Now that the Sox season is over, I'm thinking about things earlier this year than I have in the past. Pitchers and catchers. The hot stove. And by far the best thing that happens in baseball that doesn't actually happen on the field: Roger Angell's yearly wrap of the season in The New Yorker.
Since I have longer to wait than in previous years, I've decided to crack into the stack of Angell's books I'd been saving for the off-season, beginning with his first collected book, The Summer Game.
The problem with me reading Roger Angell is that I can't read more than two pages at the most, max, before I have to sort of put the book down and stare off into space. Roger Angell is just too good a writer. I can't handle him. Really. He blows me away. In thought and word, he's just a reminder of how good I'll never be--and how even if I ever got to be that good, it would already have been done.
Case in point: the three-paragraph, one-page introduction to The Summer Game.
These pieces cover a span of ten years, but this book is certainly not offered as a comprehensive baseball history of the period. Most of the great winning teams and a good many of the horrendous losers of the decade are here, while the middle ground is often sketchy. I have written about some celebrated players--Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Brooks Robinson and Frank Robinson, Willie Mays--again and again, while slighting equally admirable figures such as Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle. It is unfair, but this book is the work of a part-time, nonprofessional baseball watcher. In most of these ten seasons, I was rarely able to attend as many as twenty-five games before the beginning of the World Series; I watched, or half-watched, a good many more on television. Enthusiasm and interest took me out to the ballpark; I never went out of a sense of duty or history. I was, in short, a fan. Unafflicted by daily deadlines or the weight of objectivity, I have been free to write about whatever I found in the game that excited or absorbed or dismayed me--and free, it will become evident, to draw large and sometimes quite mistaken conclusions from an emaciated body of evidence. I have added some updating and footnotes in an attempt to cover up the worst mistakes.
When I began writing sports pieces for The New Yorker, it was clear to me that the doings of big-league baseball--the daily happenings on the field, the managerial strategies, the celebration of heroes, the medical and financial bulletins, the clubhouse gossip--were so enormously reported in the newspapers that I would have to find some other aspect of the game to study. I decided to sit in the stands--for a while, at least--and watch the baseball from there. I wanted to concentrate not just on the events down on the field but on their reception and results; I wanted to pick up the feel of the game as it happened to the people around me. Right from the start, I was terribly lucky, because my first year or two in the seats behind first or third coincided with the birth and grotesque early sufferings of the Mets, which turned out to be the greatest fan story of all.
Then I was lucky in another way. In time, I made my way to the press box and found friends there, and summoned up the nerve to talk to some ballplayers face-to-face, but even with a full set of World Series credentials flapping from my lapel, I was still faking it as a news reporter. Writing at length for a leisurely and most generous weekly magazine, I could sum things up, to be sure, and fill in a few gaps that the newspapermen were too hurried or too cramped for space to explore, but my main job, as I conceived it, was to continue to try to give the feel of things--to explain the game of baseball as it happened to me, at a distance and in retrospect. And this was the real luck, for how could I have guessed then that baseball, of all team sports anywhere, should turn out to be so complex, so rich and various in structure and aesthetics and emotion, as to convince me, after ten years as a writer and forty years as a fan, that I have not yet come close to its heart?