Oakland A’s designated hitter Ryon Healy grimaced at the request — describe the black and white photo showing him hunched over in despair when he was with the Stockton Ports minor league ball club.
“I struck out to end the season, 2014,” Healy explained in a voice still heavy with regret. “It was the playoff game, bases loaded.”
The photo wasn’t captured by a typical sports photographer in blustery action color. Rather the moody black and white was snapped by Tabitha Soren, a former MTV/network reporter-turned-art photographer who in 2002, started documenting life in the minor leagues of the Oakland A’s farm system — a project that would last the next 15 years.
An exhibition of Soren’s baseball photos titled “Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream” opens July 20th in San Francisco’s City Hall as part of the S.F. Arts Commission’s public art series.
Soren’s atypical approach to sports photography stood out in the ramshackle ballparks of America where young players were scratching and clawing to make their way to the major league. Her style of photography was as foreign to the players, as baseball was to her.
“The normal photographer we’re used to was just people taking pictures from around the stadium,” said Oakland A’s Chad Pinder who was in the minors when Soren photographed him. “She was in our dugout with the lights and different things.”
Soren was not a baseball fan. She was introduced to the game by her husband Michael Lewis who wrote the book Moneyball. A visit to spring training in 2002 sparked the idea to follow 21 players as they made their journey through the A’s farm system. It wasn’t necessarily the journey Soren expected.
“So when I got there I actually thought that the farm system of baseball,” Soren said, “was just a chance for the guys to practice a lot.”
Through 15 years hanging out in forlorn ballparks photographing everything from ice buckets to zealous fans, Soren realized that the farm system was indeed not an escalator to the majors — but actually a thorny path that would weed out 90 percent of minor league players before they ever made it to the diamond of a big league game. So Soren found herself immersed in the storylines of 21 players locked in a struggle to survive.
“They were pushing, pushing, pushing themselves,” Soren said in her Berkeley home studio. “They were trying to figure out how to be happy where they were, even though where they wanted to be was years down the road.”
Soren’s unorthodox photos matched her outsider’s perspective: members of the Modesto Nuts ball club standing in front of a squalid dugout; a ball player positioned like a twisted Bernini sculpture of David; infielder Mark Kiger demonstrating a crooked finger improperly set by minor league doctors.
“I was searching for the moments that were sort of off-moments,” Soren said. “The times when things sort of fell short, the times when things were imperfect.”
Soren sees the scenes in her photos as metaphors for the American Dream — the discarded paper water cones on the floor of a dugout symbolizing the players who struck her as almost disposable to team owners. Still every minor league dugout also seemed to be filled with players who’d played the game since little league — and were still battling to see their journey to the end.
“Most of them when they look in the mirror they only see themselves as baseball players,” Soren said. “They don’t see themselves as anything else.”
It is telling that of the 21 players Soren began following in 2002, only five made it to the majors. It mirrors statistics showing only about ten percent of minor league players will ever become big league ballplayers.
Among the smattering of success stories, Healy who has become a leader with the Oakland A’s said he was happy to have been a target of Soren’s lens. Even if she did capture one of the toughest moments of his entire career.
“You know seeing it now, looking back on it, it’s really cool to see such a different perspective that she gives,” Healy said, “not only to the fans but also to us as players looking back on those moments.”