Feb 08, 15
Recommended to Molly by:
Read from January 16 to 25, 2015, read count: 1
"He'd never been able to talk to anyone, not really. Words were a problem, the problem. Words were tainted somehow - or no, he was tainted somehow, damaged, incomplete, because he didn't know how to use words to say anything better than 'Hi' or 'I'm hungry' or 'I'm not.'
"Everything that had ever happened was trapped inside him. Every feeling he'd ever felt. Only on the field had he ever been able to express himself. Off the field there was no other way than with words, unless you were some kind of artist or musician or mime. Which he wasn't. It wasn't that he wanted to die. That wasn't what not eating was about. It wasn't about perfection either.
"What would he say to her, if he was going to speak truly? He didn't know. Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn't plan it out beforehand. You just had to let it go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them - you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren't yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the non baseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words."
~Pgs. 419-420, Chapter 68
Do you remember the Wide World of Sports intro about "the agony of defeat" while an out of control skier crashed? Or the story of Mighty Casey who struck out to end the game? The golfer at the top of the leaderboard who three-putts on the final hole, choking at the moment of sure victory? What about the theater actor who freezes up, having forgotten his lines? Witnessing someone failing on the big stage with the spotlight on them, caving under the pressure, is like watching a train wreck - it is horrible and you feel awful, but can't quite look away from the spectacle. But did you ever wonder how it felt to BE the person who just wishes the ground would swallow them up to save them from further humiliation? How they coped after the fact? What allows them to move on or derail them forever after? The Art of Fielding gives us Henry Skrimshander as Exhibit A. And while I didn't necessarily buy into the surrounding soap opera plot dynamics and found most of the characters' personalities less than likely, I embraced the central story of Henry's frustration, anguish and shame over his sudden and incredible inability to throw a baseball - something he had done naturally with perfection his entire life.
Henry is a pipsqueak of a ball player in high school and has no delusions of playing professionally, much less college ball. But he loves and breathes the game. Is obsessed with it, and has an innate ability to sense exactly where the ball is going to go and cat-like reflexes that get him to just the right spot every time. His fielding is genius. His throws are on target every time and watching his smooth moves are hypnotic to those who ever care to notice. Mike Schwartz notices.
Schwartz is a college star athlete, playing summer league baseball when his team faces Henry's squad. He is intrigued by Henry's small stature, and impressed by his massive passion for perfection. So Schwartz convinces his college to recruit Henry for their loser baseball team, and secures him a spot at the school. Right away I was rolling my eyes - that a student could have any such influence over a college administration. This was a necessary leap of faith however, and one I had to continue to accept throughout the book. In a way, it was refreshing to read about wise old souls, jocks who are academic scholars, parent-child relationships that heal themselves without therapy, sexual persuasions and racial differences that are accepted in a locker room without any backlash, and relationships with serious age gaps that do not cause anyone to bat an eye. That all of these things could occur at the same time in the same place is sadly, unrealistic. But, this is fiction people.
Henry is a phenom shortstop who can do no wrong. With Schwartz's mentorship and training, he improves his physical frame and mental approach. He develops and refines his overall skills. No longer is he just an incredible fielder. He is now a serious threat at the plate. He is helping to infuse a winning attitude in his team and MLB scouts are taking notice. Things couldn't be better for Henry. And so, of course, things must crash and burn.
A freak circumstance causes Henry to lose his confidence and ability to make the easy throws in the infield. It messes with his head. Nothing he does makes things better. In fact, it gets worse and worse. At the worst possible time in his life, he experiences personal failure. For someone accustomed to personal perfection on the baseball diamond, this is very scary territory. And we are along for the ride. Surely he'll pull through. Surely he's hit bottom now. Surely he won't lose everything he's worked so hard for.
Oh how my heart broke for Henry. Author Harbach does an excellent job of putting me in Henry's cleats. At one point, another character opines that perhaps spectators should not even be allowed at these games any more; it is too cruel for his extreme failings to occur in front of an audience. We get to experience Henry's fear, his bewilderment, his ignorance, his courage, his despair and his eventual flirtation with depression.
Henry could give up. Throw in the towel. Quit. But it is not easy to walk away from your dreams. From all that you know. To admit as much is to walk away from your life as you know it. And when you don't know any other life, that is way scarier than continuing to fail in front of fans and hecklers alike - wagering on your levels of failure from play to play.
There's a lot more in this book than Henry and baseball. It is a book about friendship, love, support, loyalty, drive and yes, failure. But there's also the overarching theme of learning to take a big gamble and hitting the jackpot of happiness, and success, through some unusual, unlikely relationships you might never have pursued under more mainstream schools of thought and acceptance.
I found this book to be a worthwhile gamble.