Alex Massie lives in Washington DC from where he writes for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday among other publications. He has long cultivated an affection for sporting causes that are always almost, but not quite, lost - of which the Washington Nationals are only the latest example. Here Alex discusses Roger Angell's Game Time.
Alex Massie on Game Time: A Baseball Companion by Roger Angell
Why choose a book about baseball? Well, in part because it is stultifyingly hot here in Washington DC and no one much wants to stir themselves to contemplate weightier matters. In part, too, because the city is falling in love with baseball all over again as the Washington Nationals, recently relocated from Montreal, surprise us all with their play this season.
Sport, as this city of transfers and transients is discovering, can bind a community together. For the first time since the Washington Senators left town thirty years ago the capital is part of America's great summer conversation. That feels good.
I was introduced to Roger Angell's work in the autumn of 1998 by a colleague at Scotland on Sunday, Alan Taylor, who assured me and the rest of the sports desk (I was its junior member at the time) that Angell was 'the finest sportswriter in the world'. We were sceptical about this but Taylor was right. Angell is as good as it gets.
He enjoys what is perhaps the most comfortable perch in sports writing. Angell has been the New Yorker's baseball writer since 1962 and is still pitching strong today. Not bad for an 85-year-old. His position gives him the luxuries, denied to most sports writers, of time and length, even as it raises the bar for success: this is the New Yorker, it better be good. Happily, it always is.
In addition to his baseball duties, Angell has been a fiction editor at the magazine, tailoring stories by the likes of John Updike, William Trevor and too many others to mention. That experience, one must suspect, has served his own prose well.
It helps that his beat is baseball. Like cricket and boxing, it is a game that takes place within clearly defined parameters and whose terminology is instantly familiar to fans: cover drive, left jab, a curve ball - in each of these instances, the reader can imagine the action with a greater degree of precision than is the case with descriptions of other, more fluid, sports such as rugby or football.
This is a boon to sportswriters but does nothing to diminish Angell's achievements in forty years of magazine reporting and half a dozen collections of his work, of which Game Time, published in 2003, is the most recent. A mixture of profiles and reports, it is, simply, the best writing on baseball there is. As Richard Ford notes in his introduction, the only good thing about the end of the baseball year is that it means the New Yorker will soon publish Roger Angell's recap of, and reflections on, the season just past.
Perhaps no other part of American life is as prone to sentimentality as baseball. This is, I know, a big claim but in baseball the past is always greener; the story of the modern game is a tale of innocence lost. This is particularly the case now, as widespread steroid use has cast doubt on the honesty of today's ballplayers' achievements. Angell, thankfully, has no time for this.
In an ironic, fractious age - he writes - we crave a less distracted view of baseball, and cling to the the notion that the game can still be as sweet as we imagined it when we were kids, and the players still country lads or gallant Gehrigs or jovially naughty, like the Babe [Ruth]. Major League baseball holds out this hope in its misty P.R. on the pastime... screening that excerpt from 'Field of Dreams' in which James Earl Jones says, 'This field, this game, reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.' Get a grip.Angell is not a fussy writer. His prose has a gentle, rolling momentum like the rhythm of a yacht skimming through a light swell at sea. There is grace and little sign of effort here. Vividness too: one example, chosen almost randomly - an injured player is 'dry-docked with bad knees'. Could there be a more perfect description of athletic helplessness? Or try this from 1977:
With the strange insect gaze of his shining eyeglasses, with his ominous Boche-like helmet pulled low, with his massive shoulders, his gauntleted wrists, his high-held bat, and his enormously muscled legs spread wide, Reggie Jackson makes a frightening figure at bat.Or this, on the New York Yankees' 18-year hiatus between world championships that finally ended in 1996 - an unacceptable drought for the game's greatest franchise:
For a third of a century the Yankees have presented themselves as the sports equivalent of imperial Rome. For them, bygone emperors and Praetorians can never die, and bewreathed shades of Ruth and Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra and Ford, Casey and Billy, Reggie and the Mick, still shuffle about the Bronxian temple, rearranging their togas and clearing their throats during every losing streak.In two sentences, Angell demonstrates how trying to live up to the past can cripple the present, even as the opportunity to do so must be considered a privilege. You don't need to know anything about Reggie or Mick to feel the tingle of the amphitheatre here.
Like cricket, baseball is a tough game. It is predicated upon failure. Even the best batter will fail to hit the ball safely six times in ten, while a pitcher's margin for error makes walking a tightrope look comfortable. The best teams will lose sixty times during the marathon 162-game season. The game is, as Beckett put it, a case of 'Fail. Fail again. Fail better'. It's not too trite to say that this is largely true of life too.
The length of the season is important. The game is always there and baseball has a rhythm of its own. April optimism, when everything seems possible, gives way to midsummer doldrums when your team is struggling, stuck, going nowhere but backwards in the standings, before the sport stirs itself in September for a last gasp dash to the pennant and the post-season, prior to serving up the concentrated delights of the climactic World Series.
For all that, Angell also recognizes that, again like cricket, the game can irritate. It can even be boring for long stretches, before waking up thanks to a moment of supreme skill or grace that makes you gasp to your neighbour, 'Did you see that?' Those moments remain lodged in the memory for years to come. But you need the boredom for the good memories and the shining moments to matter.
Angell says that it never occurred to him, in selecting the pieces for Game Time, that he was 'putting down history or looking for something to say about the American psyche. It was only about the games and the players, and how I felt, watching.' Nonetheless his writing reaches beyond the mechanics of baseball.
Perhaps my favourite piece in this collection is an excerpt from Angell's book A Pitcher's Story: Innings with David Cone, which follows the New York Yankee pitcher for a season in the course of which he had suffered a mystifying loss of form. His pitches lacked snap and direction and he was suffering the most miserable season of a long and distinguished career. It is a deeply moving book, as Cone struggles to recapture what had once been effortless and was now bafflingly elusive. (Cone, by coincidence, pitched the first baseball game I ever saw in person and remained a favourite until his retirement.)
Cone looked thinner than he had in the spring, and I suspected that his season was getting to him away from the park now, too. Always an insomniac, he'd been short of sleep for weeks. It wasn't like the old days, when pain in the arm or shoulder woke him up every night, and when painkillers bothered his stomach, and sleeping pills left him down and dopey. He had no pain at all this year - he felt great - and that in turn, added to his broodings in the dark. Maybe he needed pain in order to throw right...In just a few deceptively simple lines, Angell has given us a picture of torment.
Pitching is style [he writes], and when you have it it appears innate and untouchable: yes, this is me. When it's gone, you must think and grope - it's more a psychic loss than something mechanical - and you feel bereft and clunky even before you've been punished by another defeat.This isn't only true of baseball.
As I say, Angell resists sentimentality, but he is alive to sentiment. His essay on the 2001 World Series, which took place just six weeks after the destruction of the World Trade Center, is another masterpiece of subtle empathy.
You knew it was no ordinary series when you realised that for once, if also understandably, most of America wanted the normally-hated Yankees to prevail in their struggle with the upstart, arriviste, Arizona Diamondbacks.
It was a series drenched with exhausting emotion and melodrama that tested credulity, needing no outside factors to raise it to classic status. Angell makes only a couple of fleeting references to September 11th, enough to anchor his article in the moment, but not enough to try and claim that baseball was having to carry more significance than it could or should.
In the end, the Yankees lost a deciding game seven, far across the country in Phoenix. At the time that felt sad but oddly right. A Yankee victory would have been too perfect. And baseball, like life, is not a game of perfect. It is, as Angell reminds us, most especially only a game when it seems to be representing something more than just a game played with a bat and a ball. It's good enough to stand alone, and it's never better than when Roger Angell is writing about it.
[A list of the pieces that have appeared to date in this series, with the links to them, is here.]