought, I’ll just write something up for each person. But I wanted their input, because it’s very much a collaboration, so I asked them to write five hundred words each. I gave them some questions to respond to, just to get them started so they weren’t staring at a blank screen. I didn’t think of any of them as writers. The first submission that came in was from Ben Fritz, and it was so good! It was all about questioning. What if, what if … I was so surprised at the craft involved. Never mind the fact that the voice—which, of course, is always the toughest thing to pull off when you’re writing—was so much Ben. It was much better to have ten different voices in the book than just mine. Lloyd Turner, who is not in the book but is in a big show that opens at City Hall in San Francisco, had to write something for the show, and his last line is something like, I just think it’s important for me to say right here that I discovered some pain and heartache through tears while writing this, and it helped me deal with feelings that I guess I haven’t processed yet. When do you hear an athlete talk like that? Never. And he’s still a coach for the Oakland A’s. He did everything right, he just … aged, basically.
That’s another theme of the book.
We’re all living and dying at the same time. It’s a more powerful conflict when you’re trying to be a professional athlete. Another manager said to me, When we get them, they’re perfect ice cubes. But then, they melt. Which is why, in the book, there’s a picture of a big pile of ice cubes on the dugout floor from when the water jug has been dumped after the game. I love that picture, even though I suspect I’m the only one who knows what it means. The scouts have said to me, Yes he got drafted, Yes he got to spring training, Yes he’s here, but he could be here only for a “cup of coffee.” My reaction to that was, Wait a minute. This guy dropped out of college so that he could be here. How can you be so cavalier? It’s so brutal to hear something like that, but it’s the reality of the game.
It’s striking though how different people could have the same starting point and come to such different conclusions about the success or failure about what they’ve done. There are guys who made forty-thousand dollars over the course of their career, and then there’s Mark Teahen, who made twenty-one million. He sounds like he regards himself as a little bit of a failure. He called himself expendable.
Having your heart broken teaches you a lot about life. Having this dream taken away from you requires you to rebuild your entire identity and find something else to be passionate about. The people who are able to do that, in my mind, are the real success stories. And Mark has done that.
I wrote them all an email a week ago saying, If I’ve said anything in interviews that has been inaccurate, has upset you or put you in an awkward position, tell me now because I’m about to do another round of press. And Mark Teahen wrote back and said, Just make sure you let everyone know that I’m a bigger deal than it seems. So Mark is fine. He’s got a complicated mind in that he’s trying to investigate the arc of his career, and he’s trying to unpack it, and very carefully. At the end of the day, he does not consider himself a failure, and neither do I.
Fantasy Life is a very different kind of story about baseball than Moneyball. In some ways, it’s actually—I wouldn’t say opposed, but complementary.
Well, I do think they’re kind of opposite takes. One is about numbers and the other is about human beings. I can totally accept how all of sports media wants to connect my photo book to Moneyball—I met all these players through Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, and I wouldn’t have met him without my husband. Billy picked up the phone and gave me access to be in the dugout and in the clubhouse with a camera for fifteen years. I’m grateful to both of them. But they had little do with the photographs or where the project led me. And as you picked up, they don’t really have anything to do with each other at the emotional core.
Moneyball is such a juggernaut of a book, and because of Brad Pitt, it was also a hit movie. I think it was wonderful. I feel like my project is a quieter, more contemplative pursuit that isn’t about home runs or earned run averages. I spent years in the car driving all over the country taking these pictures that nobody but me believed were accumulating into something powerful. Nick Swisher would always ask me, When you going to make posters of us and make some money? But as an artist, that’s not where my head was at. Both my point of view and the artistic, photo-book nerd audience I had in mind were still very different from sports fans. Sports is one of the engines of our culture, and in my mind, the job of the artist is to uncover the world we inhabit. All these guys believed they were going to make it. They believed they were going to be the exception to the rule. That’s very American. But it’s not enough.
I wanted to communicate the frustration with the American dream that is very palpable in the United States right now. These boys were like all of us who are trying to do all the right things to achieve our goals, and we find out in adulthood that it’s not going to happen. Only Derek Jeter can be Derek Jeter. So what do you do then?
You seem to be less interested in them as baseball players.
And that’s why they’re not failures in my eyes. Because I’ve seen them marry someone they’re really in love with, and create a home in a community they’re comfortable with, or start a business that’s thriving. One player did unravel and struggle with drugs, poverty, and homelessness, but even he is back on his feet. Losing the one thing that gives your life meaning is a test of character. I was struck by the precariousness of life when it hangs by the thread of perpetual self-perfection. I was very interested in the resilience that’d be required of my subjects. And the only way to visualize that is to stick around.
Louisa Thomas is the author of Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, a biography of John Quincy Adams’s wife.
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