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Originally published Saturday, May 25, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘Class A’: An unforgettable year with a Mariners farm team

Lucas Mann’s “Class A” is a vivid, unforgettable look at a year with the players, fans and family of the Clinton, Iowa, LumberKings, a farm team for the Seattle Mariners. Mann discusses his book Saturday, May 25, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Lucas Mann

The author of “Class A” will discuss his book at 4 p.m. Saturday, May 25, at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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I read most of it. Good reading. It was cute too. MORE

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Book review

‘Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere’

by Lucas Mann

Pantheon, 318 pp., $26.95

More than any other sport, baseball lends itself to cliché. Writers good, bad and in between are drawn to the long history and lore of the game, and to its leisurely pace, which provides ample time to ruminate, embellish and memorialize. In “Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere,” author Lucas Mann has chosen a topic with a potential minefield of prosaic subplots — minor leaguers in a small Midwest town in pursuit of big-league glory — but creates instead a fresh rendering of the game that makes baseball seem vital and new. This is a story you haven’t heard before.

Mann spent the entire 2010 season with Seattle Mariners’ Class A farm team the LumberKings of Clinton, Iowa. He gets up close and personal with the players, coaches, fans and announcers. The author also examines Clinton’s fascinating history as a onetime center for lumber production, and the town’s current livelihood: the milling of corn overseen by global agricultural processing giant Archer Daniels Midland.

There is an appealing purity to baseball and its fans at this low rung of the minor leagues, where players teeter on the cusp of stardom or, much more likely, oblivion. Of the 5,000 players on 200 minor-league teams, only a small percentage move up to play in “the show.” Mariners fans will recognize two top prospects: shortstop Nick Franklin and relief pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. Both now play for the Triple A Tacoma Rainiers and are on the verge of joining the Seattle club. The Mariners’ closer for the past two years, Tom Wilhelmsen, also played in Clinton for part of the 2010 season.

Mann’s baseball writing is a revelation. At age 24, in 2010, Mann is not much older than the players he’s covering, but his baseball acumen is high from having played the game in high school and college. A die-hard Yankees fan since boyhood, he loves baseball but doesn’t let this taint his judgment or his prose.

His portrayals of anointed stars Franklin and Ramirez are like arresting candid photos, revealing both brilliance and blemish. Franklin’s swing not only has a certain arc, speed and momentum, but it also says a lot about the batter. “As Nick Franklin swings,” Mann writes, “he believes fully in how infallible his talent is, the way his whole family believes, the way everybody around him has always believed. He hasn’t ever doubted what he’s been told he is.” Even more affecting are the stories of players who have little hope of playing baseball for a living.

Having spent several months with the players, Mann gets behind their seeming incoherence to real thoughts and emotions. He gives them rides, gets drunk with them, shoots the breeze with them before and after games. His descriptions of locker-room antics and crudities are priceless. He also gets to know coaches, trainers, staff and, most of all, a core group of loyal fans whom he calls the “Baseball Family,” an eclectic assortment of blue-collar workers, and mostly women. Mann is young, easily flustered and often star-struck, but he’s no fool. He is an astute observer and brutally honest when he wants to be (Franklin’s parents won’t be happy with their depiction).

The 2010 season ends with the LumberKings playing for the league championship, with many heroics and successes along the way. Yet much more memorable are the setbacks. Not noble, elegiac failings, a movie hero riding into the sunset, but “real failure.” “…real failure is muted and swift,” Mann writes, “especially in the minor leagues, especially at this level. There are no options to it, no metaphor attached. No wisdom to be gained.”

David Takami has been a Seattle Mariners baseball fan for more than 25 years.

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