on March 31, 2001
I have been fortunate enough to share a love of baseball and a particular interest in the Mets and the Red Sox with Roger Angell, though I've not followed him into his current infatuation with the Yankees. As a result, I've not only read all of his books, his name is also one of the few whose appearance in The New Yorker's Table of Contents suffices by itself to get me to buy the magazine.
Since 1962, which was fortuitously the inaugural year of the Mets, Mr. Angell has written several baseball essays a year for The New Yorker. There's always one on Spring Training and one on the World Series, then a couple of mid-season updates. The earliest pieces, covering the years 1962 to 1972, were collected in The Summer Game (1973). Subsequent five year chunks appeared in Five Seasons (1978), Late Innings (1982), and Season Ticket (1988), then came Once More Around the Park (1991), which mostly reprinted selections from those prior volumes, all of which are, disgracefully, out of print.
Baseball has attracted an extravagantly talented assortment of writers but no one has ever written more beautifully about the intricacies and every day charms of the game than Angell, nor captured the idiosyncrasies of individual players in greater detail. It's impossible to match his prose, so let's allow him to speak for himself :
* Any baseball is beautiful. No other small package comes as close to the ideal in design and utility. It is a perfect object for a man's hand. Pick it up and it instantly suggests its purpose: it is meant to be thrown a considerable distance-thrown hard and with precision. Its feel and heft are the beginning of the sport's critical dimensions; if it were a fraction of an inch larger or smaller, a few centigrams heavier or lighter, the game of baseball would be utterly different. Hold a baseball in your hand ... Feel the ball, turn it over in your hand; hold it across the seam or the other way, with the seam just to the side of your middle finger. Speculation stirs. You want to get outdoors and throw this spare and sensual object to somebody or, at the very least, watch somebody else throw it. The game has begun. -"On the Ball", Five Seasons
* Baseball's clock ticks inwardly and silently, and a man absorbed in a ball game is caught in a slow, green place of removal and concentration and in a tension that is screwed up slowly and ever more tightly with each pitcher's windup and with the almost imperceptible forward lean and little half-step with which the fielders accompany each pitch... Any persistent effort to destroy this unique phenomenon, to "use up" baseball's time with planned distractions, will in fact transform the sport into another mere entertainment and thus hasten its descent to the status of a boring and stylized curiosity. -The Summer Game
* Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young. -"The Interior Stadium", The Summer Game
* The box score, being modestly arcane, is a matter of intense indifference, if not irritation, to the non-fan. To the baseball-bitten, it is not only informative, pictorial, and gossipy but lovely in aesthetic structure. It represents happenstance and physical flight exactly translated into figures and history. Its totals - batters' credit vs. pitchers' debit - balance as exactly as those in an accountant's ledger. And a box score is more than a capsule archive. It is a precisely etched miniature of the sport itself, for baseball, in spite of its grassy spaciousness and apparent unpredictability, is the most intensely and satisfyingly mathematical of all our outdoor sports. Every player in every game is subjected to a cold and ceaseless accounting; no ball is thrown and no base is gained without an instant responding judgment - ball or strike, hit or error, yea or nay - and an ensuing statistic. This encompassing neatness permits the baseball fan, aided by experience and memory, to extract from a box score the same joy, the same hallucinatory reality, that pickles the scalp of a musician when he glances at a page of his score of Don Giovanni and actually hears bassos and sopranos, woodwinds and violins. -"Box Scores", The Summer Game
* This is a linear sport. Something happens and then something else happens, and then the next man comes up and digs in at the plate. Here's the pitch, and here, after a pause, is the next. There's time to write it down in your scorecard or notebook, and then perhaps to look about and reflect on what's starting to happen out there now. It's not much like the swirl and blur of hockey and basketball, or the highway crashes of the NFL.
Baseball is the writer's game, and its train of thought, we come to sense, is a shuttle, carrying us constantly forward to the next pitch or inning, or the sudden double into the left-field corner, but we keep hold of the other half of our ticket, for the return trip on the same line. We anticipate happily, and, coming home, reenter an old landscape brightened with fresh colors. Baseball games and plays and mannerisms-the angle of a cap-fade stubbornly and come to mind unbidden, putting us back in some particular park on that special October afternoon or June evening. The players are as young as ever, and we, perhaps not entirely old. -Once More Around the Park
* There are baseball fans, it must be admitted, who don't like Tim McCarver's stuff. After they've listened to the celebrated baseball analyst working another World Series game, say, or a Fox Saturday Baseball Game of the Week, or a WNYW Yankees game, with Bobby Murcer, or, before that for many years, a Mets yawner or triumph with Ralph Kiner as sidekick, certain friends of mine have found fault. A few of them sound apologetic about it, as if they have failed Tim somehow; others plain can't stand him. Because I don't understand any of this, I have been at pains to listen to their whinings, which can be easily summarized: Tim McCarver likes to talk. He laughs and enjoys himself at ballgames. He makes jokes -- puns, even. He uses fancy words. He's excitable -- he gets carried away by the baseball. He's always going on and on about some little thing. He thinks he knows how the game should be played. He knows too much. -"The Bard in the Booth", The New Yorker, September 6, 1999
There are of course those philistines who dislike baseball, and even baseball fans who simply dislike this kind of myth-tinged writing about the game. For the rest of us, the essays of Roger Angell are a must.
We've had a particularly tough winter here in New England--as I write, it is March 31st and we just got another foot of snow. But pick up any one of Roger Angell's books, turn to just about any one of his essays (though you might want to avoid a few of those in Late Innings, when he got caught up in the hysteria over rising salaries and free agency), read one of his descriptions of a play or a player and he effortlessly transports you into that Interior Stadium. There are really only two sports that live on in our minds : golf and baseball. In fact, many years ago I learned a trick to help you get to sleep if you're having trouble--as you lay abed, either play eighteen holes at your favorite course or figure out how you would pitch to your favorite team for nine innings. It's no coincidence that these two sports, which have lent themselves to most of the truly great literature of sport, are the two which can be summoned thus in the imagination.
Roger Angell's writing is so evocative, it too seems to tap into your store of memories,--of players, plays, and games--enabling you to visualize most of the scenes he writes about. Writing in general, and sports writing in particular, just doesn't get any better than this.
GRADE : A+