Novel shows the Minors in the early 90s

Bailey discusses new novel, The Greatest Show on Dirt

James Bailey based some of his characters loosely off folks he met in Durham's old DAP.

By Benjamin Hill / | July 20, 2012 7:04 AM ET

As a regular book reviewer for Baseball America, James Bailey has read more than his share of national pastime tomes. But, over the years, he came to realize that one particular point of view was in short supply.

"I'd never really seen a story told from the perspective of someone who worked in baseball," wrote Bailey during an email interview. "There are tons of stories -- fiction and non-fiction -- about players, coaches, even umpires. But there's not really anything about the people who show up to work at the park every day and put in 14 hours on game days, just because they love baseball."

Well, now there is, and it's courtesy of Bailey himself. The Greatest Show on Dirt, his debut novel, takes place in the early '90s amidst the colorful backdrop of "The DAP" -- Durham Athletic Park, home of the iconic Durham Bulls of the Class A Advanced Carolina League. (The Bulls have since made the leap to Triple-A and now compete in the similarly named but far more amenity-laden Durham Bulls Athletic Park.)

The Greatest Show on Dirt chronicles the personal and professional confusion of 20-something protagonist Lane Hamilton as he goes through (some might say "endures") his first season as a member of the Bulls' front-office staff. In many respects, it's a predictable coming-of-age tale, but Bailey's love for and knowledge of the no-frills and oft-absurd Minor League existence makes The Greatest Show on Dirt a must-read for those interested in (or already familiar with) what life is like at the lower rungs of the professional baseball ladder.

And Bailey certainly knows what he's writing about. He worked for the Bulls for three seasons (1990-92), and, though a work of fiction, The Greatest Show on Dirt draws heavily on these experiences. In the following interview, Bailey elaborates on the novel's genesis, the inspirations for its characters, and the drastic changes that Minor League Baseball has undergone over the past two decades. What motivated you to write a novel, and why now?

Bailey: I've wanted to write a novel for years. I actually wrote an earlier one that never went anywhere, about 15 years ago. It wasn't all that good, but it did force me to stay disciplined enough to finish it, which was no small accomplishment. I started writing The Greatest Show on Dirt in 2006 and took about a year to get through the first draft. I had the idea of the four friends [protagonist Lane, fellow Bulls employee Rich, aspiring musician Cole and ballplayer Paul] in a slightly different format a long time before that. In the rawest form, you could trace some of their basic traits back to four kids who played on a Little League team I coached in Seattle in the late '90s. I cranked out a chapter or two with them as college students, and then it died on a hard drive until I finally thought to set them in a Minor League park. Durham Athletic Park was the natural fit because I had worked there for three years and knew it fairly well, and loved it. Anyone who works in baseball, or who attends games regularly, will relate to the book's idiosyncratic ballpark characters. To what extent are they based on real people?

Bailey:: Some of the lesser characters are heavily borrowed from people I either worked with or met while working at Baseball America. Anyone who spent much time in the old DAP might recognize Vendor Joe or Batboy Eddie (names altered slightly to protect the innocent). There was a kid called Spanky who used to work at the Burlington (N.C.) Indians park when I covered the Appy League for Baseball America, though I don't think he was quite as foul-mouthed as my Spanky. He really was about 12, though, and really worked a ton of hours, though I'm not sure if he was paid or just did it for something to do.

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The other characters who work for the Bulls in my book are more composites of people I knew, if anything. I didn't want to make this any kind of thinly disguised "true story" for any number of reasons. I think you risk locking yourself into trying to tell someone else's story instead of letting your characters have their own. But every ballpark in America is full of characters, and that is what makes working in the Minor Leagues so much fun. The Greatest Show on Dirt was first released via Kindle in February and has since been made available on the Nook and in paperback as well. How would you characterize the response thus far?

Bailey: Everyone has been very positive about the book. Tom Hoffarth of the LA Daily News included it among his "30 Baseball Books in 30 Days this April" and rated it as a "Stand-up Triple" when he wrapped things up at the end of the month. (That was a full grade higher than John Grisham's Calico Joe, so I was pleased with that, though I'd gladly trade sales numbers with him.)

I've heard from several people who worked at the old DAP or at other Minor League stadiums who have enjoyed it, particularly the cast of characters surrounding Lane at the park. Before it was published, I had a number of trusted friends read it, including a couple of long-time Bulls employees, and they helped me get the details on the park right. Even though it's fiction, I wanted it to be realistic, so that feedback was hugely helpful. You write in the book's acknowledgements that Minor League Baseball was much different 20 years ago and that the ensuing ballpark boom ended up "gentrifying small towns with miniature versions of Major League stadiums." What are your opinions on these changes?

Bailey: It's hard to argue with some of the advances in Minor League Baseball over the past 20 years, though the game is not nearly as intimate as it used to be. Dan Barry released a book called Bottom of the 33rd last year, about the all-night game between Rochester and Pawtucket in 1981. There was nothing at all elegant about the Pawtucket stadium or staff as he details it in that book, but he absolutely captures the essence of what Minor League Baseball was a generation ago. There were kids, often underage, working all kinds of crazy hours. It was very informal. No one made any money, not the workers or the teams, really, so from that standpoint, it was awful. But I think anyone who worked during that era has fond memories of it anyway.

It was really more of a family atmosphere. Nowadays, you go to the park and you see the team employees wearing ties and dress slacks and it just doesn't seem right. At the lowest levels of the game, it's still somewhat like it was, but most of the full-season teams are run almost like mini-Major League organizations. Again, it's hard to knock it when you walk into a beautiful venue like Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where everything is so nice, and the bathrooms work like they're supposed to. The upgrades are great for the fans. But there's a tradeoff in the intimacy level, both for employees and fans. I guess most of us can get nostalgic for just about anything. But that old park [The DAP] was like a character itself, and I tried to bring it to life a little in the book. Will there be a sequel?

Bailey: There is no sequel planned, though I do have another baseball book in the works. The working title is Branded, and it's about a first baseman who makes a regrettable decision as a Minor Leaguer to use steroids to further his career and must deal with the consequences when his name is leaked shortly after he wins AL Rookie of the Year. I'm pretty excited about how it's coming along, though there's at least one more round of revisions to go, once I get feedback from my beta readers this summer.

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The Greatest Show on Dirt is out now on Kindle, Nook and in paperback. Through the remainder of July, $1 of every copy sold (in any format) will benefit the charity Books for Troops, Inc., which collects and sends books to troops stationed in Afghanistan.

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for and writes Ben's Biz Blog. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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