Some people will never know what it is like to fall in love with a sport. But those who have experienced it share a bond not unlike the bonds shared by men who have fought the same war. As in any love affair, sport love offers the potential for great joy and profound heartbreak.
“[This is what makes a] story so epic: the player, the hero, had to suffer mightily en route to his final triumph … 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.”
These are the thoughts of one of the characters in “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach.
My husband, a baseball fan, received this book at Christmas from a fellow sports junkie. I let it sit on a shelf for months because I thought it was just some book about baseball, a sport with which I feel no remarkable connection.
Then one day I picked it up and read the back, which had praise from Jonathan Franzen, one of my favorite authors, and so I started reading.
I shortly realized I was consuming a jewel.
The story — while orbiting a college baseball team, its prodigy fielder and his mentor —is not about baseball. It’s about an athlete. It’s about love and friendship. It’s about exploration and coming of age at both young and old ages. It’s about being in a slump. It’s about when the performance means little to the world but everything to you …
“Baseball — what a boring game! One player threw the ball, another caught it, a third held a bat. Everyone else stood around.” (Another quote from the book).
Admittedly, I have felt this way. However, I have always sensed something special about baseball. The nostalgia. The ritual. I have compared someone who doesn’t appreciate baseball watching baseball to someone who is not Catholic watching Catholic mass.
In mass, the players are chanting, standing and kneeling and the congregation follows and understands the magnitude of the ceremony. You go to church every Sunday and holy day of obligation—no exceptions. You learn how to respond to the priest during a ceremony—when to sit, kneel or stand, receive the Eucharist … For those who get it, great miracles are occurring. But for the outsider, it is bland and confusing.
That’s me watching baseball. I am an uninvested outsider. Like it’s something I should have been born into appreciating, but since I wasn’t, I am doomed to feel like an outsider. But that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate that, to the sport’s aficionados, miracles are happening. And that is all one really needs to understand in order to appreciate The Art of Fielding.
All of those feelings devout Catholics have about mass and baseball lovers have about the game, I have about my sport. My recent stories of friendship, success and failure, adventure and exploration revolve around running.
I understand at my core about the strange need to suffer and hope against hope that all that suffering is en route to some triumph. It is likely that any athlete who loves any sport feels the same way. And that is one of the things that makes this book so gripping.
Henry, the young baseball prodigy — he goes through some things. Some mental torture. Some internal breakage. And when he’s feeling it, he runs and runs hard. Runs up and down bleachers. Runs sprint repeats. Runs until it hurts. Runs until he pukes.
I get that, Henry. I get it.
In the story, Henry’s love of the game, his mentor’s love of him, romantic love experienced among characters all are treated equally. I love that I loved this book.