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?
~Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
“Owen,” Henry said excitedly, “I think Coach wants you to hit for Meccini.”
Owen closed The Voyage of the Beagle, on which he had recently embarked. “Really?”
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said. “I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether–”
“Forget it,” Owen said. “I’ll just bunt.”
~Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
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.
Baseball is a team game but, at the same time, it’s a very lonely game: unlike in soccer or basketball, where players roam around, in baseball everyone has their little plot of the field to tend. When the action comes to you, the spotlight is on you but no one can help you.