Monday, February 3, 2014

Angell's Paradox

In the Spring of 1976, Roger Angell was uncharacteristically dejected. In his mid-50s, he was recognizing that rapid changes in the game of baseball—greedy owners, escalating salaries, too many night games, the dilution of talent via expansion, among them—were affecting him negatively. The game he grew up loving was revealing its inevitable, mercenary nastiness to him, and he was at a loss. He'd been writing about baseball for The New Yorker for well over a decade, and had been an immoderate fan of the game since he was an adolescent growing up in Manhattan in the 1920s and 30s. His position at the magazine was a fortunate one, and he knew it—for many years he leisurely filed Spring Training, mid-season, and postseason essays, luxuriating in the time and space that his editors allowed him to develop his knowledgeable admiration and analysis of the game in an increasingly rich, literary manner. But by the mid 1970s he was feeling pulled between his passion for the game and his disappointments with the sport.

No piece catches that tension more graphically than "In The Counting House," published in the May 3, 1976 issue of The New Yorker, and reprinted a year later in Angell's second collection of baseball essays, Five Seasons. Two passages in particular dramatize the widening intervals in Angell, and in many fans of that era. In the middle of ranting dismayingly about the owners' lock-out that delayed Spring Training, the sport's mounting financial injustices (both to players and fans), and the watering-down of skill levels necessitated by expansion, Angell figuratively takes a deep breath and looks around him while at a meaningless Spring Training game between the Cardinals and the Padres, in Scottsdale, Arizona. For moments, the unpleasant realities of the sport drifted away, replaced by the sensual sounds of the game. "I half-closed my eyes and became aware at once that the afternoon silence was not quite perfect but contained a running pattern of innocuous baseball sounds." he writes, adding:
I could hear the murmurous play-by-play of some radio announcer up in the press box—the words undistinguishable but their groups and phrases making a kind of sense just the same—and this was accompanied by the unending sea-sound of the crowd itself, which sometimes rose to shouts or broke apart into separate words and cries. "Hey, O.K.!" ...  Clap, clap, clap, clap ... "Hot dogs here" ... "Hey, peanuts and hot dogs!" ... Clap, clap, clap ... Whoo-wheet! (a whistle from some player in the infield). Whoo-wheet! ... Clap-clap, clap-clap, clap-clap ... "The next batter, Number One, is...HO-SAY CARR-DENAL, right field!" (The p.a. announcer was giving it his best—the big, Vegas-style introduction—and the crowd tried to respond.) "O.K., Ho-say!" ... "Hey-hey!" ... "Let's go, Ho-say!" ... Clapclapclapclap ... Wheet! There was a sudden short flat noise: WHOCCK!—the same sound you would hear if you let go of one end of a long one-by-eight plank, allowing it to fall back on top of a loose stack of boards. I leaned forward and watched Cardenal sprinting for first. He slowed as he took his turn and then speeded up again as he saw the ball still free in the outfield, pulling into second base with a stand-up double. Real cheering now, as the next batter stood in ("...Number Eighteen, BILL MAD-LOCK, thirrd base!"), but soon the game wound down again and the afternoon sounds resumed. Clap, clap, clap ... "Hey, Cokes! Get yer ice-cold Cokes here!" ... Clap, clap, clap, clap ... A telephone rang and rang in the press box—pring-pring, pring-pring, pring-pring: a faraway, next-door-cottage sort of noise. Clap, clap clap ... "Hey, Tim! Hey, Tim!" (a girl's voice). "Hey, Tim, over here!" ... Clap, clap ... "STREEOUGH!" ... "Aw, come on, Ump!" ... Clap, clap, clapclapclap ... "Get yer Cokes!" Ice-cold Cokes here!" ... Whoo-wheet! ... Clapclap ... "Ice-cold." Then there was another noise, a regular, smothered slapping sound, with intervals in between: Whup! ... Whup! ... Whug! ... Whup!—a baseball thrown back and forth by two Padre infielders warming up in short-right-field foul territory, getting ready to come into the game. The sounds flowed over me—nothing really worth remembering, but impossible entirely to forget. They were the sounds I had missed all winter, without ever knowing it.
This is prime Angell, novelistic in its evocative details, aware of the appeals of routine, attentive to the sensuous rhythms and textures of the game—above all risking sentimentality but pulling back before just before the treacle. But the mood can't last this season. Hanging over Angell like an impending storm is the game's financial concerns and ever-widening gap between the game and its fans. "In The Counting House" ends with a passage that is among the glummest of Angell's career, as if he couldn't not voice his concerns. He recognized the drama of the end of an essay as the proper and august place to do it. "Two weeks later, with the season under way, I took a subway up to the Bronx for the Yankees' home opener." he writes. "It was a big day, because it marked the reopening of Yankee Stadium—a homecoming for the famous team to the famous old park, which had been rebuilt by the City of New York over the past two years." He adds, "The new place looked fine."
The overhanging rook around the top deck was gone, and the old thick supporting columns and girders had disappeared, giving us a new, clean triple sweep of bright-blue seats from right field all the way around to left. The whole place was blue and white, and sparkled, There were three new banks of escalators, and a new, tree-line promenade outside the first-base side of the Stadium, where a street used to be. The playing field had been lowered and its outlines altered a little, but most of that enormous green pasture in left was there, so you know it was still the Stadium, all right. There were some big new scoreboards out behind the bleachers, with a white scrim on top in the shape of the lacy coppery-green top-deck facade of the old park. The wall of scoreboards cut off our view of the elevated-station platform and the near-by apartment-house roofs, where in the old days you could always spot a few neighborhood fans watching from a great distance. The new Stadium is cut off from the city around it, and nobody can watch baseball casually there anymore.

There were 54,010 of us there for the opener. Three bands played, and the sun shone, and a lot of celebrities—Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Mrs. Lou Gehrig and Mrs. Babe Ruth, and some others—were introduced, and then the Yankees played the Twins and beat them, 11-4, coming back from a four-run deficit. The Yankees have a sprightly, quick-running team this year, with a marvellous-looking new young second baseman named Willie Randolph, and they may be in the thick of things all summer long in their tough division.
And here's where his tone changes:
There was a lot of hopeful noise at the Stadium that first afternoon—a terrific amount of cheering—but the truth is I didn't have much fun. I don't know what to make of the new Yankee Stadium. It cost the city a hundred million dollars to rebuild and finance, and the city can't pay its bills, can't pay for new schools or hospitals, can't pay its teachers, can't keep its streets or its neighborhoods up; the South Bronx, where Yankee Stadium stands, is a disaster area. These are the bad realities and insolubles that we all know so well, and maybe they are the things that make us give so much attention to sports in the first place—why we need these long diversions at the ballpark. I don't think we should use sports as a hiding place, but I have always been willing to try to carry the two conflicting realities in my head at the same time—poor cities and rich sports, a lot of unnoticed kids playing in burnt-out playgrounds, and a few men playing before great crowds in a new sports palace. As the paradox deepens, however, it begins to see as if we are trying to make the irony disappear—that we are hoping to rub out one side of the equations by vastly increasing the other. By spending more and more millions of dollars on sports, we may be trying to tell ourselves that sports matter almost more than anything else simply because we do spend so much money on them. The name for this is addiction. I'll probably get used to the Stadium in time, but on the first afternoon all I cold think of was the quiet, slow afternoons I had just spent in Bradenton and Winter Haven and Scottsdale and Phoenix, and the games I had seen there. Those games seemed like elegies now. It was strange to be sitting in Yankee Stadium, where I had grown up watching baseball, and no longer feel at home there. I don't know what to think, because it may be that the money and the size of sport have grown too big for me after all.
Sobering stuff, sighing, regretful, sad—"wintry," to use one of Angell's favorite words. Tellingly, Angell ignored much of rest of the 1976 season, at least as a writer. He did not produce a mid-season essay for The New Yorker; he instead wrote "Scout," a wonderful piece on baseball scouting that ran in the August 16 issue; he returned with an essay on different kinds of pitches ("On The Ball," October 4) and then finally, as if out of obligation, turned his attention back to the season at hand for his World Series wrap-up ("Cast a Cold Eye," November 22). At least he had Chris Chambliss's pennant-winning homer to write about.

Of course (paradoxically) Angell suffered his season of discontent in privilege. His bosses flew him about the country to take in Spring Training and postseason games, and after Yankees and Mets contests he retreated, if by dingy, loud subway, to his tony apartment in Manhattan, not into the disastrous Bronx. But Angell's gifts as a sympathetic commentor enable his humane perspectives on the game and its fans. Of course, he was back the following Spring, reporting from Spring Training, renewed and cautiously optimistic, and the lively, rancorous 1977 season generally revived him. (Check out Late Innings.) But "In The Counting House," and the mid-70s malaise, left a mark on Angell, I think. He was never quite the same fan again.


Through the miracle of YouTube, you can put yourself next to a glum Roger Angell in the Stadium seats during the opening ceremonies on that very April 15. Do you see what he sees?

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