When I (Ben) was eleven, I was picked to be on a Little League “Tournament” team. This honor went to the second tier of most promising players in the State College Little League “A” system. (The first tier, usually twelve-year-olds, were picked to be on the “All Star” team.) The tournament team continued playing after the regular season ended, usually well into July, traveling to such far off towns as Altoona, Hollidaysburg and Pleasant Gap.
I loved playing baseball. One of the greatest tragedies of my childhood came in the summer of 1985 when all of my friends began playing Little League, whereas I, born in early September, had to wait another year since I wouldn’t turn eight until after the August 31 cut-off. I cried. I sulked. I raged against the injustice of the world. When my third grade classmates regaled me with stories of their heroics — or when they simply told me they’d gone out for soft serve ice cream after the game last night — I gritted my teeth and tried to avoid erupting in a fit of jealous rage.
I played shortstop, and I had a good arm for a skinny kid who couldn’t manage a pull-up. I was one of the better players on my team; naturally, though, I didn’t stand out on the tournament team. I was not the starting shortstop. Instead, I platooned in right field and second base, batting farther down the line-up.
Something else happened when I joined the tournament team: I started to worry. I had always been a carefree player, but now the expectations were higher. My coaches talked more about winning than simply having fun out there. The parents in the stands cheered a little louder when things went well and booed the umps a little louder when they didn’t. What had always been an escape for me — stepping onto the diamond and losing myself in the game — became a source of stress and anxiety.
On our very first away tournament, we were trailing by two runs in the bottom of the sixth. I would bat only if we put several runners on. We got two outs fairly quickly, but the next three batters walked, looped a single into right field and beat out an infield grounder to load the bases. I was up next.
It wasn’t that I wanted to lose — I hated losing — but I did not want to be the one at bat with the game on the line. I couldn’t handle the pressure. I didn’t think about being the hero of the game, even though the opportunity was there. Rather, all I could foresee was being the goat. I had never thought like this before — Games were fun! I loved sports! — but now what ran through my mind when I stepped into the batter’s box was the consequences of failure.
The pitcher threw three pitches. I never lifted the bat off my shoulder. We lost and I rode the bench the rest of the tournaments. I kept playing baseball through my teens, but the moment I learned the most about myself — my most painful baseball moment — was that one. I thought of that strikeout several times as I read Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding.
The Art of Fielding is set in motion when a young shortstop prodigy named Henry Skrimshander makes an errant throw that sails wide of first base and directly into the dugout of the Westish Harpooners, a ragtag bunch aspiring to D-3 greatness. The ball hits his teammate Owen Dunne in the face, sending him to the hospital. The Westish College president, Guert Affenlight, happens to fancy Owen, and they are discreetly courting one another. Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, has returned to him from San Francisco, where she leaves behind a failed marriage. While at Westish, Pella enrolls in classes and meets Mike Schwartz, the baseball team captain and mentor figure to Henry.
There you have, in brief, the five characters whose lives dominate The Art of Fielding, a winning, amiable novel that reads like a slightly sunnier Jonathan Franzen or John Irving. It feels old-fashioned in its characterization and plotting; it is also studded with literary nods and allusions, frequently to Herman Melville, whose inspiration to Harbach is clear. (Personal aside: Although fictional Westish is located in Wisconsin just off Lake Michigan, I could not help picturing my landlocked D-3 school, Kenyon College, another reason I found the novel so enjoyable.)
The Art of Fielding is, obviously, a baseball novel — most of the action takes place over the course of one Westish Harpooners’ season — but that should not put you off. (Hachette Book Group told jacket designer Keith Hayes to evoke baseball without saying baseball. He got it exactly right.) Harbach uses Henry’s errant throw, and the crisis of confidence it engenders, as a metaphor for four college age individuals whose lives are unexpectedly derailed, and one 60-something college professor whose affections for a young man turn everything else in his world upside down.
After his throwing error, Henry suddenly tightens up during games and becomes an error machine. (He is stricken with “Steve Sax Syndrome,” an inability to make routine throws to first base. Also known as “Steve Blass Syndrome” for pitchers.) None of the other main characters suffer a breakdown as severe as Henry’s, but all of them lose their way. Schwartzy, as he is affectionately known (he is the heart of the novel), frets over his star pupil while dealing with across-the-board rejections from law schools. Guert and Pella try to repair their fragile father-daughter relationship while concealing from the other the messy circumstances of their love lives. What distinguishes Harbach from, say, Franzen, is the warmth and humor he demonstrates towards his characters. They all go through miserable stretches, but Harbach’s touch is light and his writing both precise and expansive. He makes it a pleasure to read about people going through unpleasurable circumstances.
My meltdown as an eleven-year-old obviously pales next to Henry’s, who is being scouted by Major League teams. Henry’s errant throw came during a routine play in a routine game, while my strikeout was at a critical moment. But there was something uncomfortably familiar about Henry’s collapse — the way he goes from being so certain and assured of his ability to mistrusting it completely (“I keep seeing it over and over in my head,” he laments) — that rang true to me. The Art of Fielding suggests that all of us need to experience failure, perhaps repeatedly, before we figure out who we really are. “That’s what this game does to you,” a major league scout tells Henry after his errorless streak ends. “The name of the game is failure, and if you can’t handle failure you won’t last long. Nobody’s perfect.”
Last year we wrote about “Baseball and Mental Illness,” which noted the relationship between baseball players and depression, in part because of baseball’s high rate of failure. As Sports Illustrated writer Pablo Torre put it, “Start with the sheer difficulty of trying to connect with a spheroid less than three inches in diameter that’s moving at 95 mph.” I thought of that article several times while reading Harbach’s book. It’s here if you’d like to take a gander.
Harbach’s friend Keith Gessen, who works with Harbach at the literary magazine n+1, wrote a great little piece about The Art of Fielding for Vanity Fair called “A Book Is Born.” It’s not available online, but you can download it for your e-reader.