The art of baseball
BY ROZALIND DINEEN
The TLS Books of the Year issue goes to press today. Seventy-two TLS contributors have chosen their titles of the year (nearly) gone by: even as they did so, of course, the publishing houses were in gear for 2012, and had been for months.
High hopes ride on The Art of Fielding. Chad Harbach’s debut novel, we are promised, will be a contender for next year’s Books of the Year feature. It’s a novel about baseball that both Sports Illustrated and Jay McInerney (who professes to dislike his national sport) love. Fourth Estate’s press release is the apotheosis of press releases. “You keep waiting for the errors, but there are no errors”, says the author of The Corrections, and Freedom, Jonathan Franzen. It is “[a]s if the other Fielding had a hand in it”, John Irving proclaims, “as if Tom Jones were about baseball and college life". McInerney, we are told, “scarcely paused for meals” when he read it (it's 450 pages long).
You can add to that the recent feature in Vanity Fair charting the novel’s creation, written by Harbach’s friend (and n+1 co-founder) Keith Gessen (which has itself been expanded into a 12,000 word e-book). Some will also be impressed by the $650,000 advance for this, Harbach’s first novel, in these slender times.
$650,000 is small change in the real world of baseball, as audiences of the new film Moneyball will know. The film is based on a work of non-fiction, its namesake, written by the financial journalist Michael Lewis and published in 2004. Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt) is the general manager of the Oakland As, a baseball team with no money – in baseball terms – whose best players are regularly poached by the New York Yankees. Beane poaches, too – not an athlete, but a portly young economist, fresh from Yale, who has a theory. Using statistics, sabermetrics, on-base percentages, and while ignoring the advice of baseball scouts with decades of experience, Beane builds a team of seemingly useless players for just $41 million, who are able to compete seriously with the Yankees, and their $125 million payroll.
As the TLS review in 2004 of Lewis's Moneyball had it, Beane’s “principal revelation" was that "a baseball player’s success depends on an attribute invisible on the field but obvious on a sheet of statistics: patience”. It’s the practice of finding value in the undervalued. It’s talent arbitrage. It’s playing the long game – maths, patience and hope, rather than buying into celebrity. Thanks to Beane, many of the big teams – the Yankees, the Mets, the Boston Red Sox – have hired full-time sabermetric analysts.
Chad Harbach, however, has been valued (straight off the bat) as a big-hitter, a Pitt or a Franzen, a Don DeLillo even. What everyone really wants to know is, has he been overvalued?
DeLillo’s book Underworld begins at the moment the Cold War begins, with baseball star Bobby Thomson hitting the “Shot heard ‘round the world” for the New York Giants in 1951. Something starts, too, on the baseball field, at the beginning of The Art of Fielding, but it’s something much quieter. A character called Schwartz watches a brilliant, effortless shortstop practising. The kid brilliantly catches each ball that his coach throws, and then leaves the field. But Schwartz is still mesmerised: "Now that he’d seen that kind of talent up close, he couldn’t let it walk away". Or, as Pitt’s character in Moneyball puts it, convincingly (and twice): “It's hard not to be romantic about baseball”.