The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach begins in the middle of a streak. Scrawny shortstop Henry Skrimshander has never made an error. Not in Little League, not in high school. And when he matriculates at a small, venerable, liberal arts school called Westish College, he remains perfect.
The streak exists not only during games but in between as well. He’s never made a bad throw in practice; a ball has never hit a pebble and skipped past his glove during drills; never lost a ball in the sun while having a catch. He’s been flawless for fifteen straight years.
Henry works hard at the game, perhaps harder than anybody, since nothing else matters to him besides playing baseball. He’s memorized Hall of Famer and personal hero Aparicio Rodriguez’s book, The Art of Fielding and internalized the practical advice on positioning, balance, and physical preparation. The meaning of the more philosophical passages has eluded him as he starts college, but he’s memorized those too.
The book starts percolating when scouts and agents descend on Henry as he scoots up the draft board towards the first round. In the game he’s set to match his idol’s college errorless streak his errant throw sails into the dugout and shatters his roommate’s eye socket.
The first bad throw of Henry’s life spawns others and he unravels. By the time a ballplayer counts 15 years experience, he’s learned the humbling nature of the sport. The paltry rates of success that stand for excellence and the failure to constantly replicate even the most routine gestures bend a player’s expectations. But since Henry’s never made an error, he’s never had to confront this essential truth about the game and his identity collapses when he fianlly does.
The meat of the book is about how Henry and his estranged mentor, catcher Mike Schwartz, the guy responsible for bringing him to Westish in the first place, attempt to overcome the errors. But Mike, distracted by his new girlfriend Pella and brimming with resentment from Henry’s lurking draft day success, offers only warmed-over platitudes for Henry’s soul and countless sets of stadium stairs for his legs.
The inadequacy of their response is obvious to any baseball fan. How can they recover magic that they made no attempt to understand in the first place?
Unfortunately, not one character in the book is in the least bit curious about the source of Henry’s supernatural fielding ability. And anyone that has played one season of baseball at any level would instantly recognize 15 years of perfection as supernatural.
In The Art of Fielding however, even die-hard ballplayers accept the perfection without comment. And when Henry’s first error touches off a crisis of confidence and eventually a total systemic failure, the other players treat him like a player in a bad slump, expecting hard work or the right attitude adjustment will eliminate the errors and restore his factory settings.
But he’s already the hardest worker and already has the best possible attitude. So how’s that supposed to fix the problem? Perfection at this absurd length cannot be earned through practice. And if his ability is indeed supernatural, with all the hard work running parallel at best, then the sudden loss of his ability requires a different treatment than this book imagines.
A ballplayer could react to a terrible slump in a number of ways. But all of them should be vastly different to a person reacting to the loss of a supernatural gift. A slump usually begins with the wrong mix of flawed mechanics and dumb luck and spirals into Adam Dunn-level tragedy when the player gets trapped inside his own head. Henry’s situation is closer to Prometheus and his gift of fire than it is to Adam Dunn and his buck-fifty batting average.
Because all of the characters ignore this essential difference, the baseball in the book loses integrity – a distraction that I could not tolerate.
I’m sure Harbach has loftier intentions than examining Henry’s fielding ability, but he wrote a book around a baseball team – and from what I can tell, nobody’s been shy promoting it as a baseball book. At the very least, the context of the baseball season should serve as the binder of the story, but since the author doesn’t get the baseball right, the binder dissolves. What’s left is still good enough to carry your interest for a while, but since the baseball is palpably unreal, it taints the other stuff too.
And what was gained by Henry’s lifetime of perfection if the source of that gift is not an element of the story? So that his error can be an original sin? An expulsion from his Diamond of Eden? The extreme nature of Henry’s predicament lends itself more easily to that metaphor, but for me, a similar construct was still achievable without involving the miraculous.
Harbach would have been better served if he had taken Henry to the natural limits of baseball. An outstanding fielder in the midst of a record-tying streak. And when that guy flubs a throw and falls into a bottomless slump, Henry’s story could play out as it does without the necessity of an eye roll.
It’s not just the unspoken presence and sudden disappearance of magic that serves to dislodge the baseball fan from making an intimate connection with this book. Henry’s teammate (and roommate) Owen Dunne gets away with reading books on the bench until such time as their red-ass Coach Cox tells him to pinch-hit.
Owen’s homosexuality is accepted by the team without the slightest hesitation. That’s probably not plausible at a college in a state that elected Scott Walker Governor; even the most enlightened eighteen year olds are prone to confusion and snickering when they find themselves spending a lot of time in cramped locker rooms.
But let it slide in the interest of progress. Still, there’s not a competitive baseball team in the country that’s allowing a bench warmer to clip a reading lamp to the brim of his cap so he can curl up in the corner of the dugout with a steaming cup of herbal tea and the latest Barbara Kingsolver novel.
That’s not Division III college baseball. That’s not even the Amherst English Department’s softball team. Perhaps Tanner Boyle lacked the SAT scores to play at Westish, but he’d have that reading lamp sticking out of Owen’s ear before the end of the first inning. Or he’d end up in the garbage can trying.
These things could have transpired in a different kind of book. In a funnier book. In a book that was candid about its alternate, enhanced reality. In science fiction, perhaps. But this story takes place in a crafted, hyper-reality, a reality that breaks with ours for effect only before darting back under a mutual cover. The physics of this world are the same as ours, and under those rules, we know that baseball players can’t be perfect for long.
If W.P. Kinsella conceived of a shortstop that didn’t make an error for 15 straight years, someone else in the story would have noticed.