The old ball game

As I doubt many of you are aware, except those privileged few who knew me in my formative teen years (I had really awesome hair), I was for a time the player manager of my high school’s baseball team. I’d like to say that this was because of some great love of the game, but it was really motivated by a) my desire to leave class early b) my desire to flirt with baseball players and c) my desperate need to convince the coach—who was also my physics teacher—that despite all grade-related evidence to the contrary, I actually did have a vague understanding of things like “force” and “gravity.” (Or, is gravity a type of force? I seriously almost failed physics, guys.)

Anyway, in spite of my ulterior motives, over the course of my managership I acquired two things: 1) the Richard Montgomery High School Baseball sweatshirt that I now honor daily by wearing it to watch TV, and 2) a solid appreciation for the sport (which is fortunate, since I ultimately moved to a city with a borderline maniacal love of it.)

To the unaccustomed eye, baseball is, let’s be honest, slow, and full of the kind of nuance that sports like hockey and basketball eschew. It’s a game that seems equally focused on the team and the individual—how do concepts like sacrifice and error exist in the same game?—and, perhaps most importantly, it involves men wearing hilarious pants. But there’s something elegant in baseball that you don’t really get out of watching 300-pound dudes run directly into each other. Baseball’s got mad panache.

I also love professional baseball because it’s splendidly American, and not just in the pastime sort of way. The salaries are exorbitant, the beers are overpriced, and literally everything in the game—from the first home run to the seventh-inning stretch—is sponsored to within an inch of its life. It’s kind of amazing to sit in the stands of a modern ballpark: The same old teams wearing the same old uniforms playing the same old game, only now surrounded by noise-o-meters, jumbotrons and $10 hot dogs. It’s like baseball is simultaneously American and ‘Merican.

Anyway, given all of the above, it should come as little surprise to you all that I truly enjoyed The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach’s debut novel about, duh, baseball. Kind of. The Art of Fielding is about baseball like Lord of the Flies is about islands, or Animal Farm is about animals. Which isn’t to say that the sport is an allegory—though it may very well be; I’m as good with allegories as I am with physics—just that baseball is the backdrop to an ensemble cast of characters with a wealth of non-baseball-related problems.

The novel hinges on Henry Skrimshander, an unassuming shortstop who gets recruited to Westish College by the captain of the university’s baseball team, Mike Schwartz. Henry is one of the best players the school has ever seen, until one false throw shakes his confidence and throws multiple other characters into turmoil.

Who are those other characters? Well, there’s Owen, Henry’s gay mulatto roommate, whose affinity for literature and pot doesn’t entirely (but sort of does?) jibe with the fact that he also happens to be a solid baseball player. There’s Guert Affenlight, the president of Westish, who in his 60s embarks upon an unexpected love affair. And there’s Pella, Guert’s daughter, who moves in with her father after the dissolution of her rather whimsical marriage. Over the course of the book, these main characters each affect one another in some capacity, which works for a novel that flows rather seamlessly from one protagonist’s thoughts and opinions to another’s.

Although it isn’t about baseball, one thing The Art of Fielding does well is look at the dedication it takes to truly pursue a sport, and the passion behind that dedication. Henry is the kind of player who only feels at home on the field. It’s one of many elements of his character that I can’t relate to—in baseball, I am the girl eating the peanuts and crackerjacks—but the fact that I understood him in spite of that is a testament to Harbach’s writing, and the people he creates.

Perfection, no?

A few months ago I went to a Yankees game with an awesome friend from work, who goes in on season tickets for the sole purpose of attending games spitefully (he’s a Red Sox fan.) As we luxuriated in our seats, armed with beer and overpriced snacks, the sun started to set over the field, and an above-ground subway rumbled in the distance, somewhere between the Yankee Stadium sign and the housing projects beyond it. Kids fiddled with their navy caps (I have never seen anyone wear as much merchandise as Yankees fans) and women squealed whenever Derek Jeter dragged his tired old bones up to home plate. And even though it was only my third Yankees game in 10 years in New York (four of which were spent within 20 blocks of the stadium), and my first ever really paying attention to the score, I felt supremely comfortable there, among all those billboards and beer cans. Because baseball is just that kind of game: comfortable, graceful, and maybe a mite slow for the chronically impatient. Unsurprisingly, The Art of Fielding is also just that kind of book.


TITLE: The Art of Fielding
AUTHOR: Chad Harbach
PAGES: 512 (in paperback)
SORTA LIKE: Last Days of Summer meets A Separate Peace
FIRST LINE: “Schwartz didn’t notice the kid during the game.”

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