The 2002 Oakland Athletics draft class was unexpectedly propelled into the national spotlight because of Michael Lewis book Moneyball. It was, in essence, Billy Beane trying to figure out how to get better results from the very imperfect science of drafting and not stick to the same old stigmas that dogged baseball scouting for years.
Tabitha Soren, the former MTV News reporter probably most famous for her Rock the Vote involvement, also happens to be married to Michael Lewis and is a remarkable photographer. She decided to chronicle the lives of that 2002 draft class for the past 13 years and is putting those photos on display at an art gallery in Los Angeles this coming Saturday.
I thought that since we have a great number of A's fans here who probably find Moneyball to be a bit biblical (like yours truly), that this would be a good time to talk with Tabitha about the photos, the opening and her inspiration behind it all.
Tyler Bleszinski: How did you decide to chronicle the 2002 draft class? What was the inspiration to make this decade-plus long commitment?
Tabitha Soren: I met the 2002 Oakland A's draft class at spring training in 2003. I felt like I met a whole group of people who were all on the cusp of something great - even though they were so young.
They impressed me with their hope and determination. I thought it would be interesting to see what happens to their faces psychologically in photographs over time. I didn't understand the lure of the game very well but about 20 of them were comfortable enough in front of the camera to get really good portraits. So, I just kept taking them. Only one guy out of the whole bunch was a jerk but he was so photogenic I kept shooting him anyway. At first, the series was a lot of portraits.
Blez: How did it evolve over the years?
Soren: Some of my subjects became well known, respected players at the highest level of the game. Some left baseball to pursue less glamorous work, such as selling insurance and coal mining. Some have struggled with poverty - even homelessness. But the common thread among them all is that they had a shot, and they literally put their bodies on the line for the sake of the game; the chance to play with the best.
I always thought I'd get more and more interested in the game itself but I never really did. What I did get invested in was making sense of how intertwined baseball and America are in people's minds. As an artist it's not your job just to witness what's going on around you, but rather, to make sense of it. Once I connected baseball with all these fantasies Americans have about their own lives, the sport became very compelling and kept me going for over a decade.
One of the main themes and fantasies is Manifest Destiny. In the same way that American kids are all told they could grow up to be President one day, these boys have been told they are special and that they could be a professional baseball player one day since they were very very young. Their lives are a thematic and symbolic iteration of Americans' drive and ambition -- as well as our refusal to accept ordinariness.
Another American myth is that failure leads to greatness. One has to believe that to be a great baseball player. However, it's not true -- only 6-10% of them get a shot at a major league career. This is a professional sport where the very best player in the world actually only hits the ball successfully a third of the time. Baseball is really all about striking out and failure and resilience. That kind of determination and dedication was what I wanted to come through in this series.
Blez: What's your favorite shot? And yes, I get that it's probably like choosing your favorite child but I'm going to ask anyway!
Soren: I am pretty excited about "Major League Tobacco Bubblegum, 2013." The piles of brown tobacco inside chewed up pink bubblegum on the floor of the Indians dugout is going to be really large in the exhibit so you can see every bubble of spit and tooth mark and spikes of tobacco chew. It's an amazing color picture but it's not for the squeamish.
(Editor's Note: Not for the squeamish image below)
Major League Bubblegum - 2013
Blez: You must've formed an emotional attachment to these guys and the uphill challenge they faced over the years. Was it tough to remain the photographer and trying to capture it objectively?
Soren: I never tried to be objective. I gave up reporting and attempts at objectivity over a decade ago when I hung up my television career. I love the nuance and subtlety art provides that journalism didn't. I love that I don't have to root for the other team. I am 100% devoted to my subjects and it was generous of them to let me be in their corner for this long.
The only time I felt a bit torn in terms of loyalty was with ex-wives. The marriages and families that are sacrificed in the name of professional baseball are numerous. The women in the players' lives were the ones who often made my pictures possible because they were better with logistics and returning phone calls. And just because a divorce happened, didn't mean I felt any less gratitude toward the ex-wives. For the most part, I kept them in the exhibit.
Blez: Along those lines, what was the greatest moment in following these guys and what was the hardest to capture?
Action shots were the hardest to capture for me. I remember when a publisher came over to see the pictures about 3 years into the project. I had picked all my favorite shots and posted them up in my studio. He looked over the walls and said something to the effect of "Um, Tabitha, these are really great but you don't have one picture of the actual game." I couldn't believe it. I hadn't even noticed.
One of the reasons it took me a while to like my action shots was because for many years the good ones looked like everyone else's good ones. I wasn't bringing any of my own voice to the work because we all had to use long lenses and we all had to sit in the same safe spots near the field etc. Once I discovered that baseball and tintypes came into the world at the same time, I realize that was a perfect access point for me to pursue.
There were many professional sports photographers who helped me over the years. There were also many who chuckled when they saw me using film because it's so slow compared to digital — and I did, in fact, get a lot of blurry pictures at first. They also smirked a bit when they saw the enormous 8"x10" view camera. However, once they saw the tintypes, the condescension stopped. That was a nice feeling.
Blez: How many games did you attend to capture these images?
About 100. Seems like 1000.
Blez: Have you been a baseball fan for a long time? Are you an A's fan?
Soren: I think of the A's as my hometown team but I was a much more rabid fan when "my" players were on the team. I was brought up with my dad rooting for the underdog Red Sox. Rooting for the underdog is an important thing to learn. That said, my husband loves telling the story of when the Seattle Mariners asked me to throw out the first pitch at a game because I happened to be in town -- and at the time I was working on television. I declined the offer because I thought the team was going to actually hit the ball that I threw. That should tell you how closely I have paid attention to baseball in my life.
Blez: There's a lot of everyday fans who complain that athletes are overpaid but I have to imagine watching the struggle of minor leaguers trying to make it in the bigs has to give you a different perspective of the struggle to make it. And given that the percentage of minor leaguers that actually make it and earn one of those high salaries is so low, well, was that part of the reason you wanted to do this?
Soren: The project has several American fantasies woven into it. One relates to money. The notion that the pursuit of fame and fortune is also the pursuit of happiness is something way too many Americans believe. Baseball players are not immune to this fantasy. They have to assume that the payoff is going to be big because most minor leaguers are making very little money. It is a life full of Super 8 motels, empty walls, air mattresses and time on a bus. They really do sacrifice a lot for a long time. So, yes, I probably have less of a problem than some fans with them getting paid a lot of money once they get to the Show.
On the flip side, it is no fun being the highest-paid player on the team and then having the bad luck to get injured. 50 million dollars probably dulls the pain of not playing for a season a little but but it doesn't eliminate your teammates' resentment or create lasting respect from the front office.
Blez: I have to imagine you've done a lot of photographic art projects. How was this one different?
Soren: In my art work, I am visualizing psychological states; the internal weather that storms through each of us.
Running depicted the flight-or-flight response. Panic Beach attempted to upend the viewer as panic attacks do. Fantasy Life is about what it looks like to try to touch greatness.
My next project, Surface Tension, foregrounds the anxiety we navigate in the struggle to adapt to technological domination. To me, they are all about the same thing -- but they do look quite different. Fantasy Life has been a twelve-year epic journey and I will miss it.
Blez: If you go to a baseball game any time soon, how will your view of it change after doing this project?
Soren: I love going to games with my 8-year-old, Little-League-playing, left-handed-pitcher son. He is my focus when I go to games now. During this project, I grew to like the small minor league stadiums much better than the big corporate major league ones. I liked seeing the wear and tear of the history that has passed through the ballpark. I think you can tell that from the many pictures taken in old stadiums that made it into the exhibit. The ballplayers, however, are not as sentimental about the "dumps" as I am.
Blez: You have a gallery showing coming up this Saturday in Los Angeles. What are your hopes for it?
Soren: I have put so many years into this work that I simply hope people come and see it. Right now, the exhibit is only in Los Angeles but I hope I can export it to other galleries as well. The LA exhibit is quite ambitious: it includes 92 images, including Gelatin Silver and C-prints, plus 26 tintypes and 3 installations - one involving players' bone spurs. I guess it would also be nice if people in the artistic community were able to overcome their prejudice about sports being pedestrian and if sports fans can find more in the pictures than simply their favorite player or team. The work is about Americans' drive to be extraordinary, our demand to get a shot at greatness -- not just baseball, and not just sports.
Tabitha Soren's exhibit "Fantasy Life" has an opening reception this Saturday night April 25 from 6-8 p.m. at Kopeikin Gallery located at 2766 South La Cienega Blvd. All baseball fans and art lovers are welcome. The show runs from April 25-June 6 and the gallery hours are from 11-5 p.m.