Baseball, the great American pastime. Who said that? Not sure, and I am also not sure why I acquired a book about baseball. I have a 5-inning attention span for baseball. But I certainly am glad I did get this book, because I absolutely loved it.
It is about baseball, but really, it is about so much more than the game. It starts off being about shortstop Henry Skrimshander, a quiet kid from South Dakota who is a phenom at the shortstop position. He is seen in a high school game by a young man who is a freshman in a Wisconsin college which has a good baseball program but an abysmal win record. Abysmal. The frosh knocks himself out to get Henry enrolled in the college on a full ride sports scholarship, and takes him under his wing.
Henry’s absolute idol is Aparicio Rodriguez, the greatest shortstop ever, who wrote a book, “The Art of Fielding”, a kind of Compleat Angler for baseball, part instruction on the game and techniques, part philosophical mumbo-jumbo. Don’t bother looking it up. It is all fictional.
Henry really is phenomenal, but Mike, his mentor, is phenomenal as well in his own way, as a people motivator and team captain. He also plays football, and his body is showing the strain.
We meet the president of the college, learn a great deal about him, then his semi-estranged daughter who comes back into his life.
We meet Henry’s roommate, Owen, a marvelously intelligent gay man who is also on full scholarship, and who also plays on the baseball team. We get to now others of the team, and the coach.
Henry is on his way to a possible 3rd round draft pick in the majors by his junior year, when he chokes. It happens after a long no-error streak, when he throws a somewhat wayward ball that is grabbed by the wind off the lake, sails into the dugout and bangs his roommate on the head. Henry is sure he killed Owen, that fortunately, that was not the case. That started Henry’s mental decline into a pit of depression. He loses the interest of the scouts, eventually quits the team, and sinks lower and lower into a black abyss.
The team, for the first time in a hundred years, is in line for conference champs, regionals, and maybe the state. At the crucial game, Henry shows up, and saves the day. I am not telling you how. It is just beautiful.
After being hospitalized for malnutrition, and kept in the psych ward for a while, Henry recovers, all ends are beautifully tied up to the satisfaction of all. Well, to my satisfaction, anyway.
There are many other subplots which I am not telling you about because I really want you to read the book, but these subplots all thread their way throughout the main story, and as in all good books, ultimately come together to form a coherent whole.
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.
Baseball was an art, but to excel at it, you had to become a machine.
Any activity of interest to us can become an obsession, can become our whole life, but there is a cost. This lovely story examines that cost, and looks at the idea of obsession, not just Henry’s, but the several others that are featured in the story.
Loved it. Just loved it.