Chad Harbach grew up in Wisconsin and was educated at Harvard and the University of Virginia. He is a cofounder and coeditor of n+1. The Art of Fielding is Harbach’s first book.
Failure: The Sad Story of Rick Ankiel
As the playoffs dawned in 2000, I was at the height of my baseball fandom. The Seattle Mariners – my hometown team – were in a period of sustained success, my joy for playing the game had yet to dwindle, and I held an acute awareness of Major League players.
During this time, I vividly remember game one of the NLDS featuring the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves. On the mound for the Cardinals was a young and promising pitcher named Rick Ankiel. With a lively arm and impressive control, many thought Ankiel was the next Randy Johnson. While the first two innings of game one supported this theory, the third inning unraveled in historically disastrous fashion. He allowed 4 runs on 2 hits walking 4 batters and throwing 5 wild pitches finally being pulled for a relief pitcher. Although he laughed it off after the game, Ankiel never regained the promising form he held before the playoffs began.
This psychological condition that forces a player to choke in game situations is heartbreaking. Ankiel’s brain refused to compute a simple action he had performed countless times before.
To make matters worse, failure is a singular principle in baseball. To find success at a professional level, baseball players encounter failure more often than the average profession. Think of it this way: a successful baseball player typically fails to reach base 60% of the time. In what other job could you ensure constant raises by failing 60% of the time? Yet a baseball player with a .400 on-base percentage is an elite contributor.
Thus, a player like Rick Ankiel knows failure like the back of his hand. To emotionally and psychologically fall apart is to completely forget the way one must shrug off failure in a game like baseball.
Baseball as a Metaphor for the Failures of Life
Ultimately, dealing with failure is the core principle in Chard Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. The book follows the baseball team at Westish College, a small liberal arts school in the Midwest. The team is led by Mike Schwartz, a senior catcher with a body built for home runs and a mind pointed toward law school.
The team’s best player is Henry Skrimshander, a shortstop and prospect for the Major Leagues whose actions in life surround baseball and his pursuit of improvement at the game.
Henry rooms with Owen Dunne, an openly gay scholarship-awarded student who is a benchwarmer more likely to be reading the classics on the bench than aware of the score.
Finally, the book focuses on Guert Affenlight, president of Westish and his daughter, Pella, both of which are intimately affiliated with the baseball program.
Throughout the book, Harbach utilizes the metaphor of baseball to tease out bigger lessons in life. While Schwartz longingly hopes for law school, his peers consider him the obvious successor as a coach at Westish.
“He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer” (149).
Obviously, when one suffers in training, dividends are noticed in games. Likewise, Harbach expands this theme in the novel to declare that suffering begets growth.
Baseball Makes Alcoholics and Christians
Additionally, Henry Skrimshander falls victim to the precise mental blocks Rick Ankiel encountered in the big leagues. After committing his first error in 54 games, Henry becomes incapable of throwing to first base; he double- and triple-pumps just willing the ball to magically appear in the first baseman’s glove. While watching Henry’s play deteriorate, Dwight Rogner, a scout for the St. Louis Cardinals proclaims,
“I played in the minors for nine years, batted twice in the majors. And I’ll tell you something – pretty much every guy I ever shared a locker room with wound up becoming either an alcoholic or a born-again Christian. Booze or God. That’s what this game does to you. The name of the game is failure, and if you can’t handle failure you won’t last long. Nobody’s perfect” (172).
Baseball Defines Life
As the story unfolds, Harbach links gorgeous descriptions of baseball gameplay with impressive connections to the way it relates to the meaning of life. He argues,
“For Schwartz this formed the paradox at the heart of baseball, or football, or any other sport. You loved it because you considered it an art: an apparently pointless affair, undertaken by people with a special aptitude, which sidestepped attempts to paraphrase its value yet somehow seemed to communicate something true or even crucial about The Human Condition. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not” (256-257).
Not only does baseball provide a metaphor for life, and creativity, it illustrates our beliefs. In one section
“Henry too, as he sat two steps behind his antsy teammates, inches from Owen’s elbow, tried to find a pose that would help. Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we’re only watching – on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear, whether we close our eyes as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand and heads toward Schwartz” (467).
More than Baseball
Despite using baseball as a central theme, The Art of Fielding is not a book targeting the sports market; it speaks, instead, to the bigger themes of life. Truthfully, we all fail constantly. While baseball provides an easy metaphor with its history of failure, Harbach makes it a springboard to questions of purpose, vocation, and desire. Every good story carries an element of conflict. What makes The Art of Fielding an excellent book is the ways in which the characters encounter and resolve the conflicts and failures in their lives.
There’s always another at bat! Look at Rick Ankiel. After he lost control of his pitches, he was demoted to the minor leagues where he converted to a center fielder, learned to hit, and has become a contributing player in the Major Leagues currently employed by the Washington Nationals.
The Art of Fielding tears at your heartstrings and builds you back up again. Highly recommended.
Verdict: 4.5 of 5