Reviewing The Art of Fielding – the next great baseball novel.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.
— Henry Miller
It has been a long time since a book has resonated with me the way The Art of Fielding has. The reason for this is best articulated in the quote above. The author, Chad Harbach, writes about things that I think about and never say – made all the more poignant because these are things I don’t even know how to begin to go about saying. To call this book strictly a baseball novel would be disingenuous. Harbach captures the intricacies and complexities of both human relationships and the game of baseball with a fluid ease.
Anti-stat-heads – those who love “intangibles” – will love this book. In the Bill James world of black and white and true outcomes, The Art of Baseball brings the human element; a whole lot of grey.
The plot to the Art of Fielding is fairly straight-forward. Set at the fictional Westish College, a small school (Division III maybe?) on Lake Michigan, the book is centred around Henry Skrimshander, an underdog built in the Rocky Balboa mould. Skrimshander is a laconic, small-town kid who has a natural ability to field his position. As a person, he is positively boring. As a baseball player, he’s an artist. Henry idolizes the fictional Aparicio Rodriguez, a former major league shortsop who could be Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, even Luis Aparicio. This fictional Roriguez penned an Eckhart Tolle-ian manifesto titled “The Art of Fielding.” It’s Henry’s Bible; he never leaves home without it.
From Rodriguez’ Art of Fielding:
3. There are three stages. Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.
33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.
Recruited by an opposing teammate named Mike Schwartz to play at Westish College, Henry is molded and chiseled into an incredibly talented shortstop. Henry loses himself in all things baseball-related. Former Blue Jay Dirk Hayhurst talks a bit about what it’s like to lose yourself in the game in his novel Bullpen Gospels; to immerse yourself in baseball to the point where nothing else matters, slips away. This was a very fun part of the book to read; it brought back many pleasant memories.
So it goes, and then one day – as the fates would have it – Henry uncorks an errant throw that sails into the home dugout and severely injures his team-mate and room-mate Owen Dunne when it hits him in the face. Following the incident, Henry comes down with a case of “Steve Blass disease” or “the yips.” Steve Blass was a famed Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher who suddenly was no longer able to throw any of his pitches across the plate. In other words, Henry is no longer able to make routine plays that he once was able to due to paralysis of his own mind. Though still taciturn, Henry is no longer boring. As Fyodor Dostoevsky once said, “there is immeasurably more left inside than what comes out in words.”
Of course, there are other characters of import in this novel. Along with Henry, Mike & Owen, the players on the periphery are subject to deep character studies. In fact, I began to take such a vested interest in these characters that I procrastinated finishing the book because I didn’t want it to end – much like Michael Clair. With that said, it is not my intent to get caught up in the fine details of the narrative in this review. There will be no spoilers here. Instead, what I want to do is try to explain how much of a pleasure it is to have had this novel grace my life.
It is evident in the writing that the author, Chad Harbach, has a keen appreciation for the game of baseball. Although I never experienced the “yips” as described in this book, as a former pitcher, I know what it is like to lose control of the strike zone – especially when getting squeezed by the home plate umpire. Harbach’s description of what it’s like is exquisite:
“He clapped his right hand over the captive ball, spun it to find the seams. He cocked his arm, locked his eyes on Rick’s glove. His arm was moving forward, there wasn’t time to think, but he was thinking anyway, trying to decide whether to speed up his arm or slow it down. He could feel himself calibrating and recalibrating, adjusting and readjusting his arm like an army sniper hopped up on foreign drugs.”
“In his hand the ball felt cold, slick and alien.”As a Blue Jays fan, I took particular interest in an exchange between Henry and a school reporter. The reporter approaches Henry shortly after a game when it becomes clear that Henry finds himself in a deep abyss as the errors are beginning to pile up:
“Do you know who Steve Blass is? … What about Mackey Sasser? … Steve Sax? Chuck Knoblauch? Mark Wohlers? Rick Ankiel?”
“None of those guys were shortstops,” Henry replies.I can think of one guy who was a shortstop: 2002 1st-round draft pick Russ Adams. The story of Henry Skrimshander provides a greater appreciation – perhaps understanding is a better word – of what happened to the former can’t-miss prospect. It served to soften my harsh opinion of Adams as a player.
Harbach manages in these pages to make the baseball “lifestyle” thoroughly believable and real. He makes us feel what baseball means to his characters on the most visceral level (this is much more effective with Henry attending a D3 school than getting a full ride at a D1 – he’s playing for the love of the game).
Some things are hard to write about. After something happens to you, you go to write it down, and either you over dramatize it, or underplay it, exaggerate the wrong parts or ignore the important ones. At any rate, you never write it quite the way you want to. — Sylvia Plath
Harbach writes it exactly the way I want him to. He strikes a perfect balance in his narrative to appeal to the most fervent baseball fan as well as those oblivious to the game. And to the haters? Harbach conveys a highly immediate sense of the game’s drama to even those firmly in the “baseball is boring” camp. What really drives the authenticity home is the inclusion of the subtle nuances of the game that even the casual fan may not know. An example of this is the use of the infield/outfield drill immediately prior to a game as a means of intimidation:
“Coshwale took the field first for infield/outfield drills. The Harpooners spread out near the home dugout, stretching, chatting, pretending not to be nervous, pretending not to watch. Owen once called the Muskies’ drills as crisp as Petrarch’s sonnets; Rick compared them to the North Korean army. Three burly beet-red-clad coaches slugged balls at once, puffing out their beet-red cheeks with the effort. Thirty-one players – a dozen more than the Harpooners had – fielded balls and fired perfect throws to one another in complicated, constantly shifting patterns. Cut two, cut three, cut four, third to first, first to third, 5-4-3, 6-4-3, 4-6-3, 1-6-3, 3-6-1, charge bunt, charge bunt, charge bunt. Always three balls aloft at once, never a missed cutoff, never an errant throw. When their fifteen minutes were up, they jogged cockily off the field. You got the sense they might come back for an encore.”
That said, there is one glaring element of the novel that requires a suspension of disbelief. One of the main characters, a utility player on the Westish Harpooners by the name of Owen Dunne, is gay. That’s not to say that I don’t believe there can be a gay baseball player – far from it – it’s just the way the situation is portrayed is not realistic in any way to me. Owen is universally accepted by the team without bullying, taunting or any sort of unsavoury behaviour whatsoever. This is the way it ought to be. Yet in no baseball playing environment I have ever witnessed is this situation even remotely plausible. Sad but true. Another aspect of the Owen character that requires a suspension of disbelief is the fact that the coach lets him read books in the dugout during games. No self-respecting team would ever allow this. It serves to add a quirkiness to the novel, but it would never happen in real life.
Perhaps the reason this book appeals so much to me is because the book draws parallels between my two favourite things: playing baseball and writing. The book’s main themes are of the love of baseball; the love of literature. The pursuit of both truth and beauty. Both baseball and writing share the same pursuit of perfection. Both are extremely humbling. In baseball, make one error or misstep and you go from a respected player to a lightning rod of hate and scorn, all in a grandiose public forum. As a writer or blogger, make one error and the situation can be very similar. In both baseball and writing, our lives are shaped at least as much by our mistakes as by our ideals.
There is something about words. In expert hands, manipulated deftly, they take you prisoner. Wind themselves around your limbs like spider silk, and when you are so enthralled you cannot move, they pierce your skin, enter your blood, numb your thoughts. Inside you they work their magic. — Diane Setterfield
As I mentioned earlier, Henry comes down with “Steve Blass disease” – the sudden loss of the ability to make the routine play. To use the world frustration wouldn’t begin to describe the strife that it causes Henry’s psyche. It destroys his soul. The same can be said for a writer who is experiencing writer’s block. Unable to do what one is supposed to be doing – what one wants to do – leaves a feeling of emptiness; being hopelessly lost. Harbach explains:
“You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about the Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.”
The same can be said for writing.
Writing, reading, and literature in general is a central theme in this novel. The school has adopted literary icon Herman Melville as a pseudo-mascot. The baseball team is called the Westish “Harpooners” – a sly nod to Melville’s greatest work, Moby Dick. One of the central characters, the school president Guert Affenlight, is a 19th century literature scholar.
A tension exists between living one’s life in the fictional land of literature as opposed to facing reality. Harbach brings up the fact that dwelling on literature rather than life is a futile practice that turns us into jerks.
“Literature could turn you into an asshole. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties. “
However, there is a redeeming quality to literature. Solitude and loneliness is another core theme of this book. Henry is alone until he meets Mike, yet he’s never felt more alone than when he begins making errors. Henry bonds with his roommate Owen over The Art of Fielding. President Affenlight was lost and alone until he found literature and made a career from it. Affenlight and Owen bond over literature in general.
That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
As an aside, the story of Chad Harbach and the making of The Art of Fielding is an inspiring one for writers and bloggers alike. We’ve all heard the quote “do what you love, the money will follow.” The Art of Fielding was a labour of love for Harbach; he worked for ten years on the novel without knowing that he was ever going to get paid for it. In the end, he received a $650,000 advance to complete it. From SB Nation:
It’s a tough road. I’m extremely grateful for the way things worked out for this book. The last part of this process has been unbelievably great. The whole time I worked on this book I was making between $20,000 and $25,000 a year and scraping by. If I had been concerned about money, I would have given it up. In any case, writing is not a great way to make money. And if that’s your end goal, you probably should give up now. But if you’re interested in trying to perfect what you’re trying to say, you have to stick with it as long as you can.
The most remarkable thing about this novel is that it is the author’s first attempt. Chad Harbach should be a shoe-in as the unanimous rookie of the year winner for his literary debut. In writing – just as in baseball – practice makes perfect.
At $14.14 at Amazon.com, this book would make an excellent gift for that baseball fan on your list.
Photos courtesy of Beowulf Sheehan, Jake Guevara, The Associated Press and Sports Illustrated.