Books

The play’s the thing

FIVE SEASONS: A BASEBALL COMPANION by Roger Angell

MICHAEL POSNER June 27 1977
Books

The play’s the thing

FIVE SEASONS: A BASEBALL COMPANION by Roger Angell

MICHAEL POSNER June 27 1977

The play’s the thing

FIVE SEASONS: A BASEBALL COMPANION by Roger Angell

(Musson Book Company, $11.95)

The true baseball fan is a dying breed. His game has been withered by expansion and reduced to absurdity by television’s constant eye. His heroes are no longer mere ballplayers, but personalities—businessmen and entertainers, union leaders and color commentators. His records and statistics, jewels that once had the durability of myth, have been tarnished by longer seasons and designated hitters and artificial turf. These travesties have created more spectators and higher Nielsen ratings but only at the expense of the true fan, the committed, passionate, lusty, do-or-die fan. His passing is as much an occasion of loss as the corruption of the sport itself.

And then there is Roger Angelí, senior fiction editor for The New Yorker and a true baseball fan. Reading Angell’s cleareyed, ardent prose almost restores the purity of the game. Distinctions blurred by television reemerge in precise focus. Names forgotten or crushed in the media’s relentless vise acquire character and dimension. Consider this flawless description of Boston Red Sox pitcher Luis Tiant: “Stands on hill like sunstruck archaeologist at Knossos. Regards ruins. Studies sun. Studies landscape. Looks at artifact in hand. Wonders: keep this potsherd or throw it away? Does Smithsonian want it? Hmmm ... Sudd, discovers writing on object. Hmmm. Possible Linear B inscript? Sighs. Decides. Throws. Wipes face. Repeats whole thing.”

Baseball, Roger Angelí knows, is not a game like others. It has its own rhythm and grace. Its rustic symmetry has endured 100 years or more and Angelí reveres its tradition as though it were a royal lineage. His book, a collection of essays tracing the 1972-76 seasons, is by turns thoughtful (his discussion of the controversial reserve clause is worth the price of admission alone), funny, perceptive and angry, full of sharp metaphor. He chronicles the rise and fall of Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Steve Blass, who vanished from the big leagues after losing—suddenly and inexplicably— the ability to throw strikes. He describes the fierce, affecting loyalties of three aging Detroit Tiger fans, so steeped in baseball lore that a set of initials can touch off reminiscences of ball players dead for 20 years.

Does anyone still care? Angelí cares— deeply—and his eloquent defense of caring seems to strike at the very heart of deliberations about sports. “It is foolish and childish to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team and the... icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out it seems to me is the business of caring ... an emotion that seems to have almost gone out of our lives.

And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters what the caring is about, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.” The game of baseball, and all its endless mysteries, knows no more earnest or loving disciple than Roger Angell.

MICHAEL POSNER