William H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matte...moreWilliam H. Gass writes eloquently about his desire to find his ideal reader, one who was perfectly suited to the material, the tone, the subject matter of his work. He writes for this reader, whoever he or she might be, probably never fully expecting to find such a creature. I am the ideal reader for The Art of Fielding. To wit, a Venn diagram:
I'm sure there are others out there, a secret brotherhood of ivy-loving, two-seamer fetishists, lurking in dank hallways dreaming about spring and middle relief. Perhaps that's why this book is so popular -- perhaps I'm not all that bizarre. It's comforting to think so, actually.
For a book that I was more or less put on this earth to read, The Art of Fielding took awhile to hook me. Partially, I felt that defensiveness that we all feel when someone tells us something is perfect for us, or so funny, or amazing. "Well, we'll see about that." I kept looking for the tiny flaws in the book, the places where my own knowledge of baseball surpassed Harbach's. And there were a few such moments -- it seems unlikely that a Venezuelan citizen like Aparicio Rodriguez would be a record holder at the NCAA level, for instance. A player of that lineage would likely have gone from a baseball academy to the minor leagues then on to the majors without ever setting foot in an Intro to American Lit class. But it's a small thing, and for the most part, Harbach clearly knows the game.
What tripped me up more was the tone of the book. It has a nostalgic mood, one that sometimes felt at odds with the book's humor or irony. As I noted early on, the novel felt like it took place in the 1950s but with iPhones. In a way, it reminded me of another great baseball novel, The Brothers K. But where that book took place in the 50s and 60s, The Art of Fielding happens, more or less, now. The result is a sort of unreality, the feeling that the book takes place in a world much like ours, but not ours at all.
Adding to this feeling are the sometimes outlandish names. There's Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish College, the location of most of the action in the book. His name is the first of many Melville allusions in the book (Guert Gansvoort was a commodore in the US Navy and a cousin of Herman Melville's, or so Google tells me). Henry Skrimshander (another Melville allusion). Adam Starblind, Craig Suitcase, Pella Affenlight, and on and on. Even Aparicio Rodriguez, an odd portmanteau of shortstops, seemed labored. It's hard naming characters, I imagine, and I appreciate a well-named one, like Le Carre's, but sometimes these felt a bit too interesting. I was happy whenever Mike Schwartz appeared on the page, simply for his sturdy workmanlike name.
And despite all of this, I loved this book. It started with Mike Schwartz, a character I wanted to know, wanted, at times, to be. It probably stems from my infatuation with athletes who hit their ceilings at the high school or college level. I'm talking about people who can play well and sometimes even dominate at a lower level but are not good enough to go pro (or on to college, depending). They're poetic creatures, these athletes, and Harbach has created a great one in Schwartz. He's a moral compass, an anchor for his otherwise somewhat light story, and the beating heart of this novel. Much like his name, he felt the most real of any of the characters in the book. He broke my heart.
Guert Affenlight, despite his unwieldy name, came to life, as well. My favorite chapter of the book is probably Affenlight's backstory, how he discovers the transcript of a rare Melville lecture that sets him on the path that would be his life. It reminded me a bit of Stoner, by John Williams, another great campus novel. Affenlight finds more love in his life than Bill Stoner, thank god, and when the novel begins, he's fallen for a boy named Owen Dunne, another baseball player, and Henry's roommate. I know that others have had trouble with Affenlight's plot, deeming it unrealistic, but I found it to be among the more moving parts of the book. I don't know how often men who've been straight their whole lives become gay, but I believed it of Affenlight. And his struggle to navigate his love not just for Owen and his daughter Pella but for Westish College, as well, was engaging throughout.
Schwartz recruits Henry Skrimshander, the greatest shortstop he's ever seen, to come play ball at Westish College, in Wisconsin. There, he molds Henry into a player good enough to do something nobody at Westish had ever dreamed of doing -- turning pro. Schwartz wills Henry to be better, cajoling him into lifting weights, running stadium steps, hitting endless BP. And it all pays off. Henry plays so well that he ties the great Aparicio Rodriguez's streak of errorless games, a great accomplishment for any shortstop. But then Henry hits his roommate and teammate Owen in the face with an errant throw -- the first of his career -- and everything spirals towards oblivion.
Putting aside the issues I had with the tone of the book (as well as the ending, which I'll let someone else decry), Harbach is a sensationally talented writer, and there are more than a few lovely passages. I loved this quote in particular: "The ability to throw a baseball was an alchemical thing, a superhero's secret power. You could never quite tell who possessed it."
I admired so much of the writing in this flawed but heartfelt book that I would recommend it to people who didn't know a thing about baseball. You don't need to know anything about the game to admire writing like this:
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...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.
Good stuff, and consistently good throughout. As one of his own characters would say, "Chad Harbach, you are skilled. I exhort you."(less)
You don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausa...moreYou don't get to choose where you're from. Fate puts you where it pleases, and that's that. I didn't choose to grow up in Upstate, to think that sausage and peppers were a national delicacy. I could've been born two streets over, where I would've learned to skate as soon as I could walk. Instead, I rode the bus an hour to podunk farming towns like Camden and Holland Patent to play basketball in decrepit gyms against thick farm boys whose shorts were too tight and who sweated too much. All those pasty moon-faced girls in the crowd, close enough they could trip you as you ran past.
I didn't choose to grow up trudging through the three feet of snow, down the steep icy hill on which my dad insisted on parking, to watch Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly play in the Carrier Dome. It was what I'd always known, like Cosmos Pizza and Eerie Boulevard and away games at New Hartford. It was simply home.
Scott Raab didn't choose to be from Cleveland anymore than he chose his mother or father. He didn't set out to know the suffering of the Cleveland fan, he was born into it. But once born a Clevelander, Raab embraced it. He witnessed the last triumphant moment in Cleveland sports, the 1964 NFL Championship Game, and he's not forgotten it, carrying the ticket stub of the game as a talisman of sorts, a charm meant to bring forth another championship.
The man who was supposed to deliver that championship was LeBron James. James was born in Akron, and like us all, he didn't choose that. But unlike Raab and other decent people in the world, James didn't respect that fact. He didn't understand that where you're from, in a lot of ways, is who you are. You can go where you want to go and do what you want to do, but you can't change that fact. It sticks.
Maybe it started, as Raab says, when he wore that Yankee hat to the Indians' playoff game. Maybe it started years before that, when he chose to root for not just the Yankees, but Duke and the Cowboys, as well (And I'd guess that if he didn't play in the NBA, he'd root for the Lakers, too). Whenever it started, it reached its apotheosis with "The Decision," the moment LeBron decided to turn his back on his hometown, and in the process, many of the rest of us, as well.
No, LeBron James should've known better. And that's what makes this book, this rage-fueled ride, so satisfying. Raab takes him to task for 300 plus pages, pointing out his every shortcoming, his every arrogant flaw. If this sounds unfair, consider that James set himself up for this with his actions, and then doubled-down on that when he fired off his ill-considered "Tomorrow, they have to live their lives with all their problems." Translation: I'm rich, so you can suck it, nothing bothers me. This book is one fan's way of saying "Go fuck yourself" to that.
It's also a brilliant meditation on the things we don't choose -- home, family, ancestry. It has hilarious moments, it has heartbreaking passages. It's raw and visceral as few books are, and as I said on The Millions earlier this month, it's the best book about sports fandom since A Fan's Notes.
As an addendum: I read a lot of books on my phone this year, and holding this book in my hands, feeling its pages and its smooth cover in my hands as I read it on the bus was such a joy. That it had a provocative title and a bunch of Star of Davids on the cover was a bonus -- lots of odd looks on the bus. In a year when I succumbed to the conveniences of digital reading, this book, as well as the Grantland Quarterly and The Art of Fielding, have reminded me that -- cliche though it may be -- I still really do love the feel of books, that holding the object in my hands is a sensation unto itself.(less)
I wrote a "Staff Pick" for this on The Millions. Please read it, as I think it speaks to what I loved about the book. I won't repeat that review here,...moreI wrote a "Staff Pick" for this on The Millions. Please read it, as I think it speaks to what I loved about the book. I won't repeat that review here, because I think it's tacky, but also because I have some more thoughts on the book, thoughts I couldn't really fit into that mini-essay.
1. I am not a huge NBA fan, surprisingly enough. I am an enormous and dedicated college basketball fan (Go Cuse!), but I have never been able to translate that love into a love for the pro game. I enjoy watching the playoffs, when I get the chance, and if there's a game on and I've got nothing else to do, I'll watch a bit. But the pro game has always seemed a bit too perfect. The shooters are too good, the best players, too dominant. Every possession seems to play out the same way. The point guard brings the ball down court, they run a play to get the ball to the team's best player, and he breaks his man down off the dribble. Rebound, rinse, and repeat. It's a little dull, isn't it? In the end, every game comes down to "If my best player is better than your best player, we're going to win." Look at how LeBron James carried his weak Cleveland team to the brink of a championship. This book actually went a long way to explaining why I feel this way. The theory they put forward is that, as the players get better and better, more able to do whatever they please, the rewards of taking certain risks -- making the daring pass, running on a fast break -- are greatly reduced. If each shot is more and more makeable as each season goes by, the game becomes about minimizing mistakes in order to make sure you take as many shots as possible. This might lead to a more perfect game, but it doesn't make the game more exciting or more watchable. In fact, it basically sucks what I love about basketball -- the joy, the improvisation, the audacity -- out of the game. Not entirely, mind you, but that's how it feels. It's odd, in a way, because I enjoy the cold rationality of baseball -- if my team is better at not making outs, I will beat you. Not making outs isn't sexy, but it's the key to victory in baseball. In basketball, I just want joy. If I were to build my ideal basketball team, it would be a team that looked to run every time it got the ball. It would have a daring point guard who probably takes too many shots but who will drop your jaw once a game, and will make the big shot when it's there, and it would have at least one guy capable of flight. We'd play the kind of rangy and frustrating zone that Syracuse plays, and we'd press from time to time. Lately that sounds more like a college team to me than a pro one.
2. One of my favorite parts of the book discusses the mid-to-late 1970s NBA. The league was getting "too black" for most of America, but FreeDarko is able to look at this period and see the beauty of it. There were so many great players from that era that have been nearly forgotten by history: Nate Archibald, George Gervin, Moses Malone, etc. One thing I hadn't considered was what separated players like this from the stars of the 80s, 90s, and 00s. FreeDarko claims it's multi-dimensionality. To become a champion in the post-1970s NBA, you had to be able to do a bunch of different things. You couldn't just be a scorer or a rebounder or a great defender. You had to do it all.
3. Bill James has pointed out that baseball has two divergent paths or veins of superstars. There are the popular stars, like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Wilie Mays, and Ken Griffey Jr., and then there are the unpopular superstars, such as Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, and Barry Bonds. There are a lot of reasons for this -- Ty Cobb was a racist, Ted Williams was an ornery cuss, and Barry Bonds was arrogant. But as Bill James suggests, there isn't really a reason any of these players weren't popular in their day. They were cast that way by the media, to a large degree, and then played that role for the rest of their careers. Much has been made of LeBron James making the switch from popular, white-hat player to unpopular, black-hat player. While I would agree that his popularity has plummeted this year, I'm not sure it's as simple as this. Does a similar history of popular and unpopular players exist in the NBA? I don't really think that it does. Sure, Wilt Chamberlain was frequently cast as the unpopular villain in his battles with Bill Russell's good-guy Celtics, but the league's other great rivalries lack this dichotomy. Bird and Magic were both loved. Michael Jordan might have been a villain in reality, but his branding created a more popular version of himself. Perhaps the Shaq-Kobe rivalry could be counted as a popular vs. unpopular rivalry, but hasn't that faded, as Kobe Bryant's jerseys remain the bestselling in the world. Why is it that basketball lacks this history of villainy? I think it's two things: Since the 70s, so many of the best players in the NBA have been black that the game lacks the racial dynamic that baseball had for much of its history. The game is not only played by African Americans, it is loved by African Americans. Can one consider Allen Iverson a villain? Maybe to a certain part of America, but not to the public at large, or at least, not to the African American portion of it. In fact, as this book points out, he was arguably the most popular player in the league between Jordan and LeBron. The other big difference between the NBA and MLB is the dominance of the sneaker companies, particularly Nike. One of the great chapters in this book deals with the manufacturing of a personality for Penny Hardaway. Nike paired him with a Chris Rock-voiced puppet and made him a star, despite the fact that nobody knew a damn thing about him. I would argue that Nike also made Jordan into a classic hero when he easily could've become a great villain. Jordan was an arrogant, ruthless, cut-throat player with a history of gambling, and Nike turned him into a squeaky-clean superhero. Remarkable.
I thoroughly recommend this book to anybody with an interest in the history of the game, but really, anyone with even a passing knowledge of basketball would enjoy it, as the writing is stellar, the illustrations gorgeous, and the depth of thought outstanding.(less)
Not a ton of ground-breaking analysis here (and if I have to sit through one more explanation of Davenport translations, I swear to God), but the writ...moreNot a ton of ground-breaking analysis here (and if I have to sit through one more explanation of Davenport translations, I swear to God), but the writing is very nice, and each pennant race makes for a great little short story.
"Years later, [Dressen] told Red Barber that the only thing he would have done differently would have been to put Campanella in to catch despite his injury, "because he would have gotten Newcombe through"--who knows, perhaps with a tissue transplant."
"The Satchel Paige...who was so carefree and confident that he was known to wave his defense off the field and retire the batters without the aid of fielders."
"Revered by Zimmer as a gamer, Hobson played the field despite bone chips that locked up his elbow when he threw and--cringe!--had to be rearranged after each play. He made 43 errors, was 21 runs below average, and fielded .899, becoming the first regular to break the .900 barrier since 1916, when gloves were little more than padded mittens."(less)