By Michael Stevens
Opening Day Blues, October Dreams
Game Time: A Baseball Companion
By Roger Angell; edited by Steve Kettman
356 pp.; $25
During a long winter, amid rumors of war, you can begin to doubt the therapeutic powers of baseball, but the arrival of a rich and varied collection of Roger Angell's writings on the splendid pastime altered not only my psyche but also the very meteorology of my little corner of Michigan. The day I began to read Game Time: A Baseball Companion, which collects many of Angell's finest pieces from the past thirty years along with a number of recent offerings from the past few seasons, the temperature outside was hovering just above zero, with an unspeakable wind chill. There's something foreboding about the coldest day of the year occurring in March. Two weeks later, on the day I finished the book, my kids were outside in shorts and T-shirts, the snow had turned to muck in the yard and the temperature was in the mid-sixties. Even in book form, baseball has a way of bringing us back to the renaissance of springtime. And with opening day a disorienting March 31 this year, we need spring now!
Angell's book is, in fact, arranged by the baseball calendar, with its three distinct manifestations—Spring, Summer, and Fall. The editor, Steve Kettmann, has shrewdly juxtaposed essays and snippets from across the whole span of Angell's work, and throughout the collection, the interplay of the old and the new, the veteran and the rookie, records long-standing and history unfolding in the moment, is the dynamic that Angell captures most eloquently. In the Spring section (Angell's special assignment for many years was to leave his post with The New Yorker in March to sojourn in Florida, and later Arizona, during the idylls of spring training), one finds an essay from the early Sixties ("The Old Folks Behind Home") that includes a tableau of Whitey Ford on the mound for the Yankees, with Warren Spahn superimposed just behind him, throwing in the bullpen for the Braves—"It was a trick photograph, a trompe-l'oeil: a 158-game winner and a 309-game winner throwing baseballs in the same fragment of space."
The finest essay of the Summer section, and one of the best baseball pieces I've ever read, also presents this confluence of old and new. "The Web of the Game" is an account of a 1981 college tournament game in New Haven, pitting Yale against St. John's University. The game proved prophetic, as Angell follows a historic pitcher's duel between two future World Series champion pitchers. Yale's Ron Darling (later of Mets fame) ended up throwing 11 no-hit innings before losing both the no-hitter and game in the twelfth. His opponent, who threw a shutout himself through 11, was future Twins star Frank Viola. A tremendous moment, full of baseball tension and Angell's sharp observations. But what lifts this piece into the baseball writing Hall of Fame is the presence, as Angell's companion in the bleachers, of 94-year-old Smokey Joe Wood, star of the 1912 Red Sox world champions when he was the very age of Darling and Viola on the field. Wood reminisces about Ty Cobb's handling of a bat, then adds "A lot of fellows in my time shortened up on the bat when they had to—that's what the St. John's boys should try against this good pitcher." Angell muses: "Listening to this, I sensed the web of baseball about me." And reading his piece 20 years after it was written, one feels a web now even thicker and more intricate—and so very satisfying.
Fall is of course the section of pennant race and World Series accounts, where all of baseball's tensions are heightened almost beyond enduring. Here, I will unveil myself as a virulent Yankees fan (don't push "delete," Bostonians—Angell himself is a disappointed New York Giants fan who turned to the Red Sox and speaks unabashedly of his own devotion to "the pleasure-pain principle"—in fact, "Legend of the Fens," about the September, 2001 collapse of the Red Sox, is one of the best in the whole book). But every Yankee piece resonated for me. (The 1977 item, "Takes: Jacksonian," took me back to idyllic boyhood days with a Reggie poster on my wall.) Don't miss Angell's account of the 1996 Yankees feel-good team, "One for the Good Guys," which includes his admission of a temporary conversion, placing himself among "sophisticated old baseball cognoscenti with a fully developed, long-standing coolness toward the club in question, who this time were absolutely turned around by six weeks' worth of terrific home-town ball. Not every New Yorker came over to these Yanks in the end, but the holdouts were rare and flinty of heart."
Wonderful, because so grudging! Angell, now in his early eighties, has actually managed to produce some of his best writing in the past few years, and his account of last year's World Series between Anaheim and San Francisco—"Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang"—captures the strange slugfest perfectly: "This was another action movie, all bangs and blasts, with the Angels' affinity for the retributive big inning providing one main plotline, and Barry Bonds, a monstrous Vaderish force looming up again and again in the middle of the Giants' batting order, the other. Terrific entertainment, and undemanding."
One might say the same of Angell's writing, except that we remember his frequent counsel that baseball is beautiful because it only seems undemanding, but is undergirded with arduous and subtle necessities. And so his writing is fuller, too, than mere entertainment; it is filled with social commentary, nostalgia and anti-nostalgia, tragedy and triumph which, though narrow in sphere, is universal in its scope. When he states that "Baseball saves me every time—not the news of it, perhaps, so much as its elegant and arduous complexity, its layered substrata of nuance and lesson and accumulated experience," he is also presenting a useful guide to his own writing. By the end of Game Time, the 30 years of vignette and character study and thoughtful observation adds up to literary experience. We are reminded again (it has to be true!) that baseball is a most useful metaphor for the human drama.
As for the season about to begin, well, my spirits are lagging a bit. There is snow on the ground again as I write this, and the prospect of "snow-outs" and "snow-delays" in the northern stadiums dampens my zeal a bit, while halfway around the world American troops are battling their way through blinding sandstorms. The scheduled season-opener in Japan has been cancelled due to security concerns.
The Yankees? Well, the pitching staff is "too old" again, for the third straight year, and my beloved Bernie Williams is suddenly turning 35. Even Derek Jeter, who still seems a wunderkind—albeit more aged and vulnerable this spring in the wake of Boss Steinbrenner's criticisms of his social habits—will be 30 next year. I cannot quite believe in the Angels or the Twins, and the A's seem always to perform in the subjunctive. Dare I admit that the Red Sox look good, with that stellar pitching staff and the enigmatic Manny Ramirez denting the Green Monster? And if I'm going to go that far, perhaps I should point out the remarkable youth and talent of the Cubs' young pitchers and the ever-burgeoning phenomenon of Sammy Sosa. Dare I say it? A Red Sox-Cubs World Series this year? Decades of torment and futility—wait, it's almost a century since either team won the series—cleansed by catharsis? It seems too wonderful to believe, but at the end of spring training, as the teams head north (at least most of them), anything seems possible. I think Roger Angell might agree.
Michael Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University.
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Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture presents Books & Culture Corner and Book of the Week Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier editions of Books & Culture Corners and Book of the Week include:
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