Is Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding” a Great Novel?

Target (baseball) Field, Minnesota Twins

The Art of Fielding, a first novel by Chad Harbach, has received spectacular reviews in the U.S. and the U.K. The New York Times even made it one of their 10 Best Books of 2011.

The main character of the novel is Henry Skrimshander, a baseball player at a small college in the Midwest (Wisconsin). He is inspired by a fictional book (“The Art of Fielding”) written by a fictional baseball player (Aparicio Rodriguez), who supposedly played shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals for 18 years, was regarded as the greatest defensive player at that position of all time and a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Luis Aparicio

The fictional baseball player appears to be closely modeled on a real major leaguer, Luis Aparicio from Venezuela, who played shortstop for three teams (Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox) for 18 years. A great defensive player, he was on the American League All-Star team 13 times and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he did not write a book about fielding or any other subject, to my knowledge.

Being a Minnesota Twins baseball fan who once played college baseball at a small college in the Midwest (Grinnell College in Iowa) that played teams from small colleges in Wisconsin (Ripon and Lawrence), I was really looking forward to reading this book.

The novel, however, was exceedingly disappointing.

The fictional book within the book is based on the very unlikely premise that a Latin American major leaguer would write any book, much less a book that sounds zen-like. Here are some of the words of advice on the subject of picking up and throwing a baseball that mean absolutely nothing to me as a former middle infielder (shortstop and second baseman):

  • “The shortstop is a source of stillness at the center of the defense. He projects this stillness and his teammates respond.”
  • “To field a ground ball must be considered a generous act and an act of comprehension.”
  • “There are three stages: Thoughtless being. Thought. Return to thoughtless being.”
  • “Death is the sanction of all that the athlete does.”

Skrimshander, who starts out as a great fielding shortstop, develops a problem in making accurate throws to first or second base on easy ground balls, and he cannot shake off this affliction.

Chuck Knoblauch

This has actually happened to several major-league middle infielders, who are briefly mentioned in the book. One is Chuck Knoblauch, who was a great fielding second baseman for the Minnesota Twins, from 1991 through 1997 and the American League Rookie of the Year in 1991. He was traded to the New York Yankees, where he played from 1998 through 2001 before a final season in 2002 with the Kansas City Royals. In 1999 he developed a problem in making accurate throws to first base, forcing the Yankees to move him to the outfield on defense or to have him be the designated hitter (one who bats, but does not play defense, but only in the American League). I, however, don’t think Chuck was an obsessive reader of any book about fielding like Skrimshander was or any other book for that matter.

Although this fielding problem is a major event in the life of the lead character in the novel and the life and success of his college baseball team, there is no exploration in the novel of why or how this happened. In baseball and other sports, coaches often tell their players not to think too much because thinking gets in the way of batting or fielding in baseball and other actions in other sports. Perhaps this is the explanation for Skrimshander’s problem. He was spending too much time reading the Aparacio book about fielding and thinking about the task of picking up and throwing a baseball. More generally this ironically suggests an anti-intellectual message in a college setting devoted to the life of the mind. (Never mind that this explanation does not fit with the real-life Knoblauch.)

The president of the fictional college (Westich College) is a late-middle-aged man (Guert Affenlight), who is divorced with an adult daughter. We the readers discover that he is gay as he embarks on an affair with Skrimshander’s roommate and fellow baseball player. This story soon takes over the novel. But there is no exploration of the many serious issues this conduct raises.

On the other hand, perhaps the main character in the novel is Mike Schwartz, the captain and catcher on the baseball team. In the summer before his senior year of college, Schwartz sees Skrimshander play baseball for another team and recognizes his great fielding ability as a shortstop. Schwartz, therefore, convinces him to apply for admission to the college. Once there, Schwartz pushes Skrimshander to do all sorts of strengthening exercises in order to become an even better player. In doing all of this, Schwartz knows his own talents come nowhere near those of his new teammate, but Schwartz does not show any signs of jealousy or insecurity. Perhaps the novel is saying that the less talented, but dedicated, selfless individual is really the most important person in any team or organization.

Moreover, although the novel makes a big deal about the importance of the defensive skills of the shortstop on a baseball team and does not really discuss the role of the catcher, a strong case can be made that the catcher is really the most important of the nine defensive positions on a team.

The catcher is involved in every play on defense while the shortstop is not as pivotal. The catcher directs with hand signals the pitcher on what kind of pitch to throw (fastball, curve ball, slider, change-up, knuckleball, etc.) and where (high, low, inside, outside). These decisions are influenced by what the coaches suggest or direct and by the catcher’s knowledge of the pitcher’s skills, the batter’s strengths and weaknesses, the umpire’s “strike zone” and the score and time in the game. All of this requires a player who fully understands the game and who is able to make instantaneous decisions.

Joe Mauer

Positioned behind home plate, the catcher can see the whole field. Therefore, he is in the best position to indicate to the other players where they should position themselves. He also must be able to throw the ball quickly and accurately to second base to prevent a runner on first base from stealing second base as seen in this photo of Minnesota Twins catcher Joe Mauer.

Joe Mauer

Doing all of this is difficult and dangerous for the catcher. Crouching behind home plate is hard on the knees as shown in this photo of  Joe Mauer. Foul tips by the batter or flying bats can easily injure the catcher who is positioned immediately behind the batter.

Alex Rodriguez & Joe Mauer

Bone-rattling collisions sometimes occur when an opposing player is trying to score a run by touching home plate before the ball arrives as we see in this photo of the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez trying to score a run against the Twins.

Therefore, the catcher wears a steel mask, chest protector and shin guards and an extra-thick glove. In baseball jargon, these are known as “the tools of ignorance” in recognition that an intelligent person would not be stupid enough (or brave enough) to assume all of the risks of playing catcher. Perhaps this is another anti-intellectual allusion in the novel.

Another aspect of the novel was not convincing or credible for me. Supposedly Herman Melville, the great 19th century American and New England author of Moby-Dick and other great novels, visited the fictional college in Wisconsin and gave a lecture. To honor this connection with fame, the college’s athletic teams are called “The Harpooners,” and there is a statue of Melville on the college grounds looking out at Lake Michigan.

The book jacket says the book “is an expansive, warmhearted novel about ambition and its limits, about family and friendship and love, and about commitment–to oneself and to others.” The jacket also has laudatory blurbs from noted novelists like John Irving and Jonathan Franzen. The reviews previously mentioned are of like mind. Sorry, I must be too dense to see these great themes in this book.

I do not pretend to be a literary scholar. If someone really believes this is a great novel or sees some connection between Melville or Moby-Dick and what happens in the novel, I would like to hear or see such an explanation.

After so many posts about torture and other serious topics, this post is a change of pace. Or to use baseball jargon, it is my change-up. It is also in celebration of the opening of spring training for the Minnesota Twins and other major league baseball teams.