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Roger Angell (b. 1920) is a celebrated New Yorker writer and editor. First published in the magazine in 1944, he became a fiction editor and regular contributor in 1956; and remains as a senior editor and staff writer. In addition to seven classic books on baseball, which include The Summer Game (1972), Five Seasons (1977), and Season Ticket (1988), he has written works of fiction, humor, and a memoir, Let Me Finish (2006). He edited the short story collection Nothing But You: Love Stories from The New Yorker (1997). In 2011, he was awarded the PEN/ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sports Writing. Angell lives in New York City.
BASEBALL OPENS YOUR EYES. Each new season, it takes me four or five games before I begin to see what's really happening on the field—how the pitcher is working to this particular batter, the little shifts in the infield defense, with men on base, as the count progresses; how bold or how cautious this manager will be with his fresh assemblage of hitters and base runners. Over the winter I also seem to forget another part of baseball—the stuff away from, or off to one side of, the teams and the standings and the vivid events on the diamond, which can reward the experienced and reawakened fan. But that, too, comes back in time. At Tiger Stadium, early in June–June, 1984: the Year of the Tiger, it turned out—I watched the Toronto Blue Jays valiantly trying to chip away at Detroit's mountainous early-season lead in the American League East in a contest that the visitors eventually won, 6–3, thus narrowing the Detroit margin to three and a half games. (The Jays never came as close again.) There was a big, apprehensive crowd and plenty of action—back-to-back doubles by the Jays' Dave Collins and Lloyd Moseby and an inside-the-park homer by George Bell—but between all the action and the cheering and the rest of it my attention was taken by a spider I happened to notice up in one corner of the frame of the open press-box window before me. It was a very small spider—a dot, really—but a busy one. It was working on a web. Inning by inning, the creature persisted, laying out struts and cables, catwalks and connectors, and the stadium floodlights illuminating the green field below us also lit up the little construction project as it grew in size and beautiful design. The white light struck each fresh thread with silver as it appeared, magically, where there had been none before, and was stretched to its planned and perfect mooring. I pointed out the web to my seatmate in the press box, and he studied it, too, and in time I noticed that each of us was following the game in the same way—watching the pitch or the play below and sometimes making an entry in his scorecard, but then returning at once to the smaller event above us in the window. I ran into that writer, an old friend, in October at the World Series in Detroit, and after we'd exchanged some remarks about the players and the pitching and the coming game he said, "Say, do you remember that night back here in the summer, with that little spider? Wasn't that something? You know, I woke up the other night and I was thinking that again. Funny ..."
Then I might add that the thing we remember at my house about a Fourth of July Mets-Astros game at Shea (four of us had gone to it: a family party) isn't the terrific postgame fireworks or a little bloodletting of Astro runs in the first inning but our getaway from the parking lot afterward. (I hope soon to complete my small monography on stadium-quitting.) Actually, by the time we turned up at Shea the lot was full, with the gates and pay booths closed, and we had to make do with a narrow, muddy little junkyard off some street out beyond the center-field parking sectors, where a local entrepreneur took our seven bucks and then absolutely buried us in a welter of other late-comers. No hope, but when we found our way back there, hours later, beyond the motionless thousands of overheating cars and captive fans and patriots self-blocked in the main lot, someone in our group spotted a little alley at the back of the yard, and we took a chance and swung that way, against the flow of cars inching out, and found a miracle there: an empty street. I zipped through a couple of blocks, hung a right away from the honking tangle, extemporized a dazzling U-turn under the Whitestone Expressway, guessed and grabbed another right, spotted the good old boat basin off to my right, and laid a little left onto the Grand Central Parkway: home free, homeward bound, with the cheers of my fans loud in the car and cascades of Queens-side Roman candles on either hand celebrating our brilliant departure.
Nor is there anything in my baseball notebooks about the second game of a Saturday doubleheader in the middle of August—the Twins against the Red Sox at Fenway in the latter stretches of one of those long, nearly eventless games when the sawdust slowly begins to leak out of the pastime. Why do I remember it so well? The pitcher out there has run the count to 3–1. There is a foul, then another foul. The pitcher doesn't want the new ball the umpire has thrown in and asks for another one. He gets it and rubs it slowly in his hands. He winds and throws: another foul. The outfielders shift from foot to foot and stare deeply into the grass before them. A base runner leads cautiously away from first, then trots back as the pitcher steps off the rubber. The third-base ump walks seven steps out toward left field, turns, and strolls back again. Another foul ball, bounced softly past first base. "Throw it straight," somebody in the press box mutters. There are spatters of applause in the stands, but they die away for lack of hope. The lights are on, for evening has crept closer, and here and there in the lower decks I can see some fans getting up, in twos and threes, and heading up the aisles for home and dinner. The park is half empty by now. Out in the sloping right-field sector of the seats, there is a thin, a-cappella rendering of "Happy Birthday," for somebody—her name is Ella, it turns out—and other fans around the park join in on the last "happy birthday to you-ooo!" and Ella gets a little round of applause, too. But that ends as well (a coach is out talking to the pitcher now), and even the everyday noises of the baseball park—the hum of voices, the undercurrent of talk and cheers and laughter and vender cries—drop and fade, and Fenway Park is almost silent, just for a minute. The flag in center field hangs motionless in the last late sunlight, its pole a startling pink. The rightfield bleachers are bathed in pastel, and a first breath of evening cool floats up from the lighted field below. I sigh and stretch, wanting the game to get on with itself, but in no hurry, really. No place to go, no place I need to be. Midsummer.
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. Players notice this, too. Bob Gibson, the most competitive man I have ever seen on a ballfield, once told me that what he missed most after he had retired wasn't the competition at all. "I don't miss the pitching but I can't say I don't miss the game," the Cardinal Hall of Famer said. "I miss it a little. There's a lot I don't want to get back to.... I think it's the life I miss—all the activity that's around baseball. I don't miss playing baseball but I miss ... baseball. Baseball. Does that sound like a crazy man?"
I told him he wasn't crazy, and I think I also said that I'd heard some other players and managers use the same phrase in the same way: the life. It was a little while, however, before I began to appreciate that this other side of the game was there for me, as well. La vida is not the same for a middle-aged baseball writer as it is for the players (scribes—even the beat men—never wholly belong in the clubhouse, the way the players do), but there are some compensations; for one thing, the life is easy for me to bring back, because I wrote down so much of it. For another, I was encouraged to write about myself, myself as a fan, which is a kind of reporting that other lucky baseball writers should be given as their beat. I could be lighthearted or even trivial, if it suited me, and I could revisit old baseball friends whenever I wished.
Earl Weaver, for one. Here he is, as jaunty as ever, even when seen in serious circumstances—just before his last game in baseball (or so he thought and we all thought), on the first Sunday in October, 1982. He lost that day, and the Brewers, not his Orioles, progressed to the playoffs and then on into a bruising seven-game World Series with the Cardinals. When the Orioles' season came to its end that afternoon in Baltimore, the downcast but grateful multitudes in Memorial Stadium repeatedly summoned Weaver back to the field with their applause. He waved his cap again and again, and then led the funny local letter-cheer for the fans one more time, stubbily spelling out the name of their team, with tears glistening on his face. But never mind that; here is the beginning:
This is the final day of the regular season, the last tick on the great summerlong, hundred-and-sixty-two-game clock, and the two teams here in Memorial Stadium—the Orioles and the visiting Milwaukee Brewers—are tied for first place in the American League East. The winners of this game will finish up with ninety-five victories and sixty-seven losses (the best record in either league in 1982) and will catch an evening flight to the Coast to begin preparations for the league-championship series that opens on Tuesday against the California Angels. There is such a thing as caring too much, and here on the sun-warmed field, chattering with writer friends and watching the batters in the cage, I realize that I almost don't want this game played, for one of these two sterling, embattled clubs—equal favorites of mine, if that is possible—must lose before the day is done. But play they must, and, deep down, I want the Orioles to win, because of Earl. He is retiring after fourteen and a half seasons at the helm, during which span his teams have twelve times won ninety games or more, with six divisional championships, four pennants, and one World Championship. Only the late Joe McCarthy had a better managerial record in this century. Retiring now is Weaver's idea, announced more than a year ago; he wants less time in airplanes and hotel lobbies, more time to give to his vegetable garden, to the dog track, to visiting his grandchildren. "Anybody has to be stupid to work when he doesn't have to," he has said, but he is only fifty-two years old, and the betting is that he will be back in a year or two, managing somewhere, at a very large salary, and talking baseball better than anyone else. Here, sitting at ease in his dugout, his cap pushed back, one leg comfortably crossed, ankle on knee, over the other, and with the press kneeling and sitting and leaning in about him in a three-deep semicircle, he is hoarse and cheerful and profane, and so eager in response that he makes each reporter's questions sound simply conversational. He is himself, that is, and the burdens of this special day have not dimmed him. No, he tells us, making out the lineup card this morning didn't require any more care than usual. "I think hard about all my lineup cards," he says, "so this was no harder than the other hundred and sixty-one." No, he hadn't worried about the games ahead when he was out in Detroit the other day and down by four. "What happened in that game and what was happening to Milwaukee in the game over in Boston was what mattered. It's always one game at a time. You can't do nothing about the other ones." The talk shifts to Jim Palmer, who will start today, and to his opponent, the veteran Don Sutton. "I'll get goose bumps when Jimmy walks in from the bullpen before the game," Weaver says. "I always do. He's a lot responsible for us being here today, you know." Palmer, at 15–4 for the year, has lost only one game in his last twenty-four starts. "There've been times when he did it with just this"—he taps his forehead—"and the other man out there today can do the same thing if he has to. It's always easy for the scouts to say 'Pitch a good fastball up and in on this batter,' but maybe the guy on that little hill can't always do it."
There is more, and in the next few minutes Earl stands up (not an extended process for him, at five feet six and a half inches) to illustrate a right-handed batter leaning out over the plate in pursuit of an outside slider and to show how good in-fielders all reflexively lean to their left in response; sits down again and recalls the pain he experienced in the spring of 1948, when he was an aspiring seventeen-year-old second baseman and was suddenly cut from the roster of the Class B Lynchburg, Virginia, club and had to watch his teammates depart on a train while he and another unfortunate waited for the bus that would take them to join the Class D West Frankfort, Illinois, team ("The guy to feel sorry for," Earl says, "is the kid with West Frankfort who thought he had the second-base job nailed down until I turned up"); and gets up again to illustrate a play in 1964, when he was managing the Elmira (N.Y.) Pioneers. Coaching at third base, he watched a wild pitch that struck the corner of the plate and bounced crazily into the air. "I go halfway down the line to see if the catcher can make the play," he says, "and when he does I try to stop my base runner, Paul Blair, who is coming in all the way from second, but by the time I spin around, Paulie is there"—he puts the palm of his hand an inch in front of his nose—"and when I pick myself up I've got footprints here and here and here. Yes, he scored."
In time, he goes off to talk for the television cameras, and when he steps up out of the dugout there is an instant response from the early crowd—a fervent little scattering of "Wea-ver! Wea-ver!"—which he acknowledges with a shy half wave. Like the fans, I want more Earl, but I can console myself by remembering how many dugout monologues and postgame interviews and springtime dissertations and late-night World Series battle summations I have heard from him over the years—all of them, without exception, a lesson and a treat. Back in August, almost two months earlier, I interrupted a seaside vacation in eastern Maine to catch a couple of Orioles-Red Sox games at Fenway Park—to see the teams and hear the crowds and revisit my true favorites, the Bosox, in their jewel-green home park, but mostly to call on Earl Weaver in his last summer of baseball. I had no idea then, of course, that his club would make it back from its third-place spot in the standings, and neither did he, I think. In the dugout just before that series began, Weaver said, "This is a big game for us—I hate to say it. We've lost eleven of sixteen, and our ass is about to hit the water. We just died in Chicago." Rick Dempsey, his veteran catcher, came by at that instant and murmured, "Outmanaged again," and Earl laughed. Clif Keane, the emeritus professor of insults of the Boston press, asked Dempsey about his .129 lifetime batting average (he is in fact a career .235 hitter), and Dempsey said, "Yes, I got to admit it. I got fourteen years in and I've never been hot." Earl lit another Raleigh and politely asked a hovering young woman sportswriter from a suburban Massachusetts paper if she knew any two-syllable words, and when she said yes, she did, he said, "Then you'll go far. This man"—he nodded toward Keane—"got by all these years on just one syllable at a time: 'They-played-a-game-on-this-day-and-our-team-beat-theirteam-by-a-score-of-two-to-one.'" "That was for you!" Keane cried. "I always did that when I knew you were in town and might buy the paper!" And so on. But there was some real baseball in it, too, and soon Earl was on his feet to show us how he and his coaches had been working with the brilliant young Baltimore rookie Cal Ripken, who was making the difficult transition from third base to shortstop in midseason and had just begun to learn not to take the tiny half step toward the plate which every third sacker makes with the pitch—because he must be so quick to respond to a bunt or a bulletlike line drive—but which the shortstop must avoid, since it can cost him a full stride to one side or the other in the much wider area of the field he must cover. "Wherever he plays, you can write him in for the next fifteen years, because that's how good he is," Earl said of Ripken. "He's got fifteen home runs already, and he ain't missed a ground ball yet, and that's amazing."
Excerpted from Season Ticket by Roger Angell. Copyright © 1988 Roger Angell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted April 6, 2014
If you are a baseball fan, Roger Angell is a must read. His approach to writing about the game of baseball was not to record it as history but it made history. His books reflect his personal observsations and experiences with the game as a fan. It is his intimacy with the game and and ability to relay it to the average fan that makes him one of the best sport writers ever.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.