Monthly Archive for October, 2011

P&P Reading Club: Pete Beatty on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbach Pete Beatty is a future boss at The Classical and P&P’s resident Jim Thome scholar.

“Comedy aims at representing men as worse, Tragedy as better than in actual life.”–Poetics

“Is Ahab, Ahab?”–Moby-Dick, Ch 132

As Henry and Schwartz and the fifth business folks eddy toward Act V, things have taken a not-unwelcome turn toward the predictable. The story hangs on the national championship, even if the Skrimmer’s defective wing and Americanitis aren’t responding to treatment, not even the alienated love of the strangely static Pella. Guert’s desperate, curious love for Owen has brough his  administration down, but home ownership and anchor pets may bring a happy tomorrow. The lines of the plot are largely drawn, but what we’re left with is little more than a skeletal sketch, flawlessly styled but a bit transparent.

The burden of making this book flesh has fallen on character, as a stock-in-trade, in the form of Henry and Mike. Both boys/men are increasingly damaged; Schwartz especially:

All he could have today was … the knowledge that there’d be at least two more games–because nationals were double-elimination–before he had to face his fucked up life … He’d never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn’t double edged, that couldn’t just as easily become its opposite.

Henry, chapters earlier, expresses the same essential frailty in a goofier way:

Sometime in elementary school his class had read Anne Frank’s diary, and Henry, terribly alarmed, asked why Anne hadn’t simply pretended not to be Jewish. The way Peter escaped from the Romans by pretending not to be a Christian. Peter got in trouble for that in the Biblbe, but if you put it in the context of poor Anne, who was not only real but a kid, didn’t it make sense? What difference did it make what religion you were, if you were dead?

The Art of Fielding is largely powered by character. Our rooting interests in Henry and Schwartz and Pella, and even lesser lights like Starblind and Chef Spirodocus and Contango the dog, are what bind us to the work. The universe of Westish, much like the Seven Kingdoms of George R.R. Martin (and notably unlike the deck of the Pequod) is only engaging insofar as we thrill to the doings of our heroes. While Henry and Schwartz are brilliantly realized and complex, they’re not given much in the way of a plot to interact with. Aristote might disagree with this sentiment, but I don’t particularly mind. I can see where this novel is headed, and in fact I might have guessed it–but knowing a game is scheduled for nine innings doesn’t detract from the tragicomedy. Or is this comedy? Or dramedy?

My last question before the final installment: Henry’s paralysis versus Schwartz’s self-hatred: I think I’m with Henry. Which is weird, because I am totally a Schwartzian to this point. Anybody else feeling their sympathies drift Skrimward?

P&P Reading Club: Patrick Dubuque on The Art of Fielding Chapters 53-72

he art of fielding by chad harbachI first read Siddhartha in my mid-twenties, the perfect time.  I had performed all the necessary rites: earned my useless liberal arts degree, failing classes and writing awful songs for the guitar.  I had lived overseas and returned; I found a low-paying professional job and wore ties.  I joined a bar-league softball team.  I joined a book club.

I read Siddhartha and discovered that I hadn’t been wasting my life; I’d just been honing myself, voyaging unknowingly on a lifelong journey, often in circles but inevitably forward.  I was hunting for my Kamala, throwing dice and laughing.  Naturally, I ate this up.  I brought my notes to the book club and drank other people’s merlot, mostly to insert pauses in my own conversations.

What I found so enthralling was the book’s sense of velocity, its unending pace toward wisdom or destitution or both.  Everything to me was progress, each day a matter of new wisdom and new experience.  For the athlete, particularly the baseball player, this is not so.  By the time they gain sufficient wisdom, a workable change-up or plate discipline and strength, they have already begun to die.  Their every effort must be design to combat this; every misplayed ball, every lazy workout bends a man further from perfection.

In The Art of Fielding, Schwartz uses a machinery metaphor to explain the baseball player, rendering him soulless.  There is no sudden beauty, no art, only reliability.  Henry, the ideal ballplayer, never deviates, never rests.  Finally Henry-the-Machine breaks down and baptizes himself in the lake, no longer able to live among the world without belonging to it.  One of Harbach’s themes is the shunning of the effects of time: Affenlight hiding from old age, Schwartz adulthood, Henry perfection.  The following chapters see Henry efface himself, tear down the temple he has built to himself and baseball, the muscles and sinew eroding.  Each day he sleeps through, each decimal of body fat raised, feels like a tragedy.

By the end of Chapter 72 we and Henry have reached a crossroads: where will Harbach take him from here?  Siddhartha is dragged from the river by his friend Govinda and finds enlightenment in his emptiness.  Will Henry find his own, and what form will it take?  Will it be in baseball, a return to the simple joy of the game Aparicio hated to leave?  Or will it require the casting off of baseball, a return to the idyllic pasture of the Midwest?

I’m in my thirties now, still wandering in circles.  I’m still reading Siddhartha, still pontificating in book groups.  It’s no coincidence.  I don’t have the sort of character, the capacity to achieve Henry’s level of greatness, nor his level of misery.  I’m not driven enough, not myopic enough to concentrate on a single task, put all my chips on one number.  Perhaps it’s cowardice.  But I can’t help but disagree when Henry claims that “the only life worth living is the unfree life”, because he doesn’t understand freedom.  He sees the cigarettes and women and knowledge as freedom, or an attempt at it, when all they are is another reach for control over one’s life.

Freedom is what we see in Owen, in name the Buddha, in reality opportunistic hedonism made practical.  Owen needs nothing and takes what’s available.  It’s not life free of pain, as Schwartz hopes for, nor life ignorant of it; it’s life free of the fear of pain.   It’s illicit merlot.  It’s Aparicio’s vision of the game, a samurai code that cannot be broken because it is continually being remade.  Sometimes, it’s a double-header at shortstop, hoping each ball is hit to you, another chance to do something brilliant.

Theater in the Round: Jose Valverde, Ritual, and Performance

Yesterday morning I drove across the Mississippi River, the Velvet Underground playing on the stereo, and thought about Jose Valverde.

Like Lou Reed, Jose Valverde understands performance. He understands, on some stratum beneath consciousness, that his job is to channel and deliver, on stage, the passions that we common folks are advised against during group outings at work and with family. The gestures of Papa Grande–stiffened hands slicing the air and pointing, legs splaying outward–are cryptic if expressive signs in the language of his performance.

When you say that Jose Valverde performed well, you mean that he performed well.

After years in quiet Phoenix and Houston, where he mostly pitched well and gained the odd headline for ticking off a better known hitter, Valverde is now a baseball celebrity. with the exposure that comes with playing on a good Detroit Tigers team, in the playoffs. Closers, too, enjoy a special spotlight, showing up as they do for the most interesting outs in baseball. Excepting the St. Louis Cardinals, there’s a fair chance that a good team’s closer is a key figure for fans. Papa Grande is no exception, and he adds to his own intrigue with his kinetic style, a gyrating throwing motion, and a catalogue of hand gestures and leg kicks after his most successful pitches that suggest a celebratory taxonomy emerging in small bits from behind a curtain.

I first got to know Valverde when he closed games for the Astros in 2008 and 2009, after the team traded away some relievers and a utility infielder. They paid nothing for a fine closer. I recall some grousing about Valverde’s style back then, in reference to an Astro player/s getting upset with Valverde’s stylistic flourishes. I consider the light moaning to be more an indictment of the conservative Houston fan base–“Bagwell and Biggio would neverlet him get away with that if they were still around.”–than of Valverde. (Few fan bases demand that their players slide back to a quiet, white bread cultural middle like the Houston set. I’m convinced that the 2006 Astros set some kind of record for homogeneity. The potential move to the AL, for one example, excites the hell out of me with the chance to watch a DH play and enjoy some Texas-based gnarliness with the Rangers. Many Astros fans, however, are gritting their teeth and hunkering down like Bud Selig was a revenuer come to take what’s rightfully theirs. They (we?) invent half-fictional rivalries and call upon only moderately interesting history. Houston has its pockets of weird, but Minute Maid Park is not one of them.) Valverde was looked upon cautiously, but accepted quickly after saving games.

What I learned about him that I didn’t already know is that Valverde considers all of pitching to be a series of rituals and performances, not just the successes. The fire-brand of his celebrations is only the culmination of a long process, to this video of him. Ritual is the umbrella concept, under which comes celebration, along with .

Matt Crossman of The Sporting News recently wrote about him in the context of a ballsy–and ultimately inaccurate–prediction by Valverde, the details of which are irrelevant but available for analysis. After noting Valverde’s up-and-down performance, Crossman writes, “I have seen Valverde on the mound, acting like a 4-year-old who drank 16 Red Bulls.” I’ve never met a 4-year-old who’s had even one Red Bull, so I can’t speak to the metaphor, but embedded in the jab is a misunderstanding of performance. A child doesn’t know what he is doing. Valverde knows full well the mechanics and demeanor of a typical major league pitcher, and simply refuses. “Is he a man to take too seriously?” Crossman asks nobody, because he has already provided his answer. “Is he a man to whose quotes we should assign great value?”

It is the baseball way to simultaneously demand more excitement while belittling the players who promise it. Idiosyncrasy feeds the culture that slaps it around.

There is nothing juvenile about the way that he pitches, and nothing that suggests a 4-year-old. The deliberateness of his gestures cements their purpose; each is a kind of physical trigger mechanism corresponding to a real need. One of his rituals is to take a swig of bottled water, then spit in three directions when he steps onto the field. “Sometimes, it’s too much pressure,” Valverde said by way of unnecessary explanation. “Taking my water and throwing it left, right, in the middle, the pressure goes away a little bit, you know what I mean.” There is work to be done in the rare air of an MLB game, and it requires, for Papa Grande, a unique language.

Some of that language is showmanship, of course. An audience and the performer are symbiotic. The performer makes signs that the audience can read. The audience chooses in what light they’ll take them in.

In a recent episode (“Masks”) of his podcast, The Smartest Man in the World, comedian Greg Proops told a story he read in Donald Hall’s really quite amazing book Fathers Playing Catch with Sons about Dock Ellis hanging out with Wrigley Field bleacher creatures behind the outfield wall. Proops lamented the unlikelihood of today’s athletes emulating those turns, his example being the infinitesimal odds of Tom Brady sacrificing a chunk of Giselle time to hang out with “the fat people.” Proops goes on to praise Ellis for wearing hair curlers during pregame warm-ups, driving a car with leather on the outside, and, of course, pitching a no-hitter while afloat on acid. “Maybe the word ‘styling’ doesn’t have any meaning anymore, but it did then [the 70s], when Reggie Jackson and Vida Blue roamed the fucking earth wearing white shoes–white shoes!–while they played professional sports.”

Proops is brilliantly mad himself, and a relentless performer, so it isn’t a surprise that he favors the radiant controlled chaos of high performance. Valverde, in that light, understands the nature of performance in a way that few players seem to today. Valverde’s refusal to look towards home plate before he throws, and his refusal to acquiesce to the standards for pitching mechanics, are akin to the testy refusal of a comedian to leave the politics out of his act, or to speak down to his audiences. (If it’s not obvious by now, I fully endorse The Smartest Man in the World.) The Papa Grande split-finger pitch is a jarring plot twist; his fastball a polished expletive.

The man can pitch, and like a seasoned character actor, each gesture, pitch, and reaction serves the immediate goal, winning, and the greater goal: the theater of baseball.

Baseball requires a performance to perform. Valverde performs on the stage itself, as he performs. The field is a world distinct from our own. It’s a stage, built for strange feats. Baseball is a rock show, where plain clothes don’t look right. The Mississippi River is an old man that makes big boats look small, and the Velvet Underground had a singer who couldn’t sing.

I was watching a concert on TV the other day, on that music channel that actually plays music that I couldn’t tell you the name of. A band I really like, The New Pornographers, were performing some of their upbeat songs. But something was off with their jam. They sounded good, and they were trying hard out there, but it was crap in the end. The problem, I realized, was that they were dressed normally. Every band member was put together like they were headed to Starbucks for a Saturday morning brew while they planned out the day. Ill-fitting pants and drab skirts and shorts with grubby sneakers. When I close my eyes and listen to The New Pornographers, I’m coasting a hundred feet off the ground looking down on a sparkling future city. When I opened them and cast my gaze on these schlubs, I saw a suburban Panera Bread.

My point is that the band lacked a respect for the stage. Talk about unwritten rules in baseball, an unwritten rule in rock and roll is that the audience deserves a complete performance. A band has got to risk going too far before it risks coming up short. The performance and the risk are eternal bed buddies.

Jose Valverde respects the stage.

P&P Reading Club: Compassion, the Yips, & Chapter 50 of The Art of Fielding

he art of fielding by chad harbach 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.

P&P Reading Club: Adam Webb on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34- 52

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

I have made a point of avoiding anything that might spoil any part of TAF for me. I *did* buy last month’s Vanity Fair so I could read Keith Gessen’s article on TAF as a snapshot of the publishing industry (Interesting and infuriating note: when you get to the end of the Keith Gessen article there’s a notice that Vanity Fair is selling a longer version of the article in ebook format) but I read the article carefully, skipping over the paragraphs describing the TAF’s plot and the ways the book changed over the last 10 years. I remained in the dark, exactly where I wanted to be.
So I was pretty upset when I came across a Facebook comment a little over a week ago about Henry’s case of Steve Blass disease. Last week the same diagnosis showed up on this website from other bookclubbers. Had I fallen behind on the reading schedule? Had I skipped the chapter where Schwartz and Pella dragged Henry to the doctor?

If “Steve Blass disease” had been an obscure enough baseball term to show up in the Rogue’s Baseball Index, I might have remembered it from my studies.

I can no longer pass. My baseball knowledge is so shallow that I thought Steve Blass disease was a medical condition. It feels good to get that out in the open. (Your turn, Guert.)

Last week I wrote that Henry’s collapse wasn’t as interesting to me as the anticipation for what comes after the collapse. Then comes a the riveting scene in which Henry calls it quits mid-game. I’ll need to retract my previous comment.

I would wrap this up by remarking that Pella’s amous bouche of earring is the most compelling example of pica in a baseball novel, but for all I know there was a character in The Natural that ate pencil erasers.

P&P Reading Club: Megan Wells on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34-52

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

Noted things:

  • Pella does everyone else’s half of a fight for them. Chef Spirodocus didn’t even know he was in a fight, and seemed pretty unfazed; but her father and Mike both seemed pretty unsatisfied by the arrangement.
  • The notable exception to this proclivity appears to be David.
  • I don’t think I’ve ever heard “The Waste Land” and the word “natch” uttered side-by-side before. It made me want to punch David in the face.
  • UMSCACs is one of those acronyms that causes an obsessive-compulsive hitch in the flow of my reading, because I’m not sure how to pronounce it in my head. The best I’ve got is Ummskaks, which sounds like some kind of Nordic animal.

Because I was covering it for Around the Horn, I was required to watch all of last night’s NLCS Game 2. As a lifelong Cubs fan, this was pretty painful to begin with; but it became merciless when the Cardinals offense wound up being a virtually unstoppable juggernaut.

Baseball was an art, but to excel at it you had to become a machine. It didn’t matter how beautifully you performed sometimes, what you did on your best day, how many spectacular plays you made. You weren’t a painter or a writer–you didn’t work in private and discard your mistakes, and it wasn’t just your masterpieces that counted. What mattered, as for any machine, was repeatability. Moments of inspiration were nothing compared to elimination of error.

Said juggernaut was, predictably, anchored by a four-extra-base-hit performance from Albert Pujols – nicknamed “the Machine.” At what point – or for which players – does the elimination of error become a thing of inspiration? Can a player turn becoming a machine back into an art?

P&P Reading Club: Bryan Harvey on The Art of Fielding Chapters 34– 52

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 great dilemma for just about almost every character in The Art of Fielding is that they can’t seem to make up their mind if they love or hate something enough to continue it or let it go, from baseball, to women, to men, to men’s beards. Westish College is home to everyone, no one wants to leave it–whether they’d be leaving for law school or the minor leagues–and this refusal to leave is so strong that individuals might even sabotage their own dreams and futures to keep living what they’ve always been. It’s about a fear of success. It’s about a fear of the unknown. It’s about boys refusing to be men–the President of the college basically lives in a dorm room–and it all seeps out of the idea that what’s familiar, repetitive, and habit forming is simultaneously beautiful and neurotic. In other words, this book is very, very modern, but we all knew that. In fact, this book is so modern that, at times, I feel like I’ve already read it, yet my familiarity with its themes, plot, and characters isn’t ruining it for me–it’s actually enhancing my appreciation of Harbach’s talents:

It’s one thing to name a bunch of great books, but it’s another thing entirely to make it appear as if your book belongs alongside with them, like it was already a part of the canon.

The Art of Fielding makes explicit nods to Melville’s Moby Dick, is reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and carries with it the dull Midwest of Fitzgerald’s imagination, but the book also makes subtle nods to Hemingway, like in Chapter 34 when Schwartz and Pella break up. She obviously feels that Henry is a wedge between them, and Schwartz senses that friction: “She was trying to insert herself into his relationship with Henry ” (239), which actually makes her the wedge. And then Harbach even drops the phrase “the end of something” (280), in reference to Affenlight and Owen’s relationship, which has gotta be an allusion to Hemingway’s short story of the same name, or at least one hell of a coincidence, seeing as how it follows six chapters worth of Schwartz and Pella stewing over what went wrong between them. I mean, Hemingway’s story features Nick Adams breaking up with his girlfriend, Marjorie, by a river, that flows on by as he sits stagnantly on the bank with Bill (who comes out of nowhere) eating a picnic basket of food that most people would have eaten with their girlfriend. Replace the river with Lake Michigan and Henry/Schwartz/Affenlight with Nick, and Hemingway’s story becomes Harbach’s, minus a Melville statue that is more capable of attaining happiness than any of the characters in either story appear to be.

So, I guess aside from seconding Pete Beatty’s earlier question (does the midwest make you gay?), I’m wondering how others are perceiving the sheer been-there-done-that modernity of the book? Is it bloody brilliant, or is it off putting? Does it ring true, or does it feel like Harbach is overreaching, forcing comparisons to past greats that would be unwarranted if he didn’t keep reminding us of the similarities? And why is it okay for a writer to do this, but if, for lack of a baseball example, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James were to wag their tongue like Michael, we’d all become anal retentive?

And no matter what your answer is, if you’re like me, you’ve become just like the characters and are procrastinating against reading the rest of the book, not wanting it to end, peering out onto whatever body of water just happens to be the closest to you, wishing it were an escape route.

Unleash the Beast by Matt Christman

Matt Christman is a freelance writer, film critic, and exiled Brewers fan living in Brooklyn.

Due to its draconian penalties against excessive celebration and general horsing off, some wags say that “NFL” stands for “No Fun League,” but that’s actually a much better label for Major League Baseball. At least in football, joyless uniformity of behavior is enforced by the Commissioner’s office. In baseball, the players do it themselves.

Over the past few seasons, the Milwaukee Brewers have gained a league-wide reputation as a gaggle of cocky jackasses. It all started during the 2008 season, with the infamous celebratory untucking of jerseys on the field that caused Tony LaRussa to drop his monocle. Since then, Prince Fielder earned a lifetime of beanings from the San Francisco Giants for a choreographed home run celebration. Now the antics of Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan, who has turned his season into a piece of fan-interactive performance art, have defined the Brewers and riled up opposing teams.

Over the course of the season, Morgan raised the ire of Giants fans with intemperate hand gestures in center field, and he won the hearts of Brewers fan with stunts like going to Twitter to ask Milwaukeans what he should do with an off day, getting a response of “go fly a kite,” and then going to the Milwaukee waterfront to ACTUALLY FLY A KITE (and posting the photo evidence on Twitter, of course). He’s introduced “Beast Mode” to the vocabulary of Brewer players and fans. “Beast Mode” involves Brewers players signaling the dugout with monster claws and screeching and general boisterousness. This has led to Brewers players celebrating extra base hits with a theatricality usually not found on a baseball field. The Cardinals have, of course, been the most vocal detractors of the Brew Crew, with manager Tony LaRussa tut-tutting about decorum and even complaining about the brightness of the scoreboard lights at Miller Park.

Beast Mode

Yet nothing the Brewers have done on the field would raise an eyebrow in any other team sport. That’s because baseball isn’t really a team sport, it just pretends to be one. When a wide receiver dances a jig in the end zone after a touchdown it’s a way for an individual player to break out of the faceless eleven man herd and assert his personal achievement. In baseball, even standing in the batter’s box for a second too long after hitting a home run is like spitting in the pitcher’s face. Giving up a touchdown is a failure of the entire defensive unit. Even if a cornerback gets completely torched, it’s unlikely he’s the only defender on the field who screwed up. In baseball, the failure is all on one man, standing all by himself on a big pile of dirt in the middle of the field. Any kind of exuberance on the part of a hitter reads as a personal insult. So baseball players maintain the illusion of teamwork in a covertly individual game by protecting their teammate’s egos, marking showboaters for future retaliation.

What folks like Tony LaRussa and other defenders of baseball’s unwritten rules don’t realize is that the high stepping of the Brew Crew has nothing to do with the chump on the mound who just got lit up. Untucked shirts and Beast Mode serve the same purpose for the Brewers that ordering Jason Motte to plunk Ryan Braun does for LaRussa. These rituals are a creative alchemy meant to turn nine individual players with nine individual stat lines and responsibilities into an actual team, just like retaliation, but more fun for the players and the fans. Do any of these team-building shenanigans actually make a difference on the field? Probably not. But it’s a blast to watch, and more importantly for fans, it takes the often remote and characterless assemblage of millionaires that make up a baseball team and gives them a collective personality that’s captivating to watch because it supplies the game with narrative and personal context. In a time when massive player salaries and social networking sites like Twitter have simultaneously make baseball players more remote and more accessible to the average fan, the Brewers approach to the game is the only viable one. If fans can’t relate to baseball players as people, if teams can’t “brand” themselves based on the personalities of said players, then there simply is no future for major league baseball.

This week’s National League Championship series is ground zero for baseball’s kulturkampf. The flamboyant Brewers are facing off against what Nyjer Morgan has called the “Plain-Jane Wonderbreads” of Saint Louis and their skipper, Captain of the S.S. NoFun, Tony LaRussa. It’s hard to imagine that any fan without a rooting interest in either team could look at the matchup and actually prefer the Cardinal’s joyless Mechan-o-Men to T. Plush’s irrepressible cohorts. What’s more likely to capture the imagination of the general viewer: Beast Mode or Albert Pujols’ dead-eyed stare? The key to winning the undying devotion of the sporting public is giving them something to root for other than a uniform color. So my advice for the next pitcher who gets red-assed over some Tony Plush hijinx is this: instead of just grimly plunking the next batter for the effrontery of his teammate, strike him out and make up your own damn celebration.

P&P Reading Club: David Matthews on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachDavid Matthews is a former Deadspin scribe and nnow one of those freelance writers in Brookly. Durng 90s First Basemen Week, he wrote about the stylish Fred McGriff.

Through the first 230 or so pages, The Art of Fielding has introduced me to a wonderful small community (near Door County, Wisconsin, where I have summered before–if one can call getting drunk with high-school friends at or around bonfires, sneaking into resort pools, and playing far too much mini-golf “summering”) in Westish College. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with these characters and relating to them–Pella’s inner monologue concerning whether or not she should clean Schwartzy’s dishes perhaps most of all. I admit it, I am a fussbudget. While it sucks for them, watching Henry and Mike deal with disappointment is nothing short of compelling. As much as I have wanted to race ahead of this reading club, I am holding back in order to prolong this reading experience (and also because I share Pete’s sentiment that things are going to get exponentially worse before returning to the brightness that peaked with the montage of both Henry’s and the Harpooners’ rapid ascension–I mean, I hope).

However, something has been nagging at me thus far: This novel’s striking familiarity, the small-town setting, the host of characters dealing with their own struggles amidst their standing within the greater community, etc. What I’m getting at is the book reminds me a whole hell of a lot of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. According to Bartleby, that work “allows us to enter the alternately complex, lonely, joyful and strange lives of the inhabitants of the small town.” If that doesn’t describe a wunderkind shortstop coming down with the case of the yips, an eloper attempting to make up for lost time, and a preeminent Melville scholar holing up (?) at a small liberal arts college in rural Wisconsin, I don’t know what does. Where Anderson was focusing on the loneliness and isolation of living in a small town, Harbach is probing the very same among an even smaller set of people: A father and daughter who might only be connected by a tattoo, friends whose relationship resembles a teeter-totter, one that is just now starting to change direction.

Most of all, I am reminded of the character George Willard, the young man about town and central character in Anderson’s collection. I see parts of him in the relationship between Guert Affenlight and Owen Dunne. The George who is looking for sexual experience and later wants to fall in love in order to have material for a short story. Guert seems in a state of infatuation with Owen, and it would be sweet if it was May-December love, and not a last-semester fling. Like George Willard eventually does, I feel Guert will also find Owen, or someone else, to stimulate him in a multitude of ways, and Harbach’s laid the groundwork for that to occur.

However, and I may just be thinking this to support my own theory, Owen reminds me of the darker side of George Willard. The one we meet much earlier who acts superior to his surroundings. Whereas George just sort of wants to hightail it to the big city, and get laid if he can, Owen seems to have undergone trauma before having his cheekbone crushed by an errant throw. We don’t know all that much about Owen’s breakup, but it seems like he may be playing with Guert thus far, something Pete seems to have seen as well. I hope I am wrong, but I am reminded of the following passage in the “Nobody Knows” section of Winesburg, Ohio, where Willard takes advantage of a young woman named Louise in order to lose his virginity:

“He remembered the look that had lurked in the girl’s eyes when they had met on the streets and thought of the note she had written. Doubt left him. The whispered tales concerning her that had gone about town gave him confidence. He became wholly the male, bold and aggressive. In his heart there was no sympathy for her. “Ah, come on, it’ll be all right. There won’t be anyone know anything. How can they know?” he urged. They began to walk along a narrow brick sidewalk between the cracks of which tall weeds grew. Some of the bricks were missing and the sidewalk was rough and irregular. He took hold of her hand that was also rough and thought it delightfully small. “I can’t go far,” she said and her voice was quiet, unperturbed.”

Now, Owen is by no means a virgin, and unfortunately for both men, he currently cannot open his mouth, but their secret affair or courtship rings out when I reread this passage. Is Owen, someone for whom everything comes easy, tired of moderating the Prison or High School games and looking for a new challenge before heading off to Japan for his prestigious fellowship? Or something else entirely?

So am I grasping at straws with these comparisons? Is the Guert-Owen relationship just the normal fumbling and bumbling that comes with new love, or are we on the cusp of seeing immeasurable heartbreak handed down on one or both of these men? Bigger picture-wise: do you think Chad Harbach is going to be inducted into the American literary canon? Is such even possible anymore?

P&P Reading Club: Dayn Perry on The Art of Fielding Chapters 18 – 33

he art of fielding by chad harbachDayn Perry is a senior writer at NotGraphs and skilled Reggie Jackson biographer.

My thoughts on Phase Two of the novel that binds us? I have little to add that hasn’t already been laid out on these pages by previous, smarter readers. I do, however, suspect that Pella and Henry will have, at they very least, a romantic dalliance in the pages to come. The problem is that any plot turn that I can anticipate is likely too obvious by half, so part of me hopes this doesn’t come to pass. Besides, I have already developed an unhealthy interest in seeing Schwartz and Pella work things out to my satisfaction.

Anyhow, instead of regaling you with my lack of insight, I’m going to cast “The Art of Fielding: The Movie.” Since I’m but halfway through the book, I reserve the right to fire any and all cast members should circumstances dictate. For now, though, I decree the following:

Henry Skrimshander – Jesse Eisenberg

He’s gangly, awkward and withdrawn. I have no idea if he can feign the necessary athleticism, but that’s what body double David Eckstein is for.

Mike Schwartz – Chris Pratt

The unimpeachable tells me that Mr. Pratt is 6-foot-2. He also seems capable of thesis-beard growth and related bearishness.

Owen Dunne – Thomas Hobson

If Jeffrey Wright were, say, 15 years younger, I’d bestow my casting blessings upon him. Things as they are, however, I am mandating, in my Judge Lance Ito fashion, that Mr. Hobson be given the job. And, yes, my spawn inflicts Nick Jr.’s “Fresh Beat Band” upon me, which is why I’m familiar with Mr. Hobson’s work in the first place. So Hobson is the choice. Hobson’s choice. Ha!

Guert Affenlight – Victor Gerber

When I think of “accomplished third-generation cracker with sublimated homosexual longing,” I think of James Mason. But then I remember than James Mason is dead and also terribly British. So then I think of Victor Gerber.

Pella Affenlight – Greta Gerwig

Effortlessly attractive, smart, complicated without striving to appear so … Also, I believe I’m in love with her. Greta, that is, not Pella. Yet.

Genevieve (What’s her surname?) – Lisa Gay Hamilton

The hair works, as does the yoga-toned body. She also seems capable of playing a television anchor who is orders of magnitude more lucid than you’re garden-variety television anchor.

The floor is now open for complaints, well-mannered or otherwise.