In 2014, as Opening Day approached, I abandoned my long-time policy of reviewing the books I received in a timely manner. Timeliness is always a priority, of course, but I can’t get them to all while also maintaining my even longer-time policy of reading books that aren’t about baseball.
That said, I still make a dedicated attempt to read the books that are sent to me — it just might take a little while. Case in point: last month’s “Ben’s Bookshelf” MiLB.com article, in which I belatedly reviewed three exemplary MiLB-themed books. Further case in point: this blog post, which is dedicated to my thoughts on James Bailey’s 2014 novel Nine Bucks A Pound. (An article about Bailey’s Durham Bulls-focused debut, The Greatest Show on Dirt, can be found HERE.)
“[The lies] came so fast and furious lately they passed through his lips like carbon dioxide…Too many to count. If each one were a brick, the walls would be so high he’d have to tilt his head back to see the sky.”
The above passage, which closes out a chapter late in James Bailey’s second novel Nine Bucks a Pound, speaks to the heart of the predicament faced by protagonist Del Tanner. Most individuals who find themselves in such situations are sociopaths; a knack for distortion, obfuscation and untruth being a defining characteristic. But Del Tanner is no such individual. He is simply a Minnesota Twins farmhand who possesses marginal, by professional standards, talent. In order to keep his baseball dream from flickering out in the Class A Advanced Florida State League, the Washington state-bred first baseman — a “contact player at a power position” — resorts to steroid use. (The “nine bucks a pound” of the book’s title is a reference to the benefits of Propionate, as Del’s first $180 injection cycle nets him 20 pounds of pure muscle.)
Del is joined in this endeavor by his gleefully immature teammate/roommate Ryan Edsell, their efforts aided and abetted by agent Ian Wicker. Wicker’s motivations are similar to those of his clients, as his professional legitimacy is wholly dependent on having one of them make it to “The Show.” These are quietly desperate people playing a quietly desperate game.
Nine Bucks a Pound follows Del’s career from 2003 through 2010, as he transitions from Minor League roster filler to top prospect to Major League success story. Steroid use plays no small role in his unexpected ascension, but throughout the book the question lingers: Was it worth it? His lies, and the paranoia that accompanies them, place a dark cloud over all that he has accomplished.
Bailey ably handles the above scenario, working to humanize a subset of the baseball community that has been generally been treated with a dismissive scorn. Steroid users may be cheats, frauds, disgraces to the game, or [insert your preferred epithet here], but their detour into chemical enhancement is most likely motivated by the same fears and insecurities that haunt all of us: Fear of failure, fear of being left behind, fear of losing that which defines them. Could it be that they are worthy of our pity? Of our forgiveness? Bailey does not shove these questions down the reader’s throat; they arise simply and organically as the story unfolds.
As a former Baseball America correspondent (and book reviewer), Bailey is well-qualified to tell such a story. He is familiar with the Minor League locales through which Del ascends, as well as the various personalities — agents, scouts, host families, coaches, players and assorted hangers-on — that populate the landscape. Additionally, Bailey did his research, speaking to (unnamed) former players about the drug testing process and to trainers about workout regimens. Nine Bucks A Pound, though a work of fiction, seems real.
Bailey’s emphasis on Del’s personal life — including his somewhat unorthodox parental relationship with dad, Milo, and mom, Gwen — illustrates the psychological cost of living a full-time lie. But my primary criticism of Nine Bucks A Pound is that such a large portion of the narrative is dedicated to Del’s oft-tumultuous relationship with his high school sweetheart, Dana. Bailey is adept at describing the difficulties of maintaining a romantic partnership while living according to the rigorous demands of the baseball schedule, but I never took to Dana as a character. She, in my view, was selfish and materialistic, and I found her and Del’s relationship to be rooted in immaturity and the fear that often results from such an emotional state. I never found myself rooting for them to succeed, because part of life’s growing-up process is the realization that (in most cases) your first love is not equipped to be your life’s love. The lack of an emotional investment in this key plot element resulted in a detraction from my overall enjoyment of the book.
Requisite penultimate paragraph griping aside, Nine Bucks A Pound is well worth purchasing. In providing the perspective of a steroid user, Bailey humanizes the demonized. Yet, he also illustrates the severe consequences, both professional and personal, of their transgressions. As Del Tanner learns, the choice to play dirty is a comparatively easy one. The hard part is coming clean.