Still a Student of the Game
Roger Angell pictures a TV commercial: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and other hulking, fierce-swinging stars of baseball today, each whacking harmless, embarrassing grounders that roll a few feet and stop.
Angell thinks such an ad would be exquisite. After all, hitting is more about failure than success.
“It’d be hilarious,” says Angell, one of the game’s great chroniclers. “They’re afraid to show these heroes failing, which is one of the greatest facets of baseball. It’s the chance to see someone vastly talented make an idiot of himself.”
It is only the latest keen observation from Angell, who has spent more than four decades watching the sport and delivering regular essays for The New Yorker on its nuance and beauty.
Now 82, Angell has published “Game Time” (Harcourt, $25), a collection that combines some of his best work from the magazine with previously unpublished material.
The book’s scope reflects the stunning panorama of baseball Angell has seen and dutifully jotted in his notebook, from the inept New York Mets of the early 1960s to the present-day excellence of the New York Yankees.
Still, in an interview with The Associated Press, Angell is quick to rebut the notion that his work is part of the soft-focus, weepy body of books and movies that aim to make baseball a metaphor for life.
Put another way: He is no literary incarnation of “Field of Dreams.”
“I hate that stuff. It’s so sentimental and silly,” he says. “I’ve been called the poet laureate of baseball. I reject the title, thanks very much. I think I’m a reporter. And the only thing different in my writing is that, almost from the beginning, I’ve been able to write about myself as well.”
The distinction is important. Magazine writing has separated Angell from the pack of workaday baseball beat writers, forced to write detached, detailed accounts of each game.
Angell -- by no means a slouch on picking up detail -- is more of a lifelong student.
Here is his surgically crafted description of the 1984 Chicago Cubs, who had hoped to end a legendary drought of World Series championships but instead lost in the playoffs:
“It is the Cub fans who will have to sort out this season -- most of all, the unshirted, violently partisan multitudes in the Wrigley Field bleachers, who sustain the closest fan-to-player attachment anywhere in baseball -- and I will not patronize them by claiming a share of their happiness during the summer or pretending to understand their pain and shock at its end.”
He has seen a pantheon of Hall of Fame baseball players -- Warren Spahn, who debuted in 1942, appears in one of the book’s earliest essays -- but Angell believes the golden age of the game is now.
He is enthralled, for example, by the home run-hitting prowess of Bonds, who may eventually make a run at the lifetime record of 755 home runs held by Hank Aaron.
And he finds it odd that the public often classifies baseball players, the workers whose talent has created a multibillion-dollar industry, as spoiled ingrates for the big money they make.
“Somehow, even in other sports, the salaries are not a big thing,” he says. “Probably because baseball looks easy, and actually it’s the hardest game to play. But it looks like the most fun. It’s fun to be out there, and you don’t want some kid to be paid for having that much fun. And of course they fail, over and over.”
Angell’s career has taken him from intense admiration of Pete Rose to resignation and unease that Rose’s lifetime ban from the game may soon be lifted.
Rose was known for a scrappy, hustling style of baseball -- “I admired him extravagantly,” Angell says -- before he was banished in 1989 when the commissioner said he believed Rose bet on baseball.
Rose has campaigned for reinstatement, even as he has maintained that he did nothing wrong.
“What bothers me is that Pete Rose has worked at this endlessly,” Angell says. “I think he’s done more harm to the game with this performance than he did with the original violation of baseball’s fundamental rule against gambling.”
Angell says he is not certain how long he will continue writing his regular essays. But he sees no immediate end: David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, has encouraged him to keep going, he says.
And there is always more to learn about his game -- a lifelong pursuit that has led him to admire the Depression-era New York Giants, the hapless Mets, the heartbreaking Boston Red Sox and the again-dominant Yankees.
“My loyalties are all over the place,” he says. “I’m a fan of being a fan, I guess.”