As college jobs go, James Bailey had one of the best.
For three seasons in the early 1990s, Bailey worked for the Durham Bulls in the old Durham Athletic Park downtown, while attending N.C. State in Raleigh. The team ran a looser ship in those days, with everyone pitching in and switching jobs, depending on what needed doing. Concession stand workers, for instance, would often abandon their posts during a rain delay to pull the tarp on and off the field. After home games, the entire crew would assemble around the remaining beer kegs — an unofficial perk of the job.
Bailey’s new novel, “The Greatest Show on Dirt,” is packed with fascinating details on life in the old D.A.P. Those were the heady years after the film “Bull Durham” made the park a destination for baseball fans, and before the team moved to its new upscale digs. The novel depicts one crazy summer in the life of Lane Hamilton, an N.C. State grad who takes a job with the Bulls after getting fired from his going-nowhere sales job at a downtown bank.
Bailey, now a contributing writer for Durham-based “Baseball America” magazine and editor with a legal publishing company in Syracuse, NY, released his self-published novel earlier this spring. He recently spoke about life at the old Durham ballpark and the joys of minor league baseball.
This is your first novel, right? What made you decide to write about the old Durham ballpark?
The idea of the four friends who are at the center of this book — that actually came to me when I was coaching baseball Little League in Seattle, after I left Durham. It was based on personalities there. And I’d also been thinking about those years at the Durham ballpark. The two ideas came together. As a place to set the book, the park just had such character and it really was like a family feeling working for the team back then.
If you had to ballpark it, so to speak, how much of the book is autobiographical?
Almost none of it, really. Some of the minor characters are based on people that were working there, or worked in other ballparks. But Lane has a little bit more going for him than I did when I worked there. Lane is a slightly cooler cat. I didn’t have the bank job or the hot girlfriend.
The details on how the ballpark operated in those days have a real authenticity, and you have all these great characters — the cranky general manager, the weird PA announcer….
Well, if you want to write something — even if it’s a book about, you know, fishing — you have to have that experience or at least study a lot about it to be able to pull it off, to create the setting and the scene. So that it sounds like you know what you’re talking about.
The descriptions of the on-field action are very detailed, as well.
I actually had more of that in earlier drafts, but it got to the point where it was almost too much like a play-by-play broadcast. So I had to find certain spots where it worked, or otherwise I think you just lose a certain section of readers.
What is it about minor league baseball, do you think, that’s so appealing?
When I was in Durham writing for “Baseball America” in the last couple years, my focus was on the Appalachian League. That’s the lowest league of the minors. The Burlington Indians [now the Royals] are there, and a bunch of teams over in Tennessee and Virginia.
That’s where I really — I just loved it. It’s as far removed as you can get from the major leagues and still be in professional baseball. Everything is so casual and loose. You can take your family and get tickets for five bucks or less. One of the greatest things about North Carolina is there are some many different levels and different leagues of baseball right there.
Do you have a particular schedule or regimen when writing?
I do a lot of my writing late at night, actually. And on weekends, when I don’t have to get up really early the next morning. I’m often writing on a Friday night to 12:30 or one in the morning. When I first started, I cranked out a first draft in six months, then sent it out to friends for feedback. Some were brutally honest, and that was the most useful.
You self-published this book — what was that process like?
I’d sent it out to a bunch of publishers and agents and was waiting around on that whole thing. But for me, the best time to put out a baseball book is in the spring, and I had targeted February of this year to get it out there. So I wound up publishing it myself.
I researched it to death on the Internet — there are a lot of ways to go about it. I wound up going through Amazon, it was just the best route for me, to keep the cover price reasonable and to have it available as an e-book. Everything has really changed in the last five years, with self-publishing.
In the book, Lane’s summer with the team changes the direction of his life. Did you have a similar experience?
I don’t know that it really changed me to that degree. I think it helped instill a work ethic. I saw the rewards of working hard and how much you owe to the team and the family. You don’t want to let anyone down.
There’s a time in your life when you can work at a job that you love, even if there’s no money in it. And that time is when you’re young.
“The Greatest Show on Dirt” is available in paperback or Kindle e-book format at Amazon.com.