This is a book about baseball, in the way that the Chariots of Fire is a movie about running. Baseball is a part of this book, but it isn't a book about baseball. It's a book about a kid who wants nothing more than to play baseball, who has incredible natural talent, who is willing to put in the work, who finds someone who can help him achieve his baseball dreams, and who makes a mistake.
Sorta. Because it is a book about baseball.
The title refers to a fictional book in the book, also about baseball. The fictional book is a zen-like non-fiction book on how to be the best shortstop ever, from the best shortstop ever. The quoted passages of the fictional book inside this also-fictional book (the one I read, not the one I read about the character reading), are inspiring and very zen, which I liked. I was expecting baseball in this book, and got it.
What I wasn't expecting in this book was Stoicism and the realization of just how much I f'ing know about baseball. I was also not expecting to understand the want and the need to play baseball. Well, not so much baseball, but the need for movement, the need for flow, the need for the joy of being so excellent at something to the point of stillness in action. I may have had moments of brilliance in my ultimate career, but it wasn't consistent, I didn't own it. I had glimpses, though. Enough to understand what this book is trying to say, with the beauty of baseball and the stillness in action.
Growing up, baseball for me was exactly how Affenlight, the college president in the book, views baseball:
Baseball—what a boring game! One player threw the ball, another caught it, a third held a bat. Everyone else stood around.
After being with Kris for years, I learned about baseball through osmosis, just being near and hearing what he had to say. It was years before I understood enough, and he started talking strategy to me, explaining some of the nuances on the field, describing what pitch was going to happen and how the players would adjust to the play that would likely occur, watching the play happen as he described. His enthusiasm ignited mine, and I began to enjoy watching the game, seeing it through his eyes. I still didn't (and don't) like to go with big groups, and I won't go to a game without a baseball-knowing companion to talk to me through the game (which is to say, I still don't go to games much), but I will enjoy a game from time to time, actually enjoy it. I'll watch a game on the television at a bar.
I thought I understood baseball at a fairly good level.
And then this book happened. I see now, in retrospect, that Kris gave me a coach's perspective, a strategist's perspective of the game. I still didn't understand, hadn't seen yet, what a joy baseball could be. This book is about baseball, but it's about the joy of being incredible, talented, hungry, obsessed with a single-minded goal of performing in a sport flawlessly, with excellence. Harbach does an incredibly good job of showing the reader the mind, the thoughts, the need to sacrifice for that goal of perfection. This book gave me a player's perspective of baseball.
I strongly recommend this book. I liked this book more than I was expecting. I will buy you a copy.
All his life Schwartz had yearned to possess some single transcendent talent, some unique brilliance that the world would consent to call genius. Now that he'd seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn't let it walk away.
And we are off to a good start in the book, a good quote on only page six. I have high hopes for this book. No, wait, a book about baseball, I don't have high hopes.
He should have known that Sophie would spill the beans. Sophie always spilled the beans. She was as keen to get a rise out of people, especially their parents as Henry was to placate them.
I understand Sophie.
Henry looked toward third base to see if Coach Cox would put the take sign on. "Letting him swing away," he reported.
"Really?" Rick said. "That sounds like a bad i---," but his words were interrupted by an ear splitting ping of a ball against aluminum bat.
Okay, so, the pitch count is 3-0, runner on first (so, not scoring position). Typically in college ball, the coach will call for the batter not to swing at the next pitch. The count is forcing the pitcher to throw three strikes in a row. Early in a game, the coach is going to want to tire that pitcher out a bit, don't swing. In this case, the game was tied in the ninth, the batter was the team's slugger (though he was known to choke), and we don't know the number of outs, but presumably not enough to hold back the call to swing for the fences.
Why do I know this much about baseball?
“Runners on first and second,” Rick said.
“I bet he wants you to bunt.”
“What’s the bunt sign?”
“Two tugs on the left earlobe,” Henry told him. “But first he has to give the indicator, which is squeeze the belt. But if he goes to his cap with either hand or says your first name, that’s the wipe-off, and then you have to wait and see whether — ”
“Forget it,” Owen said. “I’ll just bunt.”
Henry had never felt so happy. Freshperson year had been one thing, an adventure, an exhilaration, all in all a success, but it had also been exhausting, a constant struggle and adjustment and tumult. Now he was locked in. Every day that summer had the same framework, the alarm at the same time, meals and workouts and shifts and SuperBoost at the same times, over and over, and it was that sameness, that repetition, that gave life meaning. He savored the tiny variations, the incremental improvements — tuna fish on his salad instead of turkey; two extra reps on the bench press. Every move he made had purpose. While they worked out, Schwartz would recite lines from his favorite philosophers, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus — they were Schwartz’s personal Aparicios — and Henry felt that he understood. Every day is a war. Yes, yes it was. The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best. Done: there was only one of those. He was becoming a baseball player.
If he wanted? Of course he wanted. It was the wanting, the incredible strength of the wanting, that had prevented him so far.
Desire seems to be a strong force in all the recent literature I've read.
Locker rooms, in Schwartz’s experience, were always underground, like bunkers and bomb shelters. This was less a structural necessity than a symbolic one. The locker room protected you when you were most vulnerable: just before a game, and just after. (And halfway through, if the game was football.) Before the game, you took off the uniform you wore to face the world and you put on the one you wore to face your opponent. In between, you were naked in every way. After the game ended, you couldn’t carry your game-time emotions out into the world — you’d be put in an asylum if you did — so you went underground and purged them. You yelled and threw things and pounded on your locker, in anguish or joy. You hugged your teammate, or bitched him out, or punched him in the face. Whatever happened, the locker room remained a haven.
On the way to the door a wave of courage swept over him, and he pressed his hand to Owen’s smooth forehead, above his bandages and bruises. Owen’s eyes stayed closed. His flesh felt surprisingly warm, and Affenlight’s first impulse was to call the nurse. Then he realized that it wasn’t the heat of a fever, just the average animal warmth of youth.
Every guy on that bus, from Schwartz down to little Loondorf, had grown up dreaming of becoming a professional athlete. Even when you realized you’d never make it, you didn’t relinquish the dream, not deep down.
Schwartz, for his part, had vowed long ago not to become one of those pathetic ex-jocks who considered high school and college the best days of their lives. Life was long, unless you died, and he didn’t intend to spend the next sixty years talking about the last twenty-two.
He already knew he could coach. All you had to do was look at each of your players and ask yourself: What story does this guy wish someone would tell him about himself? And then you told the guy that story. You told it with a hint of doom. You included his flaws. You emphasized the obstacles that could prevent him from succeeding. That was what made the story epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph. Schwartz knew that people loved to suffer, as long as the suffering made sense. Everybody suffered. The key was to choose the form of your suffering. Most people couldn’t do this alone; they needed a coach. A good coach made you suffer in a way that suited you. A bad coach made everyone suffer in the same way, and so was more like a torturer.
As she squeezed liquid soap into the stream of hot water, an objection crossed her mind: What would Mike think? It was a nice gesture, to do somebody else’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment: “If nobody else will clean up this shithole, I’ll do it myself!” In fact, some version of that interpretation could hardly be avoided. She turned off the water.
I have had this exact arguement / discussion with myself. I was sitting for friends and when their kids went to bed, I cleaned the house. I'm still unsure how they took the clean up. I needed movement. I wanted to help. I still torture myself about that, if they thought I was judging them. I wasn't. I wanted to help.
When Affenlight caught the flu or fell into one of his grim moods, she would frown and ignore him. He’d dismissed this as a lack of sympathy, and even perhaps a form of stupidity, but maybe it was wisdom instead. Had he learned — would he ever learn — to discard the thoughts he could not use? It remained an open question, how much sympathy love could stand.
“Every day. For a thousand people, you cannot do things right. You must simply do them. Do you understand?”
The quote is from the college's chef.
“It’s only Americans who insist on asking everyone what they do.”
"So where to you work?"
The pitch was a forkball right where Schwartzy wanted it, low and outside.
Forkball? A term I don't know!
At the last second the ball skidded off a lump tucked in the grass. He shifted his glove and fielded it cleanly — no such thing as a bad hop if you were prepared.
He could feel some part of himself willing it to rain. He’d never quite discarded the childhood belief that he could alter the course of distant or natural events with his mind.
“I’m just wondering what it’s like, to be so good at something and know it. For a while in high school I thought I wanted to be an artist, but I gave it up, because I could never convince myself that I was good enough.”
“So what’s it like to be the best?”
Henry shrugged. “There’s always somebody better.”
“That’s not what Mike says. He says you’re the top — what is it, shortstop? — in the entire country.”
Henry thought about it for a moment. “It doesn’t feel like much,” he said. “You really only notice when you screw up.”
Starblind sighed that sigh of his — a long, exasperated, put-upon sigh, as if other humans had been designed especially to annoy him.
In his life he’d passed through long periods of gratefulness and good cheer, but he’d scarcely even imagined this level of thorough contentment with things as they were. His chronic restlessness had fled. He wanted nothing new. He wanted only to hang on to what he had. It was almost excruciating.
It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there were any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball and teach himself to knit, to play the cello, to speak Gaelic — but no, God no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away, subscribe to every stupid cliché Mike or anyone else could throw at him, working and worrying until he started having panic attacks, for Christ’s sake, which wasn’t tragic either but was far from a promising sign.
“What are you doing?”
“How many can you do?” He shrugged.
“You can always do one more.”
“Sort of like Zeno’s paradox,” she said. “I mean, with the pull-ups. If you can always do one more, how can you ever stop doing pull-ups?”
Henry shrugged. “You can’t.”
Unless she was just paranoid, living in her head again, but you always lived in your head and you had to go with what you felt.
For Schwartz this formed 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. The Human Condition being, basically, that we’re alive and have access to beauty, can even erratically create it, but will someday be dead and will not.
Once Henry stepped out on the field, he was totally alone. There was that aloneness on the screen: that implacable, solitary blankness on Henry’s sweat-streaked face as he backhanded a ball and fired it into the glove of his pudgy first baseman. Not that Henry withdrew from his teammates; in fact, he was more animated on the diamond than anywhere else. But no matter how much he chattered or cheered or bounced around, there was always something frighteningly aloof in his eyes, like a soloist so at one with the music he can’t be reached. You can’t follow me here, those mild blue eyes seemed to say. You’ll never know what this is like.
You’ll never know what this is like. Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game. Football, basketball, hockey, lacrosse — these were melee sports. You could make yourself useful by hustling and scrapping more than the other guy. You could redeem yourself through sheer desire.
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?
How could you learn anything, accomplish anything, build any kind of momentum toward becoming a good person, unless you felt at least a little bit comfortable first?
She depended on men too much, Mike this Daddy that, needing one to rescue her from the next; even Chef Spirodocus was a man, of a sort. Maybe she needed more women in her life, that was why her mind latched on to Judy Eglantine, but she’d always gotten along better with men and that was unlikely to change much here, where most of the women were younger than she and would no doubt shun her and be scared of her and call her a slut no matter what she did. Was that too pessimistic? In any case, she’d have to rely on herself.
He wasn’t in a box he could think his way out of. Nor was he in a box he could relax his way out of, no matter how many times Coach Cox or Schwartzy or Owen or Rick or Starblind or Izzy or Sophie told him to relax, stop thinking, be himself, be the ball, don’t try too hard. You could only try so hard not to try too hard before you were right back around to trying too hard. And trying hard, as everyone told him, was wrong, all wrong.
The shortstop has worked so hard for so long that he no longer thinks — that was just the way to phrase it. You couldn’t choose to think or not think. You could only choose to work or not work.
He felt a touch of sadness now that it had happened, now that he knew what it was like. Not because it wasn’t enjoyable, or wouldn’t be repeated, but because one more of life’s mysteries had been revealed.
“Schiller,” he said. "‘Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man. And he is only completely a man when he plays.’"
She certainly wasn’t going to watch baseball, which among team sports struck her as singularly boring. It was so slow, so finicky. This one a ball, that one a strike, but they all looked the same.
Literature could turn you into an asshole; he’d learned that teaching grad-school seminars. It could teach you to treat real people the way you did characters, as instruments of your own intellectual pleasure, cadavers on which to practice your critical faculties.
“Doubt has always existed,” Aparicio said. “Even for athletes.”
Starblind was Starblind the way a dog was a dog and a shark was a shark. You didn’t expect moral distinctions from a shark.
All he’d ever wanted was for nothing to ever change. Or for things to change only in the right ways, improving little by little, day by day, forever. It sounded crazy when you said it like that,
The dream of every day the same. Every day was like the day before but a little better. You ran the stadium a little faster. You bench-pressed a little more. Your swing grew a little simpler. Everything grew simpler, little by little. You ate the same food, woke up at the same time, wore the same clothes. Hitches, bad habits, useless thoughts — whatever you didn’t need slowly fell away. Whatever was simple and useful remained. You improved little by little till the day it all became perfect and stayed that way. Forever. He knew it sounded crazy when you put it like that. To want to be perfect. To want everything to be perfect. But now it felt like that was all he’d ever craved since he’d been born.
Henry knew better than to want freedom. The only life worth living was the unfree life, the life Schwartz had taught him, the life in which you were chained to your one true wish, the wish to be simple and perfect.
You made sacrifices and the sacrifices made sense.
You stoked the furnace, fed the machine. No matter how hard you worked, you could never feel harried or hurried, because you were doing what you wanted and so one moment simply produced the next.
Sometime in elementary school his class had read Anne Frank’s diary, and Henry, terribly alarmed, asked why Anne hadn’t simply pretended not to be Jewish. The way Peter escaped from the Romans by pretending not to be Christian. Peter got in trouble for that in the Bible, but if you put it in the context of poor Anne, who was not only real but also a kid, didn’t it make sense? What difference did it make what religion you were if you were dead?
He didn’t see how a religion, which was a freely chosen thing, could mark people so irreparably.
But people didn’t forgive you for doing what felt right — that was the last thing they forgave you for.
Why was the younger person always the prize, the older person always the striver? Ever since adolescence Pella had been gathering experience in the role of the younger person, the clung - to one, the beloved. That was the idiot hopefulness of humans, always to love what was unformed. Really it made no sense. What were the old hoping the young would become? Something other than old? It hadn’t happened yet. But the old kept trying.
Everyone always reaching back through the past, past their own mistakes.
There was something much sadder in it than that. Something like constant regret, the sense that your whole life was an error, a mistake, that you were desperate to redo.
It was pain that Henry had craved and demanded, purposeful pain, or so it had seemed, but what broke over him now was all that pain in its purest state, pain that meant nothing, could not be redeemed, because it all led only here, and here was nowhere.
Before he met Schwartz his dreams were just dreams. Things that would peter out harmlessly over time.
Schwartz would never live in a world so open. His would always be occluded by the fact that his understanding and his ambition outstripped his talent.
And beyond all that he’d never be as good as he wanted to be. He’d never found anything inside himself that was really good and pure, that wasn’t double-edged, that couldn’t just as easily become its opposite. He had tried and failed to find that thing, and he would continue to try and fail, or else he would leave off trying and keep on failing. He had no art to call his own. He knew how to motivate people, manipulate people, move them around; this was his only skill.
And this is so how the way of people. We want one thing, when we are REALLY REALLY good at something else. Because we are good at that something else, we don't realize how hard someone who isn't good at said thing struggles.
A pill was the opposite of what he wanted. A pill was an answer that somebody else had worked hard to come up with. He didn’t want that. A pill was small and potent. He wanted something huge and empty.
Talking was like throwing a baseball. You couldn’t plan it out beforehand. You just had to let go and see what happened. You had to throw out words without knowing whether anyone would catch them — you had to throw out words you knew no one would catch. You had to send your words out where they weren’t yours anymore. It felt better to talk with a ball in your hand, it felt better to let the ball do the talking. But the world, the nonbaseball world, the world of love and sex and jobs and friends, was made of words.
The students’ mistakes lay ahead of them, were prospective and therefore glorious. His own lay in the past. They might have been glorious too, his own mistakes.
Most likely the string of errors was perfectly looped, without any ends at all. There were no whys in a person’s life, and very few hows. In the end, in search of useful wisdom, you could only come back to the most hackneyed concepts, like kindness, forbearance, infinite patience. Solomon and Lincoln: This too shall pass. Damn right it will. Or Chekhov: Nothing passes. Equally true.
Deep down, he thought, we all believe we’re God. We secretly believe that the outcome of the game depends on us, even when we’re only watching — on the way we breathe in, the way we breathe out, the T-shirt we wear, whether we close our eyes as the pitch leaves the pitcher’s hand and heads toward Schwartz.
Other cards offered aphoristic rules in Affenlight’s precise hand: With a small group, assonate, as in writing; with a large group, alliterate.
She’s been reading too much, he thought — had drifted across that line that separated what you might find in a book from what you might do.
He wondered how Emerson had done it — whether Emerson really had done it, after all. It was one thing to hear President Affenlight tell the story, one thing to imagine Emerson kneeling in the dirt in his suit, tears in his beard, lifting the simple wooden lid off a simple wooden casket. Your mind stayed trained on the emotional, the intellectual, the symbolic. Emerson became a character in a play, and his act became a myth, a source of meaning. You didn’t think about what Ellen Emerson’s decaying body looked like, or how it smelled: you couldn’t think about that if you tried.
A person is born with but something that must be built, by effort and error, study and love. And you did that with more dedication than most, that work of building a soul — not for your own benefit but for the benefit of those who knew you.
He snow-coned the near half of the ball, somehow held on as his stomach smacked the ground.
I laughed at this! I know what snow-coning a baseball is!