16 April 2012

The Art of Fielding by Harbach, 2011

Filed under: Fiction — ktismatics @ 8:41 am

Affenlight was still seated between the two baseball men.

“Blass,” Dwight Bogner began, breaking a long and awful silence. “Sasser. Wohlers. Knoblauch. Sax.”

“I played against Mr. Sax for years.” Aparicio’s voice was always soft, so you had to lean in to listen, but even more so now. “A good man, though of dubious politics.”

“Chuck Knoblauch and I were teammates. His only full year in the minors — one of my ten.”

Aparicio nodded.

“And then Rick Ankiel, of course, from our organization.”

Affenlight didn’t know the names. They proceeded from Dwight’s tongue with respectful reluctance, like a litany of friends killed in war.

“They call it Steve Blass disease,” Dwight explained to Affenlight. “After the first player it happened to. A pitcher for the Pirates. That was a little before my time.”

“Those were the Pittsburgh teams of Clemente,” said Aparicio. “They won the Series in seventy-one. Clemente was named Most Valuable Player, but the honor could easily have gone to Mr. Blass. He had an exceptional ability to control the baseball.

“A year later, on Christmas Eve, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaragua. When spring training began, Mr. Blass could no longer do what he’d always done. It happened very suddenly. Walks, wild pitches. One year later, only two years removed from the height of his career, he decided to retire.”

“You think this was related to Clemente’s death?” Affenlight asked.

Aparicio touched his chin. “I suggested as much by the way I told the story, didn’t I? But in truth I have no idea. Clemente’s death affected me deeply, and I never met him. But I was a child, a child from that part of the world. Clemente was a hero to us. Teammates are not inevitably so interested in one another.”

The Coshwale batter laid down a bunt. Rick O’Shea, remarkably spry for his size, charged and fielded it neatly, but his throw to third sailed wide, and the left fielder failed to back up the play. Two more runs scored. It was now 5 to 2 in favor of the VI ITORS.

“Your pitcher is throwing his heart out,” Dwight said, as Adam Starblind banged his glove on his thigh in disgust. “Talented guy too. but the rest of the team looks done for.”

They were sitting directly behind the Westish dugout, so that they couldn’t see Henry inside. “Do they ever recover?” Affenlight asked. The players with this disease?”

“Steve Sax did. Of the big names, he might be the only one. Knoblauch moved from second to the outfield, where the longer throw gave him less trouble. Ankiel moved to the outfield too.”

“But a longer throw is harder,” Affenlight pointed out.

Dwight shrugged. “Sometimes harder is easier.”

It comforted Affenlight to have this conversation, to try to wrap his mind around what had happened to Henry, to try to contextualize it, but Aparicio’s eyes were quietly trained on the field, even the eager and garrulous Dwight seemed reluctant to say much, and it seemed clear that to discuss such matters at length, in such proximity to someone to whom it was actually happening, violated one of baseball’s codes. He decided to risk one last question.

“Did it really never happen before that? Before seventy-three?”

Aparicio breathed in and out — a kind of ethereal idea of a shrug. He waited a very long time before answering, as if registering a dignified protest against the demand Affenlight had placed on him. “How many times does something happen before we give it a name? And until the name exists, neither does the condition. So perhaps it happened many times before but was never named.

“And yet. Baseball has many historians, including among its players. There are statistics, archives, legends, lore. If earlier players had experienced similar troubles, it seems likely the stories would have been passed down. And then the name would be applied in retrospect.”

Nineteen seventy-three. In the public imagination it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam. Gravity’s Rainbow. Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream — the year it entered baseball? It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation — the Modernists of the First World War — would take a while to reveal itself throughout the population. And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the realm of the utmost confidence in same: the realm of professional sport. In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodern era: when even the athletes were anguished Modernists. In which case the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his arm.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed. Then he glanced at Aparicio, hands folded mournfully in his lap, and his excitement curdled to embarrassment. Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. 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.

“Doubt has always existed,” Aparicio said. “Even for athletes.”



  1. The mystery of purely national sports. Outsiders don’t understand them. Wittgenstein put it well “This game is played”.


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 16 April 2012 @ 4:12 pm

  2. Or as the umpire announces at the beginning of each game: “Play ball!” Wittgenstein would have made a hell of a left fielder.


    Comment by ktismatics — 16 April 2012 @ 5:41 pm

  3. One of the characters in this book takes a copy of Murakami’s latest novel with her to read under a tree, but then it starts to rain and she realizes that she forgot the book. I presume this was Harbach’s little dig at Murakami: soggy and forgettable. I too think that Murakami is overrated, even though he’s purportedly a short-lister for the Nobel. His writing strikes me as pop sensibility with magical or delusional features interspersed seemingly at random, such that removing these weird elements wouldn’t change the story much at all.


    Comment by ktismatics — 18 April 2012 @ 2:43 pm

  4. Murakami got the flash that he was a writer while watching a baseball game, I learn from Wikipedia. I picked up one of his books once at the book shop, flexing at the knees, arms close to the body, back straight, but random reading did not make me want to continue. A google search led me to a cache of short stories on the New Yorker site and I’m reading one which is translated from the Japanese into Carverese. He’s a translator of Carver so:
    – what goes around.
    – Yeah, right.

    Are there any great sports books, fiction I mean? F.X. O’Toole (Million Dollar Baby) has good boxing stories (Rope Burns). More?


    Comment by ombhurbhuva — 19 April 2012 @ 4:58 am

  5. Have you ever read A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley? If it’s not great it comes close, though it’s not really about the game itself. The Universal Baseball Association by Coover is very good metafiction. I wrote a short post about it early in my blogging days. Once I sent Coover an email about his book; he responded promptly and cordially and thoughtfully. I’ve never read The Great American Novel so I don’t know whether Philip Roth’s eponymous claim has any merit, but Affenlight doesn’t list it alongside Gravity’s Rainbow as one of the signal events of 1973, so how great can it be? All three are baseball books. [Correction: A Fan’s Notes centers on American football.]

    Maybe Harbach regards Moby-Dick as a sports novel, a big fishing expedition, since it receives most of his explicit intertextual references: the baseball team is called the Harpooners; the main character is Henry Scrimshander; Affenlight’s first name is Guert, the same as Melville’s cousin whose misadventures at sea inspired Billy Budd. Probably the more direct sports-inflected influences here include Catcher in the Rye, Infinite Jest, and DeLillo’s End Zone (which I’ve not yet read). I see that Harbach’s writing has been compared with Franzen’s; it’s who came to mind as I was reading, though I think Harbach more willingly drifts away from pretensions of realism — the influence of Pynchon via DF Wallace. But he’s much more linear and “warm-hearted” to the point of nostalgic stereotype. I enjoyed it. It’s been a big seller evidently, and I picked it up specifically because it’s about baseball. As a kid I loved reading biographies about Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted William and the other great ballplayers, so they’re my earliest pantheon.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 April 2012 @ 7:58 am

  6. I didn’t know the legend of Murakami’s baseball epiphany. Maybe that’s another reason he makes a cameo appearance in Harbach’s book. But when the character remembers having left the book behind she doesn’t bother going back to retrieve it. Murakami’s latest, 1?84, is massive: I’m going to let it pass.


    Comment by ktismatics — 19 April 2012 @ 9:26 am

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