I finished The Art of Fielding a couple of days ago. I read it because my friend Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!) raved about it. And, of course, because it’s on The New York Times list of best books of 2011. And because after finishing it, I’d be just one book away from having read 100 books this year.
Despite being done with classes, it hasn’t been the best reading week, and at first, The Art of Fielding wasn’t helping much. It was entertaining enough, but wasn’t really demanding that I sit down in one day and tear through. I was mostly thinking, “I’m a little disappointed, here.” And then I got, about 1/3 into the book, to the bit about Steve Blass disease.
The Art of Fielding takes place at Westish College, a small liberal arts college on one of the Great Lakes. We learn about Henry Skirmshander, who has a pure and amazing talent at shortstop and helps to turn around the fortunes of the Westish Harpooners baseball team. Mike Schwartz is another student who mentors Henry and serves as Westish’s unpaid athletic director. Guert Affenlight is the president of Westish, an alumni and Melville scholar, who is in love with Owen Dunne, one of Mike and Henry’s teammates. Guert’s daughter, Pella, returns from a failed early marriage in California to try to re-direct her life and re-connect with her father.
At the center of this novel are baseball and college life, two things with sometimes dubious compatibility. The story arc that seems to unite everything else is Henry’s loss of his ability to throw the ball. The novel starts with Mike Schwartz witnessing Henry’s amazing talent in North Dakota, where Henry is playing for a summer league with no intention of attending college and nothing much in the way of plans for the future. Henry is baseball. Specifically, fielding. He’s not even very good at hitting. But he has absorbed a book by the greatest shortstop of all time, Aparicio Rodriguez, called The Art of Fielding. This book is like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for baseball. Or it is just zen. Forget the baseball.
Initially, there is not much to Henry besides baseball, which makes sense as the novel progresses, but may be part of what made the story hard for me to get into. He has to be all baseball at the beginning, though, because then he loses it. Henry is working on beating Aparicio Rodriguez’s streak for games without an error, when a ball goes sailing off his glove and smashes into the face of Owen Dunne, his roommate. Owen’s okay, but Henry’s baseball is not. He has begun to think about his throw, and this seems to spell the end of everything that could have made him the greatest shortstop ever. Because here is the art of fielding, according to Aparicio Rodriguez: “The shortstop has worked so hard for so long that he no longer thinks. Nor does he act. By this I mean he does not generate action. He only reacts, the way a mirror reacts when you wave your hand before it.”
There is no such actual book by Aparicio Rodriguez. Because I have a husband with a prodigious knowledge of baseball history, I can tell you that there is no baseball player named Arapacio Rodriguez, though Louis Aparicio is a real Hall of Fame shortstop from Venezuela. There is a real thing in baseball called Steve Blass disease, and all the players listed in the book really developed this “disease” at some point. When you read about Steve Blass disease, it becomes immediately apparent why you would want to center a whole novel around this phenomenon.
Baseball is a precise, tense and odd game. Great football quarterbacks throw the ball perfectly into a very tight window, but even if you don’t, your wide receiver can adjust; there’s some margin for error. But the strike zone, or the range of your first baseman to whom you’re throwing the ball, is smaller. And the ball is smaller, and harder, and being thrown faster, and more dangerous. It makes me nervous just to think about it. How nervous must it make a pitcher? Is it any surprise that sometimes baseball players just seem to lose it?
This disease is named after Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates who made the All Star Team and played in the 1971 World Series with Roberto Clemente. In the next season, Blass inexplicably lost the ability to throw the ball. By 1975, he was out of baseball altogether. Since then, Steve Blass disease had come into the baseball lexicon to describe a talented player who suddenly loses the ability to throw the ball. You might say it’s the baseball equivalent of the shanks in golf. One day you can throw the ball perfectly over home plate. The next day you can’t hit the side of a barn. For Henry, this happens because he begins to think too much about throwing.
I finished The Art of Fielding a few days ago, but it hasn’t finished with me. I liked the small glimpse Harbach gives us into the life of a small liberal arts college. I can’t say that it looked incredibly familiar to me, despite having gone to a small liberal arts college as an undergraduate and spent the last 10 years or so teaching a small liberal arts colleges. There’s a background hum of intellectualism in this novel, but it’s really about baseball. Those two things are not at all incompatible; many of our great American writers have also been baseball fans. Westish College is important to the novel, but mostly it seems to me as a setting for a baseball team. Which is okay, but not to be taken as in any way representative of what life is like for most students at small liberal arts colleges.
I find myself still thinking about the characters, and thinking very much about the ways in which too much thinking can mess things up. Yes, I see the irony there, heightened especially by the name of this blog. Is this the central theme of the novel as a whole? Is everyone just doing too much thinking?
I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I suspect it might be yes. It certainly probably is in my case. When Henry loses his ability to throw, he loses a kind of pure connection to the game he seemed to have. He loses his sense of purpose, of course. I wonder if Henry’s loss is the loss all of us have felt at some point, made visible and palpable. Not a fall from innocence, but the loss of that ability to surrender thought, to surrender action. To only react.
I leave you with Harbach’s description of this, through Henry, which is much better than mine:
“He’d never been able to talk to anyone, not really. Words were a problem, the problem. Words were tainted somehow–or no, he was tainted somehow, damaged, incomplete, because he didn’t know how to use words to say anything better than “Hi” or “I’m hungry” or “I’m not.”
Everything that had ever happened was trapped inside him. Every feeling he’d ever felt. Only on the field had he ever been able to express himself. Off the field there was no other way than with words, unless you were some kind of artist or musician or mime. Which he wasn’t.”