In Praise of Roger Angell

Too often in life we fail to give praise to people. It’s always one of those “I can do it tomorrow” things. To overcome that, give public thanks, which I shall now do for one of my favourite writers, Roger Angell.

The thread that made a difference for me is Angell’s writings on baseball. You can be a fan — even hold season’s tickets, be at the park constantly — and still miss so much. It is in the savouring of the game, again and again, that we need conversation and we need good writers to take us back. Angell is that good writer.

I was re-reading, yesterday, some of his essays (originally published in The New Yorker) covering the mid-1980s. Angell may report, but he is not just a reporter. He gets at feelings, and reminds me of the things I myself went through at the time.

For instance, in 1985 the Toronto Blue Jays made their first foray into the post-season. Angell writes about his on-going exchange of letters with a Toronto-area baseball reporter who, as he said, had made that transition into one of those who “belonged” to the baseball fraternity, living and dying with the team. (Angell believes that in many ways the fan of the team that makes a run at victory in September, and falls one game short, has it best of all. Baseball, as he notes repeatedly across his corpus, is filled with losing. Great batters fail to get a hit 70% of the time. Pitchers fail to keep runners off the bases, and half the time can’t stop them stealing. Great teams lose four games out of ten over the course of a long season. Streaks of good fortune and comedies of errors abound. Often the winning team for the season falls across the finish line.)

I recall that summer of 1985 — the terrible ups and downs, it all coming down to the final series, at the Mistake by the Lake, against the arch-nemesis, the New York Yankees. Buying tickets for all the games — could they clinch victory? Would it go to the wire? Sunday’s game — Phil Niekro’s 300th win — became meaningless with sealing the first place position on Saturday and it was so different, almost like mid-summer “lots of time left” baseball again, instead of the nerve-wracking September form when the team is in contention.

Then came the American League Championship Series against Kansas City. The Royals, of course, won it, and went on to win the World Series (losing to the eventual winner overall does make the ashes taste slightly better).

Comes the next year and a sigh of relief: we’re not good enough; baseball can be taken in peace and enjoyed for itself. But for Angell that year, the year came down to that 1 in 167 chance no fan with a favourite in both leagues wants to see: his hometown National League favourites, the Mets, face off against his American League favourite, the Boston Red Sox. (I know how he feels: my earliest baseball experiences tied me to the Red Sox, too; they are as much my team today as ever.)

Angell writes about the end of the 1986 season in a brilliant essay, “Not So, Boston”, which, with his previous essay on the 1975 season, “Agincourt”, precisely capture the pain and anguish of being a Red Sox supporter in one of those years where they reach the playoffs. My memories are (I discover) hazy, much like an old sepia-toned photograph with the edges rubbed and faded into the white of the edge. He sharpens them, brings the colour back, the light and the shadows.

From Angell I also learned what little I know about the game that I could pass on to my son as he has played. My own playing days were abysmal: errors galore, stuck in right field because no one hit there (usually), a batting average that began .0xx (right down there with American League pitchers when forced to the plate). I had little to offer from experience other than that all that personal defeat had not made the game unenjoyable. But Angell writes about catching, from conversations with catchers, and suddenly the dust-covered, aching-legged fellow wearing the “tools of ignorance” comes alive, and with it that very different perspective that comes from facing the field. (No wonder so many managers are ex-catchers: it is the position where a player can see the whole effort unfold at once.) Angell writes about slumps, for both hitters and pitchers, from the players’ perspectives. He writes about being stuck in the minor leagues, about never having made it but still having the fire of playing in one’s heart; he writes about the players who stayed on one season too long, and those who were cut short in the prime.

He writes about the parks, about sitting in this place or that. (He shares my refusal to ever again sit in the left field bleachers at Yankee Stadium, where the most noxious of their fans sit — my one and only game at the Stadium was spent there, and I will not go back if that is where the ticket is.) He is as frozen at Candlestick as I was in mid-summer. He has as much affection for the ivy at Wrigley as I do. He makes me want to spend March in Arizona (which has kept a little of the laid-back approach to spring training; it is not the profit centre that Florida has become).

But his most powerful essay is the one that has led me to how I volunteer at my son’s league. You see, I am a scorekeeper (and according to the people in the league, one whose scorecards can be used to teach from). This all comes from an essay Angell wrote, about a fan of his who sent him a scorecard for a game that had never been played: Boston’s worst players of note, historically, with Angell himself pitching at Fenway, against the all star team of all all star teams across both leagues through history. Imagine facing off against Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth and the like! The Bostons struggle but constantly manage to keep the score for the all stars at zero: they never get anyone across the plate. Meanwhile, come the bottom of the ninth, Angell — the pitcher (this game is played by pre-designated hitter rules!) hits his way on, advances, and finally scores to win 1-0.

Angell’s telling of this, given to us as a full-bodied telling of the game and what happened all by looking at a scorecard alone, awakened the interest in scoring, and in doing it in a way that you could tell by looking what had unfolded. Elsewhere he mentions his own scorecards, with their annotations beyond what is required. The game in a few pencil marks — and the theatre of the imagination.

Having moved away from a MLB city, today much of my following of my teams necessarily occurs in this way: reconstructing the night before via the box score, catching a game on the radio when I can. (I, like Angell, prefer the radio to the television; with television you see what the camera shows, whereas in radio you see the entire field in your mind.) But I am close to the play for all of that, thanks to Angell’s bringing alive games I never paid attention to, in seasons going back to the 1960s.

If I see Koufax and Drysdale pitching, or the sad-sack Mets of their early days, or the great Oakland teams of 1972-1974, as clearly as I do the games I have been to in person, it is thanks to that writing. Thank you, Roger Angell.

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3 responses to “In Praise of Roger Angell

  1. Pingback: baseball » In Praise of Roger Angell

  2. Pingback: In Praise of Roger Angell

  3. Denny, Alaska

    Thank you for an absolutely beautiful post. You get it: writing and baseball.

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