If you were to sum up the major trends in my life, the one that would probably dominate is my history as a professional appreciator. I’ve been continually enriched by a wide range of entertainments without having the talent or drive to actually succeed at any of them. I’m a music fan who had exactly enough patience to learn how to pluck out “Ode to Joy” on the guitar before giving up in frustration. I’m a film buff who – at age 22 upon moving to California – gave himself ten years to become a professional writer/director, then proceeded to write two screenplays before deciding it was too much work to secure an agent. I’m a voracious reader, and I’ve detailed elsewhere on this blog how poorly it goes when I try writing anything of any merit of my own. Dig a little more deeply into my failure to engage with any of these passions in a real way, and you’ll quickly learn that the bedrock of all of them is a lack of confidence. I don’t have – have never had – the faith in my own ability that allows me to get to the point where sheer determination takes over to complement whatever negligible natural talent I possess. When toeing the start line, my default position is that I’m going to lose the race – which of course makes running it sort of pointless.
All of this is why I found Henry Skrimshander, the protagonist of Chad Harbach’s beautiful novel The Art of Fielding, such a frustrating, confounding, and somehow wonderful creation. Henry plays the position of shortstop for the Westish College Harpooners with uncanny grace and agility, and this comes not just from a deep reservoir of natural talent, but from years of studying both the game of baseball and the greatest-ever shortstop, Aparicio Rodriguez. He’s not the best in the game when he starts his Westish career, but under the tutelage of his teammate Mike Schwartz, Henry eventually grinds his way to be the best, working out obsessively, shoring up his weaknesses, living and breathing the sport. By his junior year Henry is tipped to be an early pick in that year’s major-league draft, and he’s accomplished all of it by working hard and somehow making it look effortless.
Until one day he makes an errant throw which nearly kills his teammate (and roommate) Owen. What follows is a startlingly rapid downward spiral, as Henry begins to engage in the kind of over-thinking I usually do – second-guessing himself and making bad throw after bad throw in game after game until his major league prospects, once as broad and limitless as a desert horizon, have contracted to the size of a pinprick.
At this point, it’s worth mentioning that while The Art of Fielding appeals to me on a psychological level – I watched with mounting horror as Henry made one bad decision after another, recognizing in him the same thought process that often gets me in trouble – I was also willing to buy into it as a longtime baseball fan. The Cincinnati Reds won the 1990 World Series when I was a senior in high school – sweeping the heavy favorite Oakland A’s after being the first team to go wire-to-wire during the regular season – and the sight of Barry Larkin, Eric Davis, Glenn Braggs, and the rest of the team celebrating at the end of Game 4 cemented in me a love of the game that’s withstood some pretty lean years. Baseball has always stood apart for me as fundamentally different from other pro sports, and although I’d never much considered why, I think Harbach captures it here:
Schwartz thought of it as Homeric – not a scrum but a series of isolated contests. Batter versus pitcher, fielder versus ball. You couldn’t storm around, snorting and slapping people, the way Schwartz did while playing football. You stood and waited and tried to still your mind. When your moment came, you had to be ready, because if you fucked up, everyone would know whose fault it was. What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?
So this book had already checked two important boxes for me – anxiety and baseball – but Harbach does something else pretty remarkable: he keeps the focus on Henry and his mental anguish while also using his catastrophic throw to set a series of events in motion involving a cast of other characters. There’s Schwartz, who beats everyone in obsessive behavior and who doesn’t have a life without Westish sports and doesn’t know what else to do with his life; Owen, the recipient of Henry’s throw; Westish President Guert Affenlight, who, at 60 years old, finds himself falling for Owen; and Pella, Guert’s daughter, a 24-year-old divorcée who’s returned to Westish because she has nowhere else to go.
Readers attuned to nuances in behavior will, I think, see that what Harbach cautions us against is the tendency to overthink. It’s when Henry acts automatically that he excels on the field; as soon as his brain enters the picture, he flounders. The same can be said for Schwartz and Affenlight and Pella – they’re all, to one degree or another and to their detriment – unable to get out of their own heads. I don’t think Harbach is making the argument that we should always follow our hearts. But I do think there’s a pretty clear case to be made that we have to know when to let go – that it’s only by acting instinctively in the service of our passions that we’ll achieve our full potential.
The Who – The Who Sell Out (1967)