I haven't written lately about baseball, my favorite sport, one I played constantly as a kid, pitching in sort of a combination Little League/Babe Ruth league (very informal and disorganized, more like pick-up games with uniforms) for the Highland Park Terriers, taking the old Jamaica Avenue El to get to the field in Highland Park. I am a lefty and even though I could not crank up an intimidating fast ball, I compensated with breaking balls and placement. I was constantly practicing with neighborhood kids, with dreams of big league ball, but high school and then college teams put those dreams to rest. When I tried out for college baseball I found that most on the team were on an athletic scholarship and although I pitched some batting practice, the first baseman at the time -- forgot his name -- took one of my balls not only over the fence, but to an apartment building way beyond. It was meager compensation to learn, well after I graduated, that he apparently made it to AAA ball.
Although those days are now long gone, there is something about having played the game, knowing its nuances, that still gives rise to fantasies of what might have been, had I been more physically gifted, or worked harder, or had more support from my parents (who pretty much ignored my quest, rarely attending my games). No, mine was a solitary undertaking, getting on the El for practice and then games on Saturday mornings. So to this day I watch baseball with a sense of awe, especially the mental contest between the batter and the pitcher.
While I follow the team of my childhood, the NY Yankees (truly an over the hill gang this year), we enjoy going to our nearby Florida State "Advanced A" minor league games of the Jupiter Hammerheads or the Palm Beach Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, FL. There we can watch the game almost right on the field, not like being exiled to some distant corner of Yankee Stadium at fifty times the price.
So it is no wonder that when the highly praised The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach was published last year, it immediately went on my Amazon wish list, patiently waiting for a used copy to come on sale through one of their partners. (I usually wait it out until it's one cent plus shipping).
Last time I checked my "wish list" the book was getting close to my price point and one day I was on the phone with one of my best friends, Ron, who, like me, shares a love of the game and he asked whether I had read the book. No, and I explained why. He said, we'll I'm finished with my copy, I'll send it to you! You don't want to keep it, I asked, and he said, no, you enjoy it and only a few days later, Jeff, my postman, handed me the package. So, I put it early in the queue on my bookshelf.
As I started to read it I immediately began to think that if John Irving was a college baseball player instead of a wrestler, this is something he might have written. It has so many Irvingesque features, particularly the quirky nature of the characters, the sexual overtones, not to mention the idiosyncratic names of most characters and places. In fact, one major character, Owen Dunne, had me thinking of Irving's Owen in A Prayer for Owen Meany, who as a little-leaguer hits a ball that kills one of his best friend's mothers (Harbach's Owen is hit by a ball and almost dies and like Irving's Owen has a certain presence -- he is known as "Buddha" to his friends).
And that is not the only literary tip of the hat as the novel is set in the fictional Westish, on the shores of Lake Michigan, where in the novel Herman Melville once gave a lecture at Westish College. Guert Affenlight who is now the president of the college had discovered this lecture and wrote his dissertation on it. Hence, there is a Melville statue on the campus, and various references, both direct and implied to Melville's work. Although the college is not exactly the good ship Pequod, it is the place where the lives of the five main characters are transformed through their interaction, Guert and his daughter Pella, and three students (all members of the college baseball team, aptly nicknamed the " Harpooners "), Owen, who is gay and Thoreauesque, and then the larger than life Mike Schwartz who is mentor (sometimes torturer) to the unrealized talents of the baseball prodigy, Henry Skrimshander (yes, you could make the correlation that Mike's project was like a Scrimshaw). But, in the end, Henry takes on some of the characteristics of Bartleby from Melville's short story.
The Art of Fielding begins with the premise and promise of Henry following in the cleats of his idol, the greatest shortstop ever to play baseball, the fictional Aparicio Rodriquez who had written what is more of a philosophical treatise than an instruction book on playing the position, with the fitting title, The Art of Fielding. So, in a sense, Harbach's novel is thematically a "play within a play."
One of the nuggets for Henry to ponder from Aparicio's book is it always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death. Harbach writes "There were admittedly, many sentences and statements in The Art that Henry did not yet understand. The opaque parts of The Art though, had always been his favorites...As frustrating as they could be, [they] gave Henry something to aspire to. Someday, he dreamed, he would be enough of a ballplayer to crack them open and suck out their hidden wisdom: Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does."
As a young ballplayer, Henry was an artist, a lightly hitting but exceptionally gifted fielder who played his position with the grace of a ballerina, capturing the notice of Mike Schwartz when Henry was in high school. ("What [Henry] could do was field. He spent his life studying the way the ball came off the bat, the angles and the spin, so that he knew in advance whether he should break right or left, whether the ball that came to him would be bound up high or skid low to the dirt. He caught the ball cleanly, always, and made, always, a perfect throw.") Mike recruits him for Westish College on which team Mike is the quintessential catcher, the team captain who plays in pain and on pain killers, a star player whose knees are already giving out.
It is through Mike's quest to build a star out of Henry that some of Harbach's best lapidary baseball prose shines:
The making of a ballplayer: the production of brute efficiency out of natural genius.
For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art; an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we're alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn't matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren't a painter or a writer-you didn't work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn't just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error. The scouts cared little for Henry's superhuman grace; insofar as they cared they were suckered-in aesthetes and shitty scouts. Can you perform on demand, like a car, a furnace, a gun? Can you make that throw one hundred times out of a hundred? If it can't be a hundred, it had better be ninety-nine.
And Harbach captures the uniqueness of the game. It's one unlike any other:
Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse -- these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire.
But baseball was different. Schwartz thought of it as Homeric -- not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn't storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?
And, so, Henry becomes Mike's project. It is a symbiotic relationship. Mike (AKA "artzy") needs to exhort and Henry wants to become the perfect ballplayer.
All he'd ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that, but that was what baseball had promised him, what Westish College had promised him, what 'artzy had promised him. The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better....Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts - whatever you didn't need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever.
He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he'd ever craved since he'd been born. Maybe it wasn't even baseball he loved but only this idea of perfection, a perfectly simple life in which every move had meaning, and baseball was just the medium through which he could make that happen. Could have made that happen. It sounded crazy, sure. But what did it mean if your deepest hope, the premise on which you'd based your whole life, sounded crazy as soon as you put it in words? It meant you were crazy.
And so, armed with his glove "Zero" (named so as when his mother asked if he made any errors in a game, he was always able to say "zero!"), Henry becomes a Westish Harpooner, and while Owen, Pella, Mike and Henry are essentially in the same age group and naturally their interactions are the substance of the novel, so is Guert's involvement with his daughter and with Owen. This is a character driven story, one that is hard to put down, particularly if you love the game, and even though the ending seemed to me to be a little contrived ("low and away" in baseball-speak), Harbach is on my permanent radar for future work as a promising young American writer. This is an exceptional first effort.