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‘Fantasy Life,’ Tabitha Soren’s photo book, points lens away from baseball diamond

Daniel Robertson in the Stockton Ports dugout

Daniel Robertson in the Stockton Ports dugout at Modesto, California, 2014. Credit: Tabitha Soren

It is true there is an indirect line from the book “Moneyball,” which came out in 2003, to the book “Fantasy Life,” which comes out Saturday.

The roots of the latter, by photographer Tabitha Soren, date to when she joined her husband, Michael Lewis, author of the former, at Oakland Athletics spring training in ’03, where she met the 2002 draft class.

But even though Soren understands why sports fans make the connection, given how “Moneyball” stamped that A’s era, to her there isn’t much of one at all to her work, which follows players through the next decade-and-a-half of their lives.

“The book is much more about these people as human beings representing all of us slogging through life and dealing with chance and things that go wrong and the twists and turns of everyday living,” she said, “rather than statistics and using different information than the scouts want to use and overvaluing players.”

So, while she acknowledged “you can’t deny where this came from,” she added, “I didn’t want to dine off my MTV career. The last thing I want to do is dine out of my husband’s hard work.”

About that MTV career: Those over 35 – or 40 – likely recall her as a pop culture phenomenon of sorts in the early 1990s as a reporter for MTV News charged with reaching a generation that usually does not closely follow current events.

But as she became more established, and mainstream, through the ‘90s she grew less interested in that line of work.

“The more successful I got the more watered down what I had to say had to be because I had to appeal to 65-year-olds on the ‘Today’ show as well as the young people I was supposed to be drawing in,” she said. “So that was frustrating.

“I just felt like with the art world I could be a communicator of stories that were more nuanced. I am still seeking truth, it’s just more of an emotional truth instead of who, what, when, where and why.”

She is 49 now, and has sought to pay her dues as a photographer and artist over the past 15 years.

“Any time you change direction,” she said, “especially if you used to be in the public eye, it’s very easy to be seen as an imposter. I just have kept my head down, worked hard, tried to be nice and did the work.”

That includes the images seen in the book, supplemented with essays by the players, who include former Yankee Nick Swisher, and a baseball-themed short story by the author Dave Eggers, a friend of hers.

Some pictures capture baseball action, but the deeper connections come from the players’ off-field lives, as well as quirky baseball-related images, such as one of Swisher’s discarded bubble gum – with chewing tobacco embedded in it.

“When I met these guys they were all about to leap off into this exact same journey, and I felt that had the potential for a photography project chronicling how they physically changed over time,” Soren said Wednesday during a stop in New York to promote the book.

First, she naively assumed most of them would end up in the major leagues – “which obviously shows my ignorance” – and then she realized the physical changes in young baseball players were not in themselves compelling enough.

Soon enough, the focus changed to examining baseball itself, often by pointing the lens away from the field.

“I sort of wanted to unpack baseball as this American dream and America’s pastime and all the patriotic, jingoistic language that is wrapped around it and see, what are [fans] getting out of it?” she said. “It’s got to be more than just watching gladiators in the forum like all sports are. What is it about baseball that is connected to America, with a big ‘A’?”

Originally the pictures were part of an exhibit in California, where Soren lives with Lewis and their three children, ages 10 to 17. “I was thinking in terms of pictures that you wanted to frame and live with,” she said.

But the publisher Aperture, which specializes in photo books, suggested it would work in that form.

The book represents the distillation of images gathered over many years and miles, as the original class dispersed, in and out of baseball.

It is dedicated to Lewis and Athletics general manager Billy Beane, a central figure in “Moneyball.” Soren calls them in the dedication “my favorite bromance.”

Beane did help Soren with access; she acknowledged she was allowed in places regular sports photographers are not. Other than that, she would prefer the book – and its stories – speak for themselves.

“I completely understand why the sports world associates this book with ‘Moneyball,’ and I definitely came to meeting [the players] through my husband,” she said, “but after that, in my opinion, it has little to do with that.”

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