The other day I mused offhandedly about how cool it would be to own a baseball team, and also how completely impossible. And that made me think of minor-league or independent-league team ownership, which is still kind of a possibility for mere mortals – and which, these days, has a lot more room for quirk. Given the choice between two clubs, as a general rule of thumb, you’re probably better off joining the one that doesn’t require Bud Selig’s approval.
Back in the fall I read Neal Karlen’s Slouching Towards Fargo, which is an affectionate portrait of the St. Paul Saints circa 1996 and 1997, an independent Northern League team owned in part by Bill Veeck’s son Mike (decades after his Disco Demolition Night debacle) that boasts a pig delivering baseballs to the mound, a nun in the stands offering massages, appearances by part-owner Bill Murray, sumo-wrestling contests for opposing managers between innings, and much more. “Fun Is Good,” is the Saints’ motto, and it’s refreshing to watch a team that doesn’t take itself too seriously. (Bless the Yankees, but you know it would do them good to lighten up once in a while). Daryl Strawberry, who redeemed himself with the Saints shortly before joining the Yankees and salvaging his career, serves as something of a focal point in the book, representing the Saints’ function as a haven of second- and third-chances for baseball types and locals; there are also draft holdouts, washups, career minor leaguers and female pitcher Ila Borders. The Saints have room for just about everyone.
Author Neal Karlen also tries to tell the story of his own sort of redemption, as he was initially sent to Saint Paul by Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner to dig up mud and write a story eviscerating Bill Murray and Strawberry. But there’s little suspense or originality in the story of how he ultimately grows a conscience once away from the big city. This part of the book was less successful, for me – partly because Karlen’s writing (and, to be fair, editing – the book is very unevenly paced) is not up to the standards of his material, and partly because his view of cynical and immoral New York City media types vs. big-hearted Midwesterners struck me as overly pat. He frequently brings up petty grudges against other writers or media-world denizens, and he’s too on-the-nose when writing about how baseball and the Saints will heal us all; it’s a theme that would have benefited from subtlety. Still, Karlen does a good job of chronicling the fascinating collection of individuals who cluster around the Saints, a haven for nonconformists, and whatever his flaws as a writer, they don’t prevent the charm of the team itself from coming through loud and clear.