I dragged my feet on reading this one, despite all the great reviews: after all, it was about baseball, wasn’t it? and I wasn’t interested in a book about baseball, no matter how well written. But The Art of Fielding is about baseball like To Kill a Mockingbird is about ornithology. Actually, that’s a bad analogy. I learned a lot more about baseball from this book than I learned about birds from Mockingbird, not to take anything away from either experience.
There are five main characters in this book, three of them ballplayers at Westish College, the other two the college president and his daughter. Harbach took me so completely into each of their heads that I did end up caring how their season went. In fact some of the most suspenseful parts of the book for me were the final games. For a baseball fan, that would be expected, but as someone who doesn’t merely not care about baseball, but is actively bored by watching even a few minutes of it, I surprised myself. I enjoy watching stereotypes shattered, even if they’re ones I’ve been carrying around in my head since childhood, and the three ballplayers in this story (Henry Skrimshander, an overly self-analytical prodigy; Owen Dunne, a gay environmentalist and compulsive reader; and Mike Schwartz, a grumpy student coach with the knees of a 90-year-old and an encyclopedic knowledge of the classics) left shards of my assumptions littering the floor around me.
The college president and his estranged daughter were as singular characters as the other three. President Affenlight, a single father for most of his life, has lost his daughter Pella to a teenage marriage to a much older man. Now the marriage is falling apart, and his daughter’s psyche is unraveling. She makes a snap decision to come home to her dad, and arrives without luggage, which leaves her dad off balance: is she home to stay, or just for a visit? During the season, both Affenlight and Pella’s lives become entangled with those of the ballplayers to a life-changing degree for all five of them.
Harbach’s writing is being compared to Jonathan Franzen and John Irving, as well as the baseball writings of Roger Angell and Bernard Malamud. I wasn’t reminded of either Irving or Franzen, though I’m a fan of both, and haven’t read Angell or Malamud;s The Natural.
Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the book — Schwartz is seeing Henry play for the first time:
When he opened his eyes the South Dakota shortstop was jogging back onto the field. As the kid crossed the pitcher’s mound he peeled off his uniform jersey and tossed it aside. He wore a sleeveless white undershirt, had an impossibly concave chest and a fierce farmer’s burn. His arms were as big around as Schwartz’s thumbs. He’d swapped his green Legion cap for a faded red St. Louis Cardinals one. Shaggy dust- blond curls poked out beneath. He looked fourteen, fifteen at most, though the tournament minimum was seventeen.
During the game, Schwartz had figured the kid was too small to hit high heat, so he’d called for one fastball after another, up and in. Before the last, he’d told the kid what was coming and added, “Since you can’t hit it anyway.” The kid swung and missed, gritted his teeth, turned to make the long walk back to the dugout. Just then Schwartz said — ever so softly, so that it would seem to come from inside the kid’s own skull — “Pussy.” The kid paused, his scrawny shoulders tensed like a cat’s, but he didn’t turn around. Nobody ever did.
Now when the kid reached the worked- over dust that marked the shortstop’s spot, he stopped, bouncing on his toes and jangling his limbs as if he needed to get loose. He bobbed and shimmied, windmilled his arms, burning off energy he shouldn’t have had. He’d played as many games in this brutal heat as Schwartz.
Moments later the South Dakota coach strolled onto the field with a bat in one hand and a five- gallon paint bucket in the other. He set the bucket beside home plate and idly chopped at the air with the bat. Another of the South Dakota players trudged out to first base, carrying an identical bucket and yawning sullenly. The coach reached into his bucket, plucked out a ball, and showed it to the shortstop, who nodded and dropped into a shallow crouch, his hands poised just above the dirt.
The kid glided in front of the first grounder, accepted the ball into his glove with a lazy grace, pivoted, and threw to first. Though his motion was languid, the ball seemed to explode off his fingertips, to gather speed as it crossed the diamond. It smacked the pocket of the first baseman’s glove with the sound of a gun going off. The coach hit another, a bit harder: same easy grace, same gunshot report. Schwartz, intrigued, sat up a little. The first baseman caught each throw at sternum height, never needing to move his glove, and dropped the balls into the plastic bucket at his feet.
The coach hit balls harder and farther afield — up the middle, deep in the hole. The kid tracked them down. Several times Schwartz felt sure he would need to slide or dive, or that the ball was fl at- out unreachable, but he got to each one with a beat to spare. He didn’t seem to move faster than any other decent shortstop would, and yet he arrived instantly, impeccably, as if he had some foreknowledge of where the ball was headed. Or as if time slowed down for him alone.
After each ball, he dropped back into his feline crouch, the fingertips of his small glove scraping the cooked earth. He barehanded a slow roller and fired to first on a dead run. He leaped high to snag a tailing line drive. Sweat poured down his cheeks as he sliced through the soup- thick air. Even at full speed his face looked bland, almost bored, like that of a virtuoso practicing scales. He weighed a buck and a quarter, maximum. Where the kid’s thoughts were — whether he was having any thoughts at all, behind that blank look — Schwartz couldn’t say. He remembered a line from Professor Eglantine’s poetry class: Expressionless, expresses God.
Then the coach’s bucket was empty and the first baseman’s bucket full, and all three men left the field without a word. Schwartz felt bereft. He wanted the performance to continue. He wanted to rewind it and see it again in slow motion. He looked around to see who else had been watching — wanted at least the pleasure of exchanging a glance with another enraptured witness — but nobody was paying any attention. The few fans who hadn’t gone in search of beer or shade gazed idly at their cell- phone screens. The kid’s loser teammates were already in the parking lot, slamming their trunks. Fifteen minutes to game time. Schwartz, still dizzy, hauled himself to his feet. He would need two quarts of Gatorade to get through the final game, then a coffee and a can of dip for the long midnight drive. But first he headed for the far dugout, where the kid was packing up his gear. He’d figure out what to say on the way over. All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away.
author photo: Philip Boroff / Bloomberg via Getty Images