I read this book just when the Sandusky scandal broke at Penn State University, and I thought maybe if I revisited it later, the book (specifically, the second half of the book) wouldn’t be as terrible. Besides, this book is about baseball and the Penn State scandal was about football.
But perhaps a more fitting analogy of the book would be the Phillies’ performance during their first game of the 2018 season today. They were up by five runs, new skipper Gabe Kapler (please, Google Gabe Kapler and coconut oil and you will see what the offseason has been like for Phillies fans, the signings of Carlos Santana and Jake Arietta nonwithstanding) pulled the starter and the bullpen gave up eight unanswered runs. THAT’S what The Art of Fielding is like.
We meet Henry Skrimshander, a baseball phenom who attends small Westish College. We learn about his love for the game and the minutiae of baseball. He works hard and studies and generally is deserving of success. (This is where the book is at its best.) Everyone—his roommate, the team manager, the college president—revolves around Henry and his stardom.
Until he flubs a routine throw to first base and all the wheels come off.
Henry’s puzzling descent into mediocrity and then awfulness is not my issue. Baseball players are notorious head cases. Some pitchers can’t field bunts, because their throw to first would be crazy. So instead of drilling the guy on bunts, the manager gives him a pass. When I was in high school I fielded a ground ball at third that barked my shin and it spooked me so much I never was able to cleanly field grounders, during practice or games. I eventually moved to first base.
But what bothered me is the whole school came apart and the second half of the novel deals with the minor characters (the bullpen) and its starter, Henry, feels abandoned. Henry’s self-assured roommate has an affair with the college president. (It’s consensual, but mind-boggling.) The college president’s daughter somehow becomes a major character. The only interesting storyline is the team manager, who’s cared more about Henry’s career than his own, and he’s starting to regret that.
(A good baseball memoir to read from an actual player is Doug Glanville’s The Game From Where I Stand.)