In 1994, Ryan McGee’s spring and summer were filled with epic mascot battles, wannabe national anthem singers, and a stuntman in a coffin packed with explosives.
These stories are shared in Welcome to the Circus of Baseball, a memoir covering McGee’s time as an intern for the Asheville Tourists. In the decades since his season in the Blue Ridge Mountains, McGee — a UT Knoxville graduate — has widely covered sports from college football and baseball to NASCAR. He currently serves as a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The spring and summer of ‘94 proved to be a strange time in the sports world. Michael Jordan left the NBA for baseball, O.J. Simpson was charged with murder, and Major League Baseball shut down mid-season due to a dispute between owners and players.
Welcome to the Circus of Baseball doesn’t revolve around the national dramas of ’94; instead, it takes readers behind the scenes of a Minor League Baseball club. McGee captures the trajectory of the Tourists’ season from early spring preparations to the dog days of August, structuring the book around the nine innings of a baseball game. All of this is held together by his sincere and trustworthy voice pulsing with love for the game.
As he guides us through innings, McGee recalls the nitty-gritty details of the business side of baseball — delivering schedules, working concession stands, covering the field with a giant tarp. A passage that stuck in my mind revolves around one of the most glorious treats at a baseball game: snow cones. He addresses the phenomenon of kids loving blue snow cones and offers a super sugary explanation of how the ice and syrup concoction he calls “crack for kids” is made at a ballpark. And, perhaps most interestingly, why snow cones are a solid profit maker.
What McGee is after in this memoir is to celebrate Minor League Baseball by writing an overdue love letter to McCormick Field, home of the Tourists since 1924. Like an ace pitcher, his aim is clear, hurling his words toward all that is pure about the game. “McCormick Field was the perfect antidote for everyone’s MLB illness. It was everything that is right about baseball. A perfectly picturesque all-American throwback minor league ballpark…. A grandstand packed with patrons, buzzed in the box seats on cold beer and peanuts, and none of it had cost them more than a few bucks. … A circle of gray concrete, green vines, and a kaleidoscope of advertising billboards, all wrapped around a diamond of a ballfield that for nearly a century has been tread upon by the Cooperstown-bound cleats of Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and Willie Stargell, as well as thousands of minor leaguers whose names and unfulfilled big-league dreams have been lost to time.”
McGee’s sincere voice surprised me by piercing through my cynicism about professional sports. His unwavering appreciation for baseball warmed my heart and led me to recall my earliest memories of the game, watching the Chattanooga Lookouts play in Engel Stadium. For myself, the magic of those early encounters is undeniable; they made me want to purchase gloves for my sons and teach them to play catch in our backyard.
It’s difficult to avoid romanticizing baseball, and I suspected McGee would fall into the trap of nostalgia and become blinded by his devotion. He’s the kind of guy who has memorized every line of Bull Durham and Field of Dreams, referring to them often in his memoir. At times, he did teeter on the edge of nostalgia, but he always pulled back to reality and acknowledged the challenges facing baseball in the early 90s.
There is no shortage of books about baseball, but there are few memoirs of the minor leagues written by people operating behind the scenes. McGee contributes to a narrow category in need of more voices, those standing in the corner or leaning against the wall observing both the beauty and absurdity of this segment of the sport.
It’s easy in 2023 to disparage baseball as a game stuck in the past, a game lagging behind the fast-paced world we live in. And some of these criticisms are fair. But McGee gives me hope baseball contains an enduring core that will last. I hope this memoir finds readers who share McGee’s reverence for the game. His knack for weaving baseball lore into his writing will satisfy diehard fans. And I hope the book falls into the hands of people like myself who once loved baseball but have forgotten about the goodness of the game.
Billy Kilgore is a writer, at-home dad, and ordained pastor. He lives with his wife and two sons in Nashville. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post‘s “On Parenting” column, Narratively, Scary Mommy, and Fatherly. He is a graduate of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
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