Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Play Ball

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach ($11.99, Little, Brown, and Co.) - Yes, it's baseball season again: our glorious past-time consisting of hot dogs and hot beer, strikes and balls, chewing tobacco and waiting for something miraculous to happen. And so if you're tired of reading about the astronomical contract the Mariners have given Robinson Cano, it's also time to revisit one of the best baseball books of recent memory: Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. If you haven't read it, or haven't heard of it, Chad Harbach's 2011 novel is the real deal -- the stinky cheese, the big nasty, the dirty dirt, if we're talking baseball terms. And we are. What distinguishes Harbach's novel from so many other memorable baseball books is that Harbach gets downright poetic about the game's nuances. In his hands, chewing tobacco and waiting around come off as Shakespearean mega-tragedies; a well fielded ball carries the metaphysical weight of something by Nietzche; and an error (god forbid) seems well deserving of any Old Testament wrath-of-god. And it truly is brilliant to read. Even for those of us who don't care much about baseball, Harbach does fine work to turn us into believers. By the book's end, we praise the majesty of a 4-6-3 double play. We cherish patient hitting and understand that swinging on the first pitch isn't poor play, it's a character flaw of the highest degree.

In an nutshell, the book is about a young man named Henry Skrimshander. As a freshman at Westish College, Henry is good at baseball. Henry, in fact, is great. He watches hours of tape, deciphers countless koans by baseball's fictional shaman, Aparicio Rodriguez, and he works out so hard that he sweats protein powder. But this, we know, may not last. While Skrimshander is no doubt the book's hero, other juicy plotlines involving the college's President, Guert Affenlight; his daughter; Skrimshander's self-appointed life-coach, Mike Schwartz; and Henry's roommate, Owen Dunne; capture our attention when Skrimshander isn't fielding grounders.  Even if you don't much care for the game, get yourself into swing of the season by picking up a truly enlightening book.