(Little, Brown & Company, 558 pp.)
Henry Skrimshander, an undersized shortstop who shares the record for the most consecutive error-less games, hurls the first bad throw of his college career. It heads straight for his roommate, Owen, cracking his cheekbone and knocking him unconscious.
Skrimmer, as his teammates call him, can’t seem to recover from his first taste of doubt, throwing in jeopardy the first major-league prospect little Westish College has ever had. “You could only try so hard not to try too hard before you were right back around to trying too hard. And trying hard, as everyone told him, was wrong, all wrong.”
While Henry might be the star, credit for both his impending signing bonus and Westish’s first winning seasons go to catcher Mike Schwartz, a senior who lives at the athletic center, serving as team scout, coach, and Henry’s mentor. Schwartz, a Renaissance man with bad knees, has just gotten a fistful of rejection letters from law school, leading him to wonder if maybe he spent too much time on Henry’s future and not enough on his own.
Westish’s president, Guert Affenlight, rushes to the hospital with the seriously injured Owen, and winds up so smitten that it threatens what had been a comfy academic career. (Presidents of colleges are pretty much never allowed to date students, no matter the gender.) His daughter, Pella, meanwhile, scuppered her own academic career four years earlier, when she traded Yale for marriage to a middle-aged architect who seems to have gotten relationship tips from the movie “Gaslight.” Now Pella is back in Wisconsin trying to regroup, but her distracted dad can’t seem to focus on anyone but Owen.
Harbach cycles through the point of view of his four main characters throughout that spring, as a home game becomes almost an auto-da-fé. “We all have our doubts and fragilities, but poor Henry had to face his public at appointed times, with half the crowd anxiously counting on him and the other half cheering for him to fail.... So raw were his struggles that it felt like an invasion of privacy to go to the games, and at the worst moments Affenlight felt guilty for being there and wondered whether spectators should even be allowed.”
“The Art of Fielding” gets its title from Henry’s bible of the same name, written by his hero, Aparicio Rodriguez. Harbach employs plenty of baseball philosophy, neatly twinning the single-minded devotion needed to be great at America’s pastime with the obsession at the heart of the great American novel, “Moby-Dick.” Westish, whose mascot is the Harpooner, has a statue to Melville, who, after failing to make a living as a writer, gave a talk there one evening in the 1880s.
“Baseball, in its quiet way, was an extravagantly harrowing game,” Schwartz, the novel’s moral center, muses. “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?”