Thursday, November 26, 2009

Angell of press-box prose

Today we should give thanks for Roger Angell, the 89-year-old wunderkind of the New Yorker, whose elegant, humane and urbane baseball essays consistently belie the sandbox puerility of most sportswriters.

Let me just quote a few sentences from Angell's wrapup of the World Series in this week's New Yorker:

"I think A-Rod will always be a little beyond us. We can get used to his money more easily than his outlandish talent and his physical gifts; standing near him in the dugout at times, I've had the impression that I'm within touching distance of a new species."

Even at his advanced age, Angell still brings a small boy's awe to the battered old game.

In offering sympathies to Detroit fans for the league-leading Tigers' inexplicable choke in the last weeks of the season, Angell writes, "Many of the long-term ticket holders at Comerica Park are autoworkers, lifers on the Pontia and Chrysler and Chevy assembly lines, who experienced horrific changes in their lives in the past few months and did not expect further anguish at the games."

Now there is a rare sportswriter who looks outside the playground to the wider world around him.

"Their manager, Jim Leyland, stood in the late going with one foot up on the step of the dugout and the same gaunt Dorothea Lange expression on his face that we saw back in 1991, when his Pittsburgh Pirates team, caught up in a seven-game National League Championship Series with the Braves, scored no runs at all in their last eighteen innings of the year."

That "Dorothea Lange" image is perfect -- and no red-faced ESPN table-pounder could think of it, or even have heard of the great Depression photographer.

Of one long and tense inning in the divisional championship: "Top and bottom, that inning required forty-four minutes, and it felt like a colonoscopy."

Now that's the perfect simile from a man who's spent time on a gurney as well as in the press box.

Of Chase Utley, the Phillies second baseman: "Utley, who has slicked-back, Jake Gittes hair, possesses a quick bat and a very short home-run stroke; he looks like a man in an A.T.M. reaching for his cash."

Only a fan of classic movies could have written that.

C.C. Sabathia's "fastball-cutter-changeup assortment . . . arrives like a loaded tea tray coming down an airshaft."

That's the mark of the quintessential New York apartment dweller.

Angell also misses the the stands of the old Yankee Stadium and the "wall of noise they produced on big nights."

Speaking of giving thanks, Angell closes his essay with this lovely tribute to Hideki Matsui, who "batted .615 for the Series, with three home runs, and won the Series M.V.P. by about ten furlongs":

"I quickly needed to thank . . . Matsui -- with a bow or something, not just for tonight but for every game of his seven years of super-pro service with the Yankees. His straight-back, left-handed stance, with that almond-colored bat held still; his broad-shouldered, slashing cuts at anything up in the zone; his slightly tilted vertical style of running; the trim black hair just touching his uniform at the nape; the cracked smile -- we knew all this, certainly, but in some oddly formal and removed fashion, because he was Japanese and because he didn't speak English easily. His silence kept him old-fashioned: a ballplayer from the black-and-white newspaper-photograph days, before our heroes talked."

Reading Roger Angell is almost enough to turn me into a baseball fan again.

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