Sports

Tabitha Soren On Photographing The ‘Moneyball’ Draft Class And The Baseball ‘Fantasy Life’


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.

With the dugout gum, I think that what you’re noticing is that you have somebody working on this project who is not distracted by the game of baseball. I felt like the games that these people were playing were much less important than what the game said about American society.

If I was in the dugout with Nick Swisher and the Cleveland Indians and he took something out of his mouth, I looked down to see what it was. Then I noticed “Oh! It’s all these brightly pink colored pieces of Dubble Bubble.”

I kept taking picture after picture of the floor of the dugout. The players around me probably assumed I’d be pointing the camera towards them, but I probably wouldn’t have known the most famous person in the dugout if I tripped over him. The only person I knew was Nick Swisher.

I kinda feel like it’s good that I wasn’t distracted by the double play happening on the field. That’s what Nick was watching, but I was trying to get his bite mark in the center of the picture yet have that triangle, again, that I’m talking about. There’s a line that goes through that picture. I didn’t want it to go up and down and didn’t want it to go perfectly across.

I think that if I was a fan I would’ve probably taken more pictures of home runs and instead I saw dented doors and tobacco bubble gum as something really fascinating. I’m not sure what that says about me.

It definitely lends a sense of uniqueness to the book because there are a lot of books about majestic home runs and the grit and dirt of the field and players getting dirty. It’s nice to see the other aspects of baseball. If you love baseball and you grew up playing it — and I do and I did — it’s definitely something where… those are the parts of the game where maybe you don’t notice them all of the time, but they’re there and it’s part of that world.

Sure. And I certainly didn’t set anything up, but I would say that I feel like sports is one of the engines of our culture and I feel like it’s an artist’s job to unpack and uncover the world in which we live. So the art world, I think, scratches its head a bit about spending so much time on such a mainstream subject, but I think the baseball organizations and the baseball players within them are a subculture. I think they’re actually a tribe that deserves exploration. The pictures of them are often heroic or just set as the American losers. I wanted to uncover something new and different.

I feel like, if you don’t have anything to say about a particular subject, you should not make art about it. But eventually, I had something to say. The striving culture that is within baseball is something that Americans are all under the pressure of. Maybe we’re not trying to be Derek Jeter, but we are definitely pushed to do something.

It’s as if our culture just assumes that if you’re not going to set yourself apart as a special individual, as having some sort of extraordinary life, then it’s without meaning. I think there’s a real dark side to that because I think you set up a lot of expectations that end up with a lot of dissatisfaction. I feel like there’s a lot of dissatisfaction in the country right now.

Yup.

So, that might be a stretch.

No, not a stretch.

It’s like one transition into another into another, but when I look at the pictures those are the things I’m thinking about. I don’t expect every person reading the book to think about that too, but I do think that we normalize this incredible striving culture in America when, in other places, like Australia, Japan… it’s just not normal. But we think of it as normal here.

I have said to my daughters, “You could do anything you want. You can grow up to be President one day.” As soon as I said it I was just like, “What?” It’s just like a reflex. You want people to follow their dreams or be passionate about something, but I don’t think we have to push ourselves to the breaking point the way we do. I don’t think that we have to be despondent about one goal at the expense of all these other interests you might have.

I think that people’s curiosity about me moving from something very popular and very mainstream like television to the art world, which is sort of overlooked by a lot of our culture… it makes me happy. I feel like I have a way to express myself in a very nuanced, more subtle, and more creative way than I was able to do in a two and a half minute news story. But it doesn’t jibe with Americans’ obsession with fame and money.

If we had a more flexible idea about success, we’d all be able to find our little niches more easily. Not that I was unhappy being a journalist when I was a journalist. I just felt like once I had kids I needed to transition into something else that made me happy. It wasn’t going to be 100% motherhood but neither was [it going to be] flying to Bosnia at the drop of a hat when I had babies at home.

What kind of equipment did you use to capture these pictures? I know that’s a big question.

I’ll just try to summarize. I started this project when digital film, or the digital approach, was not that popular, and I really was learning how to expose film right. How to use a view camera. How to light something in an unobtrusive way in low-lighting situations.

What the rules were at a game, in terms of a tripod being on the grass, where you’re allowed to stand versus where I was allowed to be during practice — there are so many different things that impacted how I got the pictures that I’m talking about. I would say it runs the gamut.

This project actually chronicles the transition from analog to digital because I used everything in between. I used an 8×10 view camera, I used a very fast digital Canon with a long lens shooting some of the games. And those processes are at opposite ends of the spectrum. Most of this, I would say, was trial by fire. I just had to sort of figure it out. I didn’t really have a particular approach. So, the answer is I used a heck of a lot of cameras. I even shot Polaroid. Anything to make the picture look like mine instead of someone else’s.

Those weird brown pictures that you see are called tintypes. The first baseball contest was in 1846. It’s not the first game because that’s disputed, but the contest that was recorded associated with baseball was 1846. Seven years later, the process of tintype came into being in France. So, when I learned that they both came into the world at the same time, that’s when I decided to make a lot of the action shots tintypes.

So, is this it for this story? Are you done here?

Yes. Yes. I’m so done. I think the players are tired of having me around, too. But I did shoot them last weekend because many of them have new jobs and there’s a huge exhibit piece that is happening in San Francisco City Hall starting in July and staying up through December. Then that show is going to be exported to spring training 2018 here in Phoenix and they wanted pictures of the most recent jobs for these players.

So I have one of them who’s now working for the Padres, another one is working for the Cubs, another one is working for the A’s, and then Mark Teahen is here in Phoenix. He runs Sorso Wine Room. He actually just left two days ago to go to Italy and play baseball there even though he is retired since 2013 since they own an Italian café.

Can’t shake it.

Yeah, I know. Exactly.

Tabitha Soren will be in New York City for an In Conversation event with Sasha Frere Jones at Rizzoli Books, (1133 Broadway) from 6-8PM on Monday, March 27. Admission is free. Fantasy Life: Baseball And The American Dream will be available on April 1 where fine books are sold.

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