Jason Goodyear is the star outfielder for the Los Angeles Lions, and he’s coming apart at the seams. Moviestar handsome, paparazzi famous, and spectacularly talented, Goodyear is stationed with the rest of his team in the punishingly hot Arizona desert for their annual spring training. As the weeks before the season crawl on, and Goodyear’s cracks begin to show, the coaches, writers, wives, girlfriends, criminals, and diehard fans following his every move are eager to find out what, exactly, is wrong with their star player—as they hide secrets of their own.

Humming with the energy of a ballpark before the first pitch, Emily Nemens’s The Cactus League unravels the tightly connected web of people behind a seemingly linear game. Narrated by a wisened sportscaster, Goodyear’s story is interspersed with tales of Michael Taylor, a batting coach trying to stay relevant; Tamara Rowland, a resourceful spring-training paramour, looking for one last catch; Herb Allison, a legendary sports agent grappling with his decline; and a plethora of other richly drawn characters, all striving to be seen. As Opening Day approaches and Goodyear’s secrets emerge, he risks taking down not only himself, but everyone around him.

Anchored by an expert knowledge of baseball’s inner workings, The Cactus League is a propulsive and deeply human debut that captures a strange desert world both exciting and unforgiving, where the most crucial games are the ones played off the field.

Available in hardcover from FSG, paperback from Picador, audiobook from Brilliance Audio, and in Italian translation (Leonardo Taiuti) from 66th and 2nd.

Named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR and Lit Hub. A Los Angeles Times Bestseller. New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. Finalist for the 2020 CASEY Baseball Book Award.


“But what really sustains the book is not so much the interweaving as Nemens’s capacious, cleareyed understanding, which goes way beyond that of the casual fan, and her evident sympathy for her characters… [I]n “The Cactus League” she provides her readers with what amounts to a miniature, self-enclosed world that is funny and poignant and lovingly observed.” —Charles McGrath, New York Times Book Review

“An ode to baseball, this début novel, by the editor of The Paris Review, unfolds across nine “innings,” told from several perspectives… As Nemens portrays the life of the team—a pitcher is in thrall to pain pills; players’ wives hold a lingerie party—it starts to seem almost an organism, each constituent part brushing against others in a larger story of competition, survival, and obsession.”—The New Yorker

“For a book about the notoriously languorous sport of baseball, this is a quick and often thrilling read. For a debut novel, it’s remarkably self-assured.” —Kate Tuttle, L.A. Times

“Nemens’s adoration of the game is infectious, and her novel is packed with winning details.” —Karen Heller, Washington Post

“Spring training is, above all, a time pregnant with possibility, but Nemens shrewdly focuses on those struggling to hang on just a little bit longer, the annual opportunity for renewal—signaled by the smell of a freshly mowed infield and the sound of a crisply struck line drive—dimmed by everything from Tommy John elbows to one too many facelifts. And, yet, Nemens finds a kind of attenuated hope along with melancholy in these sharply etched character studies that ‘end not with “out three” but “out maybe.”’” —Bill Ott, Booklist (starred review)

“[An] insightful debut . . . each character is brought to life in convincing detail . . . this debut entertainingly illuminates people and problems usually overlooked in the sports pages.” —Publishers Weekly

Nemens has instead written a novel about baseball and how it shapes the lives of athletes as much as the town that supports it—and a beautiful one at that… Like the best sportswriting, this bighearted, finely observed novel is about far more than the game.” —Kirkus Reviews

“The expectations of quality are particularly high when you’re the head of an esteemed literary magazine and publishing your first novel. [Nemens] works within the quirky register of the heart, writing about one of her great passions: baseball. She crafts a humorous and emotional novel about a star outfielder, and the coaches, fans and criminals who inhabit the same off-kilter world.”“The 10 New Books You Should Be Picking Up First In 2020,” Wall Street Journal

“The story arc that follows Goodyear and his troubles is engaging in its own right, but “The Cactus League” wasn’t intended to be a heavily plotted book….Its many pleasures come from spending time with Goodyear and the others whose lives connect to the game, and from pondering how the dramas of everyday life and the imperatives of professional sports influence each other.” —Josh Ostergaard, SF Chronicle

“I hugely enjoyed it.” —Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“This first novel is a beautifully realized meditation on the complex, uncertain nature of daily life.” —Library Journal (starred review)

“It is making me want to slow down as I read, to luxuriate in the textures of its sentences and the care that’s gone into its setting and characters. It’s much more than a novel about baseball.” —John Warner, Chicago Tribune

“As a baseball novel, The Cactus League treads deftly between the conventions, clichés, kitsch, legends, and nostalgia inherent in a sport that is over half the age of the United States itself. The hoary grandeur, too, is part of the appeal in a game…Nemens’s stories sing with the earned knowledge of one immersed in the game.” —Mike Broida, Los Angeles Review of Books

“Nemens’s The Cactus League is strong beyond needing tricks… [a] wonderful, necessary read to remind you how infinite and wild other people can be.” —Weston Cutter, Brooklyn Rail

“You don’t have to enjoy baseball (sport, game, or what have you) to find this semi novel-in-stories a richly layered, often tender and generous, exposé of the life of players, fans, and everyone in between.” —Sara Cutaia, Chicago Review of Books

“Hers is also, at first glance, a most unconventional baseball novel. These character studies unfurling under the hot Arizona sun interlink, chapter by chapter, like the ones in Elizabeth Strout’s Maine.” —David Canfield, Entertainment Weekly (EW Picks for February)

The Cactus League shines brightest as a novel in linked stories, all nine of which are frequently excellent and superbly written, à la Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine or Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. When Nemens dramatizes baseball, her prose sings.” —Harvard Review

The Cactus League deserves to be lauded as a novel willing to take baseball seriously. It treats baseball as both a material and a narrative phenomenon, and the questions it asks readers are, unsurprisingly, material and narrative. What social function should sports perform? What is a novel supposed to do?” —Ryan Lackey, Public Books



“Emily Nemens’s magnificent debut is a masterwork of great empathy and detail, uncovering the realms of incredible pain and beauty enmeshed within every level of America’s pastime. If you love baseball, you won’t put it down, and if you don’t love baseball, you might by the end.”
—J. Ryan Stradal, author of The Lager Queen of Minnesota

“A debut? You’ve got to be kidding. The Cactus League reads like the work of a seasoned novelist. The way the story’s tension ramps, the richly drawn characters, the indelible imagery—you’ll never see a ball park the same—not to mention Emily Nemens’s knowledge of America’s pastime is downright encyclopedic. And while all those things are true, absolutely true, the heart of this amazing novel is Emily’s understanding of the crucibles faced by those both in the limelight and out of it. Goodyear and the rest of the gang are a cast for the ages. Hip hip hooray for this achievement.” —Mitchell S. Jackson, author of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family

“The Cactus League is not just another baseball novel. I can’t think of another book that so carefully examines the complex ecosystem of professional sport. With both compassion and objectivity Nemens deftly depicts the rich lives and stories that swirl beneath the ‘meaningless’ innings of spring training.”
—Chris Bachelder, author of The Throwback Special

“Emily Nemens gets beneath the image—the macho chewing, spitting, ball fondling, the studied nonchalant distraction—to the real people on the field and off. She’s a true fan, and one hell of a writer. The Cactus League is crisp, clean, funny, and just plain good. If you love baseball, and fiction, you’ll love this book.” —Brad Watson, author of Miss Jane