Review: Season Ticket

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.

Review: Five Seasons

Five Seasons: A Baseball Companion, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road, 2013 (First published in 1977).

Summary: Roger Angell essays covering the seasons of 1972 to 1976 that arguably transformed baseball into the sport it is today.

I’ve been discovering the marvelous baseball writing of the recently deceased Roger Angell, one of the great baseball writers. This book includes essays from the seasons of 1972 to 1976, my college years. One of the marvels of this collection was simply to relive in the reading the historic seven-game series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox in 1975. It was the era of the Big Red Machine, Yaz, Carlton Fisk, Fred Lynn, and Luis Tiant with the Red Sox (the latter yet another great player traded away by the Indians!).

Along the way, he reminded me of the Oakland A’s championship teams united by their love of winning and their shared resentments of Charlie Finley, the brilliant and flawed club owner. By contrast, Angell recounts an afternoon watching the Giants in the twilight years of Horace Stoneham’s ownership, a gracious host.

We read of the final games of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, as well as the years of Nolan Ryan’s greatness. He also writes of Steve Blass, who threw an amazing World Series game with the Pirates, and in subsequent years lost his control. He could pitch well in practice, his arm was sound, but he could not get his head sorted out. And finally he hung it up.

He takes us behind the scenes, at spring training games, the rebuilding of both Yankee Stadium and the Yankee team and Walter Alston’s brief playing career and the end of his managerial leadership of the Dodgers. We learn about the reserve clause that bound players to their teams, the fight to gain free agency, the owners lockout, and subsequent agreement that changed baseball as players won larger salaries and became more mobile. Angell tells the other side, about how many players want to remain in a community and hated trades.

One of the “behind-the-scenes” accounts in the book was Angell’s trip with Ray Scarborough, an Angel’s scout as he evaluated players. We learn what scouts looked for in pitchers (body, mechanics, and a good fastball with control) and hitters (good contact, whether they got hits or not) and the fraternity among them even though they scouted for rival clubs. It all came down to the draft and who chose who.

It was a time of change with the corporatization of the game, artificial turf, a changing of the guard of stars, and the power struggle between the Players Association and owners. But so much of this book just revels in the game, the ups and downs of each season, rain delays, and the quirks of each ball park, the contenders, the playoffs and the World Series. Angell reminded me of games I’d seen and players I remembered: Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente, Vida Blue and Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Pete Rose (alias Charley Hustle).

For the young fan, the book tells us something of how we got to the present. For older fans, it is a time to remember. For all of us, Angell’s descriptions invite us to a special kind of fantasy baseball, reliving in our minds real games and personalities of the past.

Review: The Summer Game

The Summer Game, Roger Angell. New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (originally published in 1972).

Summary: A collection of Angell’s essays covering the ten seasons of Major League Baseball from 1962 to 1971.

This year we lost Roger Angell, the long time writer for The New Yorker, at the ripe old age of 101. He was a shaping force at the magazine as well as being considered by some, “The Poet Laureate of baseball.” I knew of Angell’s writing, but it was not until now that I discovered why he was so esteemed. Quite simply, he gave words to what any of us who love the game feel about its attraction. The final essay of this book, “The Interior Stadium” gets as close as anything I’ve read to describing the game’s mystique:

“Form is the imposition of a regular pattern upon varying and unpredictable circumstances, but the patterns of baseball, for all the game’s tautness and neatness, are never regular. Who can predict the winner and shape of today’s game? Will it be a brisk, neat two-hour shutout? A languid, error-filled 13-2 laugher, A riveting three hour, fourteen-inning deadlock? What other sport produces these manic swings?”

The Summer Game collects articles Angell wrote for The New Yorker from 1962 to 1971, which is quite wonderful because this was the time when I most avidly followed the name, reading The Sporting News and watching every World Series game I could (when I was not in school). He begins with spring training at the camp of the New York Mets, who were destined to become New York’s lovable losers until late in the decade, when they became champions. He describes games at the old Polo Grounds before Shea Stadium was built and the “Go” shouters.

He traces the championship teams of the sixties and especially the World Series matchups between them: the Yankees and the Dodgers, the Giants, the Cardinals, the Red Sox, the Twins, the Mets, the Reds, the Orioles, and the Pirates. There are all the stars I grew up with–Mays, Maris, and Mantle, Koufax and Gibson and the generation that followed, Yastrzemski, Rose and Perez, Clemente and Stargell.

As the players changed, so did the stadiums. Angell describes the demise of the old box-like stadiums with seats close to the game for the bigger stadiums in the round, used for multiple sports in many cases but with fans much more distant. It is ironic that most of these stadiums that were “new” when Angell wrote have since been demolished in favor of parks much more like the old fields with modern amenities. Even the shiny new Astrodome, although still preserved, no longer serves as a baseball venue.

The heart of the book is Angell’s accounts of the World Series games of each year. He brings back memories of the dominating performances of Koufax and Drysdale, and of Bob Gibson, who broke the hearts of Boston fans in his showdown with Jim Lonborg. Gibson, pitching his third game of the series was dead tired but hung on to win 7-2. Likewise, he reminds me of the hopes fulfilled when the Pirates in nearby Pittsburgh overcame the dominating Orioles of Earl Weaver to win the 1971 World Series. Some have criticized his inning by inning, sometimes play-by-play approach, but for me, it was a walk back in time, a reminder of great baseball of the past. He fills in the detail and drama of those games long tucked away in the recesses of memory.

He describes a game in transition as leagues expanded, playoffs were introduced and old stars faded as new names like Vida Blue, Catfish Hunter, and Reggie Jackson came on the scene, as TV revenues grew and with them, salaries, and new stadiums. And yet, it is the same summer game, played on a diamond, between baselines, nine players in the lineup on each side, fans in the seats behind first or third, filling out scorecards, rooting for the home team, vicariously sharing in the glory of the game.

Thank you Roger Angell! One can only hope there will be baseball in heaven so that Roger Angell can write about it.