Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2022

The Great Game’s Poet

It was a remarkably busy weekend for sports.  For starters, while the decision by improbable Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike’s connections to bypass the Preakness meant a Triple Crown was not at stake, Saturday’s 147th running of the Triple Crown’s second jewel was still one of the major events on horse racing’s calendar.  Couple that with this being the first year since the COVID-19 pandemic began that attendance at Pimlico Racetrack was not restricted, and there was plenty of buzz at the decaying old oval in northwest Baltimore.  Attendance may not have approached pre-pandemic numbers, but there were still plenty of throats to give full voice to the roars as Early Voting held off Epicenter to win the race.  It was the second time that trainer Chad Brown has successfully employed the strategy of skipping the Derby with a horse he deemed not quite ready, instead arriving at Pimlico as a fresh shooter running against horses trying to bounce back only two weeks after racing at Churchill Downs. 

Then Sunday brought the conclusion of the PGA Championship, the second men’s golf major of the year.  In the sticky heat of Oklahoma, Justin Thomas prevailed at Tulsa’s Southern Hills, but not before 27-year-old Mito Pereira of Chile came within a single bad swing of being the Rich Strike of golf by coming from out of nowhere to claim a major title.  Pereira won his PGA Tour card with three victories last year on the developmental Korn Ferry Tour, but there was nothing on his resume to suggest he’d even make the cut at Southern Hills, much less contend.  That he did, until the 72nd hole, when Pereira put his tee shot in the water and turned a one-shot lead into heartbreak.  There were only tears of joy for Thomas, who was understandably emotional after rallying from a 7-shot deficit over the final 18 holes to claim his second major title.

Those stories claimed most of the attention, with the ongoing NBA and NHL playoffs adding to the drama.  But for anyone who writes about sports, and for fans of the Great Game, all that became secondary late Friday afternoon.  For there will be another Preakness Stakes run this time next year, the second major on the annual calendar of men’s professional golf will be played again next May, and the basketball and hockey postseasons will continue to unfold.  But we will likely never again be blessed with a writer like Roger Angell, who died on Friday at the age of 101.

That lengthy span of years meant Angell (pronounced “angel”) was witness to the entire history of baseball’s live ball era.  As a child in Gotham, he saw Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig hit back-to-back home runs on more than one occasion.  A few years later he ran into the now-retired Ruth walking on a Manhattan street.  At the other end of his life, he saw Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani, famous teammates of the modern age.  In between he was present for the exploits of a panoply of heroes, and for the constant evolution of the sport.

Angell became a chronicler of the Great Game at the relatively advanced age of 42, when William Shawn, the editor of The New Yorker, the magazine that had employed Angell’s mother as one of its first editors and where he began working in 1956, told him to go down to Florida for 1962’s Spring Training “and see what you find.”  The result was “The Old Folks Behind Home,” an account of an exhibition contest between the Yankees and the newborn Mets, which ran in the magazine’s Sporting Scene column.  His final piece for that space was published more than half a century later, in 2018.

In all that collected work, which also included multiple books and the occasional foray into other sports, Angell wrote as a fan.  Unlike a beat writer facing a daily filing deadline, he had the twin luxuries of time and space, and he used them to give readers prose that often bordered on poetry, filled with imagery that captured the nuance and complexity of baseball.  A reviewer wrote of a 1988 anthology of Angell’s columns, “one does not usually encounter such poetry in discussions of home runs and knuckleballs.”

Angell was inclined to rebuff such praise, insisting that he was just a reporter.  But no other reporter would liken Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk coming up out of his crouch behind home plate to “an aluminum extension ladder stretching for the house eaves,” or observe that with the Cardinals’ Bob Gibson on the mound “you were always a little distracted from the plate and the batter, because his delivery continued so extravagantly after the ball was released that you almost felt that the pitch was incidental to the whole affair,” before describing Gibson’s follow-through in three long and elegant sentences.

Angell inspired many young men and women to offer their own thoughts on baseball, words that fans now read regularly at outlets like The Athletic and Sports Illustrated.  But while, like those reporters who grew up admiring him, he sat in the press box, Angell retained the perspective of those who had to purchase a ticket to get into the stadium.  That was partly because of his age, for he grew up when, as he once wrote, “attending a game meant a lot, to adults as well as to a boy, because it was the only way you could encounter athletes and watch what they did.  There was no television, no instant replay, no evening highlights.”

But it was also because Angell understood what it means to be a fan, even in a time – no, make that especially in a time, when one can follow the action in so many ways.  He gave voice to that understanding in “Agincourt and After,” on the surface an account of the 1975 World Series between Boston and Cincinnati, though like so much of Angell’s writing, it was ultimately much more.

“What I do know is that this belonging and caring is what our games are all about; this is what we come for.  It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitative as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look—I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost.  What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring—caring deeply and passionately, really caring—which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives.  And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved.  Naïveté—the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball—seems a small price to pay for such a gift.”

For sixty years Roger Angell was the best baseball writer alive.  In time, one supposes, some sort of consensus will emerge about who now deserves that honor.  But in truth, the title should be retired.

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