Sometimes it takes an outsider to see something in a new way. Even something you’re likely to miss.
Photographer and former MTV News correspondent Tabitha Soren has, over the last 14 years, tracked the careers and lives of the members of the 2002 Oakland A’s draft class that were immortalized by her husband, Michael Lewis, in his book, Moneyball. But her driving interest wasn’t a love of the game. Instead, Soren developed a fascination with the pursuit and the minor league baseball players who were entranced by it despite the thin paycheck (at times, sub-poverty level) and the thin chance for success.
In Fantasy Life: Baseball And The American Dream, Soren shares pictures of those ballplayers and a collection of sights from around the game whose charms can sometimes be missed amidst the flurry of action. She also offers many of those players a chance to tell their own story. Not just about that journey, but about what they did when their childhood dreams ran out of juice. The included Dave Eggers short story about that same journey is worth mention as well.
In an interview with Uproxx Sports, Soren spoke to us about her lengthy project, highlighting those unique aspects of the game, her thoughts on America’s striving culture, her process, and the addiction that is baseball.
Uproxx Sports: What was it that drew you in to this project more than a decade ago?
Soren: I’m not a baseball fan, but when I met the 2002 draft class at the spring training that my husband dragged me to in 2003, I felt like I was meeting this whole group of winners. I didn’t really know that so few people who were drafted into a major league baseball organization would actually get to play for the major league team.
These young guys, most of them juniors out of college, were so full of hope and purpose that they were incredibly compelling. But, as time went on, I discovered that really my project was much more about fallibility than hanging out with winners.
How close did you get to these players: Are they friends or subjects? How closely do you root for their success?
I would say my feelings about the players are the only thing that kept me interested in baseball as the time went on. I really adore some of them and I feel like we’re friends but they’re also definitely subjects, so I try to make sure that I’m giving something back to them because they’ve been so generous with their time.
I make sure they get plenty of pictures. If I can help them in any way… if they need something from San Francisco or what have you. I just try to make sure that they feel like they’re part of the process and that’s why I was so happy that the essays turned out so well in the book. Giving them a chance to speak for themselves was really important to me. I also heard from some of the guys that it was incredibly therapeutic for them because they hadn’t worked through those feelings. And, for the most part, nobody had ever asked them.
Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton get a lot of attention, but for the most part, I don’t think anybody’s interested in you anymore once you’re done with major league baseball unless you’re a Hall of Famer. That’s this typical American behavior that I disapprove of. And obviously, I feel differently about it because I was more interested in their identity readjustment after baseball. I wanted to see how they go about that.
I wanted to see how they go about that, because I think it’s a much harder situation than some of us… Let’s say you go to college and you’re gonna go to law school and then you get to law school or you work for a law firm and you think, “Man, this is ridiculous. Who would do this? It’s so boring, corporate. I think I’ll go back to school and get a graduate degree and then I will teach at a college.”
Those kinds of adjustments are pretty slight compared to being a four-year-old kid who figures out that the way to get his dad to spend time with him in a very reliable way is to play catch in the backyard. And then you end up wearing, you know, all the little league uniforms are always a major league team and then you’re instantly identifying yourself as possibly getting there. Most of my players have identified themselves almost exclusively as a baseball player — not a lot of other interests. So it’s a much bigger challenge for them. That said, when they get out, they’re young. They’re like 30-years-old. So it’s not like they’re retiring from a job that they’ve had for 50 years and they get a gold watch and they don’t know what to do with themselves. But I was very interested in their resilience.
What inspired you to highlight some of the more behind-the-scenes aspects of baseball that are included in the book? Like a door that’s really dinged up or used up bubble gum on the floor of a dugout.
I think that picture of the door is incredibly beautiful. I am in love with that picture because it’s both a landscape and it’s a still life. You have the blue sky and the green field reflected in the door. Those shapes that are in the shadows bring in that very typical dynamic of a triangle within any sort of painting or photograph — the tension.
In addition, it’s a tally of failures. All those dents from fly balls that went the wrong way. There’s so much failure in baseball and there’s so much failure in life that you just have to pick yourself up from. I felt like those dents were huge metaphors.
I must have spent, I don’t know, a half hour taking that picture trying to get it right. Practice was going on behind me so I was almost getting hit by baseballs all the time. All the players wanted me to move but it was just a practice so I didn’t move and I got that picture. And, of course, because the door is also silver and somewhat of a mirror, I had to figure out a way to move myself out of the way so my tripod and my figure was not reflected in the shot.
I think at that point, the guy who was running the practice, who was one of my players [from the 2002 draft class], just knew that I was always pointing the camera the wrong way. He was used to it after that many years.