Day 8 of (at least) 30 baseball book reviews in 2021: Clubbing around with a stand-up guy trying to find a meaning of life

“Clubbie: A Minor League Baseball Memoir”

The author:
Greg Larson

The publishing info:
University of Nebraska Press
264 pages
$27.95
Released April 1, 2021

The links:
At the publisher’s website
At the author’s website

At Powells.com
At Vromans.com
At DTLA’s The Last Book Store
At PagesABookstore.com
At Amazon.com
At BarnesAndNoble.com
At Indiebound.org
At Bookshop.org

The review in 90 feet or less

Airing someone else’s dirty laundry can be a proven method for writers to sell books. And it sounds almost literally like what Greg Larson is trying to do here, as someone who has invested two soul-searching summers of minor-league baseball locker room shenanigans.

But that would be selling “Clubbie” far short. It’s his own life that becomes the examination through dealing with challenges he probably didn’t see coming.

Since Larson calls himself an author, editor and standup comedian living in Austin, Tex. — and offers himself up on his website as available for interviews, speaking engagements and bachelorette parties just by clicking his email link — he is teed up as someone who doesn’t necessarily take himself too seriously.

And seriously, if you can’t laugh at yourself, what’s the point?

Here, you don’t really have to read between the lines. This latest journey of baseball-as-life-metaphor doesn’t leave the reader with an overwhelming desire to laugh at someone else’s struggles despite the many humorous moments. Sympathy and empathy tug naturally instead. The real-life frustrations are transferred, as are the celebrations of those small moments of personal victory.

There’s also the sense that someone can be self-aware enough to realize that, sure, after getting crapped all over as the clubhouse attendant for the Aberdeen IronBirds of the short-season Single-A N.Y-Penn League, even spending one of those seasons living inside a storage room to save some cash, you can come out of that closeted experience on the othersize and realize it wasn’t all that crappy.

If this was a stage play, it would all center around the environment that supports this next-to-last level of the Baltimore Orioles farm system food chain, 25 miles northeast up I-95 from Camden Yards. The fact the team is owned by the Ripken family – most notably with Cal Ripken, Jr., as the front man, buying this in 2002 and moving them from Utica, N.Y. to his hometown and then having them play games at a place called Ripken Stadium — only adds more irony for the IronBirds’ method of operations.

The years are 2012 and ’13 – a lifetime ago for some of us. When owning a ’97 Cadillac Deville with an active “check engine” light ain’t a bad proposition. Nor was getting to pull on a uniform and shag balls to the delight of the other players once in awhile to break the monotony. Or sneaking out to take late-night batting practice. Share some beers with former big-leaguers and hear their life stories. Getting introduced to a couple thousand fans on opening day and jogging out to the third-base line along with the trainer to be part of a team of guys you likely won’t see or hear much about after all this is over.

If the most natural thing for a writer-in-training to do is write what he or she knows best – themselves — Larson already got a book up in this process. In 2014, his debut memoir was “Learn How to Not Suck: My College Story,” where he was giving tips about everything an idiot college student might need to know. As the back cover says, Larson is “a rambunctious student with a penchant for adventure, through successes and failures that eventually lead him to redemption before commencement, although not in the ways he had hoped for or expected. Follow Greg as he pursues his dreams of being a stand-up comedian … support him even after he immerses himself in the world of Pick-Up Artistry only to become somehow worse with women and fail with all but one.”

In “Clubbie,” it’s more an honest reality check about taking a gig that essentially is about scrubbing grass stains out of uniforms in the middle of the night, scrambling to find food for 20-year kids against all nutritional odds, dealing with managers and coaches who treat this with some sort of sick power play with a limited end game, and, in the end, coming out with just a couple thousand bucks and the ability to say you once spent a summer sleeping in a closet in a pro team’s locker room because that’s the best thing you could afford for survival.

The ying and yang can be summed up from two quick excerpts:

From page 7:

Baseball taught me how to love. The game made sense to me and spending time with it felt more like an obsessive relationship than a simple want. As I first started to uncover the infinite mysteries of baseball – like why players choose to wear certain numbers, what the brown stuff in players’ mouths was, and just what the hell a balk entailed – I was hooked …”

From page 242:

I left Aberdeen with a pocketful of cash, a few memories and this bad taste in my mouth, like I had taken something from these kids other than their dues money, and they had stolen something from me other than two summers and some baseballs.”

In between, there’s the angst of the gal pal Nicole, willing to move in with him to see if this goes any where. There’s an abrasive pitching coach, Alan Mills, who once had a time in L.A., and was part of that Dodgers-Cubs brawl in Wrigley Field more than 20 years ago, and ended up not only as the Dodgers’ winning pitcher that day but also one of 19 on the team to get hit with a suspension.

Then there’s the ’12 version of the team with Gary Allenson as the manager, flopping around with a 28-48 record, last in the league. It was his only season there. Allenson, the former Boston Red Sox catcher nicknamed “Muggsy” out of Lawndale High, had 22 seasons as a minor league manager net him a record of 1,311-1,443 through 2017. Flip to the ’13 team, with a revamped, fierce looking logo, and Matt Merullo as the manager, winning its division.

What does Larson manage to bring here?

He got to dream a little, and live through some nightmares. He saw inequity in how players were treated with low pay. He even get a first-glimpse at some history in the making – a 22-year-old outfielder named Mike Yaztremski came onto the IronBirds roster right out of Vanderbilt for his first pro season (left). And now … maybe you know the rest.

For us, he reminds us to enjoy the ride. Learn something about yourself. Take the victories amidst the challenges. And keep your sense of humor intact.

How it goes in the scorebook

A clean bill of health that all comes out in the wash.

If the impulse is to seek comparisons, we found it closest and more recent to the way Dirk Hayhurst got not just one, but three, books about his life in the minors and major leagues, starting with “The Bullpen Gospels” in 2010, having it succeed, then having more material to spin it off into 2012’s “Out of My League,” to 2014’s “Bigger Than The Game: Restitching A Major League Life.”

At the time, reviewers like Bob Costas and Keith Olbermann were calling Hayhurst’s work as “Ball Four” meets “Bull Durham.” He was “Holden Caulfield … doing ‘Pitcher in the Rye.’” He was Pat Jordan, Jim Brosnan and Crash Davis.

The Caulfield reference comes up again in current reviews about Larson (Michael Pearson writes: “Imagine Holden Caulfield washing jock straps in the clubhouse of a Minor League baseball team. Then imagine Jim Bouton revealing the secrets of dreamers who struggle to make it to the Big Show. Enter Greg Larson with a voice and secrets all his own. This stunning debut memoir is about baseball and love, about the double edge of dreams. Larson is a natural.”)

For a more recent comp, we thought this book felt very close from our reading perspective to Brad Balukjian’s “The Wax Pack” from last year – there’s the baseball foundation but in the meantime, it’s a journey of a man trying to resolve a relationship.

As such, Balukjian offers this review: “It’s easy to romanticize baseball. But from the inside, in the trenches of the Minor Leagues, the game is not so pure. With an excellent eye for detail, Greg Larson captures every tobacco stain and dirty sock in this memoir of life as a clubhouse attendant. It’s a well-written, heartfelt chronicle of growing up in a game that doesn’t want to.”

We enthusiastically reviewed Balukjian’s book, and were pleased to find Larson did the same and made this observation:

“If it weren’t for the author and his story, the men he chronicles would be a random group of former ballplayers, held together by nothing more than a thin layer of wax casing. And therein lies the beauty of The Wax Pack. The problem with many baseball books is that they float lazily on the surface, operating in the comfortable space of statistics, trite attempts at philosophizing, and funny clubhouse anecdotes. Seen from that superficial vantage point, this book is a fun summer romp about what life is really like after the majors. But Balukjian prefers to dig deeper, weaving in his struggles with OCD, intimate relationships, and imposter syndrome throughout. Through the process of unearthing his own story, both for the reader and for the Wax Packers, he creates a secret fraternal order between himself and the players he befriends.”

So you see a connect there of learned value.

Our author Q&A

As a member of the Pandemic Baseball Book Club, Larson will likely do more Q&As with that great group to promote what he has got here.
We felt fortunate to catch up with Larson via email for what we thought were some well thought-out questions. Maybe we should have anticipated it, but we were blown away by his extremely generous answers and deep insights into the process of how he honed this book from what it started and the time it took to make it the polished tome it is today.
Enjoy:

Any sort of reaction to the book for those who’ve got advanced copies? What do you think of the comparisons some are making to other notable baseball books?

A: The most common response is how easy and fun “Clubbie” is to read. One reviewer said it “reads like a novel.” That’s been shocking for me, because my early drafts were so research-heavy that I still have this anxiety that it’s dry and boring. I think my anxiety forced me to make it more entertaining.

Then there are the baseball Powers That Be who are already pushing back. I knew front offices wouldn’t be happy about “Clubbie” exposing their unfair treatment of minor leaguers, but I had no idea how petty they would get. One Atlanta Braves executive (who I will refrain from naming) emailed me and called my book “offensive.” The Baltimore Orioles, who are highlighted in the book, won’t allow their minor league affiliates to promote “Clubbie.” I’ve had other clubhouse attendants raid my YouTube channel and Facebook page saying that I’m a disgrace to clubbies everywhere.

I welcome the controversy. It says I’ve told the truth about something these people don’t want the world to know: that they’ve made their money on the backs of poorly-paid minor leaguers.

The thing is, it’s a memoir, not an exposé. It just so happens to touch on these hot-button issues at the center of minor league baseball’s transforming landscape. And my book isn’t an epistolary like so many clubhouse memoirs (“Ball Four,“The Long Season,” “The 26th Man,” etc.). It’s a narrative, told in-scene like a novel. So given its “behind-the-scenes” style, of course hearing readers’ comparisons between “Clubbie” and “Ball Four” are flattering. Jim Bouton was a big inspiration for this book. The jury’s still out on whether I’ll be blackballed from professional baseball like Bouton, too.

(In the same vein of Bouton), the thing that made my book possible was my journal. I wrote 285 pages of notes and journal entries those two seasons I was with the IronBirds. Dialogue, scenes, sensory details — they were all possible because of my obsessive journaling and note taking.

Q: How did doing your first book, “Learn How To Not Suck,” funnel into the experience of writing this one? You had that come out right after your time as the clubhouse attendant. Why so long the time between your experience in Aberdeen and now?

A:Learn How to Not Suck” was my college memoir, and my first attempt at long-form narrative. It was a mess. The first draft was more than 200,000 words and there was no focus or point –– just a series of things I did in college told in chronological order. I finally cut it down to about 70,000 words and gave it something like a narrative arc: A virgin college freshman tries to solve his love woes by learning from Pick-Up Artists, which only veers him farther off his path. It’s a less funny, shallower story than “Clubbie” It was a fratire in a similar vein as Tucker Max’s “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell.”

Here’s the thing: In that book, there’s a chapter about me hiking the 62-mile Great Ocean Walk in southern Australia. It’s a crazy story where I ran out of food and water in a (somewhat) remote rainforest. It was the best piece of writing I’d done to that point. I used that chapter as a writing sample to get a full ride into the MFA Creative Writing program at Old Dominion University. That was in 2014, the year I stopped being a clubbie.

From 2014 to 2017, I researched and wrote “Clubbie” my MFA thesis, studying under the journalist Joe Jackson (“Black Elk), memoirist Mike Pearson (“Imagined Places: Journeys into Literary America”), and the famed literary biographer Blake Bailey (“Philip Roth“).

(Our insertion: Pearson’s review blurb is above. Jackson’s bookjacket review of Larson’s “Clubbie”: “(It) signals the arrival of an important new voice to American letters … ‘Clubbie’ is more than a coming-of-age story told via America’s pastime: it is an elegiac requiem for all who fall short of the one million forms of the American Dream.”)

The problem was that I wasn’t a character in the first draft. Pretty odd for a memoir, eh? That’s because I thought it was an exposé. As such, there was no “Greg Larson” in the book — just research, a few other characters, and my flaccid attempt at journalism. It was boring and I didn’t know why. Then one day in our MFA workshop, my friend Emily Howell said, “You know, I find it interesting that Greg hasn’t made himself part of the story, since he so obviously wants to be one of the players.”

That’s when it all clicked for me. I realized I was the main character of the story, and that my attempt at objective journalism wasn’t working because I’m not an objective person (who the hell is, y’know?). What makes this story so great is my subjective experience. This tension between my desires to be a player and my life as a clubbie, including my strained relationship with my girlfriend, is the heart of the book.

Based on this realization, I completely rewrote the book before the end of grad school. It felt like I was banging on the keyboard all the way up to graduation. I had some initial interest from agents, but they all passed. They said “Clubbie” is too long, I don’t have a big enough social media platform, I’m too short, my breath stinks, my chest is shaped weird, etc.

And suddenly, I was no longer in the make-believe worlds of college, minor league baseball, or grad school. I was in the real world and I had to get a “real world” job.

That’s when I became an editor and ghostwriter for business book authors. I did that through a company owned by Tucker Max, the man whose books inspired my first memoir. So “Clubbie” went on the backburner for two years as I ghostwrote books for CEOs, news personalities, and a brief stint ghostwriting for Max himself.

Wild, huh?

Eventually, the pain of using creative energy on other people’s work while neglecting my own became too much. I left that company in 2019 and blew the dust off of “Clubbie” to see what we had.

After three years of learning literary nonfiction in grad school and two years of learning copywriting from Tucker Max, I finally had all the tools necessary to give “Clubbie” its final treatment. I cut nearly 20,000 words, transforming it into the binge-worthy, novelistic, cinematic book that it is now.

All in all, from the start of grad school to the time I got my contract, I was rejected by 221 agents and publishers, including my eventual publisher, University of Nebraska Press.

Q: We found this profile on you from 2012 on AberdeenIronBirds.com website that included: “While Larson spends a good portion of his day lifting dirt stains and slicing up local produce, he’s been known to take advantage of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Free Library on his days off and is an avid reader.  It’s not often in the clubhouse you find someone willing to sit down and discuss the finer points of Shakespeare or Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. ” ‘It’s all about following your destiny and figuring out what you really should be doing with your life…It’s got a great message,’ says Larson.
Jeepers, that’s some great insight there. So what are your literary influences?

A: All due respect to Mr. Coelho: I’m embarrassed I mentioned “The Alchemist” in a published interview. At least I refrained from calling “The Secret” and “The Power of Now” my spiritual north stars. Whatever…

I used to be obsessed with David Sedaris. Reading “Me Talk Pretty One Day” completely transformed what I knew to be possible with memoir. I thought, “Holy shit. I can be my full self on the page, smartass and all, and still be a good writer?” And as far as Shakespeare goes, I can still recite Hamlet’s soliloquy from memory.

But these days I take inspiration from visual media, particularly graphic memoirs and the “Breaking Bad” universe. And probably shitty memes too, who knows what infects my mind without my knowledge? I love the way graphic memoirs and graphic novels transition between scenes, and use items in the present action to launch the story into the past. “Watchmen” is a masterclass in this, and it’s part of what makes it such a smooth and suspenseful read. “Blankets by Craig Thompson, “Honor Girl” by Maggie Thrash, and the “Maus series by Art Spiegelman all fucked me up in different, amazing ways.

When I write, I think about my books in scenes like a movie or TV show. I’m about a third of the way through my first novel right now. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever written. I’m using “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” as inspirations, particularly how these shows use flashbacks and storytelling by characters to provide context, motivation, and character depth.

Perfect example from “Better Call Saul”: Gus Fring is talking to an unconscious Hector Salamanca in the hospital. Fring tells Salamanca about the time a cat stole some fruit off of Fring’s tree as a child, and Fring’s attempt to capture and torture the cat. It alludes to Fring’s patience, and his willingness to toy with Salamanca the cripple the same way he did the cat as a child. When Fring tells the story, we don’t flash back to his childhood in-scene — we stay with the two men in the hospital.

Why? What makes certain stories better in-scene as a flashback, and some stories better as told from the mouth of a character? There’s no formula, but I’m trying to learn the answer. I think it has something to do with choice. To tell a story is a conscious choice by a character, and the telling is a character trait in itself. A flashback, on the other hand, is my choice as the creator, and shows us something that a character might never tell of their own volition.

Q: You’ve gotten really involved in multi-media presentation about this with Twitter, blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels. Is that a successful strategy these days for authors to connect with as many entry points? How did you decide to set your approach up?

Content is king. I don’t care if you’re selling a book or a car, people want stories about your product. This is where my former career as a ghostwriter really pays off. I can’t tell you how many free lessons I received from branding experts, business leaders, and other world-class marketers as I wrote their books.

There’s a lot of apprehension around self-promotion in the literary world. I think that’s an unconscious defense mechanism on the part of artists. If they never promote themselves, they always have a built-in excuse: “I would have gotten more attention if I’d whored myself out,” they say to themselves. Or they hope the world will simply discover them. Tough tater tots, Tooter, but it doesn’t work that way for most of us. We have to discover our readers ourselves.

The best way to find readers right now is to create video and audio content. Bar none. So I’m going on podcasts, radio shows, and hosting my own podcast about the most obscure baseball knowledge on the internet. I talk about how and why minor league baseballs and major league baseballs are different, I interview people from the book, I talk about clubhouse life in the minors, and more.

Creating this type of content not only helps me with SEO, but it’s also entertaining for potential readers. Authors are entertainers, after all, but not enough of us view ourselves that way. Too many authors are precious with their work. I say fuck that. I give everything away, and more.

Q: Has the work as a clubhouse attendant worked its way into your comedy act? How has that career move been working out?

Oddly enough, I’ve never done any jokes about clubbie life. I like to tell a lot of one-liners, but I was getting more into storytelling from my dating life before I started focusing on marketing “Clubbie.” I haven’t been onstage since I got COVID in January.

I’m technically a professional standup comic, but I mostly do it as a side hustle. Writing books is my real jam.

It’s weird–I’m a really anxious guy. Most people don’t believe me when I say that because I’m pretty gregarious (apropos, right?), but that’s just because I’ve gotten good at coping with my anxiety. It feels comfortable for me, I guess, and something about being comfortable with being nervous makes me seem confident.

But intimate social situations terrify me. I feel more comfortable onstage in front of 50 people than I do sitting across a table from one person. I can hide onstage. I can control the interaction. I can prepare what I’m gonna say.

I can’t do that on a date, for example. Another person is the most complex thing in the universe. How can I prepare for that?

Q: Random ending to this Part 1: From the northern midwest to the east coast, you now live in Austin, Tex., as a single guy, having come out from under the snowdrift. Is Austin a place that provides a vibe that resonates with you at this time in your life?

Here’s the thing about that snowstorm: I grew up in Minnesota, okay? So I had these friends back home all up my ass like, “What, you guys can’t handle a little cold down there in Texas?”

The temperature outside wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it was 43 degrees inside my apartment. We don’t have the infrastructure to handle that kind of storm because why the hell would we? It’s 100 degrees half the year.

Imagine if a hurricane hit Minnesota. I bet those smug assholes would be scrambling too. “What, y’all can’t handle a little rain storm up there in Minnesota? Why don’t you have a hurricane route between Duluth and Minneapolis?” Same shit when a snowstorm hits Texas.

Anyway, I’m 32 and single, and Austin is my favorite city in the world. It’s full of weird, intelligent, athletic, attractive people from all over. There’s so much water here, too — more than I ever imagined. There are so many natural spaces that you can be right next to downtown and have no idea you’re in one of the most-populated cities in the U.S.

Q: Random ending to this Part 2: How has your former girlfriend Nicole responded to this book? As long as it’s fair and honest, right? I’d think this might improve your stock value in her eyes … 

A: At the risk of providing spoilers to the reader, I will just say she hasn’t read it yet.

Q: Random ending to this Part 3: Do you ever get confused with Gary Larson of “The Far Side” comic strip when people try to google you. Or apparently another comic named Greg Larsen?

Very rarely do people confuse me for Gary Larson. Strangers more often mistake me for some random person they sorta know. Apparently I’m a very generic-looking white dude. They say, “Steve, is that you?” And I’m like, “No, I’m Greg.” And they say, “I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure you’re Steve.”

And that other comic who stole my name then spelled it wrong? Put this on the record: he’s a thief. And he might have a few bodies in his basement, too. I don’t know, that’s just what people are saying. He looks the part. I’m considering suing his ass, to be frank with you. “Gross degradation of your namesake” is the official charge. We’ll see how it plays out in court. He’s from Australia, so this could get dicey. Stay tuned.

More to cover

Updated May 24, 2021: In this interview with Justin McGuire, the Blake Bailey updated story is addressed (see Q&A above) with this link to a Slate.com story. Larson also talks about his next book — which has nothing to do with baseball, but it as a love-based novel about inter-generational trauma based on the pandemic.

Originally tweeted by Baseball By The Book (@BaseballBookPod) on May 25, 2021.

== Not sure if we’ve ever seen this fantastic idea: Order the book at the official website – Clubbiebook.com – and get emailed a free ebook download from BookFunnel.com, “Deleted Scenes” by signing up.

== As the mess that has ensued with minor-league baseball having to reorganize and consolidate, the Orioles have announced they’re dropping their Frederick Keys high-A affiliate and have promoted Aberdeen to fill that role in the Mid-Atlantic League for the 2021 season. If you need a baseball team, go see Cal.

== The Star News of Coon Rapids, Minn., has a story of its Elk River native son.

== A review from WaxPackHero.com: “In Clubbie, we see that minor league baseball can be many things to many people.  For some it is a launching pad to “The Show.”  For others, it deals a crushing dose of reality that their career is over.  It can dig deep to expose the skeletons that have always been there, and it can provide a second chance and a sense of redemption.  Minor league baseball can help you more quickly figure out what you really want in life, or it provide a way to slowly wither away, season after season, because you just don’t know any other way.”

== Have you read about the guy, Tom Garvey, a Vietnam veteran and former employee at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia who has written a book about how he lived on the down-low inside the facility? “The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium/A Surreal Memoir” was also featured in the New York Times.

== Larson on the “The DA Show” for CBS Sports Radio

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