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Play Ball

A new collection from Roger Angell, the bard of baseball


At last, another baseball season is upon us. The sports pages have finally, in recent weeks, begun jousting over the merits, or demerits, of Mike Piazza charging the mound after being bonked by Guillermo Mota in an exhibition game. Pete Rose is again begging forgiveness but admitting nothing. Happily, George Steinbrenner is back to being a jerk, though his doughy pitcher, David Wells, seems intent on eclipsing The Boss.

All in all, a typically atypical assortment of controversies and maladies, occasional diversions from the delightful popping of catchers' mitts and the braying of vendors pushing overpriced peanuts and beer.

Not even the surliness of Barry Bonds can spoil the specter of a fresh baseball season. This spring brought fans a rare treat -- no discussion, or potential, of a labor dispute. That scenario disappeared last summer when the players and owners, at the last possible moment, completed a new collective bargaining agreement.

After the Anaheim Angels finished their improbable ascension to World Series champions last October, the usual spate of changes and maneuverings began. Lou Piniella left Seattle for the manager's job in his hometown of Tampa, where the Devil Rays will still be awful.

The Phillies -- the Phillies! -- went out and spent money on real, live, quality players such as Kevin Millwood and Jim Thome. Tom Glavine, the veteran Braves' plate-nibbler, will now nosh in the Big Apple, as a Met. Dusty Baker won the pennant in San Francisco last year, nearly had his batboy son beheaded on national TV during the World Series and now calls Wrigley Field home.

As if all that weren't enough, Roger Angell, the bard of baseball, returns with a new collection. Game Time: A Baseball Companion culls the best of The New Yorker writer's dispatches, beginning with his 1962 examination of spring training and running through last year's World Series.

It's no surprise that the collection rarely fails to delight. Angell loves baseball; what makes his passion all the more enjoyable is the absence of treacle and sentimentality. He doesn't believe baseball mirrors life or represents a higher ideal of humanity. For him, it's just a marvelous game fraught with the frailties and inconsistencies inherent in any, and all, human endeavor.

"Baseball memories are seductive," Angell writes, "tempting us always toward sweetness and undercomplexity." In less than a dozen words, he quashes every notion of, "Back in my day. . ." Gone, too, is, "It's a business now. . ." It always has been.

While Angell spends most of his time with the New York teams, he doesn't limit his observations to the Yankees and Mets. He travels with crusty scouts, visits Hall of Fame fireballer Bob Gibson as he grapples with life beyond baseball and offers delightful asides throughout.

Angell's diamond deliberations include a fair number of enviable phrases and descriptions, dropped as casually as Randy Johnson discarding a rosin bag. When Angell speaks of the five-time Cy Young Award winner, the lanky 6'10" pitcher emerges as "the left-handed Ionic column." Yankees manager Joe Torre's lugubrious mound approach becomes a "prairie mortician's gait" when he decides to pull a pitcher from the game. Bonds wields the power of "a monstrous Vaderish force looming up again and again in the middle of the Giants' batting order."

The author elicits telling quotes from his subjects, no easy task when you consider most major leaguers' recalcitrance and ineloquence. Ted Williams, the last man to hit .400 in a season, revealed the real problem behind modern hitters' lack of discipline. Not money, sex. As Williams told Angell in 1985, "I didn't get laid for the first time until the All-Star Game break of my second year in the majors. I was thinking about hitting."

Boston serves as the inspiration for the single finest work in this bunch, one so sharply defined and effortlessly brilliant, it rivals Alex Rodriguez practicing his craft. Angell approaches the Red Sox's home in late-summer 2001, when things have, inevitably, begun spiraling downward.

He notes the damaged psyches of New Englanders, those hardy souls who brave not only fierce winters and Ted Kennedy but also weather the cruelest forms of baseball heartache (see: World Series seventh games, 1975 and 1986, as well as Dent, Bucky).

Pedro Martinez, earlier that same summer, turned petulant after a 3-0 win over the hated Yankees. He taunted the so-called Curse of the Bambino, which holds that Boston will be forever tortured for trading away Babe Ruth (the Red Sox last won the World Series in 1918).

"I don't believe in damn curses," Martinez said. "Wake up the damn Bambino and have me face him. Maybe I'll drill him in the ass."

Angell, benefiting from a few months' hindsight in early-September 2001, offers the painful verdict. "As every grandmother, tavernkeeper and six-year-old in New England knows by now," he writes, "Pedro has not won a game since."

An underachieving Red Sox team, as ever, smoothly brings us to the present, and a new season. A myriad of controversies, familiarities and feats awaits in 2003.

The players' union must decide whether to ban ephedra following the death of Baltimore pitcher Steve Bechler during spring training. The Cubs and, yes, the Red Sox, won't be anywhere near the World Series unless Armageddon really is approaching.

Four players -- Sammy Sosa (499), Rafael Palmeiro (490), Fred McGriff (478) and Ken Griffey Jr. (468) -- could be added to the 17-member 500 home-run club soon. Roger Clemens needs seven wins to notch 300. He would become the 21st pitcher in history to do so, and the first since Nolan Ryan in 1990.

The most certain matter, though, is the sheer joy of box scores and musical baseball names (try saying "Miguel Tejada" without smiling) and sundry disquisition on ballpark matters most insignificant.

Such as? An Angell watching over the Mets: "Baseball at Shea gives you a lot of between-time, and we're working on Mr. Met's love life, and our all-time team made up of players with girls' names -- Pete Rose, Mark Grace, Babe Ruth, and this guy on the Brewers, Mark Loretta, and the rest -- and what do you suppose happens to marriages that begin with those scoreboard proposals: "Cheryl Will You Marry Me?'"

Good question. I'll need a hot dog and some nachos before pondering that further.

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