Notes from the Green Couch

Roger Angell and the meaning of baseball

Interview conducted by Al Filreis during Angell's visit as a Writers House Fellow

Monday, February 28, 2005

Notes from the Green Couch

Consider Roger Angell. Mustached, baseball-obsessed and, unlike his proverbial catcher, clean. He sits at a table in the Arts CafÇ with Al Filreis, looking out at the audience, where he is being featured in a live webcast interview, the culminating event during his stay as a Writers House Fellow. He leans into the microphone as he talks, producing a better recording, hands animated with the enthusiasm as a fanatic, and then, as others ask questions, leans back with the relaxed look of a grandfather in his rocking chair.

Consider that lead. Unconventional, thought provoking, perfect - at least in Angell's opinion.

After all, he used this similar daring rhetoric to open an essay about baseball catchers. "Anything is a lead if it catches your attention and leads you on into the piece of writing...[I]t's fun writing a different kind of lead," says the longtime New Yorker writer.

So now that I have presumably had my fun writing a different kind of lead, let me delve right into the event. Angell spans across both ends of the spectrum. As a baseball writer, he writes not only with the professionalism of a reporter, but even more so with the intimacy of a fan. As a Fellow being questioned, he is not only heralded for his accomplishments in writing, but for his expertise in baseball.

At a point, Angell's reputation as a baseball aficionado dominated the discussion, prompting one student to ask how a young writer avoids being pigeonholed into a single field of interest. Like a seasoned batter, Angell took the youngster's fiery fastball question and turned it right around. When you are young, the veteran writer points out, you are only an expert on your family. Young writers need to write what they are passionate about. When anyone at any age writes about their passion, they not only enjoy their writing - they are good at their writing. While Angell acknowledges this advice is often repeated, like the advice to catch the baseball with two hands is to Little Leaguers, it is wholly true and helpful.

Now that Angell is an expert in baseball, however, he has not stopped writing about his family. In fact, the Tuesday morning interview began on the subject of memoir. Al commended his guest for his ability to earn the reader's trust in creating his family narrative. Angell proceeded to explore the trouble of memoir writing - the trouble of writing down scraps of intimate memory. A family legend or childhood story not scribed has a certain aura of wonder; the memory evolves over time, becoming increasingly exciting in its retelling. Yet, the act of putting a memory on paper effectively declares it as a historical fact -- it becomes the "official memory." It is "the price we pay," laments Angell.

While specific anecdotes from the family narratives were not discussed, two Angell family members in particular appeared later during the casual brunch discussion. In choosing which writers have been most influential to him, Angell highlights Mark Twain (he rereads Huck Finn every five years), sportswriter Red Smith, and none other than his stepfather, the celebrated E.B. White. White also worked at The New Yorker with Angell's mother -- the same publication Angell has written for since the 1940s.

In March of 1961, The New Yorker sent Angell to baseball spring training. Being a longtime fan, Angell could not cover baseball as an objective journalist; it would be like asking a young child to analyze Disneyworld's rides as a strict critic - remaining stoic would be impossible. Scared to talk to players and to other writers, the rookie Angell sat in the stands. And like the submarine ball pitcher, whose low-sweeping arm motion is rarely taught and mostly discouraged, Angell wrote contradictory to the standard of his profession - subjectively, in the voice of a fan. Forty years after his first story about elderly baseball fans at spring training, his unique formula for baseball writing lives on.

Angell makes a point of separating himself from fellow baseball journalists in other ways, too. Even amidst the jolting injection of patriotism in the weeks following the attacks of September 11, he refused and resented the general populace's connection between baseball and Americana. To Angell, it was all an invention, "a misrepresentative tearjerker," and way overdone. Moreover, he does not relate baseball to anything other than himself, and even that is questionable in his own mind.

To Angell, baseball means so many other things. Baseball means writing in the present tense: "baseball presents itself so clearly that there is a tendency to see it as it's happening again." Baseball means timelessness: every game is always the same as every other game, and yet always different. Baseball means facing history: players not only against their contemporaries, but against every player in the history of the game. Baseball means boxscores, the magical arrangement of names and numbers that when deciphered reveals the story of a game. Baseball means dealing with failure: "there is more Met than Yankee in all of us," says Angell, underscoring man's natural tendency to err.

Angell concluded his several-day stay in Philadelphia with an excerpt from a piece on the 1975 World Series, the infamous Game 6 when Carlton Fisk willed the ball fair for the game-winning home run. As he does so well, the longtime New Yorker writer provides a fresh, provoking perspective on an event. He leaves the Writers House thinking about "caring." Despite being a fanatic, Angell recognizes the triviality of baseball in the grand scheme of life. And that is why, as he imagines people across New England giddy and elated at the Red Sox victory, he reminds all of us not only of how odd it is that we dream through sports teams, but how it has seemingly ceased to matter to everyone what they care about - "as long as the feeling is saved."