The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach
When I was sitting in the airplane back from Budapest and took out my book "The Art of Fielding" by Chad Harbach my collegue - a Detroit native - was sitting next to me asking "What is your book about?" I replied: "Baseball." He raised an eyebrow, took the book to flip through the 500 pages and after reading a bit here and there he nodded and gave it back to me saying: "Wow - this is REALLY about baseball." But although the sport takes a big part of the book it is of course not only about baseball - I mean ... it's still a novel and not the infamouse "Baseball for Dummies" that is occupying space on my bookshelf and leaves me puzzled every time I try to pick it up.
So what do we have here: lots of baseball like mentioned, a gay love story, the world of college sports generally and life & love on a campus in the US Mid West especially. Hmmm ... I did not feel exactly like the target group for this book, but that never before stopped me from reading something and it won't in the future.
The book takes a slow start, but I like that. I'm not the type of reader who has any kind of problem with 500 plus pages and I really appreciate when an author takes time to develop his characters and it is definitely one of the most significant strengths of the book.
One of the more controversial parts of the novel is for sure the gay student / teacher love story that leads into the obvious catastrophe and beyond (but I won't tell - too much spoiler). On one hand it is as wrong as it looks like - a student/teacher relationship just can't be as long as both are at the same school. On the other hand it is different from the expected, because it's the young man who is already very aware of who he is and what he wants and the elder - only in theory more powerful - is confused, vulnerable and in search of his identity. And in the end it is one of the very universal stories about falling in love totally unexpected, because love just happens. It is nothing you can plan or predict.
If you know me for a while or read some more book reviews on this blog you know already that instead of candles and flowers I like it more subtle when it comes to romantic episodes and this storyline has one I really like although it is the beginning of the tragic turnaround. It is when the daugther of Guert Affenlight - the teacher and college president - realizes who is her father's new love and not because she caught them in the act, but finds the two standing next to each other in public - not even touching, but nevertheless being so obviously well acquainted with each other needing not much words but just a few looks and gestures. It is the moment you wish the two could have a happy end well knowing it will not happen.
The book is packed with some more stories about relationships - friendship, love between father and daughter, a failed marriage and new love that comes in a various shades (no pun intended). The campus is the stage for everything - the micro cosmos of human drama. That sounds pretty cliché and in a way it is, but Harbach manages to balance things out, slowing the pace, increasing the intensity and manages to save his novel when it is in danger to drop to the average.
He even does when he lets The Harpooners - The Westish underdog baseball team - win the championship. For a couple of pages the book appears suddenly like a overcolored Hollywood sports movie, with the classic story of the small team winning hearts and trophies in the proverbial David vs Goliath action. And just when the reader really starts to roll his eyes the predictable sports drama gets blurry and the focus shifts. Rescue in the very last minute.
And that brings me to the topic of the ballgame:
It was my former boss who recommended me the book when I was sick at home and she wanted me just to relax, read and recover. She said: "It is about baseball and I heard it is kind of based on the story of a Pittsburgh Pirates player." I of course of thought "Yay ... must be Roberto Clemente" expecting some sports magic. But .. doing some research I learned that it was not Clemente but ... Steve Blass. I pratically see the ones who are no strangers to the sport cringe their faces knowing that this is not a happy story line. And in fact most of the book is about the very talented young shortstop Henry Skrimshander, who just one step away from MLB draft loses his magic. He has to learn then painfully that he is not a machine but a human being - and that means to be set to fail but also being blessed with the potential ability to overcome this shocking discovery.
The baseball part of the book is strong, powerful and intense. It's worth reading.
Baseball & me
This is a complicated love story just like the ones in Chad Harbach's book.
One part of me is just too European to get it although I really try hard ("Baseball for Dummies"!). But I can read as much as I want, I still do not even understand the numbers running on the bottom corner of the screen *SIGH*. Don't get me wrong - I understand ... something. I know when a team scores. I know basics of offense and defense play, but I am scratching the surface, the very surface and no more. It is just so not like HOCKEY where all my senses are on alarm, where I know my lines and can see the puck mostly because my brain can guess a little ahead where it goes. I just love hockey. Baseball on the other hand still feels like it's played on another planet.
But just lately I see some light at the end of the tunnel. Watching a game live makes a major difference. The atmosphere is important for the emotional connection and the beauty of the game just enrolls in front of you.
"The Art of Fielding" became also part of the puzzle because it tells a lot about the enormous effort, the strive for perfection and the billions of possible variations which lie in the seemingly clearly defined tasks of throwing / catching / batting a ball and so does this this amazing picture by Pittsburgh photographer Duane Rieder, that explains more about baseball than the damn "Baseball for Dummies" will ever be able to do.
I also may be still a bazillion miles away from seeing by the way the pitcher is flexing his sholders and holding the ball what the ball will do when leaving the pitcher's hand. It may even take me two more years to figure out the bloody statistics, but there is something I can do already really well for quite some time: bleeding back & gold. And that's at least half of the game for us (at least mentally) in Pittsburgh, isn't it?
Raise the Jolly Roger! Let's go Bucs!
PS: The moment I am posting this the Pirates are fighting with the St. Louis Cardinals over #2 spot in their conference and play at 0.509. That does not even look that bad ... for the Pirates, but I won't jinx anything at this point like talking about being above .500 by the end of the season ... so just shhhhhh and enjoy.