Book Recommendation: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Like all things in life, baseball demands three simple things: confidence, focus and strong core muscles. When one of those falls away, an athlete’s success quickly crumbles. The Art of Fielding is a novel about what happens when a young ballplayer loses his confidence, and how that loss can destroy far more than a promising professional baseball career.
The main character of the book, a young college athlete by the name of Henry Skrimshander, finds himself beset by an issue known in baseball circles as “Steve Blass” disease. This condition occurs when a baseball player mysteriously loses his (or her) ability to complete even the most routine plays. Usually it’s because of some type of mental barrier, second guessing or, as my junior varsity coach used to say, “Thinking too goddamn much.” It’s something that’s been around since the dawn of time, and it’s the kind of thing that keeps sports psychologists in business.
I often find myself in awe of people with the ability to stay focused on what they believe to be their calling in life, their destiny. Our culture lifts up and celebrates those that rise above the rest, and quickly forgets the role we play in casting aside those that try and fail. This book attempts to answer the question of what happens when someone incredibly talented loses their gift. While not a depressing book per se, each and every character copes with the loss throughout the novel.
I have always been drawn to baseball as a fan through the window of numbers. Statistics strive to explain the random. But these numbers can only hope to explain what we have just seen. There is no real way to quantify the millions of discrete inputs involved in a baseball game, a statistician’s only hope is to call out a select few and attempt to cobble together a prediction strategy. A meal works the same way. I can plan and prepare and practice. Cut, chop and dice perfectly. But sometimes the food comes out sour. The pan gets too hot, the oil sticks and the protein is blackened. Sometimes this serendipitous failure can lead to uncovered delicacies. More often than not it just tastes like charcoal.
Baseball is naturally a game of preparation. Detailed rituals of superstition prepare an athlete to sacrifice oneself to the deities of probability. A tiny pull of the sock, an adjustment of a jockstrap, a quick tap on the brim – who’s to say these small tweaks aren’t the difference between success and a slump. These are all inputs and potential data points waiting to be explained. What is the key to delivering a hit, catch or a curveball for strike three? Only the true believers understand it’s the order in which I put on my stirrups.
The Art of Fielding is not a book aiming to trifle with statistics. It makes the argument early on that baseball’s inputs are potentially infinite. Each and every step of the way, the book’s hero, Henry Skrimshander, makes steps forward. Will running one more set of stadium steps provide him the extra muscle he needs? Will it injure him? Perhaps it’s the value of an extra moment by himself, in quiet solitude, pondering his future.
Source: I borrowed this book from my roommate.