I had purchased a copy of Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding a few years ago, but never actually got around to sitting down to read it. In spite of my intentions, I often find that my myriad interests and short attention span prevent me from ever proceeding through my reading list the way that I promise myself to do. And the sheer size of this novel — well over 500 pages — certainly didn’t help in convincing me to crack it open and focus on it.
A couple years ago I discovered, much to my own surprise, that audiobooks are a pretty wonderful thing. I can check out audiobook CDs from the public library and keep them in the car. That way, when I’m commuting to and from work or running whatever errands, I can still use that time productively and “read” while I drive. A couple weeks ago, I found a copy of The Art of Fielding on CD at the library and realized this might be my best option for getting through the massive tome.
Overall, my personal reaction to the book is pretty mixed. On one hand, there’s nothing groundbreakingly special about it. The skeleton of the story revolves around Henry Skrimshander, a highly-talented and much-sought-after shortstop at Westish College who one day makes an errant throw that completely rocks his confidence. His performance on the field struggles as he tries in vain to return to his former self, but it’s not until his whole world seemingly blows up in his face that he is finally able to recover. There are a couple love stories, a love triangle, substance abuse and mental health issues, and, of course, some good baseball moments.
On the other hand, in spite of the familiar plot structure, I found myself eager to keep diving back into the story. Harbach’s characters are delightfully vivid and believable, and he weaves backstories for them that makes me want to know more and more about them. If I had to choose, I would have to say that my favorite character is Mike Schwartz, the big, burly catcher who “discovers” Henry Skrimshander and takes him under his wing, all while battling his own injuries and burning the midnight oil to try to get into law school. I found myself rooting for Schwartz even more than I was rooting for Henry.
When I audited the Baseball in Literature course a couple years ago, the professor mentioned that some of the more, ah, intimate moments of the book could sometimes be a bit much, and I have to agree with this particular criticism. I have to also confess, however, that I am a sucker for characters in literature who, themselves, love books and literature, and there is plenty of that here. This is one of those books that makes me want to read all the books mentioned within the book, which only exacerbates my inability to get to the other books on my reading list in a timely manner. It sounds confusing (not to mention frustrating), but that’s a problem I actually enjoy having.
The Art of Fielding is far more than just a baseball book. Yes, there is definitely baseball, and the baseball scenes are well-written. The descriptions early on of Henry’s performance as a shortstop are particularly captivating, enough so to make me jealous of the fact that I could never perform that smoothly as a middle infielder. But the novel extends well beyond the diamond to explore the complications of being a human being having relationships with other human beings. While I do feel like it could have been about a hundred pages shorter, I still find myself thinking that this is one that I may have to read (or listen to) again some day.
The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.
Here is a fascinating panel discussion from last year that I watched late last night (too late — my poor sleep schedule). Hosted by the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, this discussion encompasses all sports and the culture that surrounds athletic competition in general. From children’s organized sports on up through the pros, these folks explore the problems of the idea of winning at all costs.
Clearly, we see, there are some issues when it comes to ethics in the world of sports. When the majority of athletes self-report that they would be willing to take a pill to become Olympic-caliber athletes (with the caveat that they’d die in five years), we realize that our priorities are wholly out of whack. When cheating does take place, nobody in sports wants to be a snitch, and the idea that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying” permeates the atmosphere. How do the higher ups of an organization combat this attitude?
This discussion is long, but if you have the time to watch even a little bit of it, it is certainly worthwhile.
This piece seems quite appropriate early in the season. I love the metaphor of the dugout as an igloo. This poem was published in 2006 in Radio Crackling, Radio Gone.
At first he seemed a child,
dirt on his lip and the sun
lighting up his hair behind him.
All around us, the hesitation
of year-rounders who know
the warmer air will bring crowds.
No one goes to their therapist
to talk about how happy they are,
but soon I’d be back in the dugout
telling my batting coach how
the view outside my igloo seemed
to be changing, as if the night
sky were all the light there is.
Now, like two babies reaching
through the watery air to touch soft
fingers to soft forehead, like blind fish
sensing a familiar fluttering in the waves,
slowly, by instinct, we became aware.
Off-field, outside the park, beyond
the gates, something was burning.
The smell was everywhere.
John McGraw made his debut as a major league manager on April 18, 1899 at the age of twenty-six. His Baltimore Orioles defeated the New York Giants (McGraw’s future team) 5-3 that day. McGraw’s managerial career would span 33 years, during which time he won ten pennants and three World Championships. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
I think I was the best baseball player I ever saw.
Seventy years ago today, Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers made his debut at Ebbets Field. This historic moment marked the first time in the twentieth century that an African-American played major league baseball.
Fifty years later, on April 15, 1997, President Bill Clinton paid tribute to Jackie Robinson in Shea Stadium, and Major League Baseball retired his number 42 throughout the league. “No man is bigger than baseball,” commissioner Bud Selig said, “except Jackie Robinson. Jackie Robinson is bigger than baseball.”
By signing Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers had ended the institutionalized racial segregation in baseball that had existed since the 1880s. Robinson endured the slings and arrows of racial slurs bravely and stoically, proving through his play on the field that blacks were just as capable as whites of playing outstanding baseball. Whether you are a baseball fan or not, there is little doubt that Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier impacted the history of America. As the world continues to face issues of hatred and discrimination today, perhaps Robinson’s example is one we should all keep in mind as we continue to strive forward.