Angell in the Outfield

FOR THE armchair baseball fan, no one's sinecure in life is more enviable than Roger Angell's. From his comfortable niche in The New Yorker's "Sporting Scene" section, Angell turns out three well-crafted essays a year on the goings-on in major league baseball and spends the rest of his time making his rounds--down south for the exhibition season, a couple of mid-season jaunts to check out this year's contenders and non-contenders, and finally, to the playoffs and the World Series.

From this vantage point, Angell is able to avoid the squabbles that occupy the time of most daily sportswriters, such as the one that flared this year in New York over the early disintegration of the Mets. Some of the star players were unhappy because they felt the tight-fisted management of M. Donald Grant was shortchanging the team out of any possibility of pennant contention. The fracas that ensued among the local hacks was almost as intense as the dissension within the team. The Post called for the board of directors to dump Grant and manager Joe Frazier; Dick Young in the News said Grant should get rid of Tom Seaver, Jon Matlack, Dave Kingman and the rest of the "crybabies." Venerable Red Smith of the Times thought this indictment of Seaver, a three-time Cy Young award winner, a bit harsh; Young responded by referring to Smith as a sportswriter past his prime.

Not under the daily pressure of second-guessing managers and players, Angell is free to revel in his enthusiasm for the game and to share with us his observations and exuberance. Five Seasons is Angell's second baseball compendium, or "companion," as he terms it; the first, The Summer Game, was an immense critical and popular success. The earlier book argued in breathtakingly convincing fashion the superiority of baseball to other American sports. Specifically, Angell cited the way in which baseball constructs its own temporal and spatial realities, its distinctive and relaxed pace that permits the spectator to gain a complete understanding of what is going on.

But Angell is not so blind a fan that he can't criticize recent negative developments in baseball. There is, for instance, the heavyhanded intrusion of network television, which dictates that World Series games be played at night in near-freezing temperatures at the end of October. Among other atrocities, television has inflicted on us Howard Cosell, who hates baseball and hates baseball fans. Cosell prides himself on being The Great Demystifier, who "tells it like it is," and shows us that baseball is a business like any other business. But the unique charm of baseball is that it is not at all like any other business; it constitutes a world, suspended in time, ruled by probability, a showcase for graceful and aesthetically satisfying skills.

Another recent upsetting development is the rise of the super-stadia, of which Houston's Astrodome was the forerunner. In contrast to the old, idiosyncratic parks like Wrigley Field in Chicago, and Fenway Park in Boston, these new futuristic monstrosities are sickeningly bland in conception, and utterly miserable places to watch baseball. One of the worst is Anaheim Stadium in Southern California, which I had the misfortune of visiting last summer. The game was a beauty; Frank Tanana of the Angels and Catfish Hunter of the Yankees locked in an extra-inning duel. But as is the fashion in the new parks, our seats in the upper deck were a good five or six miles from the action. The field's dimensions are completely symmetrical--the distance down the right-field line matches the distance down the left-field line, right-center matches left-center, and a plain green 6-ft. high fence borders the outfield all the way around. The older parks were tailored for certain kinds of hitters--Yankee Stadium's short right field porch beckoned invitingly to left-handed pull hitters, while the seemingly limitless expanse in center field was known as "Death Valley." The Anaheim style spurns these sorts of small quirks in favor of a monotonous, unimaginative, "equity."

But the piece de resistance at Anaheim is the scoreboard, which dominates the park from left-center field. Built in the shape of a giant "A", this electronic leviathan stands about 100 feet high and completely dwarfs everything else in the stadium--a totem constructed in that peculiar fascistic style designed to make human beings feel insignificant. Perhaps that explains the weird passivity of the crowd that night in Southern California. I have never seen such a well-behaved, quiet group of baseball fans. And just as the management had broken them with architectural grandeur, so did it seek to reconstruct them as participants in "the club." The Big "A" scoreboard flashed messages all night long, and I kept looking to it for scores from other games. But there were none. In their stead, I learned, you could pay to have your own "personal" message printed electronically on The Big "A"; thus, all night, an endless stream of "Welcome to Fred and Betty Haller on their fifteenth wedding anniversary," and "Welcome to Howie Johnson, who is attending his first baseball game." You too can be a member of The Big "A" family--for a price.

In most major league parks, there is a certain game of "hide and go seek" one plays with the management. You buy your seats somewhere in the upper deck and after a few innings, when the downstairs ushers have stopped checking tickets, you try to sneak down to the grandstand. This has long been my modus operandi at Yankee Stadium and at Fenway. But I hadn't reckoned on the rather unique security procedures in Anaheim. As my companion and I approached the escalator to make our descent, we noticed two private guards chasing away two teen-agers who had attempted to do the same. The guards had revolvers. We acknowledged them with meek smiles, and returned to our seats, somewhere in Burbank.

I understood that evening the strain of pessimism in Angell's thinking about the future of baseball. That strain culminates in a brilliant, nightmarish vision toward the end of Five Seasons:

...if the complaints about the playing conditions of the autumn games persist or grow wider...Mr. Kuhn will propose that the sight of the World Series be moved permanently to some friendly metropolis in the Sunbelt, perhaps one that has a large, domed enclosure waiting to be filled--New Orleans say, or Houston--or rotated each year, in the style of the Super Bowl, among two or three such cities. The World Series will thus be instantly transformed into Superweek--the Super Bowl multiplied by seven, the ultimate Sportsfest USA...the first all-American sports show truly worthy of a Howard Cosell...

But there is a resiliency in the game of baseball which makes it unlikely that the worst of our fears will be realized, and it is the stuff of that toughness that Angell recognizes and celebrates. My favorite essay in the book concerns Max Lapides, Don Shapiro, and Bert Gordon, three middle-aged Jewish diehard fans whose friendship and happiness hinges on the fortunes of the Detroit Tigers. They know literally everything about their team since the '30s--not baseball trivia, as Don explains, because "you can't say 'baseball trivia'...it's a contradiction in terms. It's antithetical." Bert, a realtor in Oak Park, Michigan, keeps two sets of figures on his desk in September, 1973: the number of days remaining in Nixon's term, and AI Kaline's lifetime batting average calculated to his most recent at-bat.

Splendid idiosyncratic essays abound here. Angell's profile of Steve Blass, the Pirate pitcher, who, a year after winning the seventh game of the World Series, mysteriously lost the ability to throw strikes, is classic. There is no definite explanation for Blass's sudden downfall--baseball people will tell you simply that he was not "in the groove," which explains nothing at all. Angell speculates that Blass was unnerved by the burden of team leadership that he felt pushed on him by the untimely death of Roberto Clemente.

These alternately funny, tragic, and wistful stories flesh out the skeleton of the book, the accounts of the five seasons from 1972-1976. Local fans will undoubtedly delight in reliving the thrills and heartbreaks of the 1975 Red Sox-Reds World Series, which, perhaps more than any other factor, is responsible for the current resurgence of baseball mania. Angell captures those moments perfectly...Fred Lynn, his body limp, lying at the base of the wall in Game Six...Carlton Fisk standing at home plate forcing his home run inside the foul pole...and finally, Lynn again, in Game Seven straining desperately for Joe Morgan's single which scores Ken Griffey with the deciding run.

The baseball fan can linger nostalgically over these moments, precisely collected in Five Seasons, as if they were old family snapshots. Angell's love of the game is infectious; it is friends like him, Max Lapides, Don Shapiro, and Bert Gordon that will keep the sport safe from Howard Cosell, the Big "A", and all the other forces threatening to transform the subtle pleasures of baseball into just another entertainment. --Seth Kaplan