Season Ticket, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1988).
Summary: A collection of essays covering the 1982 to 1987 seasons, from spring training to the drama of the championships, and all the skills of players and managers and owners required to compete at the major league level.
“Don’t you know how hard this all is?”Ted Williams, on batting in particular and baseball in general
If there is a theme to this installment of Roger Angell’s articles on baseball, it is the conversations Angell has with different players and even an owner, all that illustrate what a challenge it is to do every aspect of Major League Baseball well. A number of the essays recount the answers of players and coaches to the question of “How do you do what you do?” What does it take to catch well for example. The biggest part is working with pitchers, yet the all stars are always the ones who hit. They may not be the best at their work with pitchers. We learn how a catcher must in a single motion catch, stand, and throw to have any hope of catching a base-stealing runner.
He takes us through the infield and the particular demands of each position. We learn what a mental game playing first base is. So much at every position is positioning for each batter, knowing your pitcher. He spends a good deal of his time with Dave Concepcion, a short stop star of the ’80s, learning about how he learned to make the long throw on a hop to first base on artificial turf because it was actually faster.
Included is an article on Dan Quisenberrry, a submarine ball relief pitcher for the Royals. We catch him at his peak in 1985 when he was nearly unhittable. We learn about everything from how he learned the motion, which is actually far easier on the pitching arm than throwing overhand to the aggressive mindset of relief pitchers. We learn about his repertoire of pitches and the attitude of flexibility of being prepared to pitch in any game that comes with relief pitching. In later articles, we also see Quisenberry’s decline, particularly after Dick Howser stepped down. The chemistry was never the same.
And then, of course, there is hitting and all the little things that go into hitting well, and as one of the best, Ted Williams says, how hard it is. We learn that basically batters want to hit a fastball. We get all the little nuances of bat weight, stance, grip on the bat, and swing, and how easy it is to get out of the groove.
Then there are the players. In this period he covers the last game of Carl Yastrzemski, the great Boston player, Jim Kaat, after a twenty year career as a pitcher, and Johnny Bench, all who played their last in 1983. We have the account of Pete Rose’s 4192nd hit, surpassing Ty Cobb, and the comparison showing how superior Cobb’s accomplishment was in far less games at a higher batting average. Rose just kept playing. Then there are the young pitchers of the era, Dwight Gooden and Bret Saberhagen in particularly.
As always, Angell seems at his best in recounting championships, in this case in particular, the 1986 Red Sox-Mets World Series and particularly the disappointing Red Sox loss that turned the tide in the fifth game. Then there is the amazing 1984 Tigers team with all their hitting, power, and speed, which finally buried the Padres.
Angell covers the rise of drug use among players, the advent of drug testing, and some of the great players who got ensnared in cocaine use. The sad thing was that apart from a few teams, the emphasis seemed less on rehabilitation and more on “gotcha.” He writes about all the pressures and temptations that came with the big money of this era.
The book ends at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown during a Hall of Fame induction. By the time Angell was done, I found myself mentally adding Cooperstown to my bucket list. He writes, “The artifacts and exhibits in the Hall remind us, vividly and with feeling, of our hopes for bygone seasons and players. Memories are jogged, even jolted; colors become brighter, and we laugh or sigh, remembering the good times gone by.”
Angell captures the fleeting wonder of the game and how amazing the players who perform at a high level for ten years or more. It is indeed hard to do so well, and hard on bodies, especially as they age. The arc from spring to autumn, both of seasons and careers in some way is a parable of the fleeting nature of our lives, as well as the glory of our existence.
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