Posted in Baseball, Books

The Art of Baseball

It was a beautiful day for baseball.

Several months ago, after Johan Santana pitched his no-hitter, when David Wright was still hitting .365 and the Mets—the Mets!!!—looked like they had an honest-to-God shot at the wildcard, I bought tickets to the last home game of the season. I figured even if they didn’t make the playoffs, it would still be fun to be at Citi Field just to be a fan on a September day.

Then there was the All-Star Game. And then they tanked. At this point there’s no use revisiting the second half of the Mets’ season. Despite their yearly “Eureka! We’ve solved it!,” management still has so many needs to address in the team roster that even the most devoted fans do not expect miracles.

But what never failed to cheer us this season was the performance of R.A. Dickey, he of the wizard knuckleball. I saw his two back-to-back one-hitters, with one batter after another flailing at his pitches as the strike-outs piled up. All the sports writers and announcers seemingly agree—Dickey has basically re-invented the pitch. He’s got a soft knuckleball, a fast knuckleball and one that seems to drop like a stone. The man is 37 years old,  he’s leading the National League in strike-outs as I write this, and if he doesn’t win the Cy Young Award, there’s something seriously wrong with the universe.

Yesterday I was at Citi Field when he went for his 20th win of the season. Though the weatherman predicted rain, the sun was shining when R.A. threw the first pitch. The fans were totally into it—he got an ovation when he walked in from the bullpen, and every time he took the mound, the chant began: “R.A. Dickey [clap, clap, clapclapclap].” It was by no means a masterpiece—the knuckleball didn’t always knuckle in the second, third and fourth innings, and he was let down a couple of times by players out of position (I’m looking at you, Josh Thole and Andres Torres). But Dickey got stronger as the game went on, and by the time he left in the top of the eighth inning, he had 13 strike-outs and a 6-3 lead. The game, which included a phenomenal catch by Pirates right-fielder Travis Snider and a three-run homer by David Wright, ended with Dickey getting that 20th win, the first Met pitcher to do so since Frank Viola in 1990.

What a way to end the season at home.

______________________________________________________________________________________________

What’s the measure of a good book? I’ve always thought it was how long it took you to get into another. If after finishing a novel you find yourself with a discard pile of five or more rejects and you’re still scrounging, I’d say the author of the work you’ve just finished has done his or her job. Such was my experience with Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

Let’s get something out of the way first: yes, it’s about baseball, namely college shortstop Henry Skrimshander. But it’s also about that college’s president, Guert Affenlight, who at the age of 61, finds himself falling in love with a man (a student, no less) for the first time in his life. It’s also about that college president’s daughter, Pella—former prep school drop-out and teen bride—who leaves her four-year marriage and moves in with the father she barely knows. Not to mention two other students—Mike Schwartz, the team’s catcher, talent scout and fierce motivator, and Owen Dunne, the object of the college president’s yearnings, a scholar and third place hitter whom his teammates call “Buddha.”

Most of all, “The Art of Fielding” (which is also the title of a work penned by Henry’s major league idol) is about gifts—talent, love, life and the game of baseball—and how these characters deal with them.  It’s by no means a sunshiny book—there’s an incident that sets many things in motion, not the least of which is Henry’s developing a monumental case of the yips and how it affects those around him. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel with a set of such engaging characters, and even though there are times you might want to bang their heads together, they stay with you. I highly recommend it.

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