Monthly Archive for October, 2011

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The set of chapters we read for last week ended with Affenlight telling a soup-poisoned Henry, “Don’t forget your uniform,” so we’re clearly on the road to recovery this week, right?

And what signals a man’s hibernating greatness more than his willingness to mask his identity with a playoff beard, am I right?

We could discuss Henry’s recovery, the symbolism of Affenlight’s death, Owen’s eulogy, or the metaphor that is the last scene, but who wants to do that when you can discuss playoff beards? And that’s why chapter seventy-four is where it’s at.

The summer after I graduated high school I quit shaving, thought it made me look like part of some long forgotten counterculture, so I totally understand Schwartz’s observation that “If he was the Ahab of this operation, this tournament the target of his mania, then they were Fedallah’s crew” (454), because the growing of a beard isn’t just about a denial of self–it’s about an occult belief in the mission at hand, a mission that can only be accomplished by a band of brothers. And the beard signifies that one is willing to pay their dues, to the brotherhood, to the mission, to the Captain, to the ‘ship.

But beards aren’t just about buying in, they’re also a sign of mourning. I’ve grown beards out of laziness, deploring the work I have to do. I’ve grown beards over ex-girlfriends, aching over all those lost moments. I’ve grown beards when the AP test approaches in May, agonizing over whether or not I’ve properly prepared my students. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve grown a lot of beards, and while I wanted to celebrate how well Harbach captures the many meanings behind growing a beard, chapter seventy-four made me incredibly sad, filling me with an intense sense of mourning for one Henry Skrimshander.

While his teammates closed in on their goal of winning a championship, I felt forced by Harbach’s allusions, both explicit and implicit, to ponder that chapter inMoby Dick when all the sailors gather in a church whose walls are marked by remembrances to the dead, those men lost at sea, their whaling ships swallowed up by the eerie depths, and there it was, on page 453, Henry’s plaque on the church wall: “once you healed the Henry gap you had no place for Henry.” A team can’t dwell on who is not present. A team must go with the men they have, and at this point in the narrative, I was sad for Henry no matter what happiness might be waiting for him later on in the book, or even after the book.

And then I got sadder, because Henry made me think of the 2004 Nomar Garciaparra, a very good shortstop who missed out on playoff beards, a World Series, and champagne. Is there anything like Nomar’s sadness? Have you ever accomplished something that felt incomplete? Has a group of people ever been better off without you? Have you ever had to grow a beard alone, and if so, how did you know when to cut it?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

The end of this book affected me in ways I really didn’t expect. I read it in a marathon binge session, guiltily hoping for Henry’s glorious Hollywood return and salvation, but feeling like I’d be better off with a more “real” ending – the same way you hope for ice cream in the freezer when you’re done with dinner, but when there is none and you’re forced to eat fruit, you console yourself by feeling virtuous.

But in reality, the book gave us both, and they ultimately detracted from each other. Henry’s frenzied and desperate heroics seemed like an extension of his depression, of the idea of his own meaninglessness. He won the game, but by the end of the book, we find out he’s been back in South Dakota, working at the Piggly Wiggly – it didn’t mean what we wanted it to mean.

Still, it may have given him enough of a taste of his own self-worth to start him on the road to recovery. So while the book leaves us with the knowledge that Henry is not at all what he once was, we also have the slim hope that he can make it back. For his own reasons this time, in whatever role he chooses, and better – more whole – in some way.

Henry, you are skilled. We exhort you.

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Finale

he art of fielding by chad harbach(Author’s Note: this article has nothing to do with Game 6 of the World Series.  For that, I apologize.)

Right around the time our reading club got underway, I began my tenure at a local high school as a student teacher.  I adore academia, even if my university doesn’t quite compare to the Midwestern charm of Westish.  The layout is utilitarian, the grounds Spartan.  We have no lakes, president-filled or otherwise.

I was warned about the demands of student teaching, and these warnings were apt.  I haven’t watched a single pitch of playoff baseball this season.  Essentially, The Art of Fielding has been my postseason, and without it, my sense of alienation would be nearly palpable.  Stacks of textbooks on education theory and articles on critical literacy have replaced the game for me, and my head has been swimming with conceptual theories.  It was only inevitable that these ideas would bleed into the novel itself, as we headed toward the novel’s denouement.

In a conversation Eric mentioned the uselessness of the Harpooners coaching staff, especially the well-meaning, ineffective Coach Cox.  The man reminds me of an older, mellower portrayal of Jim Bouton’s Joe Schultz, a study in the virtues that are respected in baseball and are useless in everyday life.  Cox is helpless before Owen’s hospitalization, Schwartz’s fiery leadership, and Henry’s downfall.  He’s ceremonial, a reminder that most managers receive far more than they deserve in terms of pay and accolades.  The students change with every passing year, but Cox is always there, always the same, always losing.

What Harbach illustrates is that fielding and baseball really are an art, rather than a craft.  One’s ability is innate.  Owen puts down his novel, walks into the batting cage and sprays line drives.  Henry pirouettes effortlessly, thoughtlessly.  Strong coaching can maximize potential, add endurance and strength through countless hours of training.  But that potential is finite and predetermined.  For a teacher, it’s a troubling concept.

So as the book wound down, and I prepared to bid baseball adieu for another winter, I found my sentimentality waxing with the somber funeral march/row.  Soaked with alcohol, Freud’s solution for the masses, the gang finds itself on the brink of inexorable change, and I too found myself pausing between page turns, hoping to hold it back.

So as Schwartz takes up the mantle of teaching, and walks out to the familiar field to hit ground balls to his familiar friend, I finally identified with him.  This is what teaching is like, I thought.  Maybe Schwartz can make a difference, fix Henry and blend as gracefully into Westish as Affenlight had.  Maybe something can be taught, and that not everyone has to repeat every last mistake in life.  I hope that last throw found its way to the shovel.

P&P Conversations: In a World With no World Series

Ted: Eric, you recently wrote a piece about Adrian Beltre calling for more appreciation for the third baseman. Has Beltre entered the general baseball zeitgeist, or is he still on the oustkirts? Are all of the Rangers on the outskirts of something? If so, what?

Eric: Beltre is in a weird place. If you only read baseball blogs and twitter, then he is the zeitgeist. But if you read newspapers, listen to sports radio, and are a generally sane person for whom baseball is only a minor interest, Beltre remains on the outskirts. I suspect that in this way he is indeed emblematic of the Rangers. Many of the Rangers’ best players are either sabermetric delights like Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler, or highly stylized like Elvis Andrus. If the Rangers win, then everything changes. Maybe in Texas, it already has. You’re in Houston. How do y’all perceive the Rangers down there?

Ted: Astros fans perceive the Rangers as the distant cousin that we should feel some kinship too but don’t. If the Astros moved to the AL it would be like an 80s sitcom where a city cousin and a country cousin have to move in together. In that scenario, the country cousin would be successful and charming, and the city cousin has dandruff and wears mom jeans. But I digress.

The Rangers are a truly dichotomous team. On the one hand, as you mention, they are saber-darlings who perform bigger than their popular baseball playing reputations. On the other hand, they are clearly having fun out there, and I’d imagine that the casual fan can really get into their jam. Derek Holland is a total clown whose Harry Caray and Arnold Schawarzenneger impressions were so funny that Joe Buck woke up for long enough to hand his job over to the pitcher. Adrian Beltre’s head-touching issues would amuse Michelle Bachmann on a debate night. I’m guessing teenage girls swoon over CJ Wilson. The Rangers are a sabermetric team that you’d never know it, the way you can’t tell it’s Adam Sandler playing his own sister in his new blockbuster.

Speaking of the same thing over and over, I read somewhere that the Rangers would hypothetically be the 11th different team to win the World Series since some particular time. How does that make you feel?

Eric: Well, Ted you know my theory about the number 11…

No seriously, I don’t think parity is a bad thing, if that’s what you are referring to. And by parity I mean a state in which teams with competent management like the Rangers are just as likely to lose the World Series as teams with Brian Sabean as their GM. The thing about baseball, though, is that I don’t think World Series winners are a fair measure of inequality or dominance. This is not an uncommon argument: look at the 2001 Mariners or the last 20 years of the Atlanta Braves.

That said, knowledge that the playoffs aren’t fair doesn’t hurt any less when, say, your favorite team loses to the Phillies in the NLCS consecutive years. And to write off the World Series seems like giving up on everything we believe in (after all, if we can’t embrace randomness and absurdity, then what’s the point of being a baseball fan — even a self-aware one?) That’s a serious question: Could baseball exist and be delightful without a World Series?

Ted: What you pose is the Europe v. America argument. In Europe, they do things like end a football season without a championship and end games in ties. I enjoy such bizarre, Middle Age practices on one level, as a break from the American style, but I’d never choose it for these United States.

I think the real success of the playoffs and the World Series is the fact that most any fan, no matter which team you follow, can get a quick adrenaline rush from watching most any other team experience the thrill of the playoff win. It’s an inhabitable space for baseball fans to enjoy vicariously. The only way to live vicariously like that is if unexpected things happen, like lesser teams win bigger games, or crummy players–I’m coughing as I say the name Allen Craig–pull off wildly unlikely feats. You can’t get that from the IV drip end of a non-playoff season.

So, to answer your question, baseball could exist without the World Series, but it would be House Hunters.

(At this point we ask the readers for their thoughts. Imagine that Ray Bradbury and George Will collaborated on a neo-apocalyptic novel in which there was no World Series. What would this world look like?)

Adrian Beltre

I wrote a thing about Adrian Beltre for The Classical’s Deadspin Journal.

Check it out.


-Eric

P&P Conversations: Worried Series

Eric: I feel like I need to do some sort of literary knuckle-cracking. How long has it been since we’ve done this? Don’t answer that. I watched Game 2 at a quiet neighborhood bar last night with music piping through the speakers instead of play by play. Buck and McCarver-less, those first seven innings went by in what felt like fifteen minutes. I have two theories as to why: 1.) the game was actually just very short because Garcia and Lewis were fantastic and 2.) when you watch a game free of broadcasters and other outside stimuli — this bar was very empty — your imagination can run wild. I found myself noticing things about the players that I never would otherwise have considered. For example, Colby Lewis has the most perfectly brown and shaped and broken in baseball glove I have ever seen: it’s flawless. And without announcers there to remind you of how great of a person he is, Albert Pujols doesn’t just look boring, he looks sad. His eyes are heavy and forlorn like it doesn’t matter whether he hits .400 in the postseason or whether Lance Berkman is protecting him in the lineup, or whether the Cards win or lose. Is he gazing into the distance at a future outside St. Louis? After all, the World Series is not just an event — it’s also an ending.

Ted: Where have you been watching the World Series, Eric, the lobby bar of the Days Inn Tukwila?

I will now quote an imaginary book-within-a-book: “It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out to win the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.” While I’m sure there’s some parallel to Pujols’ demeanor and the melancholy tendencies of an imaginary shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, the imagined Hall of Fame-type character from “The Art of Fielding,” has an endless passion for baseball, whereas Albert’s seems to be running on the dry side. For reasons I’m not quite prepared to explain, Pujols’ appeal must be at an all-time low. He’s catching almighty hell for leaving the locker room quickly after last night’s game on the heels of a modest fielding error, and it seems that, in the public eye, his dominance as a player is somehow caving in around him vis a vis public adoration.

One pet theory: Lance Berkman has reminded St. Louis and America what a chill dude is like, and the contrast between a chill dude and a stoic personality drain has thrown Pujols into a new light. As Eric Freeman notes in a Deadspin article, Pujols and manager Tony Larussa don’t seem to fit into the modern cultural landscape the way that a dynamic man of the times like Joe Maddon does. Freeman goes on: “Major League Baseball generally lacks personality. Albert Pujols, Cardinals star and the best hitter of the last decade, has none.” Harsh words for the decade’s greatest hitter, former WS champ, and current WS player. The Rangers, if anything, embody a young, contemporary attitude towards baseball and the playing thereof. Is there a pair of infielders playing now who are more enjoyable to watch than Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus? (That question is non-rhetorical.)

Eric: How about a trio? Because Adrian Beltre is as exciting a defensive third baseman as a third baseman can be. Also, he has a hard time standing still in the batter’s box. Andrus-Kinsler is obviously a more enjoyable middle infield combo than Furcal-Punto, though there’s something to be said for Furcal’s energy this postseason (even when he can’t hit, he really seems like he can hit) and Punto’s grizzly beard. Has any small, powerless, middle infielder ever looked more world-weary than Nick Punto? Lemme tell you, that guy has seen it all.

I feel as though we’re overlooking the real heroes of Game Two, and those were the starting pitchers. It’s funny to think about, but Garcia and Lewis both came out of nowhere last season. Lewis was a curiosity returned from Japan (though Carson Cistulli somehow predicted his success before 2010) and Garcia was a Spring Training miracle who just wouldn’t go away. Now they just seem like good pitchers. Lewis has a 2.22 era in 44 playoff innings these last two years. Those are some Curt Schilling numbers right there. (I’ve always wanted to invoke Schilling in a purely statistical fashion; his career playoff ERA is 2.23, though in many more innings than Lewis.)

This World Series has been billed as a battle of dominant bullpens. Does that narrative leave you as cold as it leaves me?

Ted: The dearth of marquee starting pitchers does detract from the adrenaline of the first few innings of these games, sure. But good pitching is almost as entertaining as marquee pitching. Jaime Garcia has been on my style radar for some time, as he’s as little sung as Colby Lewis with stuff on par with some of the best young pitchers in the game. After inning three or four, his work setting down some fine right-handed hitters takes the place of the marquee desire. A match-up of bullpens I suppose slows the game down, and there are few truly iconic performances attributed to relievers.

Which reminds me, it has been a while since I’ve seen the media parse a game into its parts with such a fine toothed comb as they have this World Series. Whether questioning LaRussa’s bullpen moves or Ron Washington’s bullpen moves, it seems to me that there is a kind of obsessed attention being paid to the tid bits. I never would have thought that a match-up featuring the Rangers offense against Pujols, Holliday, and Berkman would come down to piddly maneuvers and hot defense.

Eric: I think part of the strategy obsession has to do with the managerial character of this series. Imagine a Ron Roenicke vs Joe Girardi series or some such — people who don’t read the New York Post would hardly think twice about bullpen usage. The Washington – La Russa dynamic is another one that feels completely different at the bar with the game on mute. La Russa, for instance seems far less menacing in silence, and far more like a bit actor in a second-rate cop show. Washington on the other hand just looks kind of like a fan. Anyway, we can save the strategic theorizing and second guessing for next time.

P&P Reading Club: Ted Walker on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

the art of fielding by chad harbach

For most of this book, Henry Skrimshander was the quiet fulcrum around which a group of vibrant characters wheeled, projecting onto his country frame their anxieties and insecurities. Henry, for his part, played the wall. Speaking little, affecting nothing, his presence was like a wall painted white: only with a blemish, a fierce and irrational smear, did it appear at all. Henry, as he walked off of the field when his throwing arm rebelled entirely, only finally realized this limited value to those around him. Unable to express his needs, especially to the friend he needed most, Henry pursued a philosophy of negation. If his value was as a blank wall, he would very literally erase himself from being. No food, no coffee, no Henry. How he managed not to allow himself to sink to the bottom of the lake in a 30-pound vest is beyond me.

Henry’s depressed turn caught me off guard, I will admit. He seemed incapable of anything but recovery, or at least some kind of good cheer. Even as he handed the ball off to the pitcher, I didn’t sense sadness from him, but acceptance. He could have recommitted himself to the studies that seemed less than irrelevant to him, or he could have pursued a decent romantic relationship. When a path becomes blocked, depression isn’t the only alternative route.

In Pella, Henry found a fascinating bed fellow. Perhaps his acute sorrow appealed to her. She plays the mother and the lover in a gracefully uncomplicated triangle. The men in her life all reflect a certain model of stability, whether as the confident jock, the confident scholar-president, the pompous West Coaster, or the solidly blank white wall.

I little expected to care about the result of an actual baseball game as this little universe hurtles into its own future. But here we are and I can’t wait to see where Henry falls in relation to the fate of his team, the understated but brilliant Harpooners, who will play on live national TV in this brilliant alternate reality in which Division III baseball games play, even if it is on cable.

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53– 72

he art of fielding by chad harbachBryan Harvey, who has previously written here about Brian McCann and Jason Heyward and John Henry, is a high school teacher and poet, who writes for The Faster Times and The Lawn Chair Boys. His poetry has appeared in the Cold Mountain Review and DeckFight Press released his eBook, Everything That Dunks Must Converge, in April..

The truth is sobering. The lie intoxicating. To get better, at some point, the truth is needed, and if I’m wrong in what I’m about to say, put me in my place.

Surrounded by land, Westish College and its bevy of depressed characters are still somehow connected to the water: there’s the Melville statue overlooking the lake, there’s Pella swimming her laps, there’s Schwartz rehabbing in the athletic center’s whirlpool, and then there’s Henry’s soup and bathtub routine. But Henry’s aquatic melancholy doesn’t begin in a bathroom. As far as I can tell, it begins in Chapter 54 when he swims out into the lake (most likely with Melville’s stone eyes watching him), wearing a flak jacket. It’s dangerous. It’s foolish. And it’s the most desperate act Henry makes, that is until he sleeps with Pella.

A lot is going on in Chapters 54 and 55. No doubt. Prior to these chapters Henry is a rather flat character, as many here have stated. He plays baseball. He lifts weights. He runs the stadium. He plays baseball. Everything is cyclical and, well, predictable. Then a gust of wind disrupts everything, Owen goes to the hospital, and Henry is introduced to the harshness of real life, like a baby forced to breathe air through its nose for the first time, and that’s what Henry is prior to this segment of the novel: a baby. He does what he’s told, as he’s told, not thinking, soaking up the wisdom of Aparicio and Schwartz tabula rasi. And when baseball fails to give him “The dream of every day the same” (345), where does Henry go for answers but back to the womb-like waters of Lake Michigan, reenacting the single time in everyone’s life when their being is entirely flawless, “[improving] little by little till the day it all [becomes] perfect” (345)? Everything after that is downhill, right? Mistakes, unmet potential, and sin.

Henry goes to the water because there’s something within him that must be cleansed, and when he comes out of the cool Lake Michigan waters, he gets down on all fours and drinks from a puddle “like an animal” (346), having washed away the complexities of his existence. Then he curls up in the sand–fetal style–and sleeps the night away, only to awake the next day, in Chapter 55, not with the mind of a child but contemplating “the longest speech of his academic career” (348), which happens to be about St. Peter, a man whose most famous act is one of denial (apparently, sainthood does not operate on baseball’s three strike rule), and what else is Henry trying to do in this part of the novel than deny the fallible traits that make him a human rather than a machine. Then this chapter that begins with his most complex thoughts on religion (which a young Henry appears to deny), free will, and even damnation ends with Henry’s hand being guided into the “icy blue” that guards Pella’s private parts (353). So when the baseball diamond fails to replicate the perfect potential of Henry’s in utero existence, he turns to Pella, the strongest representation of the feminine there is in the novel, but even this effort will fail to heal him, just like no amount of hours in a whirlpool can restore Schwartz’s joints, and Henry will spend the next several chapters, like a fish or a whale, in bathtubs full of water, slurping on warm soup as if it came to him out of an umbilical cord.

Here’s the thing, though, Henry knows his actions are “crazy” (346), that perfection is dull to the point of not existing, that he had to leave his mother’s womb, that playing baseball long enough will result in errors, that a person cannot tread water forever, that pretty much all moments of ejaculation are short lived, and that bathtubs have a drain for a reason, so where does Henry go from here? And how did Harbach make such a seemingly dull kid from South Dakota into whatever this character is now?

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53- 72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Adam at Everyday Footnotes.

Well, that certainly got plotty, didn’t it? Maybe I skipped over the warnings but I hadn’t been concerned that Guert was putting his job on the line with his affair. The book successfully encouraged me to focus my concern on Owen’s eventual rejection of Guert. This development seemed to appear out of nowhere (dean ex machina?) but I loved the way this turn of events played off the unending and seemingly inconsequential talk of climate change. (Inconsequential to the novel, not — you know — the world.) In hindsight, I realize Owen’s solar-power pillow talk was actually quite strange and I would love it if Guert’s fleeting paranoid idea that Owen may be sleeping with him simply to make Westish carbon-neutral turned out to be true.

While Guert has the Skrimshanders to thank for the unraveling of his life’s work, Henry has both Affenflights to thank for avoiding fates such as ramen soup and shallow water drowning. I’m curious to see what’s driving Guert, at this dark moment, to send Henry to Nationals.

A question for everyone else: did I miss some legitimate reason for Schwartz to turn down the assistant athletic director job? I understand that we’re supposed to believe that he’s too stubborn or single-minded to accept this perfect gap-year opportunity … but is anyone buying that?

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachFind more of Megan Wells at Around the Horn from Aerys Sports.

Everything seems finally to be coming to a head in the novel. Relationships are breaking down and forcing the characters to figure out their own lives, instead of using each other to fill the gaps. Probably the most striking loss, to me, was Henry’s loss of baseball. Every other character has something else to chase, for good or ill, but most importantly, for themselves: Schwartz wants the championship. Pella wants a normal, adult life. Affenlight wants a normal, adult life (an unexpected parallel between father and daughter that, to be honest, I only just caught on to as I was writing this).

But Henry has nothing else to want, and frankly, I’m not even sure he’s capable of wanting anything else. Even his relationship – insofar as you can call that weird one-sided dependency a relationship – with Pella is a sort of an aimless, reflexive action. And here’s where things got difficult for me.

Harbach has illustrated depression extremely convincingly in these pages. As someone who has been where Henry is, it was an exceedingly uncomfortable read for me. And it makes me wonder whether the loss of baseball is really what’s tormenting Henry, or whether there’s been something pathological about him all along. I object to the tendency society as a whole seems to have for diagnosing from a distance and with limited information. But Henry is fictional, so with that caveat in place, I’ll say that his reaction to walking away from baseball throws the observations I’ve made so far – about the essential emptiness of his character – into a wholly different light. What do you think: is Henry grieving normally? Or was he, by pursuing baseball so single-mindedly, staving off this feeling all along?