If I was going to pick one chapter of The Art of Fielding to excerpt on Pitchers & Poets it would be Chapter 50. Chapter 50 deals explicitly with none of the story’s main characters – Guert Affenlight is there, but only as a literary device allowing Chad Harbach to philosophize about baseball. The chapter, less than three pages, is a self-contained meditation on Steve Blas Disease, also known as the yips.
Affenlight, scout Dwight Rogner, and philosopher-shortstop Aparacio Rodriguez are sitting behind the backstop watching baseball. In the beginning they talk about “Sasser. Wholers. Knoblauch. Sax.” (With a great dig by Aparicio at Sax’s failed Republican campaign for the CA State Assembly.) There is a lot happening in the dialogue. Mainly, baseball men are sympathetic to the sufferers of Steve Blass Disease – principally Blass himself. In a slightly stilted, slightly portentous bit of expository dialogue, Aparicio establishes the Blass history:
“Clemente was named Most Valuable Player, but the honor could have easily gone to Mr. Blass,” Aparicio says. “He had an exceptional ability to control the baseball.”
Clemente’s death is presented as a possible cause for his loss of control.
“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.”
Then, half-a-page later, Rogner delivers the line of all lines. The one that gets at the essential futility, the cosmic joke, that is trying to understand the ruined or un-ruined baseball player’s mind. He is talking about Chuck Knoblauch’s move to the outfield where the throws are much longer than from second-base. “Sometimes harder is easier,” Rogner says.
(Off-topic slightly: one day we will do a Reading Club or some other extensive project on Pitchers & Poets about Sadaharu Oh’s memoir “Sadaharu Oh! A Zen Way of Baseball,” the very premise of which is exactly that: “harder is easier.” In the meantime, Ted wrote a great essay about Oh and Jeff Bagwell during 90s first basemen week.)
All this sets the stage for the key exchange between Aparcio and Affenlight, who is wisely afraid to bring up Henry Skrimshander directly because he is afraid of violating one of baseball’s codes. Affenlight asks if the yips really never happened before Steve Blass in 1973. Then Aparicio gets all postmodern:
“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.”
To this Affenlight begins an inner-monoloue that reads as a parody of this very website. He starts off with the year: 1973. The year of Watergate, Roe v. Wade, etc. etc. He thinks of Prufrockian paralysis (the inability to say something you want to say) and of Modernists, finally arriving at the conclusion that “the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.”
But, because everybody in The Art of Fielding is likable, Affenlight quickly backtracks. He sees the humble Aparicio and remembers “literature can turn you into an asshole.” Affenlight’s warning about literature, about our tendency to treat real people like characters, seems like a fundamental part of what Harbach is doing with this novel. His characters – Aparicio Rodriguez excluded because he is more of a spiritual presence than a person– are drawn with extreme humanity. The entire novel can be read as a plea for civility, a grand reaching toward a society where everybody acts like they are on campus at Westish College all the time.
The line about treating people like literary character also gnaws at me because what I do when I write nonfiction is try to draw characters out of real life people – especially athletes. I spend hours trying to build a rounder character out of Milton Bradley, for instance, or Luke Scott based on fairly scant information: the way they stand in the batter’s box, the way another writer portrays them after an interview. In narrative-driven sports writing, which is something that interests me a great deal, we are making the characters of athletes (statistical profiles, selected quotes, on-field style) into real people and then turning back again and using those real people as literary characters.
Harbach doesn’t seem to be warning against projecting – all writers project. And I don’t think the mask of fiction lowers the stakes any. What I do see in Chapter 50 is a case for awareness. The dialogue, the Affenlight monologue, the sympathy ultimately extended to Henry and Steve Blass and all literary characters fictional and nonfictional – they amount to a subtle argument for all of us, readers and writers both, to be more conscientious.