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Book Review: “The Art of Fielding,” by Chad Harbach

In Chad Harbach’s outstanding debut novel, The Art of Fielding, Henry Skrimshander is a college baseball star who plays one of the most important positions in the game: shortstop. His Bible is a book called The Art of Fielding, a sort of Zen baseball guidebook penned by his idol, the fictional Hall of Fame shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez, a cross between Luis Aparicio and Ozzie Smith. The book is filled with such wisdom as this:

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

59. To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension. One moves not against the ball but with it. Bad fielders stab at the ball like an enemy. This is antagonism. The true fielder lets the path of the ball become his own path, thereby comprehending the ball and dissipating the self, which is the source of all suffering and poor defense.

And then there are these passages:

3. There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.

33. Do not confuse the first and third stages. Thoughtless being is attained by everyone, the return to thoughtless being by a very few.

213. Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.

The plot of Harbach’s novel turns on a single error, an errant throw that plunges poor Henry into a state of “paralysis by analysis.” Henry is about to tie Aparicio’s NCAA record for consecutive errorless games. Late in the game, Henry uncorks a wild throw that strikes teammate Owen Dunne, who is reading a book in the dugout, in the face. Dunne is hospitalized and Skrimshander becomes unglued.

At the heart of Harbach’s story is the concept of human error, not the kind that occur on the baseball diamond. Henry has trained his body to act like a machine, a “thoughtless being,” but it is his thoughts and doubts that haunt him. He loses his ability to throw the ball accurately, an affliction known as Steve Blass Disease, after the former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher. It is a malady that has struck a number of elite athletes, including Chuck Knoblauch, Steve Sax, Rick Ankiel, Mackey Sasser and Dontrelle Willis.

But Henry isn’t the only character who suffers from self-doubt. The five major characters all find themselves at a crossroads of some type.

Henry is the star player for Westish College, a Division III school located in northern Wisconsin on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Henry’s mentor is Mike Schwartz, the captain and firebrand leader of the club. Schwartz discovered Skrimshander two summers earlier during an American Legion tournament and took him under his wing, arranging for a scholarship at Westish.

Dunne, who introduced himself to Skrimshander as his  “gay mulatto roommate” is a precocious young man possessed of an inner calm that earned him the nickname “Buddha” from his teammates.

While Henry struggles in the field, the college president Guert Affenlight, becomes obsessed with Dunne. The college president embarks on a risky affair with the student. Complicating matters, Affenlight’s daughter, Pella, returns from a disastrous marriage and moves into the president’s apartment. Pella becomes involved with Schwartz, who is having trouble coming to grips with the end of his baseball career. Schwartz is also turned down by several elite law schools, leaving his future in doubt.

Henry has no life outside of baseball. Unless he can figure out what’s causing his throwing errors, he will lose his chance to be drafted by a major league team. Guert finds himself at the age of 60 attracted to a young man, knowing he is risking everything for love. Pella is adrift and finds in Schwartz a person who is everything her aloof husband is not.

The errors in this book center on the individual’s basic fallibility, the frailties of human emotion that drive people and overrule rational thought.

While Harbach is an excellent writer, there were a few flaws. Owen gets hit in the face by Henry’s throw because he is reading a book in the dugout. As a young sportswriter in college, I covered college teams and American Legion teams. I’ve never seen a coach who would allow a player to read a book in the dugout. I also found the ghastly event that takes place near the end of the novel (I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read it), completely unbelievable. Also the way Guert’s crisis is resolved (again, I won’t spoil it) I found to be an author contrivance.

These are minor “nits.” On the whole, The Art of Fielding was an absorbing novel about characters that are all-too-human. Harbach’s manuscript triggered a bidding war among publishing houses and one can see why. He is a self-assured writer who has developed a poignant story based on sharply drawn characters and a multi-dimensional plot.

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Anatomy of a Story Premise

I promised to share the premise of my Nanowrimo novel, so here goes. For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by a phenomenon known as “Steve Blass Disease” or “Steve Sax Syndrome.” This strange malady has afflicted elite professional baseball players. It is defined as a player’s sudden, inexplicable inability to make an accurate throw. I first encountered this phenomenon when it happened to Steve Blass, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although I’m not a Pirates fan, I followed Blass’s career because he grew up in my native state of Connecticut.

Blass was a very good pitcher, but he reached a new level when he won two pressure-packed games in the 1971 World Series as the Pirates overcame a three-games-to-one deficit to shock the Baltimore Orioles and win the world championship. In 1972, Blass had his best year ever, with 19 wins. In 1973, it all fell apart for him. He could not throw the ball over the plate for strikes. That season he walked 84 batters in 88 innings. By comparison, the previous season he walked 98 batters in 239 innings. He gave up an average of nearly 10 runs per nine innings.

He tried everything. Doctors examined his arm. An optometrist examined his eyes. He tried psychotherapy, hypnosis, and even Transcendental Meditation. Nothing worked for him. Two years later, Blass retired from baseball at the age of 32. He went on to become a broadcaster for the Pirates. He never found out the cause of his throwing problems.

There are numerous other examples. Steve Sax was an All-Star second baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers before he lost his ability to make the short throw to first base. Sax is one of the few who recovered and went to lead the American League in fielding percentage in 1989. Other players who suffered from this syndrome included Chuck Knoblauch (an All-Star with the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees), Mackey Sasser, Mark Wohlers, Dontrelle Willis, and Rick Ankiel. An excellent all-around athlete, Ankiel converted from a pitcher to an outfielder while with the St. Louis Cardinals. He now plays for the Washington Nationals.

I’ve always wanted to build a novel around a character who suffered from Steve Blass Disease. About ten years ago, I started playing around with a plot in my head. I went through a number of possible story lines. I decided the character’s throwing woes would  be triggered by a murder, specifically the murder of his closest friend and teammate. So then I had to figure out what events might have precipitated the murder. There had to be a girlfriend involved. There would be an argument. There would have to be other suspects–the kind of “red herrings” mystery writers use so well.

So here’s the premise: Rick Walsh and Angel Velasquez are bonus babies signed to big league contracts with the Boston Red Sox. One night, while the two are playing for the Red Sox’ triple A farm club, Walsh, a pitcher, returns to their apartment to find Velasquez dead from a gunshot wound to the head. The gun was found in Angel’s hand, but Rick refused to believe it was a suicide. The case was never solved. Traumatized by the killing, Walsh lost his ability to throw the ball over the plate and it ruined his career. He developed a speciality as a consultant working with troubled young pitchers, having been through this ordeal himself. Twenty years later, he is summoned to assist a pitcher, who leads him back to the murder case and the prime suspect.

This story is totally outside my genre but I am having so much fun with it. That’s the beauty of Nanowrimo.

Have you ever written anything outside your genre? How did you like it?

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