Friday, May 10, 2013

Roger Angell, bringing a homer back in view

In the middle of "Homeric," an essay in the May 27, 1991 issue of The New Yorker about notable longballs, Roger Angell laments the corrosive consequences of video replay. Complaining about overplayed sports highlights was hardly novel in the 1990s. Angell was 70 when he wrote this piece, but he wasn't arguing simply from old-fogeyism or nostalgia. Throughout his writing career—and throughout his career as a baseball fan—Angell has been sceptical of inevitable modern, cultural infringements on the sport, from too many televised and night games in the 1960s, to Free Agency and noisy ballparks in the 1970s, to bloated salaries and owner/player wrangling in the 1980s, to expansion and dilution of talent in the 1990s, to player/umpire egos in the 2000s. Throughout his somewhat grumbling, resentful coverage of The Barry Bonds Spectacle several years ago, Angell winced at the explosions of digi camera flashes at ballparks—and the man remembers Babe Ruth and the Polo Grounds, too. He's been around. 

He writes affectingly in "Homeric" about the potential dangers of watching too many replays, about their addictive, but treacly, agains and agains. "Like other long-term baseball writers," he reports, "I have had a firsthand view of many of the other celebrated late-season and post-season home runs of the past three decades." But, sighing: "in common with every sports fan, I have noticed that their very celebrity—in particular, their numbingly repeated reappearances in video-clip on my home screen—eventually drains them of meaning and emotion."
Carlton Fisk’s twelfth-inning shot in Game Six of the 1975 World Series now feels like Jimmy Stewart’s tearful late homecoming in It’s a Wonderful Life; and similar fabulous blows, such as Kirk Gibson’s previously cited game winner in the 1988 Series, Dave Henderson’s stunner against the Angels in the ’86 American League playoff, and Bucky Dent’s little sailer into the screen at Fenway Park which destroyed the Red Sox in a one-game playoff in ‘78, are in danger of similar Hallmarking. Only a deliberate effort of memory and imagination—a private revisiting of the scene, so to speak—can sometimes bring them back into view for an instant or two.
The blurring of these thrilling moments because of overexposure is a shame, but there is probably no help for it. Hollywood historians still bemoan the loss of hundreds of early movie classics that fell to dust because they were shot on unstable nitrate film, but I have sometimes perversely wished that our sports footage could suffer the same fate, so that we might again learn to rely on memory as an depository for our most precious games. One night at Yankee Stadium last month, when the White Sox were in town, I asked Carlton Fisk whether that ceaselessly replayed scene of his gyrations along the first-base line as he watched his Game Six homer go up and out on that long-ago night had not come to replace his own memories of the moment, and he said, “You know, I’ll bet you haven’t viewed it more than four or five times, for just that reason. I turn it off or go out of the room whenever it comes along, because I want to keep it fresh in my head. I try not to talk about it or to answer questions about it, either. I want to keep hold of the memory of what it felt like, as opposed to what it looks like on the screen. Maybe there’ll come a time later on when I can be relaxed and think about it again on my own, but right now it’s best to keep it enclosed."
Meantime, he said, he can dwell on a homer he smacked on August 17th last year—to set a new all-time record for all White Sox hitters, and simultaneously break Johnny Bench’s record for most home runs by a catcher. Making a new memory may be the best trick of all.
Nice. I like when Angell skirts perversity—it doesn't happen too often. Ironically, his perversity is closer to a kind of purity. He didn't really want the Major League Baseball cache of highlights to turn to dust, or for millions of kids to have been deprived of Mel Allen and This Week In Baseball on Saturday afternoons; he wanted to challenge himself, and us, to recall favorite moments down the years via the vagaries and pleasures of memory, filtered through sentimentality and scepticism alike. This—in the 21st century, where many fans at games are watching vast stretches of innings through their phones, recording to be able to watch later, and where instant replay in the game is controversial—is sound advice.

So, enjoy. (Repeatedly.) But watch at your own risk:

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