Back before a president could phone-drop on Kimmel or tweet his way directly into the headlines, there was really only one person who could help you reach the youthful masses. Her name was Tabitha Soren and she worked for MTV News. And during the 1990s, Soren’s gets included both Clintons, Yasser Arafat and Anita Hill. Then something strange happened. Soren decided she didn’t want to be on TV anymore. She wanted to take pictures.
In a way, it made perfect sense. Soren grew up a military kid, relying on her 35-millimeter camera to remember the people and places that made up a childhood. And Soren graduated from New York University with a degree in journalism and politics, not necessarily a prerequisite for an internship on “Headbangers Ball.”
Her professional photography career started when she would accompany her husband, Michael Lewis, on assignments and shoot pictures for his stories. In 2003, that meant photographing the members of the Oakland Athletics draft class featured in his book “Moneyball.” Then she kept shooting. “I just thought, here are these people starting something,” she says now. “Wouldn’t it be nice to see what it’s like at the end?”
Some made it, including future stars Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen. But most never got close. “Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream,” her first book, arrives in time for Opening Day and documents many of those players. This sampling of Soren’s photos also includes two A’s draftees who aren’t in the book — Steve Stanley and Lloyd Turner. Each ballplayer supplied Soren with an essay, excerpted here.
Major leagues: 9 seasons. Highest annual salary: $4.75 million
Professional baseball is a constant adjustment: to the weather conditions, the opposing pitcher or to your living situation. Jumping from minor league baseball in small towns on a tiny salary to playing on a national stage for big bucks was a shock to my system. Competing against the best players in the world was a large enough difference, but the instant notoriety and public spotlight was a huge change from the minor leagues. Every great play is on ESPN, but it’s also impossible to hide when you are struggling or make an error that costs the team.
After being drafted, I completely reworked my college swing to be able to hit higher-caliber pitchers. Less than a year later, I was traded to the Kansas City Royals — which was the first of nine times I would be traded. I was on the Diamondbacks for two months, the Reds for one day and the Rangers for 10 days! I quickly realized tomorrow wasn’t guaranteed, so I battled and tried to get comfortable quickly so that I could perform on the field. The game was the same — but I had new teammates, new personalities and a new organization to impress. The effort to find my niche became as challenging as being a productive player.
Minor league average: .292 in 432 games
I came from a place of deep trust for all people. I never looked at relationships cautiously. That changed when I turned pro. Most of the players that I saw have great success were the ones that understood that they needed to protect themselves. Nick Swisher was a good example. I watched him in the cage in Sacramento, where a coach was giving him feedback. He was taking it in stride. He would try it for the session, and then when it was over he would go right back to doing things his way. He was brilliant at the politics of the game.
Mark McLemore came down to Sacramento on a AAA rehab stint and summed it up beautifully. My coaches in AAA truly believed that I needed to pull the ball more and stop trying to go to the opposite field so much. I was in the cage hitting and a coach said, “Those cheap hits to left field won’t work in the show.” I stepped out of the cage and McLemore looked at me and said: “Don’t listen to a word they are saying. That place where you are hitting the ball has $20 million in it.” He was referring to his career earnings for being a opposite-field hitter.
533 minor league games;
622 in independent league
As a player, I did experience a piece of the American Dream. I also suffered through the reality. Part of the grind wore on me mentally. I truly believed in my ability, and yet, there was another part of the game that was filled with fear of not making it. The Mental Game of baseball is hard, especially in your young 20s. I allowed so many things that I couldn’t control affect me in a negative way. I started searching for who I was as a player. If I wasn’t in the lineup, I became very angry. If I played and didn’t get more than one hit, I worried that I may not play the next day. But you can’t control the lineup, someone else’s promotion, or how a coach views you. These worries kept me from sleeping at night. And that’s a surefire way not to play your best the next game. I should have just stayed ready for the next opportunity and kept doing my normal routine. There was nothing to search for and a lot to endure. Enduring something means you continue to believe in yourself and do what it is that you do best and not CHANGE!
Total earned over 5½ minor league seasons: $40,000
Since I was 7 years old, all I wanted to be was a professional baseball player. Even as I got older in school and the question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was asked, I always replied immediately that I wanted to be a professional baseball player, not caring that people thought I was crazy. Baseball was my life, passion and dream. I had a great high school career, which I turned into a great college career at the University of Illinois, where I was a two-time all-American. In 2002, my dream came true when I was drafted by the A’s in the 28th round.
I wasn’t the hardest-throwing pitcher out there, but I could locate and change speeds better than most. When I was released by Oakland in 2006 I of course was devastated, but I had no regrets. Oakland gave me every opportunity to make it to the big leagues. But unfortunately it didn’t happen. I rose quickly through the system to Double-A but seemingly hit the proverbial wall. I quite honestly just didn’t throw hard enough to generate the success I needed to keep moving — and once that happens you usually end up getting released, and that’s what happened to me. I went as far as my abilities would allow, and some would argue further than anyone else would have gone with those same abilities.
Major league games: 5
Walking away from baseball was one of the toughest decisions that I have ever had to make. I had come to a point where my personal life was more important than continuing baseball. I was going through a divorce and my kids lived in Florida. I wanted to be closer to them and not traveling all the time while they were so young. I love the game and had the time of my life when I was playing. If circumstances had been different, someone would have had to rip the jersey off of my back to stop me from playing.
I enjoyed the minor league lifestyle. I enjoyed what we were getting paid to do — even if it was a bit like “Groundhog Day.” You play. You come home. You work out and then play again. I moved back near my home town of Hueytown, Ala., and worked as a coal miner with my dad on the night shift. But now I’ve completed my college degree and I’m about to get my teacher’s certificate. I’m a regular guy from Alabama now, but I was a regular guy from Alabama when I was playing, too. I continue to work with lots of aspiring baseball players through our Dixie Youth program. One day soon, I hope to open an indoor baseball facility for the kids and coach full time. I have a knack for it.
Minor league pitching record:
Even before I was drafted in the first round by the A’s, there were many opportunities to play the “what if” game. It all started in college. I played hurt, by choice, on several occasions. What if I hadn’t done that? My sophomore year I would catch eight innings and pitch the ninth on a few occasions. My junior year I would pitch Friday, play first Saturday, catch Sunday and the midweek game. What if I hadn’t done that? Many of my outings I threw 120-plus pitches. Looking back it sounds crazy, but maybe that’s because that’s what everyone tells me. Professionally there are many “what ifs” as well. I made several mechanical tweaks throughout my career, the bulk of them after my elbow blew out. I lost roughly 4 mph. Was it because of the surgery/rehab or the mechanical changes? I pitched through some arm issues that I didn’t want to say anything about. I personally think everything happens for a reason and try not to play the “what if” game. I wouldn’t change a thing I did. I loved every minute of it. I absolutely wish I got the opportunity to pitch in the big leagues, but “what if” this was supposed to be my path?