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March 19, 2013

Baseball ProGUESTus

Roger Angell and The Benefits of Writing About Baseball

by Tim Britton

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Tim Britton is entering his third season as a Red Sox beat writer for the Providence Journal. He is a native of New Jersey, a graduate of Duke, and a career .220 Little League hitter. He has never hit a home run. You can follow him on Twitter @TimBritton.


Charlie Rose: “Seventy percent of your life is writing about baseball?”

Roger Angell: “Are you trying to make me feel bad? I’m not going to feel bad.” (source)

I have to admit: Sometimes writing about baseball makes you rethink your priorities.

Sometimes you’re checking out the World War I Museum in Kansas City, but you only get up to 1916 because Josh Beckett played golf before skipping a start. Sometimes you curse the T’s extra stop or the traffic on Beacon Street because now you won’t be the first to tweet the lineup. Sometimes you find yourself using the phrase “land-based activities” without a hint of irony. And sometimes, when the manager answers a question about who’s pitching that weekend with “Who cares,” you find yourself sympathetic to the attitude.

A baseball beat writer churns out thousands of words each day—almost all of which will be irrelevant within 24 hours. This is not something that lends itself well to big-picture metaphysical thinking. I would imagine that most of us who dedicate our days to chronicling injury updates and hitters’ adjustments to pitchers’ adjustments and “That’s baseball” quotes have received, at least once, the “You write about baseball…for a living?” look: Pursed lips and varied heightening of the eyebrows are typically involved.

To be clear, this isn’t a feeling I have too often—fine, it happened when too many former classmates made the Forbes “30 under 30” list—and it isn't one I've had this spring. The latter is because I've spent enough time on the lanai with Roger Angell.

I first encountered Angell in what I guess you’d call a thrift shop, which was selling used paperbacks for a quarter. (Despite that ridiculous pricing, I opted to buy only Five Seasons and not Late Innings—as if I needed to finish the first one before justifying the extra quarter. This is what happens when you’re not employed.)

To be honest, my first impression of Angell was one of bemusement. He seemed to embody the sportswriter clichés of yore, especially when he attributed the Pirates’ 1971 championship to “the hitting and throwing and burning will of Roberto Clemente” 21 pages into Five Seasons.

It didn’t take long, however, for Angell’s boyish enthusiasm for the game—indeed, I had no idea he was already in his 50s when he was writing about Clemente and his contemporaries—and his magical manipulation of words to win me over. Gammons has Fisk’s home-run ball “like the Mystic River bridge,” and Angell has “Agincourt and After,” which includes the greatest defense of sports fandom I've ever read:

What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about: this is what we come for. It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naïveté — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.

When I first read those words, I did so as a fan. When I look back at them now, though, it’s as a writer, and they feel more like an endorsement of my profession than anything else.

What so much of this work, just like any work, comes down to is caring. We as writers cater to those who care, and we do so by caring ourselves—not in the outcome of an at-bat or a game or a season, but in our portrayal of it all, in feeling good about the byline atop the newspaper column or webpage. The entire cycle can be self-sustaining: We acknowledge that what the fans care about matters, and they acknowledge that what we care about does, too.

I’m not saying that writing about baseball is noble, and I sure as hell hope I never refer to this as a “craft” without a hefty dose of sarcasm. But what can be so refreshing about reading Angell—and here it’s more his blow-by-blow recollections of pennant races and postseason series than it is his examinations of Steve Blass or how Mets fans differ from Yankees fans—is his execution on the sentence level. There’s how the runner was “not just beating the throw, but making the throw useless” or how Gil Hodges’ stance “is a cup of limeflower tea to those with memories” or how Koufax “instead of merely overpowering hitters…appears to dismantle them.”

I spend so much of my time fretting over how best to frame my writing—like, do we really need game stories anymore?—that I frequently forget that the writing itself is what matters most. Angell was writing play-by-play weeks after the game ended, and it was well worth the price of admission. Good writing is good writing, and it’s probably better to focus on the quality of the words than the manner in which they are packaged.

Of course, in addition to such inspiration on the writing side, Angell is an unabashed sucker for baseball. Combing through The Summer Game this spring has been a nice reminder that baseball isn't in terribly bad shape these days, and that not all of its ills are recent. We’re inclined to look at the game’s developments as groundbreaking or at least novel, when most of them are simply redundant. There’s a constancy to this game, if I’m allowed to use a noun that should only be said by Reverend Lovejoy.

For instance, this whole notion that football’s popularity is swallowing baseball whole:

The idea of the imminent demise of baseball has caught on, and those who cling to it (and they are numerous) seem to have their eyes on the runes instead of the leaping corpse. This new folk belief centers on the new folk word ‘image.’ Baseball, the argument goes, has a bad image. The game is too slow and too private, and offers too little action for a society increasingly attached to violence, suddenness, and mass movement.

That’s Angell from 1969, mind you, with the perfect conclusion, “Being forced to pick between [football and baseball] seems exactly like being forced into a choice between a martini and a steak dinner.”

The salaries have been too high for a while now, or at least since 1976:

There seems to be absolutely no doubt that large numbers of fans are disturbed about the level of some player salaries…. ‘The players have gotten too greedy,’ ‘They're all paid too much’ — these are current grandstand convictions.

Attendance woes? Angell will point out that Game One of the 1970 NLCS was 15,000 short of capacity at Three Rivers Stadium.

(The issue of performance-enhancing drugs is a white elephant here, but that doesn’t seem new so much as different. Certainly, debating and weighing the morality of our heroes against their accomplishments has been a burden since before 1998.) 

So right as spring training was hitting that there’s-how-many-more-days-left point, it was invigorating to be reminded that, if something as basic as a stance can be articulated in Proustian terms, then what isn't worth such effort? This work and this sport do, in the end, reward our time, and caring—really caring—is worth it.

Thanks, Roger. I’ll never try to make you feel bad.

Related Content:  Writing,  Roger Angell,  Spring

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