Any collection that begins with a Roger Angell baseball story has to be a good one. So it is with The Only Game in Town, an eclectic sports anthology whose pieces, drawn from the pages of The New Yorker magazine, cover everything from Shaquille O’Neal to swimming with sharks.
Angell leads off with an account of a Yale-St. John’s college baseball game, an epic 1981 contest pitting future big-league all-star pitchers Ron Darling and Frank Viola against each other. The game was part of the NCAA regional playoffs to determine which teams advance to the College World Series.
The stakes amplified what would have been (please indulge the overused word) a classic in any event. Darling, whose future major-league career included a World Series title with the Mets in 1986, threw a record 11 no-hit innings before losing in the 12th inning. Viola, himself a future Cy Young Award winner and World Series champ as a Twins starting pitcher, outlasted Darling with a performance almost as dazzling, recording 11 shutout innings in the 1-0 win.
All well and good, but the happenstance that Angell – long a chronicler of big-league exploits and a regular observer of both the Mets and Yankees – would be there, and in the company of a 91-year-old former Red Sox pitcher named Smokey Joe Wood, makes for delightful reading. Angell flits back and forth between the action on the field and the conversation in the stands, backlit by Wood’s brief but impressive days battling Walter Johnson and leading Boston to victory in the 1912 World Series.
The tension builds on the field as Angell tries to prod anecdotes from Wood, a man he has only just met. “For [Wood],” he writes, “the last juice and sweetness must have been squeezed out of these ancient games years ago, but he was still expected to respond to our amateur expertise, our insatiable vicariousness.”
Angell speaks for all baseball fans when the Yale-St. John’s matchup hits an inevitable lull. To wit: “All around me in our section I could see the same look of resignation and boredom and pleasure that showed on my own face, I knew – the look of longtime fans who understand that one can never leave a very long close game, no matter how much inconvenience and exasperation it imposes on us. The difficulty of baseball is imperious.”
Matching Angell is asking a lot, but much of the rest of the collection holds up quite well.
A.J. Liebling weighs in on boxing with trademark knowing, while Herbert Warren Wind offers a travel diary of golfing in Ireland with just the right mix of lilt, local color, and bunker shots: “I retired at ten. Trudging for miles through bracken, gorse, and heather makes a man weary.”
There are occasional misfires, too. A baseball tale from Ring Lardner written in 1930 reads as if it was written by Ring Lardner in 1930. Timeless it is not. An Ian Frazier short fails to amuse as it might have when first published in 1977.
And pity poor David Owen, who is just one of a zillion media members to craft unintended ironies while chronicling the pre-Thanksgiving 2009 version of Tiger Woods. In Owen’s 2000 profile, when Woods was at his stratospheric peak, Earl Woods bloviates about his son while speaking to an Oklahoma church congregation (“Tiger was made to be a good person and that was first and foremost in our family”). Asked about life away from the fairways, Tiger says, “When I’m off the golf course, I like to get away from everything, and I like to keep everything private, because I feel that I have a right to that.”
Insert tabloid text here.
If you’ve already read John Updike’s description of ornery Red Sox star hitter Ted Williams’s last game at Fenway Park, read it again. Updike succeeds where so many miss the mark in sportswriting: He admires the skill without cradling silly expectations that the bearer of said skill is, or even should be, Prince Charming.
The role of lovable rogue would be out of Williams’s league and Updike never pretends otherwise. More interestingly, he focuses on the uneasy accord reached between a city of fans and their star player after years of spats, breakups, and uneasy reconciliations. When Williams clobbers what augurs to be a storybook home run late in the game, Updike – and Williams – rescue us from the clichéd, expected ending.
Even as teammates and fans beg for a curtain call, Williams disappears into the dugout, never to return. Writes Updike of the fans’ desire for some response from Williams: “[B]ut he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”
If pressed, though, this reader might opt for a profile of Andrew McLean as the best of the bunch. Written by Nick Paumgarten in 2005, it tells the story of McLean’s life as a ski mountaineer, an audacious occupation that keeps McLean continually stalking deathly cliffs.
His may not be the only game in town, but Paumgarten’s is a great place to begin.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.