Friday, July 25, 2014

Roger Angell, Always With Feeling

This Saturday at the Baseball Hall Of Fame in Cooperstown, the great Roger Angell will receive the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor given by the Baseball Writers Association of America. This award is long overdue. (As anyone who reads No Such Thing As Was knows, I'm an immoderate fan of Angell's work.) I wont waste space with my own words here, except to say that Angell's best writing about baseball is always simultaneously the best writing about living, because he writes with passion, intelligence, economy, and humanity, and because, as in all great writing, his narrow subjects naturally give way his larger subjects. Angell shows us, again and again, how our loves, small or great, full of heartbreaks, disappointments, and diminishing returns, take many shapes. Angell's is diamond-shaped.

Here are three of my favorite passages. From his preface to his 1991 collection Once More Around The Park:
This is a linear sport. Something happens and then something else happens, and then the next man comes up and digs in at the plate. Here’s the pitch, and here, after a pause, is the next. There’s time to write it down in your scorecard or notebook, and then perhaps to look about and reflect on what s starting to happen out there now. It’s not much like the swirl and blur of hockey and basketball, or the highway car crashes of the NFL. Baseball is the writer’s game (there were three hundred and fifty baseball books published in the past year), and its train of thought, we come to sense, is a shuttle, carrying us constantly forward to the next pitch or inning, or to the sudden double into the left-field corner, but we keep hold of the other half of our ticket, for the return trip on the same line. We anticipate happily, and, coming home, reenter an old landscape brightened with fresh colors. Baseball games and plays and mannerisms (even the angle of a cap) fade stubbornly and come to mind unbidden, putting us back in some particular park on that special October afternoon or June evening. The players are as young as ever, and we, perhaps, not yet entirely old.
From "La Vida," an essay he wrote throughout the summer of 1987 that appeared in his fourth baseball book, Season Ticket, in 1988:
Baseball is not life itself, although the resemblance keeps coming up. It’s probably a good idea to keep the two sorted out, but old fans, if they’re anything like me, can’t help noticing how cunningly our game replicates the larger schedule, with its beguiling April optimism; the cheerful roughhouse of June; the grinding, serious, unending (surely) business of midsummer; the September settling of accounts, when hopes must be traded in for philosophies or brave smiles; and then the abrupt running-down of autumn, when we wish for—almost demand—a prolonged and glittering final adventure just before the curtain. But nowhere is this metaphor more insistent than in baseball’s sense of slippage; our rueful, fleeting awareness that we tend to pay attention to the wrong things—to last night’s rally and tomorrow’s pitching match-up—while lesser and sweeter moments slide by unperceived.
And this, from Late Innings (1982):
I’m still not entirely sure why the sight of some young pitcher warming up in spring training means so much to me, but I would almost rather watch and write about that than see Reggie Jackson or Pete Rose come up with men on base in some jam-packed, roaring stadium in October. The old coach with his hands in his pockets watching the young man pitching is the same sports clich√©—it’s almost a recruiting poster for baseball—but I’m not sure that it should be resisted for that reason. Its suggestions are classical. A mystery is being elucidated before our eyes; something is being handed on. The young man may fail (probably he will), but in time he may do better. One day, he may surprise his tutors, and they will turn and begin to take note of him when he is in the game. He will become better known, possibly famous, he might even become one of the best pitchers ever. It could happen; probably it won’t. Either way, it touches something in us. Because baseball changes so little, it renews itself each year without effort, but always with feeling.

At Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci has written a terrific profile on Angell on the eve of Angell's day in Cooperstown, and here's a short video interview, the first of several that The New Yorker will produce.

UPDATE: MLB posted a couple of minutes of Angell's acceptance speech here.

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