In his review of The Art of Fielding, Gregory Cowles, writing for the New York Times, called Chad Harbach’s book a “precious and altogether excellent first novel.” The Art of Fielding, a novel about baseball and campus life with meditative insights sprinkled throughout, was published in 2011.
The Art of Fielding opens with Mike Schwartz, a sophomore at Westish College in Wisconsin, who first sees Henry Skrimshander during the semi-finals of a “no-name” summer baseball tournament. Schwartz does not pay much attention to Henry during the game except to notice, as everyone else does, that Henry is his team’s shortstop and is quick on his feet, not very good at bat, and the shortest guy on the field. But after the game, when Henry goes back out on the field in the blazing heat to field some more balls, Schwartz pays more attention to the scrawny shortstop. Then Schwartz fully appreciates the “grace” of Henry’s every move. When the kid removes his shirt, Schwartz is amazed at the boy’s skinny arms, which are not much wider than Schwartz’s thumb. However, when Henry scoops up a ball that had been batted his way, Schwartz cannot believe the ease of the young boy’s throw or the explosive speed of the ball as it makes its way back to the catcher. No matter where the ball is hit, Henry mysteriously is there to stop it. Schwartz concludes that the boy must have known where the ball was going even before it was hit.
When this after-game workout is finished, Schwartz feels disappointed. He wants to see more. He wishes he had taped the session so he could rewind it to see it again. Instead he watches the boy leave the field. Schwartz knows that he has waited all his life to see that much talent, that much genius on the field, and he knows that he cannot allow the boy to get away from him.
Now Henry is registering at Westish College. He feels, deep inside, that he should not be...
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That Thanksgiving is the first holiday Henry does not spend with his family. Most of the time during the break, Henry is in the college dining hall, washing dishes at his new job. That night, when he gets back to his dorm, he is happy to hear his parents’ voices on the phone—until they start complaining about stories they heard from Henry’s sister. First, they worry about Henry’s roommate, Owen, whom they have learned is gay. They want Henry to ask for a different room. Then they want to know why Owen is buying clothes for Henry. Henry is not so poor; his clothes are well made, his parents tell him, and should not have needed to be replaced.
The truth is that Henry’s clothes are different from everyone else’s on campus. Owen had pointed this out and insisted that Henry go shopping with him. After Henry tried on several pairs of jeans, Owen finally approved two of them. Owen also told Henry that he had a gift certificate that was about to expire, thus making Henry accept the jeans as a gift.
Henry tries to tell his parents that Owen was only helping him fit in. His parents want to know what Henry is supposed to fit into. Henry does not have to conform, they tell him. He needs to be his own person. Henry should thank Owen for the gift, but then he should get rid of the new clothes. As Henry continues to listen to his parents’ conversation, he cannot imagine how he is going to accomplish what they are asking of him. Before he hangs up, though, it finally dawns on him that his parents live five hundred miles away from campus. They will never see his new jeans.
As the end of the semester comes into view, so does the end of the football season. With this event comes the reappearance of Mike Schwartz. Until then, Henry had seen no sign of Mike since he had arrived on campus. Then Mike calls one day and orders Henry to meet him at the gym. From that day forward, Mike puts Henry on a weight-training schedule. Mike...
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After six weeks of practice, Westish’s baseball team heads to Clearwater, Florida, for a series of games. Their first event is against a Vermont school. Henry feels so worked up that he does a flip as the teams warm up. Owen, on the other hand, sits in the dugout, reading a book. Owen has a battery-powered reading light clipped onto his baseball cap. When Henry asks Owen what he likes about baseball, Owen says he likes all the pockets in his uniform.
Henry is not the only shortstop on the team. A senior named Tennant is the starter. Although it makes Henry nervous to sit on the bench during a game, he tells Owen he can wait a year for Tennant to graduate. Another young player tells Henry that Tennant is worried about Henry’s taking over his position. They all notice that Tennant’s playing is not very good. He makes a lot of errors. However, the team manages a win, and for the first time in recent memory, Westish’s baseball team has an undefeated record. Three days later, though, Westish has lost five games.
One night after another losing game, Mike Schwartz hints that it is time for Henry to replace Tennant. Henry swears that he is no better. He adds that Tennant is just tight. Then he reminds Mike that Tennant is a senior, and he can wait until next year. Mike tells him that he cannot wait any longer and suggests that the change might come sooner than that. The next day, Mike goes out of his way to irritate Tennant. In response, Tennant punches Mike in the face. As punishment, the coach takes Tennant out of the starting position and substitutes Henry.
The next day, Henry not only played an extraordinary game, making no fielding errors, he also starts coaching the other players, helping them to anticipate the ball. At the end of the game, the whole team has made only one error. They still lose, but the coach is happy.
As his college days pass, Henry eventually puts on some weight and even improves at...
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Guert Affenlight is now sixty years old and the president of Westish College. He is in his office talking to Bruce Gibbs, chairman of the trustees. Gibbs is attempting to tell Affenlight that the budget cannot afford some of the programs he is pursuing. The collapse of the stock market has hurt some of the college’s investments, there has been too much money invested in financial aid, and the pockets of donors have run dry.
Affenlight understands the problem; after all, he was the school’s major fundraiser. During his first year there, Affenlight had promoted one of the school’s most successful fundraising campaigns. He also understands that the economy was a lot different back then. However, some of Affenlight’s favorite programs are important for the school’s image. He argues with Gibbs that students nowadays look at the whole picture. They want to see if the school is environmentally sensitive as well as if they offer good courses. The programs Affenlight is promoting include low-flow plumbing and a complete carbon inventory. He claims that the students themselves are doing much of the research and labor. He is working with student groups, he tells Gibbs. The truth, however, is that Affenlight is working with just one student—Owen Dunne.
The students do not understand how the world works, Gibbs retorts. He reminds Affenlight how the students had talked him into pulling out of oil stocks because the consumption of oil was not good for the environment, but their stocks in oil had been keeping the school afloat.
Affenlight does his best to listen to Gibbs. However, he is very distracted. He agrees with Gibbs—in part. He understands how the world works, but he also wants to show Owen that he can accomplish the environmental programs. When his mind returns to Owen, all Affenlight can think of is getting Gibbs out of his office so he can rush over to the baseball field.
It is a cold day, and the...
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Henry cannot understand what has happened. He has never thrown such an errant ball before. He believes Owen is dead. He knows it. No one has proclaimed it, but he still knows it. The paramedics are there with a stretcher. The coach had rushed to the dugout. Mike Schwartz is there, as is the president of the college. Henry saw the ball strike Owen straight in the face. Owen had been reading. He did not even see it coming.
Finally Schwartz comes out of the dugout and walks over to Henry. He asks if Henry is all right. Then he tells Henry that Owen is going to have a heck of a headache tomorrow. At the word “tomorrow,” Henry is able to take a breath: there will be a tomorrow for Owen. Schwartz adds that he is thankful...
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Henry goes back to his empty dorm room. He is not used to being alone there. He kicks off his shoes and falls down on the bed and goes to sleep almost immediately. The phone wakes him up. He thinks it might be news about Owen, but it is Mike Schwartz, who asks if Henry has eaten. Henry tells him he has not eaten since lunch. Mike is always on Henry about eating enough food. Henry cannot afford to lose weight. Major baseball teams want more than players who are quick; they want big bodies too, so Henry gets up and drinks one of his milk-and-protein mixes.
Henry is about to fall asleep again when the phone rings a second time. On the other end of the line is a woman named Miranda Szabo. She is a sports agent. She has...
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Mike Schwartz had told Henry to go running before dawn because a blizzard is expected to hit in the morning. So without much sleep, Henry dons his running clothes and heads to the stadium, where he runs the steps. The stone bleachers are knee-high; to make each step, he has to jump. He does this all the way to the top. He has been doing this ever since he arrived at Westich. It is yet another way Mike had suggested for Henry to build up his body. The first time Henry had run the steps, he slipped and cracked a tooth.
It is very cold and very dark. Henry can barely see where his feet are landing. When he finally reaches the top, he leans his back against the wall and looks out onto the heavy clouds that are pressing down...
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Mike Schwartz is driving himself and Henry to the hospital. Henry is talking about all the money he will get when he signs with a team. He will use the money, he says, to pay off Mike’s law school debts; it will be an investment. Mike makes Henry stop talking. He still has not told Henry that every school he has applied to has rejected him. He says that Henry needs to focus on his studies and his game. If any more agents call, Henry is to tell them to call the coach.
When they arrive at the hospital, Owen is sleeping. He looks awful. His face is bruised and swollen. Henry and Mike leave without speaking to him. Afterward, they go to baseball practice, where the coach tells Henry that he has heard that Aparicio...
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The Westish baseball team is on its way to a double-header. This means that Henry has two games in which he might beat Rodriguez’s record for the most consecutive errorless games. Scouts from several professional baseball teams will be there, vying for Henry’s attention.
Mike Schwartz, who should be helping Henry calm his nerves, has problems of his own. For one, he is completely out of money. His credit cards are at their maximum levels and his bank account is empty. He is hungry, angry, and distracted. Thinking about Pella does not help, so he tries to keep her out of his thoughts, but that is impossible. He is very attracted to her.
Mike is also angry at himself for being so secretive around Henry....
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Affenlight slips out of his office with a copy of Walt Whitman’s poems in his jacket and drives to the hospital to visit Owen. When he walks into the hospital room, he is surprised to see a very attractive African American woman sitting at Owen’s bedside. At first he assumes she is a doctor, but eventually Owen introduces her as his mother. Affenlight is confused, but then the more he compares the mother and son the more he sees the resemblance, despite the different coloring of their skin. However, Affenlight is still disappointed. He had been looking forward to reading to Owen.
Owen tells Affenlight that he will soon be released. Owen’s mother suggests that they go to dinner together to celebrate the occasion....
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After hanging up the phone with Genevieve, Affenlight realizes that he has no food in the house. Pella volunteers to walk over to the school dining hall to see if the cook has anything that will serve as appetizers. The chef initially reacts coldly to Pella until she tells him she is the president’s daughter. At this, the man leaves Pella standing in the dining hall. When he returns a few minutes later, he hands her a large container of food. He tells her to make sure her father knows this is the best he could do on such short notice. Before Pella leaves, she asks the cook if he is hiring. Pella has decided to stay at the school. She will need some source of income if she wants to become more independent of her father. The cook...
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Henry had promised himself the day off. However, when he gets out of bed, he heads straight for the stadium. He is determined to run harder than he has ever done before. He needs to test the limits of his body. He is also teaching himself to curse. He uses words he has never allowed himself to say before. He will do the stadium steps three times instead of just once.
Schwartz is there, watching Henry. He is holding two cups of hot chocolate. After Henry is finished running, they go to the baseball field. Henry needs to get over his fear of throwing. Schwartz continues asking Henry how his arm is. He wants to make sure nothing physical is hindering Henry’s throwing.
At their next game, Henry continues...
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Owen makes a habit of stopping by Affenlight’s office in the afternoons. At first his excuse is that he is having trouble reading; his mind seems unwilling to hold onto a thought. So Affenlight helps Owen with his studies.
Since that kiss in Affenlight’s kitchen the night Owen’s mother had visited, Affenlight and Owen do not touch one another again until one afternoon in Affenlight’s office. That day, they kiss and have sex. Afterward, Affenlight does not feel very well. He is confused. He has never had sex with a man before. Owen asks if he wants him to leave. Affenlight is not sure, but he does not confess this to Owen. Affenlight wants Owen and does not want him at the same time.
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Coach Cox and Mike Schwartz, the baseball team’s captain, discuss Henry. Both the coach and Mike had thought Henry’s game was improving until the shortstop’s last erratic throw. The team is on a ferry on their way back to campus. Henry is keeping a distance from the other team members.
As the coach and Mike continue their conversation, the subject of Mike’s finances comes up. The coach has heard that Mike’s funds are very low. This is true, but Mike is embarrassed to have the coach know this. However, the coach insists that Mike accept a gift of $1,000, which he presses into Mike’s hands. Mike wants to turn the offer down but it is too tempting.
After the coach walks away, Mike finds Henry and...
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As Pella makes her way home, she contemplates her relationship with Mike. She admits she likes him, but she feels that she is giving more than she is receiving. The more she thinks about Mike and their recent discussion, the more angered she becomes. To release some of her emotions, she slaps at the trunk of a tree as she passes, but she hits her finger against it at a bad angle and sprains a joint. Two young male students have been watching her and mock her. Pella charges at them, venting her frustrations upon them.
While she stands there, she notices something hanging from the limb of another nearby tree. It turns out to be Henry doing pull-ups. It is four in the morning. They exchange a few remarks. Pella concludes...
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When Pella is at work cleaning dishes in the campus dining hall, Chef Spirodocus compliments her. He also tells her that he thinks she might make a great cook. If she is interested, he is willing to teach her. He says he has more experience than merely cooking in a college cafeteria. Pella is excited that someone thinks she has talent. Learning how to be a chef would give her a new focus in life.
While Pella is at work, Affenlight is in his office, thinking about Owen. Owen had been in Affenlight’s office a few days ago, looking at old college yearbooks, when he came across a 1972 photograph of when Affenlight was a student at Westish. After Owen made a statement about wishing he had known Affenlight back then,...
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Affenlight is obsessed with discovering why Owen did not show up for their afternoon date. He walks to his window and looks across the quad. He can see Owen’s dorm window. A figure is standing there. Affenlight assumes it is Owen, so he calls. The figure moves but no one picks up the phone. Unable to stay in his office and do nothing any longer, Affenlight decides to go over to the dorm. He knows he should not be doing this. Someone might see him. It is very un-president-like to be seen in the students’ dorm. Affenlight just cannot stop himself.
Owen answers the door. When questioned about the phone, he says Henry must have turned the ringer off. Henry has recently grown tired of talking to agents. Owen then tells...
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Two members of the baseball team, Starblind and Rick, come to Schwartz’s apartment to talk about Henry. They tell Schwartz that as captain of the team he should tell Henry to take some time off. Henry’s error lost them their last game, and Starblind and Rick do not want that to happen again. The team has a chance to make it to the finals for the first time in Westish’s history, and they want a fair chance of accomplishing this feat. They think Henry might hold them back. Besides, they say, a day off might do Henry some good.
Mike Schwartz knows how negatively Starblind’s and Rick’s suggestion would affect Henry. Henry already has lost so much confidence in his game due to the injury he caused Owen. Mike does...
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Pella is sitting in the stands, watching the baseball game on Henry Skrimshander Day. There are no seats available on the home team side, so Pella sits on the visitors’ side of the bleachers. After Westish’s centerfielder makes a spectacular play to catch the ball and cause an out, one of the visitors’ fans suggests that their team should hit all their balls to Henry, insinuating that Henry would miss it. This irritates Pella. When she hears the same man say he is willing to place a bet that Skrimshander will toss a ball into the stands (in other words, make an error) before the end of the game, Pella jumps in and says she would bet the man one hundred dollars Henry will not do that.
When Pella turns her attention...
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The Westish baseball team loses the game Henry walked out of by ten to two. After the game, no one talks about the ceremony that had been planned as part of Henry Skrimshander Day. Without Henry, the second game of the double-header goes in Westish’s favor. Izzy, the boy who replaced Henry at shortstop, scores the winning run.
Mike Schwartz soaks in the whirlpool. His knees and back are aching. Playing in the pitcher position after four years of college football is hard on his joints. As he walks to the gym, Mike runs into Sophie, Henry’s sister. She has been looking for her brother, but no one seems to know where he is. Mike tells her that Henry is probably at the place where all the other team members likely to...
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After the game, Henry grabs his bag and makes his way through the crowd. He had wanted to shake Aparicio Rodriguez’s hand. The man looked exactly as Henry had imagined, but crowds around the baseball hero caused Henry to change his mind.
Instead he slips between Westish Field and the football stadium. There he finds a place where no one will see him and sits down and cries. This pouring out of his emotions does not make him feel better, so he puts on his weighted vest, the one he uses when he runs. He cinches the straps and pulls them tighter, then he heads for the lake.
The water is cold and soon his teeth are chattering. He sinks in, gets his head wet, then starts to swim. Henry swims past the first and...
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Henry finds Coach Cox and apologizes for his behavior. The coach tells Henry that though he does not want to, he will have to suspend him. Henry has missed two games. The coach will suspend him for two more, then Henry can come back. However, Henry says he was thinking of an even longer period of time off. Henry says he wants to retire from the team. The coach is startled and tells Henry that he will not allow this. He will not allow Henry to quit. When Henry will not listen to him, the coach takes Henry to Schwartz, hoping Mike can talk some sense into Henry and convince him to stick with the team.
Mike is in a foul mood. He tells Henry that Izzy has already replaced him. Then he yells out that Henry cannot even throw...
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Mike Schwartz’s body is wracked with pain. His back and knees hurt from football and playing on the baseball team. However, when he visits his doctor, he cannot get the medication he wants. Mike’s doctor is concerned that Mike has become addicted to the pain-killing drugs. Instead, his doctor offers various injections. Mike leaves the office desperate for relief.
On his way back to campus, Mike drives past the house where Pella is now living with two other female students. Mike had told himself he would not spy on her, but he wants to confirm a suspicion he has. He pulls over and parks across the street from the house and waits. In a short time, he sees a figure through the window. His suspicions are confirmed:...
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Though alcohol is supposed to be banned from college locker rooms, Mike has used what he had left of the money the coach gave him to buy a case of champagne. The baseball team celebrates by pouring much of it over one another’s heads, as they have seen other athletes do in celebration on television.
While this is going on, Mike reflects on his prospects again. They still seem dismal. He does not have enough athletic talent, like Henry does. Mike has no art in any field that he can call his own. All he knows how to do is to motivate other people. Henry had been his best student. However, Henry started to worry about not being perfect and it ruined him. Now both of them are all messed up.
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As Affenlight works in his office, preparing the speech he plans to give for commencement ceremonies, his phone rings. On the other end is Owen, calling from South Carolina. The baseball team has won the first game in the national tournament, which means they will be playing in the finals. Before hanging up, Owen asks if Affenlight will be at the game tomorrow. Affenlight confirms that he has already bought his airline ticket. He had not wanted to tell Owen early because he was afraid he might jinx the team, but he had bought the ticket because he assumed the team would win. Before they hang up, Owen asks Affenlight to go over to his dorm to check on Henry. Affenlight agrees to do this.
A few minutes later, there is a...
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Before returning to his apartment, Affenlight walks to the statue of Herman Melville, which was erected after Affenlight, as a student, had discovered Melville’s papers—notes of a lecture Melville had made at Westish a long time ago. As Affenlight sits there, the pain in his chest returns. He decides if it does not get any better, he will make an appointment with his doctor.
When he gets home, he sends Pella an email. He wants to be very open with her, exposing the truths of his life, but he ends up merely telling her that he has seen Henry. Affenlight concludes that if he told Pella the truth, she would leave Westish. But here she has a chance. She did not finish high school and her SAT scores have expired, so it...
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Henry’s first thought is that he is dead. He is in some dark place and is having trouble moving his body. Then he sees Mike Schwartz sitting next to his bed. Henry does not remember what happened or how he got to this place. Schwartz fills in the details.
When the last ball was pitched to Henry, it came too close to his body. Henry thought the ball was going to hit him in the face, so he turned his shoulder to it. Mike thinks Henry purposefully took the shot to his head to get on base. Mike adds that Henry scored the winning run.
After Henry was hit with the ball, the coach tried to pull him out of the game. As Mike tells the story, Henry refused to be removed. Mike was up at bat next and hit a long drive....
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Pella has a plan. When she tells Mike, he thinks she is crazy. Pella is insistent. She wants Mike to help her move her father’s body from the college cemetery, where it is buried, to the lake. Pella claims that her father always loved the water. He always lived near water. His last wish, Pella says, if he had had time to make it, would have been to be buried in the lake.
Mike tells her they will get into a lot of trouble if they are caught, but Pella does not care. She recruits Owen and Henry to help them. At night, they each have shovels in their hands as they walk across campus to the cemetery. They take turns digging throughout the night. When they reach the casket, Mike digs around it and eventually is able to...
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