The Art of Fielding

“The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”

So reads one of the many epigrams from The Art of Fielding by legendary shortstop Aparicio Rodriguez. Which is not the book referred to in the title of this post, but rather a fictional instructive pamphlet that’s become a sacred text for the college ballplayers portrayed in The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which is the book referred to in the title of this post. Said book had its rights won by a publisher in a highly publicized bidding war for north of $600,000, a fairly outrageous sum for a first-time author. Said book thus arrived in September with a ton of hype behind it.

Said book is brilliant.

The Art of Fielding is about baseball the way Moby-Dick was about a whale. It’s author chose an area of interest dear to him and used it as a framework for exploring the human condition, the same as Melville did with his whaling opus. Which isn’t at all to say that the baseball stuff is irrelevant or poorly thought-out. It’s thrilling and illuminating, just as the hunt and battles with The Whale were. It’s just not The Big Idea of the book.

Shortstop is routinely (and correctly) described as the hardest position on the diamond to field. A shortstop must make split-second decisions once a ball is put in play – should I charge it or give way? Set and plant my feet or flick it across my body? Go for the lead runner at second or take the surer out at first? Make the throw and let the sliding runner upend me or hold onto it and get out of the way?

Henry Skrimshander is a skinny, socially reticent nothing who can’t hit a lick, but he’s an absolute prodigy at the shortstop position. Mike Schwartz, the gregarious lumberjack of a catcher for the woeful Westish College Harpooners (there’s Moby-Dick again) takes him under his wing. He gets him into his school, onto the baseball team, and onto the MLB scouts’ radar. Under Schwartz’s tutelage, Henry blossoms into a legitimate prospect, with a bat that’s nearly a match for his glove. The Harpooners start winning for the first time in forever. Henry’s told by scouts he could go in the draft as high as the third round.

And then he forgets how to throw.

It comes on the day he’s set to tie his hero Aparicio’s record for consecutive errorless games. He makes an error that day, but to call it an error would be the understatement of a lifetime – he nails a teammate in the dugout in the face with a throw. Puts him in the hospital. After that fateful throw, this once machine-like fielder with a bazooka for an arm has trouble with even the most routine of tosses. He thinks too much, clutches one time too many, plays out too many possible permutations in his head. He’s just plain lost it.

Harbach’s depiction of a kid who’s just lost the one attribute that made him special is heartrendingly empathetic. His prose and dialogue offer such clarity, such insight, such this-is-a-real-person-ness that it became for me not a fictional portrait of a condition that’s famously bedeviled Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel, but a genuinely profound image of the frailty of humanity. A truly authentic and enlightening look at what lies beneath; not so common, is it?

Henry’s ill-aimed throw hits his teammate and friend Owen, an impossibly likeable character and the antithesis of a stereotypical athlete. This is someone who sits on the bench with a reading lamp, devouring Thoreau or Emerson, and when called to bat will calmly, serenely slash a double down the line, coasting with a graceful gait into second. Drive him in and he’ll tell you, without a hint of pretension, that “You are skilled. I exhort you.” His teammates call him the Buddha.

Owen becomes the object of desire, in a not-at-all crass way, for college President Affenlight (another absurdly endearing character). Their relationship will become intriguing, unpredictable, multifaceted and, above all, tender. It’s a word that’s often used and almost as often used inappropriately. To develop a romance that isn’t cliche and cloying but genuinely heartfelt – this is one of the more distant stars for an author to reach for. Harbach completely, and gently, closes his hand around it.

Gentle and complete – that may well be the best shorthand for speaking of Harbach’s novel. It is so fully-formed, its characters so well-realized, its narrative’s unfolding so elegant. It’s about so much, more than I can cover here, more than anyone not named Chad Harbach and not writing The Art of Fielding could cover. Do you charge and barehand that slow roller up the line, or just put it in your pocket? Do you try a spectacular diving catch, or play the ball on a hop? Do you take the easy out, or go for the improbable double play? That’s not just the life of a shortstop – that’s life. And that, for 528 sublime pages, is The Art of Fielding.

I rarely struggle with determining whether a book is truly great, and it’s because I have a tried-and-true personal indicator: at or around the midpoint am I both eager for and dreading the book’s end? Am I obsessively powering toward the conclusion and then, upon noticing that the pages on the right are dwindling into nonexistance, am I consciously slowing myself down, and savoring every last word? And when I’ve hit that last line, do my eyes linger on its text as my mind lingers on its finality, and do I slowly look up and know that, should I grab a mirror, my reflection would betray something I hardly ever feel: honest to god reverence.

Well. By that fundamental test of greatness, The Art of Fielding is a goddamned masterpiece.

Mr. Harbach, you are skilled. And I exhort you.