Monday, August 13, 2012

On the Coffee Table: Game Time

Title: Game Time: A Baseball Companion
Author: Roger Angell

Image via Open Library

Game Time, published in 2003, is one of several collections of Roger Angell's New Yorker baseball essays.  Angell is a master of repackaging.  While there is some new material in this book, quite a lot of it has been published in previous collections - Late Innings in particular.  Fortunately for me, I haven't read Late Innings yet so most of it is, at least, new to me.  Whereas most of Angell's books draw from a specific time period - the mid-70s, mid-80s, etc. - this one provides more of a cross-section.  We get changing perspectives on spring training, for instance, from 1962, 1975, 1984 and so on.

Along with Star Wars and Dungeons & Dragons, sports helped to define my personal mythology during my childhood.  Among Angell's many gifts is his ability to convey the larger-than-life roles that star athletes play in our collective imaginations.  As I have written before, there are dangers in deifying celebrities, in investing superhuman expectations in extraordinary people.  Angell occasionally teeters on the edges of hero-worship but he is at his best when he touches lightly upon the humanity of his subjects.

Photo via Upon Further Review

My two favorite articles in this book are both reprints from Late Innings.  "Distance" is a fantastic essay on Bob Gibson, the dominant right-handed pitcher of the 1960s.  Gibson (pictured above) is one of the most talented and fascinating athletes of the 20th century, yet he rarely gets his due because of a prickly relationship with the press.  At the time of the article's writing, Angell even had doubts as to whether or not Gibson would get into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility - complete madness if you look at the career stats, never mind how thoroughly he owned his era, especially during the post-season.  Fortunately, justice was served and Gibson was voted in on the first try.

Photo via Wikipedia

"The Web of the Game" is a beautiful instance of journalistic serendipity.  Angell wanted to do a piece on Smokey Joe Wood, a 34-game winner for the Red Sox in 1912.  For the interview, Angell took his subject to a Yale baseball game.  Wood had coached at Yale for 20 years and still lived in New Haven at the time of the interview in 1981.  As luck would have it, the game they attended is considered by many to be the greatest college baseball game ever played (that assessment couldn't possibly be hurt by the fact that one of the nation's most well-respected sportswriters was on hand for the affair).  Future World Series pitchers Ron Darling of Yale and Frank Viola of St. John's started for their respective teams that day.  Darling pitched 11 no-hit innings, striking out 15, yet still lost the game.

Photo via Cotuit Kettleers

The best of the new material is "Wings of Fire," a 1998 article on the development and preservation of top-quality pitchers.  Anyone who follows the game knows that keeping players healthy, especially pitchers, is the ongoing struggle of every Major League franchise.  Sports Illustrated's recent feature on Dylan Bundy, an Orioles prospect, details much of the current thinking on the subject.

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